A photograph may be a little more complicated than you think it is at first.
Maine House, ©Lawrence Earley
This is a picture I took about 30 years ago of a house along the Maine coast. It’s a small photograph, 5¼ in. x 8 in., made from a 35 mm negative, and I’ve matted it on an 11 in. x 17 in. board. It’s something that I enjoy looking at quite a lot.
I like the different tonalities in the photograph, first of all—the gray tones contrasted with the garage’s bright white and the stark black of the small racing horse medallion. I like the comforting way the dark tones of the foliage almost cradle and protect the bright garage. From one perspective, there’s a great deal of comfort imagery in the photograph: the fence enclosing the property from the front, the screen hiding the interior of the porch, and the aforementioned foliage surrounding the garage from behind. This seems to be a photograph of interiors, safe interiors, a place where you are protected from people like me, the photographer, viewing from the outside.
What else is going on? It’s got a nice, slightly off-kilter balance to it. It doesn’t particularly say Maine to me in a clichéd or trite way. What it evokes to me now (and perhaps when I took the picture) is a sense of a well-ordered space. That sense of order is present in the photographic composition and it’s also in the space maintained by the people who live there. Perhaps the scene said to me, “What a nice place to live.” My wife and I had recently bought a house and perhaps I had the house on my mind.
I’d like to sit on that porch in the summer. Would there be a porch swing there? There should be, or a rocking chair, perhaps. Perhaps the chair makes a slight noise on the wooden floor as it moves. I would be reading poetry in this space, not that I read a lot of poetry but I think the silence within that space would reward a reading experience in which you pay attention to the words.
But isn’t there another way of looking at the photo? It’s not one that I was immediately aware of, but it’s there, I think. Couldn’t this be an image about fear? All the doors and windows and gates are closed. It’s a walled space, a walled castle minus the moat. Then there’s the fence with the sword-point tops; the closed windows of the building on the bottom left; the opaque screens on the porch; the porch protected by two buildings, each of them closed up tight. Couldn’t this photo be saying “Keep out!”? Despite the homeliness of their wooden construction, aren’t these solid structures like defensive walls?
This is a good example of how enigmatic a given image can be, like a Rorschach inkblot which you can read in two or more ways, depending on how you’re feeling at the time or on your basic personality type. If you flip back and forth between seeing the scene in the photograph as protective and comforting, or closed and defensive, it’s a little like the famous optical illusion in which you either see an old hag or a pretty young woman.
A simple photograph may not be so simple.