Unfolding the Map
The turn of a phrase can mean so much, or so little. But when it means something, it can often fire the imagination and give life to what would ordinarily be description. I reflect on the literary description, and compare and contrast it to photography, as William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) passes through Riverhead. At right is the New York State flower, the rose. Photo is by Atoma and found at Wikimedia Commons. To find Riverhead, point your finger upstream on the map.
"...I went down a pleasant little road numbered 25, down the north fluke, through neat vegetable truck farms with their typical story-and-a-half houses, past estuaries and swans, to Riverhead. I followed a pickup with four bloodied sharks laid out in the bed; it looked like a tin of evil sardines packed in ketchup."
Blue Highways: Part 9, Chapter 7
Riverhead, New York
I love it when writers pull out an image that really stirs imagination.
I have no idea what evil sardines are, but thanks to LHM, I now have a mental image of what I think they might look like. And for some reason, I find the image humorous.
It is for these types of images that I read, and continue I will reading for these types of flourishes for the rest of my life. LHM could have just described the pickup truck, with the four bloodied sharks on the bed and left it like that. Instead, he added the picturesque description to accentuate its grotesque attributes, or maybe to put us inside his head a little as he processed what he was seeing. Whatever the reason, his description is much more colorful and evocative of the imagination than the simpler description.
Sometimes that's all we need. For me, I can digest the evil sardines in ketchup, smile about it, and move on as we continue the journey. However, sometimes the descriptions leave you wanting more. I wrote a complaint of this nature when I was blogging Kerouac's On the Road. Sal Paradise, somewhere in Iowa, gets picked up by a man who is driving, in Kerouac's description, "a toolshack on wheels." The mental image of this truck made we want to know more about the man driving it. What does he do? Is he a handyman who drives the truck to make repairs, or does he use the tools for his own purposes? What kind of person is he? Unfortunately, Kerouac does not give us any answers on this. In the next paragraph Sal gets out and starts looking for his next ride. I felt myself a little cheated, though I began to realize that Kerouac's intention was to not linger at overlong descriptions of things. Still, I wanted more about the toolshack on wheels, partly because I knew people who drove similar contraptions in the town where I grew up.
I love photography, or actually I love looking at photography but I don't consider myself a particularly artistic photographer. An image, when it captures the essence of something, can often have a similar effect in people as a good metaphor or simile, or a longer description. But I remember, after having read John Berger or Susan Sontag or perhaps both, that photography may remove one from the experience of truly seeing the world around them. The image may be a faithful, more or less, representation of a person, event or object at that certain instant in time, but it is the writer and the description that truly describes object, or person, or event and fleshes out meaning, symbol, or other intangibles that may not have been caught by the photograph. The life story of the person is available, should the author choose to explore it, and may only be hinted at by the lines on the person's face or the trappings of their life around them or the expression that they wear in the photograph. Sontag argues that the photographer is removed from the scene and cannot intervene, but the author, if he or she so chooses, can simply describe, like a photo, or take a more active role. In LHM's case, he goes one farther, not only reporting what he sees but interpreting it for us. Sometimes, the intervention can include the author inserting him or herself into the story.
This is not meant as a criticism or a condemnation of photography. Sometimes, I want to see simply what the camera sees, and sometimes, especially with posed pictures or still life, the photographer does insert his or her own viewpoint into the frame. That is why professional photographers are artists, though I do sometimes wonder if they ever allow themselves to put the camera down and really participate in the events around them or if they choose to always look at the world through the barrier of their lenses.
I thought about this topic recently on a hike through the Jemez Mountains in New Mexico. I found myself stopping to take photos at certain points, and realized that I was so focused on getting the perfect shot of this or that, I was missing the world around me. I started taking a photo and then lingering in the place to experience. The photo of my wife walking through seven foot high vegetation in the late sunlight became even more real to me when I viewed it later. The sunlight, on a more horizontal slant in the late afternoon, turned the plant flowers and leaves translucent, and gave the path a quality of a passage from some less vibrant reality to something more colorful, bright and transcendent just beyond. The paw print I photographed, in the mud next to a river, went from a mere curiosity to a large, possibly feline monster watching from the bluffs above and waiting for its chance. The stand of pines became a formation not unlike a line of soldiers or perhaps a sloppily arranged high school band during the last mile of a long parade. Now, when I see the photos, they have much more meaning for me, and the extra dimensionality of my imagination turns them from faithful two-dimensional representations of the world into something even more alive and vibrant than my camera could ever capture, even were I the most accomplished and artistic photographer in the world.
But on the whole, give me an evocative piece of writing. Give me a description that really sears itself into my imagination. Whereas the picture does some interpretation for me, writing makes me work. It makes me come up with the image in my head, and then interpret it. If it makes sense to me, I am moved in some way. If it doesn't, then it is either beyond my understanding or the author has some more work to do to capture me and gain inner attention.
Photographs fade or, now, their pixels get lost in the ether. My imagination stays with me throughout my life, and even without the photographs, I will recall not only the image, but the smells, the sounds, the sensations and how I felt at that point in time and place.
I could only find a song, by a band I don't know, born in a time period of music (the 90s) that I usually stay away from, that relates to this post. There are a lot of songs about photography, but the lyrics in this song, Fades Like a Photograph by Filter, have the most relevance.
If you want to know more about Riverhead
Next up: Islip, Babylon, Amityville, Merrick and Oceanside, New York