On (Not) Being Able to Put Your Finger On It
Every time my husband attempts to utter something in Chinese, I dont exactly laugh in his face, but its a little funny. He hasnt yet got the phonetics. His mouth over-rounds and it seems as if he makes new shapes, any shape, to account for the languages new sounds. But its all in the tongue, sweety. Control the tongue and the mouth shape follows accordingly, like a lone trailing gymnasts foot on a soft blue mat adjusting for the landing. Likewise, a bounding Nadia knows that the feat of her perfect landing is really all in the strength of her back. Those pretty extended limbs are graceful distractions from an otherwise brutal exertion of power.
Underneath all things, as in communication, as in gymnastics, there is a structure that cant be manipulated from the outward going in. There is no forcing the mouth to look like a talking Chinese mouth in order to make the sounds come out in Chinese. Telling a joke or a story is obviously no different. It requires no less than a seemingly hidden consistency. If you tell a joke and it wins a laugh, then youve told it right. But what exactly is telling-it-right? I cant put my finger on it, goes the idiom. I cant touch the underlying organ that governs telling-it-rights awesome landing to my ears. But I know it when I hear it; and, in photography, I know telling-it-right when I see it.
JacobK hails from flickr. From what I gather, hes a Funny Dad, an FD. Some of his photos make me laugh like no others made by more “serious” photographers. When he lands a good one, his images are super concentrated scenes of American weirdness. He calls them silly pictures in his profile and sometimes I jealously wish I had taken them. He takes his kids, or ventures alone, to strange Deep South U.S.A amusement venues, and catalogs them fairly tirelessly. Here are two scenes that may well summarize the gamut of American fervency. A.) Sitting among Collectible Cabbage Patch doll owners as they watch the “birth” of a doll in a “hospital” in Georgia known as Babyland General and B.) A “funeral” from a hard line Christian youth event called Eternity House where participants are goaded into “knowing Jesus” might their souls be eternally damned.
Wandering at large, there are many FDs taking pictures of weird Americana and posting them to flickr, but JacobK has consistency that allows me to appreciate them. The moments often right, the composition isnt too heavy-handed, nor is it too loose. Everyones perfectly who they need to be to make the scene snap together. His organ of telling it right maybe works like this: he goes to these outlandish places ready to laugh, and he snaps the funniness that he sees in front of him, doing nothing more than transferring that scene into the frame at just the right moment.
I dont take for granted how difficult getting that moment really is. My husband and I have often used the phrase, I cant make a picture out of it, despite the richness of a particular scene in front of us. What it suggests is that a picture is not there by default of the availability of interesting ingredients floating freely in front of you. Our vision of the elusive moment is sometimes obscured by other factors, lets say the impassioned not feeling it barrier to getting in the frame whats so plainly in front of us. There is also the mitigating fear that if we work it too much, we break it. More notably, there is the plain oblivion that we are mostly always in. There are more obscuring elements at work on how we see than there are clarifying ones. When a photographer consistently gets in the frame whats really in front of him/her, at a time when its most significant, this is akin to landing that back handspring or finally being able to communicate something useful in a foreign language. It is no accident that it is achieved, it is owned only by the trudging through a trail of previous wipe-outs.
Mark Powell is a photographer who consistently lands his handsprings. The funniness of his photographs, like that of JacobKs, is ratcheted-up by a real moment and keen framing. However, Powells pictures usually depart from the mere touch of comic timing. His overall vision, the arch of his entire body of work, operates on a way of seeing that transcends the obviously funny. Theres little reliance on being in a funny place to see a funny moment, but rather he makes funny where wed never expect it could be. Its a funniness about life thats really a bit harder to put your finger on.
This is funny to me: her portable TV, its cord hanging limply, the weird little flower arrangements, her hair-netted head cocked in what seems like a temporarily adequate escape from some other thing going on in her life at the moment, I presume. Or this older boy, grown too big, straddling the last toy vestiges of his being a boy in a manner that anticipates the way in which he will try to be a man. Theyre both so tenderly funny in that way we once described as the “human condition.”
This man smiling into a mirror is funny immediately and then its funny again in a different way, when I imagine Powell actually being there to take it.
A humor that engulfs the mere chuckle is a more somber universal one. There is a joke on us that everyday unfurls itself under our feet, potentially undermining our ego at any given moment. This humor finds its expression in pathos and self-deprecation. I might argue that even if we have to mine these self-deprecating punch lines from the guarded moments of innocent bystanders, does not the miner hold the eyes to see the gold? That is, how can we see what we dont already know for ourselves? At the base of us all is something a bit helpless and pathetic, which somehow makes laughing at others okay. We laugh at babies when they fall and the delayed agony takes grip on their face before we finally hear the cries. We laugh because we know its never real agony.
