This portion of the unit attempts to introduce/explain the genre of photography through the study of one photograph. Students will be exposed to the basic photographic terms: detail, time, frame, vantage point. I have chosen “From New Lots Station, Brooklyn” by N. Jay Jaffee as a teaching tool.
“From New Lots Station, Brooklyn” is a startling photograph for several reasons. Although it is very much a “city” photograph, its primary statement is made through its image of open space. Although it features neither buildings, nor traffic, nor hordes of people, it depicts city life through symbols which express change (which would affect many). One feels the pain of change as well as the excitement of change. The mood of this photograph is both depressing and hopeful. It is in a sense a paradox which best describes city life.
The viewer sees a lone man (back to) dressed in dark clothing walking through a virtually barren lot. The man is located in the middle of the top of the frame. The photographers’s vantage point is one hundred or so yards behind the man and one to two floors above him. The lot itself is clear except for a hole to the right of the man and a board to the right of the hole. There are pathways visible which form a cross. The man is situated at the top of this cross. There are also patterns visible in the ground itself where it appears lighter in some spots than in others. Bits of small debris are visible as they are scattered on the ground throughout the picture.
Themes which permeate this photograph, loneliness, indlviduality, energy, strength, are presented through vivid details, symbols which express identifiable meanings. Thus the cross brings to mind the basic Christian parable. The man in the photograph, positioned at the apex of the cross, suffers, yet redemption is promised. Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken”, also comes to mind. This man appears to have a choice in directing his life. His posture indicates a strong, determined nature. The hole in the landscape denotes any number of meanings. One is reminded of the tremendous upheaval change brings upon the inhabitants of cities. The landscape constantly changes as old foundations of buildings are removed to make room for new buildings, thoughts, dreams. (The board in the photograph reminds the viewer of structures which were once viable in this location.) The hole also has a sinister connotation: it is shaped like a grave. One thinks of ideas which have lived out their lives and are buried—often to be forgotten. The debris which is small but highly visible throughout the photograph echoes a general feeling of uselessness.
The “decisive moment” in this photograph has to do with the position of the man in relation to the surrounding environment. Clearly the details mentioned in the previous paragraph are strong and viable only in so far as they are connected clearly (or in a balanced way) with the man. Thus it is important that the man has traveled almost to the uppermost region of the cross, and is close enough to the hole to be somehow connected with its symbol. The particular posture of the man (mid-stride, arms tight to body) too is important as it emphasizes the qualities of strength, isolation, and energy.
The frame of this photograph works in two ways. The photographer has placed the man high up in the photograph which allows a positive statement. The man has traveled some distance, and in the viewer’s mind is on the verge of experiencing something unseen and yet new. By isolating the man in the lot with its clear statement through symbol, the photographer has suggested negative aspects of city life, namely—isolation and loneliness.
The vantage point of the photographer allows the viewer an omniscient view of the scene. We are distanced from the man in three ways: 1. He is yards ahead of us. 2. He is yards below us. 3. He is positioned so that his back is to us. Clearly the man is not an individual whom we can relate to. He is rather a symbol of all inhabitants of cities who must grapple with change. The vantage point gives the viewer a sense of feeling, at least for the moment, that he is “in the know”. The tensions of the environment are removed from the viewer emotionally, and he is provided with a clear intellectual “picture” of city Ilfe.