Welcome to another installment of the weekly series on my blog, where I intend to take a closer look at iconic photographs, and write 1000 words about each. I hope you find this exercise as interesting and thought provoking as I do. It has really helped me slow down and think about photography in a much more focused way (no pun intended.) As always, I encourage you to leave any comments at the end of this entry. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
This week I will discuss this energetic, summertime image by Eugene Richards, “Grandmother, Brooklyn, New York, 1993.”
First, a little bit of information about the photographer himself. To be honest, I have been aware of the work of Eugene Richards for quite some time, but I can’t say that I have ever been a huge fan of his work. I certainly appreciate the longevity of his career and the accolades his work has garnered, but I can’t say I’ve paid very close attention to his work over the years. I will fully admit that the loss is all mine. Born in 1944, Richards has been a freelance photojournalist since the 1970s. His socially conscious brand of photojournalism has won him awards such as a Guggenheim Fellowship, the W. Eugene Smith Memorial Award, a National Endowment for the Arts Grant and the International Center of Photography Infinity Award. I have seen may images of his in museums, online and in publications, but until today, I had never seen the image about which I will write further.
Which brings us to this specific photo. What do I see? It is a black and white photograph. It is a street scene in a city, and my immediate guess would be New York, possible the borough of Brooklyn. It is most likely shot with a 35mm camera and a wide-angle lens, judging by the format of the framing and the wide view, along with what looks like classic film tonality and grain. It looks like a fast shutter speed was used, since there are obvious sprays of water being frozen in time. The composition is completely off kilter, with the background framed crookedly by what appears to be the underside of a bridge, the fence and building in the background also slanting upwards. However, the rest of the composition is a dynamic thing of beauty. Starting with the stop sign that anchors the left side of the image. In a case of serendipity, it not only aligns with the bridge structure, but it also bisects one of the people sitting in a lawn chair, in an almost Lee Friedlander kind of way. The fire hydrant down in the lower right corner anchors the rest of the image, and the beautiful stream of water that sprays from it crosses the entire frame. It also draws the eye to the wonderful interplay between the two main subjects of the photo. First, we see the older woman, the grandmother of the title, sitting in a kiddie pool, heavily soaked and adjusting her sunglasses. She is oblivious to the actions of the young girl behind her, who is throwing a pot of water into a circular pattern into the air. It looks to me that Richards may have been passing by this scene and quickly shot this one frame, but not seeing the contact sheet I can’t be sure. Regardless, this fantastic moment of action is captured at exactly the right moment. The more I study this photograph, the more I see in it. Litter strewn on the street corner. Graffiti on the garage gate. The striped barrier along the edge of the street in the far background. A lone air conditioner peeking out of a window, while the rest of the windows seem covered in plywood. The stained stones of the bridge supports. Looking closer still. There are seven chairs visible, only two being used. Is this a neighborhood hangout spot? Is this a family outing? Is this the closest thing these folks have to a swimming pool, a bit of shoreline, a vacation? Clearly this is not a high-income group of people, hanging out under a city bridge on a hot summer day. But it also harkens back to a time in the past when this kind of scene was fairly common in cities across the country. It may very well be still happening this summer.
I’m now thinking about why this image speaks to me so strongly. For one thing, I grew up very close to New York City, and spent some time of my life living in similar surroundings in Hudson County, New Jersey. This kind of scene is something I have witnessed personally, although I don’t recall ever having taken part in it myself. And the joys of this kind of experience are firmly entrenched in what could be thought of as some kind of quintessential urban summer experience. At the same time, one can take a more melancholy view of the proceedings, if you’d rather be in a swimming pool, or a rural lake, or swimming in the ocean. Yet the relief from the summer heat is palpable when you gaze at this image. And perhaps these folks don’t have the choices that others may have, for recreation and relaxation. Maybe this is their only summer vacation spot. What I find most enticing about the photograph is the amount of energy Richards has shown us, in might have been dismissed as a weak photograph, when judged by the stringent parameters of a photographic purist. Those rigid aesthetes who judge the value of a photo by a balanced composition, straight lines, sharply focused, and perfectly exposed would be sorely disappointed. You might guess that I am not one of these kinds of people. Traditional photographic rules are less important to me. Out of balance framing, film grain, blurring…it can be appealing to my eyes. And if the image can convey as much as this photograph by Eugene Richards, I’ll eat it up quicker than a soft serve ice cream cone on a hot city street corner in an August heatwave.