Moments of Puzzlement

If you’re building collections of street photographs based on themes, you can group them by emotion — joy, sadness, anger, and so on — or by reaction, such as surprise or puzzlement.

Moments of puzzlement are inherently ambiguous and mysterious if you can’t see what has prompted them. And as I’ve mentioned before in these articles, ambiguity and mystery are two of the most useful ingredients in street photography. I’d be lost without them.

If a subject looks puzzled, the onlooker viewing the image will also be puzzled. What’s going on? Why is this person questioning reality? Isn’t everything obvious once you’ve taken a photograph of it?

A False Assumption
The idea that photography reveals everything is one of the myths of the modern age. We look at scenes that are confusing in reality and we photograph them for later inspection. People do the same in art galleries. A great painting is far too elaborate and potentially meaningful to be absorbed in a few moments, so people photograph it “for later.”

It’s a comforting thought, isn’t it? It’s rather like having some kind of convenience snack-food, like a chocolate bar. “I can eat it later.” You’ll never suffer mental starvation if you have a camera. You can take a picture and tell yourself “I’ll understand it later.”

Outward Signs
To show puzzlement in a photograph you really need the subjects to display some evidence of it. After all, it’s possible to be quietly puzzled and give no external indication of it apart from a Roger Moore-stye raised eyebrow that would go completely unnoticed in a street photo.

The most noticeable outward sign of puzzlement is a combination of frowning and head-scratching. When you see this, take a picture! You won’t be disappointed. The subject can be looking to one side, as in my featured image (above), or looking directly at the camera, as in the image below. It doesn’t matter. Something has puzzled the subject and the image prompts us to wonder what it is.

save rock and roll tee-shirt

More Ambiguity, More Mystery
Such images as those I’ve described (and offered) have further layers of ambiguity and mystery. For a start, they may be completely misleading.

For example, perhaps the subject only appears to be puzzled and is simply scratching his or her head because it itches — and the frown is nothing more than an expression of annoyance at the itch.

You must admit, that’s a possibility. Does it matter? Not really, because photographs are documents of appearances. They can’t contain full explanations of everything that seems to be happening in them. In fact, their charm is actually based on their inscrutability, on their steadfast refusal to disentangle ambiguity or shine a light on every mystery.

The featured image at the top is a good illustration of the point I’ve just made. The woman who is scratching her head also displays a bandaged wrist. We’ll never know how she injured it. The wrist is just “there” — an appearance without an explanation. Maybe she’s only pretending to have a bad wrist. I know that’s unlikely, but it’s within the realm of many possibilities.

So as you can see, the subject’s puzzlement is also our puzzlement — and we have our own reasons to be puzzled quite apart from worrying about whatever’s bugging the subject.

My second image (above), which I’ve called “Save Rock and Roll,” is not so mysterious as the first. It’s just a group of young men who are probably returning from a class (to judge by the notebook) and thinking about the evening ahead. Will they go out drinking — or share a meal? Certainly they all seem to share a similar taste in clothes.

Very obligingly, one of them touches his head in a gesture that seems to echo the pose of the model in the poster. At the time of taking the shot, I wondered whether he was doing it deliberately. Perhaps he’d seen the poster and had decided to give me one of those “correspondences” which always look interesting in a street photo.

Ah, now you see I’ve started digging up mysteries and ambiguities where probably none exist. I’m looking at these photos, scratching my head and frowning.

It’s all very puzzling.

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