Esther Bubley

[Written for the blog #PhotosWeLove, on Medium, an initiative of Atlanta Celebrates Photography]

For all its ubiquity and accessibility, photography is for me a medium of paradoxes.  Paradoxes:  a photograph is an image that both severs time and prolongs our sense of it, narrows our perception of space in order to extend our imagination of it, presents causes isolated from effects and effects isolated from causes, solicits explanations and stories to explain what it shows––often quite divergent and incongruous accounts––but certifies none of them.  Or as my friend Keith McManus says––Keith, a true photographer’s photographer, whose long-term documentary project on spring break in Florida recently appeared in the Daily Mail––“I don't think still photography is very good at answering questions.  More often it poses questions, and I think that’s one of the most endearing qualities of still photography.”

While I think that almost all photographs engage these paradoxes to varying extents, certain photographs concentrate our awareness of them, and these are among the pictures I love most.  One that is emblematic for me is a self-portrait that Esther Bubley made circa 1950.




Here Bubley sets up the photograph as a relay of looking:  a woman looks at herself in a mirror, but the mirror-image does not return the gaze directly, rather the mirror-image directs the gaze to the camera, which receives it as an observation––her own meta-observation––of the whole event.  Or the relay could be described differently:  a woman does not look at herself in a mirror, rather stands before it in such a way that a camera receives her gaze, such that the photograph––which comes later––creates the illusion of immediate self-apprehension.  And the relay could be described differently still:  in making a photograph, a woman either creates a window onto a world of herself doubled––a window that itself contains a mirror––or creates a mirror-image of a world framed as if seen from a window, but in either case the image depends on something outside of it all––you, me, we the viewers whose beholding anchors the effect.  

The challenge of describing how this picture works pushes me again toward one of my preoccupations––as a photographer, a writer on photographer, and also as an educator––namely the ways that photographs depend on language to grow into their meanings, or to become meaningful in the first place, and the great difficulty in making language even approach what and how photographs show what they do.  The photograph as capture, as capturing, as holding-captive––which remain the most common metaphors for the photographic act and the photographic illusion––barely begin to account for this picture, as for example a sentence like “Esther Bubley captures herself in this self-portrait."

By way of exercise, I made a list of terms, derived from phrasal verbs, to try to do better.  Each of these terms individually, and the wonder of them all somehow operating together, comes closer to what the picture seems to do.

Esther Bubley’s self-portrait is a record-of something, which is an accounting-for something, which is an encounter-with something, which is a reckoning-toward something, which is an investigation-into something, which is an exchange-between something, which is a dwelling-among something, which is a standing-beside something, which is a drawing-near-to something, which is a pushing-off-from something, which is a reaching-within something, which is a peering-across something, which is a maneuvering-through something, which is a seeming-like something, which is a remaining-since something, which is a changing-for-the-sake-of something, which is in certain respects a capturing-of something, which is––no less––a releasing-of something else.  

A window, a mirror, a relay, a prism, a chimera, an enduring illusion, an elusive enduringness?  How else to describe Esther Bubley’s remarkable self-envisioning?

May 2016