Deliberate Obscurity

When William Eggleston said “I am at war with the obvious” I don’t think he was recommending the deliberate embrace of obscurity. Yet it’s a measure of how far we’ve come that today a photographer can offer complex images with hidden meanings and unusual compositions — a long way from the “rectangle with an object in the middle of it” which Eggleston decried.

The change in how we look at photographic images is similar to that which ushered in the age of Impressionism (and Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Fauvism…yada-yada) while sweeping aside the stultifying influence of the academies. Artists led the way; critics and intelligent onlookers followed.

Playing Catch-Up
Unfortunately, the vast majority of people can be slow to catch up. Perhaps this is because, on the surface, the world looks too familiar to most people. They look at it with an unquestioning eye, whereas the perceptive street photographer sees a completely different reality.

Once you start to look at the world with a questioning eye — wondering why this man is carrying a mysterious object, or why this woman is shielding her face — only then can you begin to see beneath the world’s everyday appearance of normality.

The more adventurous we become in our street compositions, the more closely our photos begin — at least on a superficial level — to resemble “snapshots” rather than perfectly composed photographs.

Eggleston again: “The blindness [of most people] is apparent when someone lets slip the word ‘snapshot’. Ignorance can always be covered by ‘snapshot’. The word has never had any meaning. I am at war with the obvious.”

Man Made
My featured image (above) is far from being obvious. To many people it may look like a hastily taken snapshot! In fact, I composed it very carefully when I took it, so I’m not guilty of just “snapping” a random image.

I was intrigued by the dull light emanating from the ugly light bulbs which appear to be hanging from a tangle of wires on a clothes rack. The bulbs are directly in front of the faces of the two main subjects, making it impossible for us to see the subjects properly. Nonetheless, the “clothes rack” with the lights (and another one without) together make a natural rectangle, cutting out the subjects from the rest of the image.

No fewer than seven people in the photo are wearing glasses — and everyone is looking intently at different objects (which we can’t see). Maybe it’s a Saturday morning sale! I remember taking it on a Saturday (the EXIF confirms it) and if you’re familiar with markets I think you’ll agree the image has a Saturday morning atmosphere.

Apart from the people, the most noticeable elements in the photo are the orange and white canopies and awnings, some of which look a lot more permanent than the others. Beyond them all is the solid structure of the building. Attached to a pillar is a scrawled notice which says: “Man Made.” The words are hard to read because the English language is tricky to decipher when you rotate it ninety degrees.

My picture suggests the idea that many layers of organisation are apparent in the modern world. You can see four of them here: the permanent building, the less permanent orange and white awnings, the temporary stall canopies, and the ongoing, somewhat disorganised, ephemeral muddle of the Saturday vendors. But don’t worry. It’s all “man made” — including my photo.

When Subjects Hide
My next picture (below) is not nearly as “obscure.” In fact, the main figure is placed centrally, thus satisfying the demands of (in Eggleston’s words) “more people than I can imagine.”

Yet as you can see, there are really three women near the centre of the frame. It’s just that we tend to notice the main figure first because of her gold-coloured head-gear. The woman with the raised arm is no less interesting photographically because her bronze jacket and hair are an exact match in the afternoon sun. Behind them both is another woman whose hair gleams silver with specular light.

Gold, silver and bronze are the three colours at the centre of the image — and all else is incidental. The onlooker may not be conscious of this combination, but can sense it subconsciously. Partly because of it, the image has a mysterious quality which is hard to pin down (although I’ve done my best).

There’s a smiling man in the background; another man with a prominent ear-ring looks far from happy; a protective hand rests on the shoulder of a child. Surrounding them all — including the gold, silver and bronze women — are endless pairs of sandals. How mundane is that?

I have to admit, I’m at war with the obvious, too.

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