Hypothetical History of an Actual Photograph

Sometime during the period 1950-1973—there is reason, though without assurance, to assume that it happened circa late 1973—a young man, possibly North American by birth but clearly of African descent, entered a photo booth, perhaps located in theTimes Square district of New York City, with the intent of making a series of self-portraits. More than likely, he was heedless of the fact that by doing so he was involving himself in a long-established ritual of Western culture, and engaging with the most popular instrument for self-portraiture in the history of humankind.

This young man, from the evidence somewhere between the ages of 18 and 25, wore a dark-colored, open-collared, long-sleeved shirt; his medium-length curly hair was cut in traditional, not particularly stylish fashion. After depositing some coins—probably two quarters, which was then the going price for such things—in a slot, he drew the curtain and seated himself in the booth, arranged his appearance and features to his satisfaction by consulting his reflection in the glass plate that faced him, and pressed the button that would initiate the making of the sequence of three or four small black-bordered pictures, vertically framed rectangles, examples of which were most likely presented in the display on the outside of the booth.

After a few seconds, a flash went off, and the first exposure— representing him posed as he had planned—was made. There was then a pause, during which he apparently became confused. Was he supposed to press the button for each of the exposures? Or did they trigger off at intervals, automatically after the first? Had he forgotten what the instructions pasted onto the wall of the booth said? Had he read them in the first place? If not, was it from overconfidence, or carelessness? Could he in fact not read and understand them—semi-literacy or illiteracy being not uncommon among North Americans, with the rate particularly high among young black men?

In any case, he assumed that he was required to press the button again to make the next exposure, and, leaning forward, reached out with his right hand to do so. (Constructed with the average user in mind, the booth favors the right-handed, with the button and instructions located to the right of the glass rectangle that confronts the sitter, serving each customer as a combination of mirror and indicator of the image’s frame.) He guessed wrong, and just as he bent forward the timed flash went off again, registering a second version of him caught off-center and off-guard, unprepared to be seen and described, eyes wide in surprise, face filling the frame, body slightly turned, arm raised perhaps 30 degrees, seemingly outstretched toward the viewer, cut off by the left edge of the frame.

Because he was closer to the glass plate covering the built-in camera’s fixed and pre-set lens that the booth’s designers had intended, he was out of focus in this image; the modeling of his face was unclear, though his left shoulder was sharply delineated. Also, the exposure time and flash of these machines are calibrated to represent acceptably the skin tones of the average user, who is Caucasian. Our subject’s proximity to the flash, in combination with the melanin content of his skin, resulted in his skin being rendered even darker than it actually was. As a result, the image’s only highlights were the startled whites of his eyes.

Did he, in the brief interval that followed that sudden, no doubt discomfiting awareness of his own miscomprehension of his immediate circumstances, realize his mistake and correct it in the remaining exposure or two? Or did he become disoriented and perpetuate his error, amplifying it further? We will never know. Onct the exposures had all been made he emerged from the booth. And, a few minutes later, accompanied by a chattering noise, a vertical strip of several small black & white images of him, still damp from the water that washed off the last traces of developer and fixing bath, descended into a drying slot on the outside of the machine, through which warm air blew.

What had been his purpose in making these images? Were they for use on an identity card or passport, keepsakes for friends, mementos for himself? Regardless of the answer, this second exposure seems not to have met his standards, for as its ragged upper and lower edges indicate it was torn—albeit neatly, so as not to spoil its predecessor and successor—from the long, narrow processed strip, and discarded. This was done immediately, one assumes, on an impulse to eliminate the failure, an urge strong enough that it couldn’t wait until reaching home, or somewhere else where scissors were available.

Subsequently, in the winter of 1973, it was found—perhaps where it had fallen, or in that vicinity, but in any case certifiably on the platform of the downtown 7thAvenue IRT in theTimes Square subway station, where it could not have lain for long before being swept up—by a white U.S. male 30 years of age, of Scots Protestant and Russian Jewish descent, a photography critic and teacher, this man frequently followed his perennial impulse to examine and retain vernacular photographs that had become disconnected from their subject. Some he used solely as vehicles for his own meditations; others he imposed on his students, as the premises for a series of writing exercises he’d evolved to develop their capacity to attend closely to photographs. He picked up this particular photograph— which was approximately 11/2 inches across by 2 inches high, its cleanly cut right- and left-hand edges suggesting that it came from a strip of single images, such as older photobooths generate, rather than the paired sets common to newer models—and scrutinized it carefully.Then, it apparently satisfying his criteria for such objects, he accepted that image into his personal/professional context, and took it home.

