Someone asked me on Tumblr a few days ago if I had a favorite model.
Do I? The question makes me think of ice cream parlors and customer satisfaction surveys. I could pick a “flavor,” I suppose; or mark out a model’s look or skill or professionalism or conceptual comprehension on a scale. Both seem wide of the thrust.
There’s a writer, Anne Carson—she’s reluctant to call herself a poet—who once published a poem titled, “Seated Figure with Red Angle (1988) by Betty Goodwin” which is composed entirely of if-statements, the first halves of if-then statements, with their ends absent. The poem is too lengthy to quote in full here, but here’s an excerpt from its beginning:
1 If body is always deep but deepest at its surface.
2 If conditionals are of two kinds factual and contrafactual.
3 If you're pushing, pushing and then it begins to pull you.
4 If police in that city burnt off people's hands with a blowtorch.
5 If quite darkly colored or reddish (bodies) swim there.
6 If afterwards she would sit the way a very old person sits, with no pants on, confused.
7 If you reach in, if you burrow, if you risk wiping in.
8 If a point that has been fed over years becomes a little bit alive.
9 If the seated figure started out with an idea of interrogation.
10 If there was a quality of very strong electrical light.
11 If you had the idea of interrogation.
12 If interrogation is a desire to get information which is not given or not given freely.
13 If buried all but traceless in the dark in its energy sitting, drifting within your own is another body.
14 If at first it sounded like rain.
What I find interesting about Carson’s poem is, less the content of any individual line—“the way a very old person sits,” “a quality of very strong electrical light,” “at first it sounded like rain”—and more the cumulative effect of the form. You can look at the painting Carson references (by Betty Goodwin, below) and divine what Carson divines for her lines. That’s understandable. What you can’t ignore, however, what is simultaneously incongruous and expansive the way your mind moves between the form, its own structured expectations, its discrete images and figures, and your own expectation for established syntax. The tension here is as lively and energetic as it is unsettled.
Carson’s poem is not merely an encounter in synecdoche, rather, as Aristotle claims, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Discrete images and figures congregate and complicate the escalating perception of the painting (and thus the poem), validating each line of interpretation. Yet it is precisely form that accomplishes the effect. Each if-statement tempting a “then” to follow: we expect this syntax, and so are frustrated by its continual refusal. (A trite poet would end the poem by delivering one. Carson doesn’t.) Each if-statement, without a “then,” then standing on its own. Repeated if-statements setting up a grammatical logic for the space, with its own expectations to be adhered to. I think the fact that Carson ends each line with a period truly cements our reading.
“Seated Figure with Red Angle (1988) by Betty Goodwin” by Anne Carson would, it seem, make an argument about how the image should be considered and thought about—perhaps even attempted. On the one hand, the image cannot be a proof. Truth, false hypotheses, even formulae, have no place here. Nor should the image be a conditional in and of itself: it can suppose nothing, nothing can or should essentially follow it. An image that serves up its own conclusions is a failed image—as I think Diane Arbus would agree, who said “a photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.”
However, don’t misunderstand me. I do not think Carson argues that an image should have no logic or conventions. Rather, I think she contends that an image should have exactly half the logic we typically demand.
It is deliberate implication that good images tract in, the first half of an if-then statement. Good images are incomplete conditionals, purposeful, sure, occupied things yet paradoxically “unfinished.” This is hard to describe. If a journalist or propagandist uses the image to point to an event or message, then the image-maker points not to events or messages but back to the image itself. The image exists for its own sake, on its own terms: it does not try to communicate or mean anything. Instead, the image provides an experience, implicates the viewer in that experience.
The thing about implication, what makes a good image impactful in this way, is when it is bodily. You can feel your way into the image, its edges, its dynamics, its shapes or lines—your breath, your skin, your mouth, maybe even your gut or your genitals. A good image implicates you in your body. The brain’s involved, but not only. I think bad images are headcases (or genitals—let’s be frank) only, understood already or irritably reaching.
It is why one of the more memorable things I’ve ever been told by a fan is this: “It’s as if you fall in love with your subjects.” Because love, its unique wanting, and its frustration, is certainly bodily. Falling in love is like experiencing half of a conditional and its period punctuation at once…
And so we come back to the question I got on Tumblr a few days ago…
The mark of a good subject, in my mind, is less a model’s look or skill, though they are inevitably important. Less a model’s professionalism, though this is essential for a good working relationship. And less a model’s grasp of concept, yet how can you work seriously without it? Rather, the mark of a good subject is something alchemical in the way we (photographer + subject) work and inhabit the shooting space together. I consent (through the camera) to fall in love with this subject: they consent to be active object to the process. It’s alchemical. It’s not like I begin a session saying, “Alright, I’m going to fall in love with you now…” Yet from out of every good session, you could ask the model in question, and they would tell you something was in the air.
Of course, every good image has a viewer. A third element to this photographic lovemaking. The best subjects understand this going in, and play to it, in whatever way works for the look or concept. The best subjects know the viewer, though absent, is already present: a staged appearance-as-disappearance.
If photographing is an experience in seeing half of a conditional, then modeling is its punctuation, its period—and viewing is its absent/present other half. That last, it seems, is where you come in.