Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The unbearable impossibility of impartial observation

I went to Bistrot du Coin with a friend of mine Monday night. I love that place. It really feels like a French bistro. It's always warm and bustling and the tables are close.

We were sharing observations on our neighboring diners when at some point he leaned across the table and said, very quietly, "That woman is so infatuated with that man."

I waited for an opportune point to turn around and look at her. And it was true. You could see it all over her face. I kept waiting for strategic moments to turn around, so eventually, through a series of glances, got a look at the guy, and got to see them as a couple.

She was significantly younger than her dinner companion, and more attractive. We never determined their relationship, and though he looked old enough to be her father, we were certain that he wasn't. He looked at her affectionately, but clearly there was a significant adoration differential.

She just beamed at him, so incredibly immersed in him and the moment. I know it doesn't really matter, when you feel that way, that there are other people around you. Because you don't see or hear them. When you feel that intensely, you're temporarily existing in a vacuum.

Still, I had a guilty feeling of being too close to too intimate a scene, even though they weren't even touching, even though we were all in a crowded restaurant. Because the look on her face was just such naked emotion.

It made me slightly nostalgic - oh, god, does it feel good to be that into someone. But also nervous. For her. I was thinking, oh, pretty young girl, your seemingly unreciprocated adoration scares me. Oh, pretty young girl, please don't get hurt! You will, though. I'm pretty sure you will.

I am never an impartial observer.

Two days prior I'd gone to see the new Annie Leibovitz show at the Corcoran with my friend Vik.

The show was a mix of her photos of celebrities, landscapes, and personal family photos. And walking through, I was reminded of how massively emotion-driven I am. The same intensity of emotion that made me uncomfortable at the restaurant is what drew me to certain photos.

Part of what is so amazing about Annie Leibovitz is that she pulls the personality out of her subjects. Her photos of people intrigue you, suck you in. Of course it's interesting to see Demi Moore naked and pregnant. But it's even more interesting to feel her intensity.

So it's not just that these people are famous, but also that you feel them, or feel the tableau that she's designed for you, if that make sense. You're not just looking at pretty or famous or powerful. You're experiencing a little piece of them.

She had a number of landscapes, and though they were of gorgeous places, and though they were large and impressive and probably very well composed, I didn't connect with them.

It was the family photos that drew me in most. It was as if you were invited along, for a day at the shore, for a walk down the hallway of the family house, for a peek into their personal, private lives. There were pictures of her parents and siblings playing with kids and grandchildren on the beach. She captured intimate moments, like her parents asleep, sprawled at opposite sides of the bed, with a grandkid between them.

There were also those photos of her father's decline in health, leading to his eventual death. And those documenting the illness of her longtime partner, Susan Sontag. Her at home. Her in the hospital. Her on a stretcher, being put into an airplane ambulance, going home for the final time.

I'm drawn to things that provoke emotion, but I tend not to have a lot of distance. Or really any. If you are delighted, I will giggle with you; if you offer up your sadness, I get a lump in my throat. And so it goes.

For me those photos of her father and of Susan were too raw and too intimate. I couldn't look at them for very long, because I felt them too much, because they pushed me over the edge of tears.

Because you are there. You have the same vantage point as the photographer. And the photographer is not an impartial observer. You are there in the living room with her father's hospital bed. You are there, mere feet from her partner, laid out in death.

For me, that particular there was just too painfully close.


  1. i can't wait to go see that exhibit.

    what strikes me as interesting in the psychology of those intimate situations is that while the end result is the viewer feels brought into the scene, leibovitz herself has put the barricade of the camera between herself and the moment. it seems to me that to reach for a camera in those moments instead of allowing yourself to be fully present and unimpeded within them is, shall we say, interesting.

    but that's just my armchair psychologist talking.....

  2. I'm completely drawn into both songs and art, especially photography, in the same way. It's like something pulls you in and it's so hard to let go without becoming emotionally involved. Anyway, I consider myself grateful that I appreciate art that way and allow it to take over for a few moments before moving on with my otherwise busy life!

    Great post...

  3. I'd love to see this exhibit. I find photography incredibly moving as well, images impact me more than any other medium.

    I'm studying photography and just completed a landscape assignment. They aren't my favorite but I appreciate them more now because it's hard to be in the right place at the right time, deal with weather and tell a story without people who naturally emit emotion.


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