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.
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.