Black Family by the Sea: a Note on Interpretation and Race

Below is a photograph by William Eggleston that I saw on the cover of a book called ‘How to Read a Photograph’ by Ian Jeffrey.

‘Black Family By the Sea’ by William Eggleston – used with permission: (c)Eggleston Artistic Trust, courtesy Cheim & Read, New York

I didn’t buy the book (it was in a museum gift shop, and I was on my way out), but I was fascinated by the image, which is beautiful for many reasons. It has the odd, unreal quality of seeming both staged and unstaged. Notice how the family members appear as though they’ve been posed, though not necessarily by the photographer himself. They are looking into a distance that has nothing to do with the viewer, as if something has caught their attention. Perhaps they have seen something on the beach, or in the water, or have turned toward someone who has called to them from across the parking lot. Perhaps someone we can’t see is taking their picture. Or perhaps they are simply waiting. Who knows? What’s important is that this camera has caught them unaware, in an ordinary moment, yet it has framed them in such a way that their form – the actual shape they make together – becomes the focus of our attention. We tend to see them as a unit, a family, and the title of the photograph encourages us to dwell on what that means.

But this is only a technical description, and a partial one at that. What’s most important is how the photo speaks to the African American experience.  It also speaks to a universal experience, but to not address it the way I suggest we should address it would be to ignore the specificity of the title; this isn’t a ‘Family by the Sea,’ but a ‘Black Family by the Sea.’  I write this as a white male, as a person whose lineage is involved in what we might describe as the photograph’s ‘invisible context.’  But I write it with the hope that I can divest myself of any tics or mis-impressions that I might bring with me to racial conversations, and that could undermine the most well-intentioned gestures. Because, though I am not in the photograph, I am of the photograph; that is, while the moment with which this photo is concerned is self-contained, the history that this moment depends on is heavy with implication, and that implication involves me.  It speaks to me as history, asking me to reflect on the circumstances into which I have been born, and the privileges I have enjoyed for arbitrary reasons, while others have suffered for reasons equally arbitrary. So that the interpretive process is complicated by the fact that the person doing the interpreting – me – experiences the work personally. This would be true of any piece of art, when any viewer is involved, but it is ‘more’ true when the piece can elicit in the viewer a sense of personal or collective guilt.

Not that the photo’s tone is dour; if anything, it conveys a sort of resilience that is both American (in the ‘manifest destiny’ sense) and African American (in a more complicated, socio-political sense). And one might argue that my ‘reading’ of the photograph is more reflective of my own preoccupations than of anything contained within the work. But to the degree that the photograph’s composition creates a sort of ‘natural’ tension, my feelings are not arbitrary. Consider the position of the family. There they stand, between the hood of a huge American car and a section of chain link fence. Though they aren’t pinned there, they appear to be pinned there; they are cropped in such a way that they are incomplete, amputated. And the fact that the object of their gaze is not visible within the picture suggests something about their struggle to reach that object. The typical seascape painting – if one exists – would not be composed this way. Priority would be given to the sea itself, to the ‘picturesque.’ But in this photo, where a large part of the subjects’ collective identity involves long-suffering, such prioritizing would amount to a deception. So the sea, though not unimportant, is relegated to the background, and the objects that possess a sort of ordinary faithfulness are foregrounded with the family.

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8 thoughts on “Black Family by the Sea: a Note on Interpretation and Race

  1. Edward, I’ve really been enjoying these image explorations you’ve been posting. One, because you’ve been giving all kinds of ideas of things to fill my walls with. And, two, I just finished a manuscript I’ve been working on for a year, and I want to do about 100 drawings to accompany it, which is a bit intimidating, and I’m trying to figure out an approach. Your discussions have really been getting my ideas going. So, thanks!

  2. A wonderful photograph, Edward– very thought provoking.

    I want to try to push a bit harder on some of the issues you raise. I, myself, read the photo in clearer terms– that is, I immediately think that “someone we can’t see is taking their picture.”

    Given the title, I think this immediately makes us wonder, “Where is the black father?” Here, he is quite literally (to riff on Ellison) an invisible man. This is an extremely charged absence– as you nicely note, the family is “incomplete, amputated.” The photo makes us think of the figure of the black male and his place in American society, and we’re forced to confront pressing problems like insanely high incarceration rates.

    • I think you’re right, Michael – the absence of a father is noticeable, and something that a full exploration of the photo’s meaning should address. And I think the social issues you allude to as examples of black male absence are essential to this discussion.

  3. beautful pic, edward, and nice write up. and that is what occured to me first about the photo, its beauty. it’s beauty, but lack of the picturesque. the composition doesn’t jump out at you immediately, but only as your eye moves around the photo and puts together the vaious elements. it’s almost an awkward photo, what with that car lurking in front, getting in the way of all the ‘action,’ and might, at first look, seem almost a snapshot, artless. except, of course, for its striking color and, once you take a second, the obvious artistic eye of eggleston. in any case, what i’m getting at is that it was the aesthetics that hit me first, and although your and micheal’s remarks on its politics are clearly evident and important, i am usually less interested in those ideas than i am in aesthetics. not here, you’ve talked about politics in an interesting and depthful way, but it often seems to me that obvious political ideas are privledged in discussions about art over aesthetics.

    • Good point– Joseph. I was eager to jump to some of the relevant social issues that the photo brings up but you’re absolutely right– the photo doesn’t sacrifice anything in the service of politics– in fact, the political issues here irk us from the periphery and I think that’s part of the point.

      The car in the foreground is really a fundamental component of the composition– the way it, as you say, awkwardly crops the bodies of the family. I also love the rear-view mirror as it creates another angled line of sight.

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