The go-to American humorist, Mark Twain, wrote, Laughter without a tinge of philosophy is but a sneeze of humor. Genuine humor is replete with wisdom. Is that wisdom the ability to quickly index the catalog of everyday lived absurdity and grief, pull out something amusing, and then charge on blithely?
When looking through Powells work, or any photographer I admire, it seems as if they could find a quiet absurdity anywhere they end up. Around any corner, potentially, a Powell, or an Eggleston, or a Whoever X scene awaits, or so it seems. Are they teleologically in with the universe or does the the universe disproportionately offer things up just for them to find? That answer is No, but perhaps a photographer like Powell might be receptive to the universe (a set of possibilities by another name) in a way that his/her vision for whats already there is less obscured than those who might choose to impose on the scene, rather than to humble themselves to it.
I wrote Mark Powell and other photographers who take humorous pictures to see what they had to say about humor and (not) being able to put your finger on it. I also wanted to see what images that they find funny. Heres what Powell gave me.
Powell: I do like a direct funny picture, but the quick laughs die an equally quick death. I have a hard time remembering jokes no matter how funny they arethe ones I do remember are a little dirty and twisted. So, I picked an Enrique Metinides photograph of an accident scene and the people gathered around a smashed up car. Well at once, I find it funny that Metinides always implicates the people in his photographs until they are not even about the accidents anymore, but just about the people left over, gathered like flies. He uses accidents as a very practical excuse to get the shot that extends meaning a little over the horizon of the event. I like that punch line, it lingers over me and allows me to watch again and again.
Powells response reminds me that humor, when its forced to be laid out, ends up in a buffet of adjectives: sick, twisted, fluffy, witty, dark, satiric, ironic, cute, straight, absurd, weird, stupid, slapstick, funny haha, funny strange; and essentially, like fussy kids we only eat what we like. I hate listing these adjectives. When I see them, there seems to be a glaring limitation to all these one-note words. Perhaps the effect of funniness is best demonstrated physically, rather than lexically. Because theres not always an outward laugh, perhaps nothing even close to one, laughing on the inside is more what goes on. A laugh like this escapes in a huff from the nostrils, or causes a muscle to tense on one side of the face, leaving the other side of the face in something like a non-smile, a huff-smirk.
Powell said hes a little twisted, and though I suspect that adjective hardly describes what he means, but Mark, I know what you mean. There is a playful darkness to us photographers, and I should now mention it via drawing an anachronistic metaphor
If this dark sense of humor could be our anthem, and we were all sitting in a dusty parlor room swaying to it Itd be the sound of tinkling un-tuned keys of a warbly old player piano (a piano that plays itself) at which sits our man, a drunken character whose biggest fault is loving too many things with too much gusto, the kind of character who pretends like he has never fully learned his lessons so that he can take what he wants and run away to someplace alone to pride himself for having grabbed it but he has half-hearted accepted his foolishness for the miraculous glimmers it sometimes offers to his perception, a fun house mirror set of eyes in which to fumble through the world with his hands fumbling over the keys, believing he was the master of the tune himself. Wed laugh to ourselves, at our pathetic kin, and we might love him for being so photogenically pathetic in front of us.
Mark Twain on the photograph and, presumably, the devils who make them:
No photograph ever was good, yet, of anybodyhunger and thirst and utter wretchedness overtake the outlaw who invented it! It transforms into desperadoes the meekest of men; depicts sinless innocence upon the pictured faces of ruffians; gives the wise man the stupid leer of a fool, and a fool an expression of more than earthly wisdom. If a man tries to look serious when he sits for his picture the photograph makes him look as solemn as an owl; if he smiles, the photograph smirks repulsively; if he tries to look pleasant, the photograph looks silly; if he makes the fatal mistake of attempting to seem pensive, the camera will surely write him down as an ass. The sun never looks through the photographic instrument that it does not print a lie. The piece of glass it prints it on is well named a negativea contradictiona misrepresentationa falsehood. I speak feeling of this matter, because by turns the instrument has represented me to be a lunatic, a Soloman, a missionary, a burglar and an abject idiot, and I am neither. Letter to the Sacramento Daily Union, July 1, 1866
Eliot Shepard comes to mind when I read these lines. I think of the title of his small set “Basically Dishonest” and how these two words ring true, and yet it still matters little to me. Oddly, I sometimes trust that my photographic lies make my lived truth more easily seen, if to anybody, then to me only. Honesty, whatever that means, probably doesnt matter so much to Shepard either.
Shepard thinks these pictures are funny: Winogrand gets a taste of his own medicine and a cheeseburger-cigarette holding hand. Its not hard to see how his own images are imbued by a familiar strange sensibility.
