As I write these words, very late on a January night, the temperature in Moorhead, Minnesota, is twenty-six degrees below zero. The wind-chill temperature is more than 40 below—the point where Fahrenheit and Celsius meet. Sheets of spindrift snow swirl from the tops of drifts and rocket down the streets and yards of my neighborhood. Not many people are outside.
Yet, this is both a wonderful and comfortable evening. Sitting in a deep chair in my study at home, a full glass of red wine by my side, books in my lap and the music of Stacey Kent on the radio, I am inexorably happy.
The pictures on the walls of my study at home are both priceless and worthless. There is a photo of my children sitting at the top of our stairs on Christmas morning, both in their pajamas. In this picture, my daughter is 27 and my son is 23. Both of them hold cups of coffee. Both are eager to race down to see what Santa has brought—a ritual since the time they believed.
There is a picture of my mother and father holding my sister and me as very small children in front of a puppeteer’s wall. This is likely 1963, or thereabouts. Kukla, from Kukla, Fran and Ollie, is entertaining us.
These are the pictures I would rescue first: they are heartwood memories. As art, however, they are just snapshots. In fact, most of them—as photographs—aren’t very good at all.
Why are these pictures important? Yes, they are family memories. But follow that idea just a bit farther: each of these photos is a connection to a narrative, to a story, to one element of the many braided lives that make up the world I inhabit. The photographs ask nothing of me. Instead, they offer. They offer a moment that speaks to the details—specific, exact, idiosyncratic—that make the stories behind them present again. With these pictures I can recall the sound of my mother’s voice, the way my sister laughed, the tilt of a puppet’s head, on that day. I look at the pictures and recognize much more than the faces.
If someone asks about the picture, I do not respond with f-stop or ISO. I respond with the narrative behind the shot. Kukla, I say! That show was enormously popular. Burr Tillstrom, the puppeteer, was a friend of my parents. We lived in Chicago at the time. And, if someone recognizes the puppet from their own childhood, they offer their narrative to me.
A gust of wind rattles my windows. I cannot see the car, but I can hear the spinning of tires on ice somewhere in the distance.
Why am I thinking about narrative and photography tonight? I have two photobooks on my lap. The first is Humans of New York: Stories, and the other is One, Two, Three, More by Helen Levitt. They really could not be more different, yet both of them touch me deeply.
And perhaps this is obvious, but it occurs to me that, like the pictures on my study’s walls, Humans of New York offers acts of recognition—a connection to a narrative we already know. In contrast, One, Two, Three, More offers an opportunity for investigation or interrogation, the chance to create a completely new narrative from the details of the photograph.
In any case—or I could argue, in every case—the source of insight is how completely we can connect photography to narrative, to a story, to wondering what lives are lived behind and beyond the faces we see.
I have a friend who does not like Humans of New York. In fact, when we spoke about it, he said, “I kind of hate HONY. It’s street photography lite…” His message surprised me. This friend is a good guy, deeply versed in photography, and I respect his opinions. We both love a good story.
And at one level I agree with him. It would be difficult to find a photo in Humans of New York that would reward a large frame, gallery installation, overly-dressed men and women uttering “hmm” over the rims of their glasses. Brandon Stanton is not Annie Leibovitz and he is not Diane Arbus. But it would be a mistake to assume these three are after the same thing.
An example: there is a picture in Humans of New York of four boys on a sidewalk. One of them is scrunched into an automobile tire while the other three are getting ready to push. The caption reads:
“We’re going to get inside this tire and roll down the hill.”
“No, you’re not.”
“Yes, we are!”
“No, you’re not.”
This one makes me laugh out loud—seriously—so I get up and walk to another room to show this photo to my wife. She looks, reads, smiles, says “Remember when Kate and Andrew…?”
Of course, the implied other speaker in the caption is Stanton, the photographer. And while I don’t know a thing about him personally, or about any of the boys in the shot, I know the thousand variations of this story from both the boys’ and the adult’s perspective. There is, for me, immediate recognition of a narrative I’ve lived.
