Recently I received a call from a friend here at the Smithsonian Institution who happened to be looking at a photograph of mine, which happens to be in the Photo History collection at the Museum of American History. He remarked, “ I saw your photograph in the RISD portfolio of the chauffer and the lady and I really like it.”
This got me thinking of the context of photographs, or is it content, I wonder. Herein, the back story.
The photograph appears in the Rhode Island School of Design Photographic Education Society Portfolio of 1971. At that time I was an undergraduate student in the Photography department . Submissions were made to the faculty of the Photo department at the school and a selection was made to be included in a portfolio of student and faculty work. A signed edition of 28 prints was made.
The photograph itself was taken in Washington, DC in 1970, as I recall. At the time I had a Leica M3 with one lens, a 35mm 2.8. The film was, of course, Tri-X. The print was printed on Dupont Varigam double weight fiber base paper and was toned with selenium. I recall we had to print and mount an edition of 128, 28 of which were signed. Looking at the print now, it seems a bit murky, but at the time we liked to print “deep”.
The photograph is of my Grandmother, Frances Rust, and her friend Gen. William Cowgill, who I called “Uncle Bill”. They are photographed in front of the apartment building where I lived with my Grandmother, 2205 California Street.
This is not the first time that questions of context about this photograph have arisen.
In the past when I have shown people the picture the comment often has been, “Is this where you LIVED!!!!” Context, Rolls Royce, ergo, owns and lives in the entire building. Which is not to exclude whatever conclusions the viewer may arrive at from Rolls Royce, etc. But I hope you can appreciate the complication of context.
I offer these observations without any solution in mind to the complex subject of content, only the privilege of being there and knowing the people and the place. Without the context of captions or conversation a photograph is always open to a multitude of interpretations and that does not even begin to address the wonderfully murky area of intent. On that score I can only relate that these were two important people in my life and I loved them both.