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by Joel Caris
What I find wonderful about art is the brevity and expansiveness of it. Over the course of a good two hour movie, an artist can comment brilliantly on incredibly complicated and sweeping elements of life. A twelve page short story can speak a numbing truth about love. A three minute song can rip your heart out or just make you laugh. Or a single, beautiful photograph can leave you breathless, lost in thought yet unable to get your mind around all the thoughts it inspires.
These things happen in life, of course, because life is exactly what the art is reflecting. But life is messy, complicated, drawn out, boring—pretty much everything but sharp and neat and immediate. A great artist may be able to distill a human experience into a single inspiring frame, but that same experience in real life is rarely so compact and direct.
Saturday, I visited the Portland Art Museum and found myself browsing an exhibition of Elliott Erwitt photography. Black and white shots, Erwitt's pictures focused mostly on humans, sometimes in absurd situations or with absurd expressions. A significant minority featured dogs and their owners, with the dogs typically being more strange than normal. Most were beautiful, some were fascinating, a few of them were sad and others acted as societal observations.
While I enjoyed all the photographs, laughed at a few, and was left thinking by others, one of them just blew me away. It's pictured at left—a couple in Spain dancing in their tiny kitchen. I'm not sure what it is about this picture. Certainly, the framing of it is intriguing, with Erwitt taking the picture through the kitchen's entryway. The photograph's effect on me, though, really has nothing to do with the framing. It's what the picture shows of this couple. It's the quiet intimacy in their touch, in their kiss. It's how small and worn, yet inviting, the kitchen appears. It's the writing on the wall: "papas R.I.P."
I don't know if the pose was captured or if it was staged, but it looks real. It seems spontaneous and based on love and affection, rather than any desire to pose for Erwitt. Everything about the photograph feels real to me, a capturing of one of those beautiful, contented moments of life.
I love everything that this picture says about this couple's relationship. It's quiet, simple yet expansive, mutual. It's incredibly compelling and hopeful. Yet, perhaps more impressive is just how much the picture seems to encompass. It's not just about the relationship between these two people, which is captured in the pose, but it's also about their life. And their life is in the kitchen, it's in the writing on the wall, it's in the dirt and grime, it's in the bowl on the counter, the pattern on the wall, the bare light bulb. Every detail is there. The picture is filled with small elements of their life that is normal and every day for them, but that can speak volumes to strangers, if looked at in the right way. And while these small objects may slip into the background for this couple as they go about living their lives, the objects are imbued with details of how they live, memories of what they have done, traditions and habits and beliefs. All of that is in the frame.
I literally just stopped short when I saw this picture. It hit me instantly. I stared, and I stared, then I slowly took myself away from it and looked at a few other pictures. Then, a few moments later, I was back, staring at this one mesmerizing capture. Eventually I was able to get away from it and appreciate the rest of the exhibit, then move on to other sections of the museum. But I returned to look at this photograph twice before I finally left the building. I just wanted to see it again and again, to experience the emotions it brought. I wanted to continue to look upon this couple and believe in every promise it held, every moment of happiness it suggested.
There were other great photographs in the exhibit, of course. The picture of the boy on the 3rd Avenue El, looking out its back window at the train tracks and city skyline. The funny and fascinating shot of an art class in which the artists are naked and the model is clothed. The snapshot of a tiny, sweater-clad, rat-like dog, wide eyed at the feet of its owner, New York fuzzy in the background. The ridiculous bouncing dog. A haunting shot from the Kennedy funeral. Or simply an amusing expression and interesting situation.
Yet, while I love all those photographs, none hit me the way that simple picture of a couple from Valencia, Spain dancing in their kitchen does. It's just a perfect example of how art can often be so much more succinct at summarizing life than life itself is. It's an example of how a great artist can take so many elements of life—so much of the expansive human experience—and show it to us, simple and condensed, shocking and beautiful, in a way that we simply can't and don't see when we're actually living it.
Joel is naming his next band The Ridiculous Bouncing Dogs