The assignment was to bring to acting class an object that was very precious to us, and then to do a kind of show and tell, and tell the class what it meant. Many brought photos of things. Some brought objects that were mass-produced. I remember one woman who held a little photo in the palm of her hand and proceeded to tell us that it was her boyfriend. I wondered then how that picture took on the power of a human being.
There is a saying in photography that the real subject of photography is the photographer. We make so many decisions when we make a picture that we end up expressing ourselves fully. Sometimes, however, we look at a photograph and believe it is about the object or scene depicted. Our body knows better. We respond viscerally to the photograph as an object, and look through the subject into the creator.
John Szarkowski curated an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art about 40 years ago called Mirrors and Windows. His view was “that the photograph is seen either as a mirror—a romantic expression of the photographer's sensibility as it projects itself on the things and sights of this world or as a window—through which the external world is explored in all its presence and reality.” I tend to think that he was wrong with his premise and that all photos are about the internal workings of a psyche. Our challenge in reading a photograph is to channel the photographer though the object, as we do when one's friend tells a story. What we listen to is a litany of emotions. We get a sense how they are feeling and who they are. The words themselves just become the carrier of the feeling. In the end, the story is just that. Much more moving is that part of themselves that we have just shared.