rear window

by Megan Abbott

Over the holiday, I read Francine Prose’s The Lives of the Muses: Nine Women and the Artists They Inspired and became intrigued with all nature of things (not the least the extent of Prose’s deep dislike of Yoko Ono).

Photography is the abiding art in the book and the chapters on Alice Liddell (below) & Lewis Carroll, Lee Miller & Man Ray and Charis Weston (below) & Edward Weston were particularly fascinating.  When you gaze into the photos these men took of their subjects, you feel strangely stirred and troubled and entranced.

I remember when I was writing a book that was distinctly inspired by a photograph I can no longer find. It was a photo I clipped from a magazine. I think it was from the early 1960s, black and white, and depicted a woman at a party, seen only from behind, the back of her head, shoulders, wasp waist. The black dress she wore had, if I recall, a dramatic “V” in back and you felt you were behind her, walking into a lively scene that she somehow owned. You felt her hectic power.

It made me think of how potent images of the back of the subject’s head can be. I remember hearing that Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner and the director Alan Taylor considered the back of Don Draper’s head to be the leit motif for the pilot and the show.

It remains a powerful image that is wielded at key moments on the show (and, most famously, in the credit sequence).

It’s both the opposite of the bold, forthright gazes of Alice Liddell and Charis Weston above (in fact, it seems to violate the area idea of an image in that it refuses the path between subject and viewer) but also somehow just as provocative. Its power lies in the inherent mystery–we can’t connect because we can’t see the face.

The opposite, though, also seems true. There is a way we can identify closely with the subject–if we are seeing the back of a person’s head, it’s almost like we are so close to him we become him? It’s almost a P.O.V. shot and yet at the same time a complete obstruction. It’s both a mask and it’s a complete integration of viewer and subject. It’s magnetic, powerful.

(Charis Weston from Edward Weston/Collection Center for Creative Photography)

6 Responses to “rear window”

  1. So interesting about the back-of-the-head shot! It is a kind of strange intimacy, maybe because instead of looking at Don Draper’s face, you’re looking at what he’s seeing. But there’s also maybe a little threat, in the sense of sneaking up behind someone?

  2. yeah! that’s what I mean by the POV shot. but yeah, too, sneaking up behind–that’s SO interesting–it grants us a kind of power, right?

  3. ‘She didn’t even need to show her face or have a voice to demand complete attention.’

  4. Oh, Nigel–you are a master detective!

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