The photograph of Mrs. K holding up the picture of her recently excised, eleven pound tumor hangs over my desk. It’s a good reminder of what Ernest Becker (The Denial of Death) calls our creatureliness. You wouldn’t think we’d need any reminding of something so ubiquitous; but, as Becker is at pains to point out, the history of our lives--of civilization, no less--is the history of what we do to deny our animality. It is the history of what we do to give our lives meaning, i.e., significance, in the otherwise meaningless expanse of an unfeeling universe.
Indeed, the young girl in the photograph visually embodies this paradox. She is smilingly oblivious to the mortal meaning of the picture in her grandmother’s hands, all the while embracing the very animality she denies. The girl is figuratively blind to what’s right in front of her eyes; her grandfather, sitting in the shade of the porch blinds, is literally so. Mrs. K, on the other hand, emerges out of this context as a heroine of sorts. She, hardly readied in either dress or expression for having her picture taken, not only can handle the truth, but she holds it up as the primary subject of her photograph. Here’s our bloody creatureliness in spades, photographer. Show it like it is.
Often, equally as interesting as what does show in a photograph is what doesn’t, viz., the photographer. One of my favorite pictures on this count is Diane Arbus’s Child with Toy Hand Grenade. You can all but hear the child, his thumb on the release lever, screaming to himself, “Stop fiddling with the camera, for God’s sake. I’ve got a live grenade in my hand!” What’s particularly absorbing about the photograph, then, is not so much the child’s caricature of someone in the throes of a lethal immediacy, but rather the fiddling, the photographer’s desire to craft a good picture. Indeed, if we can all but hear the child screaming, “Take the shot already,” we just as clearly can hear the photographer anxiously respond, “Hold on a second! This shot might be something.”
The serious photographer, camera in hand or not, is particularly susceptible, of course, to being struck with the thought that this or that shot might be something, embedded in which is the correlative thought “I might be something.” There’s a short distance, if any at all, between a child saying, “Look what I’ve done” as she proudly holds up a drawing of her house and a photographer framing a print for display....which brings me back to the photograph of Mrs. K. I get the feeling that she’s got me, especially, in mind as she points the picture of her eleven pound tumor at the camera, which--so we’ve all heard—doesn’t lie.