By Neva Knott
Preface: each term in my composition classes I assign a photo analysis. I wrote this as an example for my students. The photo and the exercise allowed me to blend two of my loves–black and white photograph and nature, specifically thinking about the relationship between human spaces and landscapes.
A landscape divided. To the left, the carport and driveway of a small ranch-style house. To the right the flatlands and hills of a desert. A baby stands at the top of the driveway, having just emerged from the dark carport. The child’s tricycle lays abandoned on its side further down the drive. The desert in the foreground is dry and only partially covered in patches with shrubbery. There is one larger tree just to the right of the driveway, as if put there for landscaping decoration. The hills in the distance are also dark, shadowed by clouds that gather above them. A cloudscape covers the mountains and also floats above the roof of the house. There is a sense of anticipation in the photograph. The sharp contrast between the human area and the natural area in this photograph, taken by Garry Winogrand in New Mexico, 1957, suggest that humans might be out of place on this desert.
The baby is the brightest object in the frame. She is dressed in white and is standing in front of an almost solid black opening to a carport. Because of this stark contrast, her spot in the photograph becomes the focal point. White is universally considered a color of innocent, nascence, and hope. While it may be incidental to this photograph that she is dressed in white, when I consider the baby within the setting of the photograph—in front of a new house in a presumably new development—I can infer she is part of the package of, and symbolizes, the pathos of beginnings for this family.
I begin to explore other aspects of the photograph to gain a sense of context for the baby’s positioning. The house stops at the left edge of the image. It covers most of the left of the frame, from bottom to almost the top. The driveway runs along about three quarters of the bottom edge of the image and dominates the foreground. It is an upward-sloping drive; my eye is drawn along it to the baby and the faint shadow of another person behind. The house is also positioned in front of the picture, though most of it is cut off. The carport is in full view, but only the corner of the house to which it attaches, the edge of a bank of windows on the front of the house, some stones that seem to mark a planter, a patch of dirt not yet planted with grass, and part of the roof, show. Bare soil extends from the driveway to what I can surmise is the lot line. The house is simple and sparse in design, suggesting that it is a starter home—the type first purchased when a couple begins their life together.
On the right of the carport there is a partial wall that’s held up by a simple ground-to-roof post. The house number, 208, is attached to the post. This low number designates this house as one of the first in the development and furthers the impression of new beginnings.
The partial wall forms a boundary between the house and the land, yet the desert and hills are visible through the space between the wall and carport roof. Beyond the carport wall, four aspects of the desert are depicted. Closest to the driveway is barren except for a few clumps of weed and one decorative palm. A few yards out, presumably at the lot line, some sort of scrub brush grows, standing just a couple of feet tall. Beyond the scrub, a sand pit comprises the middle distance of the image. More vegetation grows around its edges. Just past the sand pit the mountains rise up and meet the sky—just at the top third of the image. The most defined line of mountain peaks are darkened by cloud cover. Along the side of the foothills is a U-shaped clearing that looks like a road and cul-de-sacs for a future housing development. In looking at the vegetation surrounding the house, it is easy to see this is not a place that readily supports life.
The clouds are the only element in the photograph that span both human and natural spaces. They run along the top border of the image, whereas the rest of the image is abruptly divided by the line of the driveway and edge of the carport. There is no transition between the house and landscape except for the partial wall in the carport; furthermore, there is no overlap in use of space—the human side is devoid of anything natural, and except for a child’s wagon off to the right, there are no human elements on the natural side of the image.
Aside from the baby and the shadow figure in the carport, the house itself, the driveway, and the U-shaped clearing, the only human elements in the photograph are a child’s tricycle and wagon—both of which were left tipped over, one in the middle of the drive, and one along the lot line, just at the boundary between home and landscape—and an oil spot on the concrete. These indicate a haphazard regard and lack of care for one’s possessions. Toys are not put away, and cars are not maintained. The house itself is quite plain and appears to be kept tidy, but is obviously low-cost. Might the inhabitants be living beyond their means in taking on home ownership and parenthood? If they don’t care for the child’s toys or their own car, will they care for this delicate landscape upon which they live?
A desert is classified as such because of limited rainfall, yet a desert is a hardy landscape. Plants and some animals that live in such places have adapted to manage periods of drought, and extreme temperatures both cold and hot. Humans do not have the capacity to adapt so must convert their homes and man-made spaces to accommodate limited water supply, winters and summers. Humans are naturally unequipped to live within the carrying capacity of a desert landscape. The harsh line in the photograph made by the driveway and edge of the carport creates the impression that the people who live in this house intend to keep separate from the life of the desert, yet the clouds that cross over both parts of the photograph remind the viewer that nature surrounds them and its effects are inescapable, regardless of this delineation. The only connection between the house and the surrounding landscape is one of darkness. The carport is dark as is the line of mountain peaks in the cloud’s shadow. While the baby in her white clothes works to symbolize hope from within the darkness, the darkness of the clouds suggests that nature is the controlling force in this place.
Garry Winogrand is one of my favorite photographers. From my study of his work I know that it was not his practice to set up a shot—he took pictures of what he came upon, of what was in front of him. He chose subject matter based on what he felt would make a good photograph. In studying his work, I’ve come to realize that much of it documents some sort of incongruity between people and the places in which he found them. In this photograph, the incongruity draws my attention to the rationale behind suburban development, and begs the question, at what point must a homeowner consider livability of locale? Moreover, I’m analyzing this image 57 years after its making, at a time in human history where issues of water availability are critical. Photographs capture a moment in time, yet exist in the present and into the future; in this way, Winnogrand’s photograph of a starter home in the New Mexico of 1957 can speak to the importance of choosing a place for one’s nascence that can support life.