Do places have souls, and if so, do traces of events linger there, the way traces of events linger in the souls of men and women?
One day in May, 1993, Joel Sternfeld photographed the place in Central Park where 18-year-old Jennifer Levin had been found brutally murdered in 1986 (above). There was no Genius Loci to be observed. Quite the opposite: it was a beautiful scene, “
sunlight pour[ing] down indifferently on the earth.” It was as if nothing had happened. Photographs can tell the truth, but they can also lie. Ghosts do not haunt the scenes of tragedy, regardless of what a thousand spirit photographers will tell you. Nor does there exist a Jungian collective unconscious that one can tap into in order to perceive the dark energies of a place. The site of Jennifer Levin’s murder is just another place. The place tells us nothing about what happened there. We must gain this information elsewhere. And yet. Once we have this information, we can’t help but see the place in a different light.
The photograph of that place in Central Park became the start of Joel Sternfeld’s On This Site, perhaps his strongest work. The book was originally published in 1997, and Steidl published a new edition earlier this year. It’s a spartan book, but more effective for it. A color photograph is set on the right page of each spread. On the left is a terse text describing the tragedy that occurred on this site. Some of the tragedies are well-known, but others are more obscure. Sternfeld dedicates the book to “
those who will not forget.”
In 2000, Taryn Simon worked on a story about the wrongfully convicted for the New York Times Magazine. This story grew into the book The Innocents, Simon’s first book, published in 2003. The book is laid out exactly like On This Site, photograph on the right-hand page and accompanying explanatory text on the left. Each photograph is an environmental portrait of someone who served jail time for violent crimes they did not commit, taken at a place with significance to the case (the scene of the crime, the alibi location, the courtroom, the scene of arrest). The primary cause of wrongful conviction in the sample was mistaken identification, often assisted by photographs; the primary reason for exoneration, DNA evidence.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to connect the dots here. These two projects approach the same subject matter through the landscape photograph and the portrait, respectively. Around them swirl numerous questions about the relationship between images and context, about the relations between places and human memories, and about the function of photographs as witnesses of truth.
Above: Charles Irvin Fain, scene of the crime, the Snake River, Melba, Idaho. Fain served 18 years of a death sentence for kidnapping, rape, and murder. From The Innocents, by Taryn Simon.
To expand on the last part first. In the foreword to The Innocents, Simon explains how visual images can distort memories and help convict the innocent: “
through exposure to composite sketches, mugshots, Polaroids, and lineups, eyewitness memory can change.” She quotes one of the victims who became convinced that the wrong man was the one who raped her: “
All the images became enmeshed to one image that became Ron, and Ron became my attacker.” Photography’s ambiguity, as Simon acknowledges, can be artfully used to beautiful effect, but it can also inadvertently become the cause of great tragedy.
In a way, this is the whole thesis of the book, and the rest is just a series of case studies. But this is a paradoxical way to start a documentary photobook. After all, what are we to make of the photographs that follow? Or, to turn it upside down: suppose Simon had made a book entirely free of photographs—suppose the right-hand page was blank, or not there at all, and only the interviews with the innocents remained? The result, I hope you’ll agree, would be a much weaker book. Every single story in the book is both important, interesting and evocative of strong emotion. But the photograph—that treacherous object which lies at the heart of each of the perversions of justice that Simon documents—is the thing that seals the deal. It is the text and the photograph together that provide the punch in the gut. We humans are gullible creatures, prone to believing false rumors, superstitions and altered memories, but we also have in us an equal and opposite instinct: I’ll believe it when I see it. It is this seeing that makes both On This Site and The Innocents so impactful.