Zhang Xiao is a photographer shooting around the central Chinese province of Shanxi. His pictures are understated and fixedly Chinese, whatever being Chinese means. There is no hand-holding the audience to the punch line and the humor is not concentrated like a good ol FD picture. Rather, there is an atomized vapor of weirdness hovering over all of his scenes. And not being so easily got, the humor may waft over the heads of some and it might shoot directly into the nasals of others. A humorous story is told gravely,” writes Twain in How to Tell a Story, “the teller does his best to conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it. And dont Zhang Xiaos gravely-told stories almost whisper their awkward punchlines?
However, I was caught off guard when I received what Zhang Xiao sent. He writes,
My friend FengLis picture often make me laughI see this picture, I think this is a surreal scene. The children are too fat. It has been very funny just he lying there. Dont need too many reasons. And this isnt ridicule. He is so lovely.
At first I was interested, and then I was gradually confused, and finally, sad. I cant say that the image sits on my side of the funny buffet. Zhang Xiaos pallet might be more darkly noted than mine. Im an FD at heart, but yet Im capable of accepting how this can be funny to someone coming from another range of cultural and personal contexts, those that I cant quite grasp, nor do I really want to. To paraphrase my insig.ht comrade, James Hendrick, knowing that someone somewhere thinks this picture is funny, Ive learned something.
What is humorous within photographs is only half the story when we compare it to what is funny about the practice of photography itself. Ive often thought, as I stand dorkily holding my camera up to a scene involving no more than a pile of stuff, how funny I must look to anyone who cares to pay more than a seconds glance. How often would I make a lampoon-able character for a funny photo? No other online work, in my opinion, has poked more gentle fun at the act of playing photographer than the self-reflexive writing, photographs, and experiments of the funny Ross Evertson. He keeps a highly readable blog called Addressing the Vest (an overly pocketed classic photojournalist meets amateur birder vest) in which he muses/embraces various deservedly mocked photographic tropes, such as this touchstone: Imply Significance for Free.
Statements is one of the more clever and funny projects Ive seen. Its an experiment that treads that awkward bridge between worlds: between those of the artist and his/her audience; between those of the people who take photography seriously and people who might be indifferent to its supposed significance; and uniquely, between the outsourcer and the outsourcee by using overseas paid-for-hires to write a 2nd hand artist statement for his work. He writes:
Using the Amazon outsourcing service Mechanical Turk, I hired workers to visit my website and describe my work. The results were then typeset and printed, including the unedited text of the responses, along with the associated, anonymous worker number.”
I conclude by trying to redeem myself for making fun of my husbands funny Chinese pronunciation by telling you this story of his, which I love and always makes me laugh. Its about photography, or rather about being a photographer, and the seriousness to which we clamor for a photographic nugget lying ready to be plundered. Its about how being a photographer can make you experience the world in ways that are in their own way funny, funnier than if we just mentally noted something and kept walking, likely forgetting anything worth a longer consideration, however small, however maybe ridiculous.
Michael was walking around his then NYC neighborhood. He came across a bull dog sitting in an old glass shop front like a yard ornament. The dog was petrified, transfixed, weirdly not-real with his saliva downward looping to just almost the ground. Michael must have laughed the kind that comes out short and hard, like a honk. Without a camera, his pulse surged and his photographers shoulder devil must have shouted, Fuck! So he took to a fast walk in the direction home, soon turning to a full on sprint, weaving through the intermittently populated lazy obstacles of the sidewalk, around the usual slow oblivious types, running with what must have been a bouncing smile on his face, with an urgency in his heart to get home to that camera.
Charging down the long forever blocks and finally pounding up the front steps, jangling with the the keys through the front door, and then another five flights up, around and around the stairwell he went, and then jangling with the keys again, he charged into the apartment running headlong into his friend, Cary Conover, also a photographer. Cary: “Whats wrong, man?” Michael: “Picture! Picture! Picture.” yelling as he carried on. Cary: “Oh, yeah, go get it.”
In and out of doors, and in and out of camera bags with zippers and pockets. And then down and back through all of it again, racing to what he knew would be long gone, in a full sprint, already admonishing himself for not having had the camera he should be carrying all along, if he were any photographer worth his salt. The smile turning to a strain attached to a mental projection of a failed opportunity, to the thought that maybe its pointless to run to a thing already dissipated, that it is plain silly to even be running to take a picture of a dog? It was really ridiculous when he thought about it. But still he begged the universe of chance: Please, still be there. Please, still be there. And then he arrived, after twenty minutes of self-inflicted entropic chaos, to the scene as serene and perfect as when he first saw it, an unflinching bulldog in a window in a funny world that sometimes might wait for you to get the joke. Sometimes you get your finger right on it.
So tell me, whats funny to you?