For the next two decades, that image would lead a life that could not possibly have been predicted by its subject, and would have to be considered atypical if not unique for a photograph of its kind. (We of course can have no idea as to what its subject would make of its history after it left his hands.) As part of the instructional material of its new owner, it traveled not only throughout the U.S. and Canada but internationally—specifically, to  Israel, France, Sweden and finally to the Netherlands. It was addressed, more or less extensively according to the tutorial circumstances, by people whose encounters with it were as short as a few hours and as long as an entire semester. These people were of diverse races, ages, religions, ethnicities and nationalities, of both sexes and even more gender persuasions. They included undergraduate photography students, advanced cinema studies scholars, artists and photographers, elementary-school teachers, professional art critics, adult-education devotees and others.

What they wrote about it ranged from imaginary, attempted biographies of the individual who was the image’s subject through social analyses of his presumed class condition and economic circumstance, and on to discursions on surveillance photography of oppressed minority populations. Rarely were the specifics of the photograph as an object or image attended to—which is what made it of continuing utility to the instructor whose purposes (which included enhancing students’ capacities for close observation of particulars) it served so well. In all those years, only one student—a white woman from the midwestern U.S.—even approximated the narrative describing its probable making that opens this essay.

In July of 1993 this photograph was brought by the instructor from New York City to the city of Breda, in the Netherlands (an hour’s drive south from Amsterdam), where he was to present a two-day workshop in photography criticism. On that trip it traveled via train, boat, airplane and car. Contained within a flexible clear-plastic pocket, it was handed on the morning of July 3 to a middle-aged art journalist from Amsterdam. (It should be noted that the instructor’s choice of which student to inflict with which found photograph— and he had a selection of perhaps three dozen of these, all acquired under comparably haphazard circumstances—combined equal parts of randomness and intuition.)

The Amsterdam critic completed the first part of the written exercise, but time constraints did not permit the reading aloud of his description of it, normally part of the process of this exercise. As he gave the appearance of being dutiful in relation to the group project, there is no reason to doubt that this was drafted. At the lunch break, he attempted to hand the photograph in its plastic sleeve back to the instructor, indicating that he would not be able to attend that afternoon’s session. Or at least that is what his U.S. instructor understood him to say. Did he in fact say (or intend to convey) that he would not be returning the next day either? Was he dissatisfied with the workshop’s style or content, but too polite to say so? Did the photograph—or the prospect of writing further about it—displease him?

Whatever the truth, the instructor took his words to mean that he would miss the afternoon’s transactions but would be back the following day. And, since the photo would continue to play a part in the proceedings, he told his Dutch colleague to “hold onto it until tomorrow.”

As the reader may have anticipated, the Amsterdam critic did not return to the workshop—not that day, and not the next. The reasons for his absence are unknown. So the last facts we can ascertain about this photograph are:

  • that, protected by its plastic sheath, it was last seen by this
    writer, the instructor in question, in the hand of a Dutchman;
  • that his subsequent relation to it, though unknown to us, is
    in some way (even if in negation) a response to his U.S. colleague’s
    directive to “hold onto it until tomorrow”; and
  • that, out of some unexpected sense of loss and a consequent
    commemorative impulse, the person whose conscious choices inte
    grated this image into the perceptual archives of various other peo
    ple for a period of close to 20 years has decided to set down this
    account of its existence while within his sphere of influence.

About the Author

A.D. Coleman

A.D. Coleman served as photography critic for the New York Observer from 1988 to 1997. He is the author of several books, including “Critical Focus: Photography in the International Image Community”, published by Nazraeli Press, and “Tarnished Silver: After the Photo Boom”, published by Midmarch Arts Press.

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