READING FRAMES: “St. Paul’s Meeting Hall Halliweed Road, by Don Tonge” – by Scott Olsen

Let’s begin with, and stay with, the image.

What is it about the candid image that sometimes transforms itself into an insightful observation? It’s no surprise that the commonplace can become a metaphor. The commonplace can become resonant of deep human currents and patterns.

Photographers, especially photojournalists, know how stress can bring deep emotional expressions to a body and face. But I am not talking about moments of crisis or theater now. Instead, I am wondering about moments of profound ordinariness. How, in that ordinariness, is there evidence of the sublime?

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While still life images call to us because of light and line and shape and the simple pleasure of geometry, the street photographer’s tableau can, by virtue of accident or talent, speak to what is in our heart’s truth. The photograph shows something about the universe – ineffable yet recognizable and true.

Yes, there is something about the ordinary that can achieve the insightful. The ordinary (decisive?) moment can sometimes stand as an example for a universe of hopes and motivations, and desires and the ways we interact with each other.

Look at this image by Don Tonge, St. Paul’s Meeting Hall Halliweed Road.

The image is deceptively simple: a bunch of people standing on a sidewalk outside what appears to be a church. There is no drama of traffic. There’s no drama of weather. No one is behaving badly or even strangely. The buildings are not about to fall down. A glancing look might give the impression this image is mundane at best and, at worst, inconsequential.

Yet, there is something that compels us toward this image. Somehow, we know immediately this image holds a truth.

There are two elements at work here: setting and people. It’s useful to look at them separately at first.

Regarding the setting, a church always has a metaphoric residence, whether the viewer is religious or not. Here, the church window and the church door are symmetrical. The church door sits roughly on the 1/3 line to the right, while the church window sits between the center line and the 1/3 line on the left. This bit of off-canter framing is wonderful in that it creates a minor touch of dissonance, which is another word for verisimilitude. The church door is open but only halfway open, so we have the idea of both the revealed and concealed happening simultaneously. There is also the visual invitation of the open door to wonder what’s going on inside.

Likewise, the church window is more transparent on the right side than on the left, which is a nice echo of the door.

The building to the left of the church, on the far side of a small driveway-size alley, provides leading lines into a background we cannot see. By implication, we know something is behind this church, so there’s a 3D effect by including that building and ally. We are aware of what we cannot see, and that awareness helps define what we can see.

The church is on a hill. The line of the cornice above the church door is level. But the sidewalk and roadway slope from upper left to lower right, so there is a kind of kinetic energy in just the reading of the leading lines. A slope always implies motion.

The vertical and horizontal cornice above the window becomes the horizontal roof line above the door. Then we get a small bit of what is apparently another window we cannot see slightly off the frame to the right. Reading the image left to right, we get a pleasing kind of motion as the eye crests the hill over the window, descends, travels a bit across the plane, and then rises again.

There are other interesting formal elements here as well. For example, there is some kind of marking on the curbside, little white marks which are perhaps the length of a car apart. Two of them are slightly off-center in the image’s composition, and the third is at a broken space where the curb turns into the alley. Even with these small marks, we have repetition and dissonance.

A small wall fronts the church and gives the impressions of age, solidness, and separation. There are other small bits of interest, such as the varying textures of glass in the church window, small bits of separation amongst the bricks in the church, and the absence of something curved, which was once on the wall of the building next to the church. The center of this image is a triangular shadow.

In other words, the stage set for this image is engaging. As with any drama, however, the most interesting thing is the people.

There are two sets of gatherings in this image. The men and women appear to be classmates, given the variations on the theme of school uniforms. The five women to the right, nicely framed in front of the church door, are all pretty much facing forward, with a couple of slight variations. The woman in the dark blazer is mid-stride, so there is some energy to their gathering. It looks like the group is waiting for something like a bus, and the woman in the blazer seems to be in conversation with the woman with her hands held together. The other three are either looking for the bus, looking at the conversing couple, or – strikingly – looking straight at the photographer.

Whatever they are doing, it is a moment of waiting and transition.

To the left, however, the group of three all pretty much face away from the camera. Again, there is some dynamic, kinetic motion as the woman on the sidewalk gestures or hands something to the woman sitting on the wall.

The woman sitting on the wall creates an interesting break in the sightline as she’s the only one not standing on the street. Her vertical change from the others echoes the cornice rising above her. Symmetry like this is aesthetically pleasing.

And then we have the male, far left, at first glance feigning disinterest, one elbow up on the wall but paying attention. It’s important to note that the guy also stands outside the church property but rests against it. The seven women are within the visual scope of the church in this image, with varying relationships to it, but the man is outside.

Both groups have an odd number of people, and that kind of built-in interest comes from how many items are in a group. Odd number groupings, perhaps because they appear to us somehow incomplete, are more interesting than even number groupings.

However, there is something else here too. My eye keeps coming back to several things, actually.

Although it took me a while to see it, the man on the far left is not alone. He embraces a woman we can barely see except for her arm around his back. When you look closely, one of her legs is visible between his, and her other arm appears to be touching the church wall. The details here make interpretation rich – not only is he separate from the church by gender, but by romance. His gaze is both at other women as well as at the church.

While it’s impossible to know what is really going on, the standing woman on the left is handing something to the woman sitting on the wall, and the woman sitting on the wall is refusing or at least feigning of resistance. Playful or not, there is an engaging tension here.

And look at the woman second from the right. She is looking directly at the photographer, which is to say she is looking directly at us in the process of gazing at her. Her expression is not offended or private. To me, she looks bemused and curious. Her face is one that transcends the moment and the frame, speaking from the past to whatever we now may be.

Although we have two groups of people, we see a gathering of individuals. Every person in this image is idiosyncratic and unique.

We have two groups of people and the separation between them. Which asks us to ask, why are they not together? The group to the left is more playful than the group to the right. The women to the right could be talking about something deeply existential and metaphysical, and they could be talking about something trivial. It really doesn’t matter. What we see is that ordinary moment of waiting. So many narratives reside in this image. Every person in here has an individual story, as does the street, the building, the building next door, and the space between the bricks. What appears to be mundane is actually an act of revelation, even if only implied.

Something, God or age or simply Public Transportation, will eventually come up the street to collect them.



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Comments (1):

  1. Peter CW Lim

    September 7, 2023 at 13:30

    A great read Scott, thanks for your immaculate and attentive review of the image, I can appreciate all that you have keenly observed and taken the time to write about.


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