A Few of My Favorite Lies

Good morning, friends—

A few years ago I got into a debate on the internet about the ethics of street photography. The idea behind this subgenre is that the photographer captures moments of unwitting beauty or ugliness or poignance out in the human environment that haven’t been deliberately staged, and that would otherwise have gone unnoticed. There are a lot of rickety assumptions supporting this notion—namely, how do you know that the people you’re photographing aren’t in a constant state of deliberate aesthetic projection? Why do you assume they’re not making art too?—but okay, fine.

The discussion was about photographers like Diane Arbus and Henri Cartier-Bresson, who filed out the negative carriers on their photo enlargers in order to show the “true” edges of the frame. (They didn’t always do this, see below.) The resulting black borders proved that they didn’t crop during printing—that the picture you saw in a gallery was definitively the way they shot it, without alteration. It forced the viewer to contemplate the photo not merely as an isolated image, but as the record of a performance. The border also gave the photo a frame within its frame, isolating and intensifying its subject. (I like to do this sometimes, too, when I’m scanning a negative. Here’s a scan of a shot I took of some trees in 2009 that shows the top and bottom edges of the frame. I like the way the blacks in the picture bleed into the black of the border.)

Some people really lean on the idea of authenticity in street photography—they think that cropping is somehow a lie. I’d argue that, sure, cropping is a lie—but so is taking the picture in the first place. When you take a photo, you’re choosing what not to include in it. You’re deliberately eliminating context—cropping before you even release the shutter. Take, for instance, 1932’s “Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare,” one of Cartier-Bresson’s best known photos.

Who’s to say this picture isn’t staged? Cartier-Bresson might well have framed the shot so that you couldn’t see the film crew standing twenty feet away, demanding another take. (I like to imagine them all milling around, placidly smoking as they wait for the puddle to be still again.) Indeed, taking a shot at a particular time is also a sort of lie—you might capture a stray expression or gesture that’s entirely unrepresentative of the broader scene. For instance, here’s Arbus’s “The Child with a Hand Grenade,” a picture that illustrates her obsession with disturbing and peculiar subjects.

If you look at the contact sheet this photo comes from, you get a much clearer idea of what the subject is really like. We see a cheerful, silly kid goofing around. His drooping suspender, which the isolated photo makes appear like a sign of neglect, is actually just a result of his energetic mugging—he’s trying to put it back onto his shoulder in one of the shots.

I’m not saying that Arbus and Cartier-Bresson were bad and were liars, but that the lie is kind of the point. Every street photo is fiction, and that’s one of the pleasures of looking at them—enjoying the stories they are trying tell, and contemplating what the real stories might be. I’m saying that Arbus and Cartier-Bresson were good and were liars!

Last week, my mother-in-law sent me a photo to touch up. In it, she and my father-in-law are posing outdoors with their new grandson (aka my new nephew, thank you very much). They are mostly in shadow, except for my mother-in-law’s forehead and part of her hair, which are anointed with bright sunlight, distracting from the main subject, the baby. Could I get rid of this anomaly? I did a local adjustment in Lightroom, dialing down the exposure and color temperature of the affected area, so that it now looks like they’re standing fully in the shade.

Of course I can’t resist contemplating the rift in reality I’ve created—from now on, we will all misremember my in-laws as standing six inches to the left of where they really stood! I feel this weird sense of disconnection every time I touch up a photo, like I am creating an alternate timeline, diverting the river of reality.

Here’s one I still feel uneasy about. I was walking around in Denver in 2015 and took this shot of a cool customized Cadillac (I’m guessing a 1975 Fleewood limousine?) parked in a distinctive back lot. I liked the way the various lines in the picture seemed to be in dialogue with each other. But there was something, an object, getting in the way that ruined the effect. So, after developing and scanning, I meticulously clone-stamped and healed it away. Can you guess what and where it was?

Once you’ve got a guess, click here to see the unretouched original.

Though I enjoy the assumption, in photography, that everything is fiction, it bothers me in writing. As a result, I don’t read much memoir. Dialogue recalled in great detail makes me uncomfortable, especially when it’s from childhood, especially when the writer doesn’t acknowlege that of course it’s all bullshit. Sometimes I think most readers of memoir probably assume it’s all bullshit, or at least acknowledge that it’s just one person’s version of reality; on the other hand, usually I fear that they don’t. I’m often surprised at how much people trust their own memory, let alone other people’s. In my experience, memory is even worse at recording the truth than photographs are. (Often, the lies that family photos inadvertently perpetuate are the instruments by which memory is warped.)

I don’t write much memoir myself, but I’ve been trying it a little lately. Here are some short personal essays I published last year. I’m sorry but there is one tiny lie hidden in them. This time I’m not going to tell you what it is (though, as in the Cadillac photo, the anomaly appears glaring to me).

Links of Note

Last week I recommended some “literary” videogames for bookish folk who might want to try games for the first time. A few people on twitter told me that Kentucky Route Zero belonged on the list. They are right! I failed to include it only because I haven’t finished playing the final chapter. But I do recommend it—it’s contemplative and enigmatic and does not require much manual dexterity. You can run it on any computer or console.

I love these sculptures inspired by FedEx boxes and by the shipping process.

After reading my smutty story excerpt using only words from The Cat in the Hat, a friend wrote to tell me about this novel that uses only the 483 words Ophelia speaks in Hamlet, and also these vocal pieces inspired by the novel.

Here’s an article about a lovely comic based on Virginia Woolf’s diaries.

Another friend told me that Denis Johnson’s novel Already Dead was based on this poem by Bill Knott. I hadn’t realized this. The poem is strange and good!

Be well, everyone—
John