Start with the blue, deep blue, indigo, blue of the water at the bottom of the photograph. Stare at it. Breathe. Then let your eyes rise slowly up.
They catch on the half-submerged. pink, child’s bicycle (tricycle?). They snag there. On the left, ahead of the bike, an iridescence in the water. A splatter of white or light blue — something underneath? A reflection?
As we leave the pink bicycle/tricycle, as we let our eyes move upward, we encounter the reflected clutter of signage, buildings, street lamps. Upside down, inverted, (sub)urban California sprawl. Stucco and glass, electrical fixtures, gas lines, asphalt.
We are coming to something. It is a woman. Bare-armed. Dark hair piled high on her head. Hand to brow. She sits on a brown armchair, velour, velvet, probably a synthetic fabric of some kind. She is looking off left. The chair sits in the water.
Sitting still. She is sitting still, momentarily anyway. And — boom — our eyes now jerk up to the top third of the photograph, which looms over her head: cars, buildings, Coors beer signs, billboards, concrete pipes, telephone poles and wires. The detritus and jumble of California development. One sign says: fresh! But it is anything but. And then at the top of the hill, a blue sky, echoing the blue water at the bottom.
You could look at this photograph and miss the figure in the center. You could see the half-submerged pink bike and read into it a scene of loss, decay, even coming apocalypse. But instead my mind goes somewhere else. I look at this and see individuality. A woman — an artist (or her model?) — saying: look at me, DESPITE everything. This is both the strong point of this photograph, its insistence, and also its weak point. For I am aware, self-conscious, about the artist’s motive here. Juxtapose ME with all THIS.
That’s what we all want, isn’t it? Specialness. Look at me. Let me tell you how to look at me. The setting deteriorates around us, the environment, the economy, the opportunities for young people to get educated, to pursue passions, to live healthy, long lives, grow more diminished every year… Yet Americans are still crying out: LOOK AT ME. I am a member of the Tea Party, and I am angry! I am a retired executive who likes to play golf, and I am successful! I am a Facebook friend of yours and I am insouciantly sexy without trying! I am a graduate student in archeology and I am smart! Or this woman, sitting in her brown armchair in a water-logged dump, saying: I am an artist, or an independent thinker, and I am sitting still in a place you did not expect! I am special.
She is special. The framing of this photograph makes her special. It is artistic and arresting and visually exquisite. But, sorry, she is not special in and of herself. Each of us, I submit, is special to those who know us and love us intimately. Any other kind of specialness — that is, being special to people that we don’t know intimately — requires the gift of work — be it a service, cleaning, laying fiber optic cable, preparing legal documents, or a product, a toaster oven, a bicycle, or a work of art, such as this photograph.
Thank you Bonnie Sherk for the photograph. Thank you to the model (or is it the artist? someone needs to inform us in the comments) for posing so effectively. Thank you workers for stacking those concrete pipes. Thank you anonymous engineer for designing that lovely, pink, curving tube forming the bike’s body.
Thank you for your work.