On the one hand, one can read these books as straightforward collections of stories. But if one chooses to look only a little deeper, it becomes very clear how eager they are to convince us that images lie, that images without context or in the wrong context are not simply unreliable, but actively false. At the same time, the reason we are supposed to care about the treachery of images is the power of the tragedies that are depicted. For Sternfeld, the basic message is: Images are treacherous. You could visit this place and never know what happened there, because there is nothing about the place that immediately announces the significance of its past. But we must not forget. For Simon, the takeaway is: Images are treacherous. These people were wrongfully convicted of violent crimes, ostracized by their communities and languished in jail because of that fact. And yet, isn’t it precisely the images that grip us, that convince us—emotionally, if not intellectually—of the significance of the tragedies the authors confront us with?
From The Innocents. “
Larry Mayes. Scene of arrest, The Royal Inn, Gary, Indiana. Police found Mayes hiding beneath a mattress in this room. Served 18.5 years of an 80-year sentence for Rape, Robbery, and Unlawful Deviate Conduct, 2002.”
There’s a reason the media still rely on images to relay news. This isn’t because all the media are lying bastards all the time, and images allow them to more easily fool us. It’s because photographs, for all their falsehood, still remain witnesses of truth.
Granted, it is only with the appropriate context that they tell us anything in unambiguous terms. Photographs depend on context for their meaning—the only reason many photobooks are without words is because the context is social, implicit—and even then, they tend to include some text, establishing such things as the name of the author and the name of the series, the date of publication, and so on. And this necessary context can easily mislead us. For instance, there is a photo in On This Site of the movie theatre seat Lee Harvey Oswald was sitting in at the time of his arrest. The seat looks like any old movie theatre seat. With the contextual information, the seat seems to take on a deeper significance. But who’s to say Sternfeld didn’t just find some old seat in some random old theatre and call it a day? Although in theory, he provides enough information for me to go independently verify, in practice, I, along with every other reader of this book, will simply accept the facts as given by Sternfeld.
But here, perhaps, is a crucial point. Given that both context and picture are accurate, that is almost always going to have a stronger impact on us than either context or picture alone. We must not forget, in all this talk about the epistemological uncertainty of the image—about how hard it is for us to know what interpretation of the image is right—that the relation between reality and an interpreted image is independent of us. Either the seat in Sternfeld’s photograph is the same one that Lee Harvey Oswald sat in at the time of his arrest, or it isn’t. The fact that the combination of image and context can be misused is not a condemnation of the entire idea of image and text working together to tell a truthful story. This, of course, is implicitly acknowledged by Sternfeld and Simon. Why else publish a book of photographs?
There are, of course, many reasons to be skeptical of this exact form, the photobook that consists of images that are heavily dependent on captions. In earlier times, the worry, perhaps, was that this approach was too much like the stuff that appears in newspapers and which was obviously not art. But surely the medium of photo-with-caption can house both hackwork and carefully considered art? Surely there is a difference between, on the one side, the poorly composed, on-the-fly images a journalist (who frankly would rather be writing than taking pictures) rushes to the press alongside his written report just ahead of deadline; and on the other, the carefully researched, meticulously composed images that are part of Sternfeld’s and Simon’s series?
Above: from On This Site. This picture could have been an outtake from Sternfeld’s earlier book of (mostly) urban landscapes, American Prospects, but it is not. In the parking lot of the Grandy’s in this picture, Wanda Holloway paid a hitman to kill the mother of her daughter’s cheerleading rival. The idea was that the girl would be devastated and thus leave a spot on the cheerleading team for Holloway’s daughter. The hit was never carried out. Holloway was convicted of soliciting capital murder and sentenced to fifteen years in prison.
More recently, there is the whole issue of the postmodern. As modernism and then postmodernism exploded every previous standard of what art is and should be, lousy artists everywhere gained a new tool in their toolkit. In 1790, a painter could never get away with poor technique by writing a fanciful artist’s statement; by 1990, he or she quite probably could. This idea of making poor work and then retroactively imbuing it with “meaning” by making up some sort of concept that can only be found in the text has made us skeptical. All of us who grew up with art after postmodernism have learned to be wary of art that depends heavily on text, because that is often a sign that the art itself is poor and the text is nothing but an attempted coverup. This prejudice is useful insofar as it allows us to brush away a lot of substandard art that we would otherwise be wasting our time on, but it misfires when it leads us to reject work like Simon’s and Sternfeld’s, where text and image are made for each other, depend upon each other, and each contribute uniquely to a whole that is greater than the parts.
