Essayist Roger Rosenblatt on Life Magazine Stills
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ROGER ROSENBLATT: If you must know, we writers are not crazy about the evident power of pictures; at least, not professionally.
I don’t want to believe that a picture is worth a thousand words, or ten words, for that matter. In fact, I can prove that it is not.
Here is Ralph Morse’s Jackie Robinson in the World Series against the Yankees in 1955. Jackie has rounded third. He puts on the skids, thus we cannot tell whether he will be heading home on the play or not.
And by 1955, it’s a moot point, metaphorically, because Jackie already has touched home by playing major league baseball in the first place and by playing aggressively, thus bringing America home to its own noblest principles.
Who but a writer could have told you all that? Oh, all right, you’d rather have the picture. And I must say it’s a wonder in the fact that the appeal of the still picture has never weakened.
Here at New York’s International Center of Photography, photographs from Life Magazine are on exhibit as they are in a new book by Bullfinch Press. The photos are a wonder, yet they are only themselves.
Place a photo of a human face beside a Vermeer, and no contest. A painting calls you into it again and again, each time with a different message or a different dream. The pleasure of a photograph may be recapitulated, but it never changes substantially.
I don’t know how many times I’ve looked at Hank Walker’s famous shot of the Kennedy brothers. I am moved every time, but I always see the same thing. The attraction, I think, has to do with stillness itself.
In the ICP Exhibit and in the book, most of the world’s great photographers show their stuff: Robert Capa, Margaret Bourke-White, Cornell Capa, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Marie Hansen, David Douglas Duncan, among others.
On display as well are actors, mobsters, kids, kings, animals, bombs, eyes, legs, soldiers, winners, losers, us. These are moving pictures that do not move. That in itself may account for one’s fascination with them. We live in a world where everything moves: Families and institutions, no less than trains and boats and planes.
The very novelty of the still is like a stage whisper. One pays attention because it is as quiet and noticeable as a mouse. A still picture stands still. Movies say, “Look at me, watch this.” A still says, “Take it or leave it.”
The picture, like a selfish lover, stands and waits for others to come to it, secure in the appraisal of its own value. It is not as if the subject is stopped in mid-action; rather, it seems that the still is the action.
So Eisenstaedt’s “Waiter on Skates in the Grand Hotel;” or Thomas McAvoy’s “Marian Anderson;” or Allan Grant’s “Shirley Maclaine and Daughter;” or Bourke-White’s South African Gold Miners; or Michael Rongler’s “Anxious Bride;” the Lindy Hops, the Lindy Stops.
Gjon Mili’s picture shows the dancer as the dance — a remarkable example of this illogical effect of still action and of summoning the viewer as well is Walter Lane’s “Government Building, Washington, D.C., 1946.”
The chunk of the building lane shot is eight windows by eight windows, a stolid square. The windows themselves are square. Government offices are square, as is government itself, all certain and square and bloodless.
Yet look at the top row of windows. In the fifth frame from the left stands a living person– not square, not bloodless– looking out. We see her. She sees something, but it is outside the building and outside the typewriters and the carbon paper and the forms in triplicate and the slabs of officialese. She is alive, and she beckons us to see that, to notice that she is alive still.
I’m Roger Rosenblatt.