by Pete Duval
Spalding MFA Faculty, Fiction
The language of photography has certain similarities with fiction—in particular with the short-short story. I want to talk about a story I’ve often used in my workshops—a two-page short-short titled “No One’s a Mystery” by Elizabeth Tallant—and three photographs by Anders Petersen, from his famous 1970 photobook Café Lehmitz. Petersen is often referred to as a practitioner of “personal documentary” because his work blurs the line between a diaristic approach and more “objective” journalism/documentary. The tension between these two generates much of the work’s interest. He shot the photographs for Café Lehmitz early in his career, having chanced upon the dive bar in the red light district of Hamburg, Germany. What interests me about this and his later work is its “narrative” implications. Petersen seems wonderfully alive to the possibility that a photograph can, to use a cliché, “tell a story”–or, as he puts it, “set the ball rolling.” But how? Photography is largely understood to be a non-temporal art. What we get are instances, “slices” of the world in 1/125 of a second. That they’re often strung together to provide any real sense of narrative profluence testifies to this.
So how can a photograph tell a story? In the same way that “micro-fiction” like “No One’s a Mystery” does: through subtle and not-so-subtle detail, and through an awareness of the frame itself to imply a larger context, a longer chain of cause and effect. Though we often use a cinematic metaphor to describe the power of storytelling—the so-called “fictional dream”—fiction is often more closely aligned to photography’s non-temporal characteristics than it is to cinema. This seems particularly true of the short-short, which just as often relies on the mysterious powers of inference.
For the purposes of this essay, let’s talk about what might photography reveal to us about how we “process” character. By “character” I mean what we’re intended to infer about the larger life or “essence” of a fictional person. In reading literary fiction, it seems to me that there are at least three questions being asked (or implied). The same is true, I think, for photography of the kind we’re discussing here. It doesn’t really matter that the subjects of a work like Café Lehmitz are “real people”; the viewer or the reader is still asked to infer a larger life and context. The outcome of the process is essentially the same. So, the questions:
- How much do we know about “character”? (Or about, you know, “how people are”?)
- How much do we know about these characters?
- What are the implications of the “gap” between 1 and 2 after or during reading/viewing the work?
In “No One’s a Mystery”—a fiction with, like a photograph, zero exposition—we’re introduced to a situation involving two characters that seems familiar. We think, yeah, I’ve seen this before: younger woman, older (married) man, extramarital affair, etc. We bring to the story our life and reading experiences. We form judgments. We’re asked to form judgments. But as the story moves forward, and we learn more about these characters, we begin to understand that things are not what they seem. The concrete specifics of this story, the illusion that we’re peeking into a singular moment in time (a “snapshot”), the details of these “people,” begin to complicate what we thought we knew about “character.” In fact, is this not one hugely significant measure of what we mean by great fiction—how its rendering of character opens up our understanding of “how people are”? It’s not necessarily an issue of subversion; it’s more one of complication. The story knows full well what it’s doing. In fact, as a piece of “flash fiction” it must make use of what readers think they know, playing off our facile shorthand, the shortcuts we adopt. A story this short just doesn’t have any time to waste.
Now, consider this Petersen photograph (right). You may be familiar with it if you’re a Tom Waits fan: it appeared on the cover of his 1985 album Rain Dogs. We don’t know who these people (these “characters”) are. But we immediately begin to “read” the photograph. How could we not? We recognize something, and it’s almost archetypal. The maternal embrace? His serene expression? Her what–hilarity? Joy? Uncomfortable tolerance? Or is it derision? She seems much larger than he—both physically and spiritually. She’s alive and awake. He’s narcotized by touch. It’s a complex photograph. And our reading (or readings) begins to edge into a narrative, does it not? Isn’t that what it means to ask “who are these people”? The photograph certainly gets the “ball rolling.” What makes photography different is that, unlike fiction, there’s no way to fulfill what seems to be its narrative promise, not within one single photograph. This is part of our contract with it. That said, does the photograph not carry something powerful to us despite (maybe even because of) its lack of context? This is the power of the photograph. Its mystery. We know there is a context—both beyond the edges of the frame and beyond the limits of the exposure. These people have (or had) a past and a future; they are or were somewhere in time and space. But for us, they are and always will be “characters.” And as such perhaps more powerful to us than many of the “real” people who populate our lives.
Now, look at two other shots from Café Lehmitz, which will provide more narrow and immediate context. This photograph (left) was taken on the same night as the “rain dogs” photo, probably not so long before. In interviews and written accounts, Petersen tells the story of these three people, and we can talk about what he says presently, but for now, let me ask, am I alone in “reading” the entire situation much differently? Is it not much more “complicated”—even much more “interesting”? Does this photograph, presented out of sequence from the photobook, not provide a kind of back story? A flashback? Petersen knew this man as Rose, a nickname he’d given him because of the rose tattoo on his chest. The woman is Lily, “everyone’s darling,” Petersen says, “a charismatic woman—many men were in love with her, and she knew it.” The man peering from behind her is Sword (he’d been a carnival sword swallower). When you compare the expression on Rose’s face here with how he looks in “rain dog,” what do you think? What if you only saw this photo without “rain dog”? How would you begin to describe the characters and their relationship? What’s the “real story” here? And yet these are the same “characters.” Or are they?
In the opening paragraph of “No One’s a Mystery,” we bring to the situation what we think we know about such characters and superimpose this “template” over the details of the scene. The young woman—who is also the narrator—is painfully naïve. The older, married man is manipulative, dominant, and in complete control of the relationship. But by the second page, at which point the story settles almost wholly into a dialogue between the two characters, we begin to see them with more complexity. It’s all done subtly, through implied back story, nuance, minor shifts in “authority.” We realize that, far from naïve, the narrator has learned a lot from her two years with this guy. And he’s much more vulnerable than we thought, as deserving of our pity as he is our judgment.
Here’s another shot taken between the ones already discussed. It’s a two-shot, like “rain dogs,” but it’s night-and-day different. The expressions, the body language, even the angle of the shot. Petersen is standing now; in the other two he’s sitting or crouching. With these three images, a basic narrative emerges (and not just of the “characters,” by the way). Rose and Lily “get closer,” physically if not emotionally. Yes. Rose “moves in.” But that doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of who these people are, just the roles they’re playing.
Petersen is a photographer with a lot to say and a literary understanding of things, mostly in terms of his understanding of character, which seems his ultimate concern. The appeal of his photographs is in the mystery they evoke; we marvel at how Petersen (especially in his later work) is allowed access to such intimate moments. I mean, who is this photographer? What’s the relationship between him and his subjects? Such questions are never addressed in the photographs themselves or in the photobooks—that’s their flavor of “documentary.” (He has said his photographs seek to ask more questions than they answer.) The more of his photographs we see, the greater we begin to trust his eye. Is this very different from the kind of authority a fiction writer develops over time, even within a single piece of writing? He builds his “ethos” with every shot.
There are many other angles of approach in an examination of what we, as fiction writers, can learn from photography. For example, here’s a question lurking just beneath the surface: how much context does one actually need for a story (photograph) to make sense? Or how important is context to our understanding of character? Remember the “rain dog” photo. Is what we “know” of these characters any more accurate after viewing the other photographs? Or do they perhaps obscure a deeper “truth” that is shining through for us at just that moment? Isn’t this paring back at the core of both photography’s and fiction’s power?