“Is it the thing, or is it a picture of the thing?” I have this sentence in needlepoint on a pillow on my bed. It was something that one of my Grad School Professors used to say when discussing a work. The intention was to examine if the image was the work, or a picture of the work. Enlightening to say the least. Pictures. As we all now know with the advent of Photoshop and the like, a picture is no longer, nor was it ever, fact. Everything in a photograph is subjective to the author. And, who the author actually is, is a whole other subject.
I recently went through all of my family pictures and pulled out the ones with my ex-husband and gave them to him, threw out others, and then put all of the ones of me and the kids in a box for storage. The process was very cleansing, but at one moment I found myself observing how I was separating the photos. It was like I was in a hurry, as if I was afraid of being caught. I mechanically pulled pictures out of their albums and quickly tossed them in a pile, desperate to rewrite history. Pictures are thought to solidify a memory, however they are rarely truthful, they are “still lives”, literally stilling life. How many of us look at smiling photos and forget about the moments before and after. These images often become the memory rather than the event itself.
I took a moment to really look at some of those pictures and remember. What was behind the smiles? What had been going on in my head? Had there been tears before, or arguments after? In some cases reality, and the picture in my hand, had only been separated by a mere frame or two.
In 2009, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, held an exhibition called “The Pictures Generation 1974-1984”. I was named for Douglas Crimp’s 1977 “Pictures” exhibition at New York Artist’s Space and it’s thesis was that this group of artists came of age by questioning how images from mass media determined, rather than merely described our experience of the world.
This idea of being defined by “pictures” we see was in my mind as I sorted my photos. How much do we construct our lives to look like the pictures we are bombarded with everyday. Love, romance, marriage, are perhaps most subject to this concept, perhaps tied with the “Happy Family” photos that we get as Holiday Cards every year. Think about how everyone’s wedding pictures look similar, or how when you are asked to describe a romantic scene, how many of us see sunset lighting or candles, roses and some kind of alcoholic beverage.
If I looked at the pictures I would say I was happy. But, when I looked in my heart I knew that they were pictures of the “thing” and not always the thing.