Yet another possible critique is the idea that if the images are strong enough as they stand, if the text doesn’t need to cover up poverty of inspiration in the work itself, then why include the text at all? Surely we have all seen photographic series that are ruined, or at least lessened, because intrusive text detracts from otherwise strong images. But this is just a case of saying too much, or saying the wrong things. If the images speak for themselves, this is not because they have some magical quality to them that allows us to interpret them without context; it simply means the context is implicit, doesn’t need to be written out. If you then proceed to write out additional context, the text is at best superfluous, at worst, in contradiction of the implicit context. It’s the same reason a 50-word poem can be beautiful, but if you insist on expanding it to 200 words just to boost the word count, you will likely have ruined the original mood, and quite probably also have accidentally introduced some element that contradicts it.
On This Site and The Innocents don’t fall into any of those traps. They show us a way to work with text and image which does justice to both, and from which a greater whole can emerge. As such, they’re attractive targets to emulate, even outright steal from. (Of course, ideas are not the sort of things I believe can actually be stolen, only copied; but many artists, probably without the intention to say anything about current copyright law, have fondly used the word “steal” to describe their copying of artistic mentors, idols or role models.)
Above: the site where someone not named Fritz Moen assaulted a 20-year-old student named Torunn Finstad on the night before October 2, 1977; my own photograph from January, 2011.
Two years ago, I was studying at the Norwegian School of Photography when I stumbled on a case of perverted justice. Stumble on is perhaps the wrong phrase: it wasn’t like I was uncovering anything new, or that I was rediscovering something formerly obscure. The Fritz Moen case is one of the most high-profile cases of wrongful conviction in Norwegian history. I had, of course, heard of it before, but somehow, it didn’t grab me at the time. Then, in early 2011, there I was, a full-time photo student with tons of time on my hands to ponder the sorts of issues I’ve written about above. Things like, how does extra-photographic context affect the way we see respond to photographs?
For a rather open assignment, my original idea was to photograph houses that were rumored to be haunted, but in the daytime, during the least threatening circumstances I could find. (I still think that’s a great idea for a photographic series, by the way. Feel free to steal it.) But a practical issue arose: I didn’t have a car, and due to the limited time I had to research, I simply couldn’t find enough “haunted” houses within reach of my feet or affordable public transportation. That’s when I recalled, or was reminded of, the Fritz Moen case. The crimes happened in Trondheim, which coincidentally is where the Norwegian School of Photography is located, and I knew I wanted to visit the crime scenes, just like Sternfeld and Simon in their books.
If you were following this blog at the time, you’ve heard and seen this before. The crimes in question were two brutal assault, rape and murder cases that occurred in 1976 and ‘77. The convicted was Fritz Moen, a man who had previously been convicted of flashing and petty theft. Moen eventually confessed, but later claimed he was tricked or coerced. There were no eye witnesses, nor any physical evidence. Moen had multiple disabilities: one of his arms was paralyzed after a motorcycle accident, raising doubts about whether he would even have been physically capable of overpowering the victims; in addition, he was partially deaf and, due to neglectful parents, he learned neither to sign nor to speak before the age of seven. A psychologist later testified that Moen had trouble understanding abstract concepts like “truth”, and was likely to bend to insistent authority. The sign interpreter during Moen’s grueling interrogation sessions was a police officer with a vested interest in getting a confession.
Moen died a rapist and a murderer, after two decades in prison. After his death, thanks to the efforts of a private investigator, he was exonerated. Also after Moen’s death, another man on his deathbed confessed to the crimes. He could plausibly have done it, but the man died before police could question him.
