And while I love the closeness and intimacy this exudes… it’s technically a mess.
Whatever he used to edit the scan of this image is incompatible with any photo editing software I have–and I’m running at least three different ones–as far as that goes.
Interestingly: downloading the image and opening it in Photoshop results in an incompatibility error and it tells you it’ll open the file but using existing settings. The result is actually a much less muddy or murky image–but one that is admittedly flatter.
I decided to evaluate it against the zone system and illustrate that with a .gif (I’ve selected all pixels in a given zone and deleted them):
There’s essentially no additional detail after Zone VII.
Thus we’re left with extremely compressed shadow tonalities and mid-tones are hanging out where we’d generally still expect to be dealing with shaded tones.
The walls are effectively where we’d expect skin tones and there’s no highlight detail to speak of.
The original negative is doubtlessly underexposed. But the subsequent editing is actually an especially ill-advised strategy given that analog has greater headroom when it comes to overexposure than digital does. Digital, on the other hand, doesn’t have a true black and is better handling low light situations as a result.
From the standpoint of maximizing output results it would be advisable to compress the highlights here and try to give the shadows a little bit more breathing room.
Still… it’s an intriguing image from someone who is clearly very good at what he does.
Dreams, memories, the sacred–they are all alike in that they are beyond
our grasp. Once we are even marginally separated from what we can
touch, the object is sanctified; it acquires the beauty of the
unattainable, the quality of the miraculous. Everything, really, has
this quality of sacredness, but we can desecrate it at a touch. How
strange man is! His touch defiles and yet he contains the source of
miracles. –Yukio Mishima – Spring Snow (1968)
At first glance, this appears to be a symmetrical, center-weighted composition. However, as you look closer you begin to see that although the moulding is used as a frame within a frame device that there’s a larger margin between the right moulding and frame edge than there is on the left.
Additionally, the focal plane is closer to the wall on the left than it is on the right–indicated by the encroachment of the seam joining the wall to the ceiling that juts obliquely into the frame a third of the way from left to right. (This makes the mirror appears centered in the frame, even though it is not actually so if you take the time to measure it.)
But notice the positioning of the photographers feet as well as her lover’s body–not the angle of view puts the toes of her left foot closer to the body and the toes of her right foot (in addition to the angle of her instep being more open; also the body laying on the floor echoes that openness) conveys an awareness of the relationship between representation of space via reflection and 2D rendering.
It’s freaking ingenious. Every time I encounter a new photo JEB made I’m floored by how amazing her eye is.
My fixation with this photograph boils down to the line of Miller’s neck.
Weirdly, it reminds me of one of the weirdest notes I ever got from someone looking at a drawing I had made–way back when I was 17 and was determined to have drawing be my medium for becoming a famous artist: someone told me they thought my drafting skills were atrocious (true) and that I lacked even a rudimentary understanding of form (a bit overblown, as far as criticisms go) or the conceptual reflexivity between content, context and materials (also: true) but that they loved the truth of a particular line (which they indicated).
It always struck me as a way of making a scathing critique palatable but I realize now that it was actually a backhanded compliment. And it’s this photo that’s made me understand why that’s the case.
See it’s not just the line of Miller’s neck. It’s sensuous–the way the light chisels her body out from the shadows. The pose is meditative and intensely vulnerable but everything about it seems to radiate a warrior’s strength and self-possession.
Also–synchronously: my MFA cohort has begged me to organize an informal class where we screen underappreciated/forgotten miracles of the cinematic form. Last night we I presented Joachim Trier’s Thelma. (Trier is one of the most exciting young filmmakers in the world, having made three films that are all wildly different in style and tone but that all embody a startlingly refined sense of visual dynamism and psychological intensity.)
It’s the 2nd time I’ve seen Thelma (and it’s even better the second time around–I’m pretty sure it’s the first movie in a decade to crack my top 10 favorites of all time) and I was even more impressed with the attention to detail and depth. But also: it’s a bit unnerving to watch because I not only relate to the character but I also see the movie as a kind of mirror because the degree to which the character is aware of herself as both herself and a character in a dramatic scenario short-circuits a lot of my own parameter defenses and I have this weird experience of watching someone who not only looks like I see myself in my head but experiences the world in a way that goes far beyond superficial similarities. Watching it is almost like having someone take my notion of myself and putting her in a narrative that would be exactly the sort of narrative I’d put myself in given half a chance.
And that’s how I feel about this photograph of Lee Miller: that although it was made almost a full 50 years before I was born, it still shows me something unexpected about myself.
I don’t believe in reincarnation. (Not that I don’t grasp what makes the concept so appealing–I just think it’s an all-too-extravagent proposition.)
But looking at this–which full disclosure: I don’t think is an especially great photo*–I’m just sort of instinctively drawn to it.
It reminds me of the first internet friend I made back in the mid-90s. She was the first person I met who claimed to be an honest to goodness witch. (I didn’t take her super seriously but I also didn’t feel any need to question or refute her.)
She always maintained that I had been a Russian peasant girl in my most recent past life. And honestly–that’s sort of the most reasonable explanation I could provide as to why so much of the work that commands my attention is made by folks who were formed and came of age during late Soviet decline in Eastern Europe and Russia.
*As to what doesn’t work about this, it’s dealing with a similar conceit as @mrchill‘s The Push–which I consider to be a much more effective evocation.