Reading Pictures

Picking Oranges at Santa Ana, circa 1890s

[Picking Oranges at Santa Ana, circa 1890s]; General Subjects Photograph Collection-Agriculture; California Historical Society.

“Stare. It is the way to educate your eye and more. Stare, pry, listen, eaves-drop. Die knowing something. You are not here long.”

—Walker Evans, ca. 1960

Looking is hard work. For many of us, sight is the most obvious tool we use to experience our world; it feels easy, automatic, almost like breathing. But to look—to take time, to probe, to take seriously the ways in which images shape our worldview—is a different matter.

As children, we are taught to read words when we are only a few years old. And yet, modern technologies make it so that we are increasingly inundated by pictures more than text, be it on our screens, in print media, as family photographs, or as advertisements. Moving through the world, it is tempting to merely glance at the pictures we encounter, letting them coalesce into a sort of landscape or wave that washes over us and passes us by. But pictures are made by people, and so often convey the ideals, biases, and political views of their makers. However subconsciously, the images that we see every day combine to shape our own biases and political views. “What you see often becomes a part of your memory,” explains Ana-Christina Ramón, the assistant director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA, “and thus a part of your life experience.”

When we look closely and think about what we see, it allows us to be less immediately manipulated by the visual rhetoric of the media that we consume. But as with any good book, reading images closely can bring us an immense sense of pleasure and empathy. Imagine standing in front of your favorite painting, and taking the time to think about what emotions or forms its brush strokes evoke. Try to imagine what the artist was thinking and feeling when she put the brush to canvas, and where she was standing; think about what the painting conveys about the era or place in which it was made. With these thoughts, we do not lose sight of the work’s initial beauty. Rather, we can take in this beauty, or pain, or anger and confusion, while also asking ourselves what it is that allows the art to make us feel so strongly. We can come to the work with a sense of humility, but also thoughtfully.

I’m going to walk you through some questions I ask myself when I first look at a photograph, painting, or illustration, in the hopes that you will continue to look closely at the pictures that you encounter—be it in the museum, or on your phone’s screen. For example: 

Four girls standing in front of a Buddist temple on Terminal Way, Terminal Island, Los Angeles
[Buddhist temple, Terminal Way, Terminal Island, Los Angeles, 1932-33]; by Anton Wagner, CHS, PC 017

First, take a minute or two to really look closely at every part of the photograph. What do you see? I find it helpful to speak out loud, or at least to organize my thoughts into coherent sentences so that I don’t miss anything; language helps me to process what I’m seeing. No observation is too small or too obvious. In this photograph, I see four little girls standing on a dirt road. The girls stand in front of two buildings, one built in a mid-century American ranch style, and the other built in an Asian architectural style and surrounded by a fence with an elaborate entryway. On the left hand side of the image, I see a large white water tower on big metal stilts. On the right, a tree leans into the frame. The trees, combined with the fluttering of the girls’ hair and coats, suggest that it was windy out that day. There are statues in the garden behind the fence, and telephone poles in the distance. In fact, one telephone pole leads my eye to another building that I didn’t initially see.

What is the image made of? This work is obviously a photograph; knowing what I know about photography, I know that it is a black and white gelatin silver print. This information can help me to determine when the image was made: gelatin silver prints were most commonly made between 1900-2000, which is a fairly broad range, though we have other context clues to help us determine the date, such as clothing and architecture styles. If I can hold the image, I like to think about who else might have held it, and why, and how it might have circulated or traveled. This photograph could have been a family photograph, or a journalist’s image, or a photograph made by a documentarian. Maybe it was stored in an album, or printed in the newspaper.

If I’m looking at a photograph, I ask myself where the photographer was standing when they took the picture, and why. In this case, the answer is not particularly complicated: the photographer is standing in the road, and photographs the children from an angle. But this simple observation can actually tell something about the photographer’s intentions. Why didn’t they take the photograph head on, and from a closer vantage? What does the angle afford us that a more direct composition would lose? And what do we lose from this perspective?

However simple, the last question can tell me so much about this picture and the person who made it. I can guess that because the photograph is not a close up view of these children’s faces, it was composed specifically to show them in the context of their surroundings. Rather than frame the image so that we can only see the Asian-style building, however, the photographer chose to juxtapose it against the adjacent ranch-style house and water tower, both of which suggest to me that the photograph was taken in the United States. This isn’t a close up portrait of four children; it’s a photograph of four children shown living in a diverse neighborhood, likely in the United States. Their clothing and the architecture surrounding them suggest that this photograph was made before or during World War II. They look like they are of Japanese descent, which makes me wonder if they were impacted by Executive Order 9066. I think about the immigrant experience in the United States, now and throughout this country’s history; I think about my grandfather who was detained by the United States government during World War II because he was an Italian immigrant, and how he never told his children, or spoke Italian in their presence.

You can see here how an unassuming image without any text or caption can still say so much.

I’ll show my hand, which is that we are fortunate to have some information about this photograph. The photograph is titled [Buddhist temple, Terminal Way, Terminal Island, Los Angeles, 1932-33], and was taken by the German photographer Anton Wagner. As an art historian, I’m lucky when I have this much information to go off of: knowing the photographer allows me to probe deeper into his background and intentions, and the title can tell me so much, not least the fact that the building shown is a Buddhist temple, and that the photograph was taken ca. 1932-33 on Terminal Island—a Japanese American fishing community that, as it happens, was the first to be evacuated following Executive Order 9066. But I believe that pictures can tell us so much more than any caption can.

My last piece of advice is to try to look with a close but curious eye. Pictures do not exist solely as a record of the past, or as a container of information and data. A picture is not a question to be answered; we do not look so that we can be “right.” We look because photographs and works of art have things to tell us about what it felt like to live in an earlier time, and about how we relate to people with whom we have seemingly little in common—be it these four little girls, or a painter, or a sculptor living in Athens in 500 BCE. They allow us to admit just how much we don’t know, and to feel vulnerable when they elicit emotion. I believe that looking closely at pictures make us more human, in increasingly technological times.

Written by Natalie Pellolio, Assistant Curator at California Historical Society

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