William Gedney & Great Aunt Joan

William Gedney, Kentucky 1972 (left), Great Aunt Joan, south of France circa 1965 (right)

William Gedney, Kentucky 1972 (left), Great Aunt Joan, south of France circa 1965 (right)

William Gedney & Great Aunt Joan

In William Gedney’s picture (left), that central figure, as skinny as the piece of wood supporting him, kicks at the old starter motor like it’s a dead animal by the side of the road. The younger men stand around him, heads down, listening to his mumbled thoughts. 

There was always something about this picture that I couldn’t put my finger on. Within this arrangement of men and that lazy, humid atmosphere, lay my private little punctum. But a punctum so hidden, that not even I could locate it. Then, after 13 years of revisiting the picture every now and then, it revealed itself, like the last, subtle tones to emerge in the developing tray. That figure on the right - the one with his back towards the camera - I’ve seen him before. 

I have an old family photo (right) of my father on a boat in the south of France. Taken by my great aunt Joan, it shows him also cropped at the calf and standing with his back to the camera, passively observing the actions of another older man.

Look at their legs! See how they both carry their weight with their right, while their left hangs idle, bent at the knee. And notice the arch of their backs, one defined by his spine, the other by a shadow. Finally to their heads. Both cocked, one to the right, the other slightly to the left.

I guess this is how young men stand when called upon to assist older men. And it's a pose connecting two pictures, which are otherwise entirely at odds. Gedney’s photo shows men exhausted by heat and work, while great aunt Joan’s shows men at play in the warm Mediterranean sun. Gedney’s man stands with his hands in his pockets, fingering small change that he doesn’t possess until the job’s done. Is that a screwdriver in my father’s left hand? I wonder if he put it to use. I can’t see what he’s holding in his right, but I get the feeling it’s an ice cream.

Larry Sultan & David Moore

Larry Sultan , 1985 (left),  David Moore , 1988 (right)

Larry Sultan, 1985 (left), David Moore, 1988 (right)

Larry Sultan & David Moore

Here are two photographs of men reading newspapers taken during a decade of economic highs and lows. On the left, Larry Sultan photographs his father in his Californian home in 1985. On the right, David Moore photographs a man in his Derbyshire council flat in 1988.

Sultan’s father reads the business section with a Sunday afternoon lethargy, perhaps glancing over the week’s share prices before mowing the lawn. Any bad news on the front page of this paper has been obliterated by the warm Californian sunlight.  What’s more visible is an advertisement on the back for discounted photo processing carrying the announcement, ‘Just in time to Save and Share Holiday Memories’. For an image where a newspaper looms so large, it seems remarkably unconcerned with news. Instead, the paper acts as a security blanket, protecting its reader from the outside world and from us, the strangers in his home. 

The size and security of the newspaper in Sultan’s image is contrasted by a much smaller, less comforting tabloid in Moore’s. Here a headline announcing 3400 more job cuts is highlighted by the cold brutality of a flash - another kick in the teeth for the working classes courtesy of the Thatcher government. Although the man looks slightly rotund as he sits on his sofa, there’s no ounce of lethargy here. Instead he grips the paper a little more tightly and holds it closer to his face, perhaps scanning the latest offerings in the job section. 

In the background of Sultan’s image the outside world offers us a sense of freedom. The sublime West is just a sliding door away. No such room to move in Moore’s image. The only hint of nature comes in the form of a sickly patchwork of leaves printed on the drawn curtains behind the reader.

Two photographs of men reading newspapers. Two very different photographs of men reading newspapers.

Edgar Degas & NASA

' Two Dancers in a Studio ', Edgar Degas, 1875 (left), ' The Blue Marble ', Apollo 17, 1972 (right)

'Two Dancers in a Studio', Edgar Degas, 1875 (left), 'The Blue Marble', Apollo 17, 1972 (right)

Edgar Degas & NASA

I remember first seeing the Earth from space when I was about eight years old. My stepfather owned a copy of that famous photo taken by the astronauts of Apollo 17. When Peter moved in my mother thought his picture ‘naff’, along with his grey leather shoes. So eventually ‘The Blue Marble’ found refuge on my bedroom wall. I don’t know what happened to his shoes.

Maybe the arrival of the Earth from space coincided with an art class on Impressionism. I can’t remember. But whenever I look at that picture I see Degas. That cloud over the South Atlantic, reaching up from the white expanse of Antarctica - it’s one of his dancers!

It makes me think of that quote by the astronaut Sultan bin Salman Al-Saud, ‘the first day or so we all pointed to our countries. The third or fourth day we were pointing to our continents. By the fifth day, we were aware of only one Earth.’ 

No matter how far we travel from Earth, no matter how invisible manmade structures and political borders become, whatever far off planets we might one day see, we’ll always be met by our own visual culture. It’s way too powerful to just disappear. 

How many other dancers are pirouetting in the swirling clouds of distant worlds, I wonder?