I visited the crime scenes in 2011 and found the same thing as Sternfeld: there was nothing left to indicate what had happened there. Aided by a very thorough, publically available government report that was made after Moen’s exoneration, I think I was able to find the right spots. Above is one of them: the bridge Torunn Finstad walked over on the night of October 2, 1977, on her way home from a party at Samfundet, the home of the student union in Trondheim. She was assaulted by the nearest street light, had her head smashed into the (then) metal fence, was dragged down a steep incline to a small field by the river below, raped and strangled, and was found halfway into the river with her feet tangled in a tree. I’m not superstitious, but I was happy to make the photograph in daylight.
The project never went further than that assignment. There is a reason for that. For one thing, the scope of it is very small: there were two crimes, two crime scenes, and two photos. But further than that, I honestly don’t think the images work as images. I’m sure Joel Sternfeld, or for that matter, myself with a bit more patience and time and effort, could have made more compelling photographs of these places. Neither the inherent tragedy of the story, nor my genuine interest in it, was enough.
In a sense, this essay is something I’ve been thinking about and trying to write for two years. Finally, the pressure of having spent so much time thinking about it became too much, and I realized I could never write something that would live up to my outsized expectations. I simply had to sit down and write, and this is the result.
From On Their Sites, by Zheng Yaohua. “
After school on June 26, 2006, Emily Kwong, a fifth-grader of PS89 Elmhurst, went through the bridge opening and lost three plastic beads from her wrist band. During dinner-time, Emily found out the family would be moving to the West Coast in a month. The next day, when immersing herself in bidding farewell to her friends, Emily forgot to search for her beads even though she passed through the opening twice. The summer vacation started on June 28.”
I’m hardly the first or the last to emulate Sternfeld. Zheng Yaohua, for instance, provides a deliberate counterpoint to On This Site in his project On Their Sites. He writes:
I believe that some seemingly inconsequential personal memories stir people more frequently than significant historical events do. I also believe that most people’s lives appear completely uneventful to others. At the end of 2006, after reading for the second time Joel Sternfeld’s On This Site, a book juxtaposing landscape photographs with texts about a series of tragic events in American collective memory, I decided to make a book for another type of memories. I started photographing the sites where people’s private memories were attached, recording memories that might be meaningful only to their owners.
The captions read like parodies of Sternfeld’s somber, precise language. Major events are replaced by minor, personal ones, but described (both textually and photographically) in the same detached manner. Each site is even marked by exact GPS coordinates, so you can plug them into your iPhone if you want to go on a pilgrimage to the place where Emily Kwong lost her three plastic beads.
The above image and the story remind me of one of my own strongest childhood memories. It’s characterized by the same mix of the mundane and the life-altering.
It was the day we were moving away from everything I knew—moving, it would turn out, to the place where I would live from early grade school until I graduated high school, the place I still return to as “home.” As my parents were doing the final cleaning out of the apartment, I was climbing trees. I used to climb trees, back then. And I never fell down. That day, I fell down. So my parents had to take a break from cleaning out, drive me all the way to the next county over because the doctor happened to be there that day, and get me patched up. Then we moved. And then, that afternoon, a beautiful early summer day, the Soccer World Cup was on. I didn’t follow sports, I was too young and didn’t care. My uncle and aunt, who lived on the same street as we were moving to, had a neighbor who was a giant soccer fan. He had carried his big old chunky television into their garden, hooked up via a seemingly endless extension cord and by the skillful twisting of the tv’s top-mounted antenna. We sat there in my uncle’s garden in the afternoon sun, me with my patched-up forehead, eating grilled hot dogs and watching Norway upset Brazil, four-time and reigning champions, 2-1 in the world cup. That fall, I joined a soccer team and played actively for the next seven or eight years.
If I went back to any of those places now, would I find traces of any of those things? Would you?Oct 8, 2012