Thursday, March 01, 2012
Untitled (Woman with dog)
We seem to have an innate need to tell stories, even when the raw material is lacking. I suppose that it's part of our way of making sense of the world, of explaining why it's the way it is and not some other way that might have been equally conceivable if things had been just a little different, or maybe it's simply how we try to reassure ourselves that our existence isn't utterly meaningless, that there's a narrative to it all, improbable as that seems. In other words, whistling in the dark.
This Real Photo postcard bears no inscription and was never mailed; about all that can be said in the way of external evidence is that the style of Azo photographic paper it was printed on was manufactured between 1904 and 1918. The location must have been far enough north to require a heavy (if seemingly threadbare) coat in the winter. I don't know enough about the history of women's fashion, or about the woodworking we see in the background, to know whether there's more here that could be gleaned by someone with a trained eye.
We start inventing, imagining. Because of her skin color and maybe her bonnet we think that she might have been a domestic servant, that she had just pulled on her coat a moment before and stepped out on the porch so that the photographer -- a friend? a family member? her employer? -- could capture her likeness. The woman faces the lens of the camera head on, but the dog's eyes are intent on something just to the side, so maybe there's a child or another dog running in the yard or across the street, leaving only the most indirect of traces as it passes. But the truth is that what we deduce, and what we can try to guess, will always be less than what we can't know, beginning with her name, her background, her character, her fate, and everything else that really matters.
So I think we should resist the temptation and leave her as she is, posed for the flick of a shutter that will preserve what may be -- but how can we know? -- the only memory of her that still survives, one fleeting, indelible moment of tenderness.