That is the deep genius of Humans of New York. Just like the picture of my adult children at the top of our stairs on Christmas morning, the photographs by themselves are not fine art. But the way they open narrative connections tells me I am not alone, shows me new details for a theme I share.
On the other hand, Levitt’s One, Two, Three, More, offers very little narrative recognition. Yes, I recognize the setting and time period—but that’s not narrative. Personal narrative recognition is not, I believe, Levitt’s goal. Instead of recognition, Levitt demands examination and then creation. Levitt makes me deeply, sometimes disturbingly, curious. Who are these people? What is going on? What can I learn about that milieu and that other time?
Levitt’s goal is to give us the scene and let us all wonder. I say “Levitt’s goal,” but in truth I have no idea what her goal was. I have no idea how she would have described her purpose as she put her camera bag together in the morning and stepped out the door.
I refill my glass and tell my wife I’ve just used the word milieu. “Please don’t,” she says. I look out a study window. A finger-drift has formed in our driveway. Lots of shoveling tomorrow. I am tempted to write a nasty note to my friend about the fact that he lives on the Mediterranean Sea.
See how many stories are going on? Me in the study. My friend near a beach. Stanton. Levitt. Leibovitz. The driver in the car with spinning tires. My wife. Stacey Kent. You, wherever you are. Those four boys on a New York sidewalk. Kukla, Fran and Ollie. Kate and Andrew. The fun is in making them all work together, to make the disparate parts come together into a whole.
So if I cannot say anything true about Levitt’s goal, I can say something true about the work her photographs ask of me. She does give some direction in the title of her book. One, Two, Three, More. If you’ve not seen the book, in the “One” section, there is one person. In the “Two” section there are two. And so on. All black and white, every photograph asks me to create a narrative out of the situation. What are the truths and depths of the relationships I see?
There is a picture of a young woman running through what appears to be a blasted-out ghetto, wearing a wedding veil. Is the veil hers? Did she find it on the ground? There is a picture of a woman on an urban stoop, apparently retrieving her door keys, while a large Dalmatian is on point at the bottom of the steps, looking at her. Is the dog hers? Is it about to attack, protecting perhaps its own home? There is a picture of three boys on a sidewalk, yes, but this time two of them are on roller skates and one is on crutches, a very large cast on one leg. One of the boys on skates mocks throwing a punch toward the camera. The other two seem to be laughing—the kid on crutches looking embarrassed. I linger at every page.
Here is a difference I would like to offer: Humans of New York: Stories is a deeply pleasing book; One, Two, Three, More is a deeply rewarding book. The terms are close but, finally, not the same thing at all. I receive Stanton’s work and find myself already in it. I project myself into Levitt’s work, hoping to find myself somewhere in a story whose surface is alluring. One is recognition, the other creation.
So what does all this mean when I put my own camera bag together in the morning?
I no longer hear the tire spinning, but that memory remains. I turn to other books in my collection. Women of Vision: National Geographic Photographers on Assignment is a happy mix of recognition and creation shots. Garry Winogrand, meanwhile, demands my participation. It is, for me, a new way of understanding how I appreciate photography.
In journalism and creative writing classes, there is a very old and never-disappearing question we ask every day. “What’s the story?” Just because something happened does not mean it’s a story.
Why is it important? Better yet, why is it essential? And perhaps, this evening, I have come to understand one other wrinkle: whose story is it? Is the narrative already formed, in which case my goal is to provide a resonance-point, a doorway or an opening to let that story through. Or am I asking for a new story altogether, an invitation to the viewer that asks, “Do you see this too?”
Is my goal to please or to reward? One is not better than the other—they are simply different. This means everything when I’m putting my pen on the page or when I’m looking and deciding when to push the shutter release.
—W. Scott Olsen
Olsen is a professor of English at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, where he also edits the literary journal Ascent. His most recent book is A Moment with Strangers: Photographs and Essays at Home and Abroad (NDSU Press, 2016).