Barnscape: One Photograph with Many Views
This image, more than many I have taken for The Herald, seems something of a puzzle. At first glance, we may be a bit confused. Then, once we understand what we are looking at, there is a sense of accomplishment.
“Aha,” we think to ourselves, “that’s a barn! There to the left is an old wooden silo, and that’s a small window in the midst of a huge clap-boarded wall.”
Once this sense has been made of things, perhaps we remember a farm we know. We see cows, a tractor, field, a dog or cat, some chickens, a person or two working. In this way photographs evoke memories. Live with this picture for a longer period and you may discover smells of silage or hay, sounds of cows, the rush of pigeons’ wings beating the air. These are just a few things this image can conjure by inner association and reflection.
Then, however, we realize this is none of these things, really. The photographer has limited our field of vision to just this: a bit of silo, a portion of wall, and a small window. Why? Why bother taking this image, and what business does it have being printed in a newspaper?
This is a fair question, for it appears more a piece of abstract art than anything conveying news.
The week this ran in The Herald some twenty years ago, however, the weather was particularly clear and very cold. Following a long period of overcast skies, the sun had burst forth for several days.
Here, then, we have not so much an image of barn elements as of the play of sunlight upon surfaces. Though there is no snow, our readers would have felt its presence just outside the frame.
Over a morning cup of coffee then, this could have been a comment on the weather. But is it more than this?
Passing of Time
What does this image mean two decades later?
In a time when wooden silos have disappeared from Vermont, this image may raise questions about changes over time in farming and our landscape.
The passing years are sensed here by those newer clapboards, now also very old, covering over a former opening to the left of the small window.
Now let’s consider that shadow in the lower right of the scene, the only element breaking from the strong vertical/horizontal grid. It seems to be falling from the page. This sense of movement is important, for it animates the photograph. Of course, the shadow is actually moving as the sun sweeps across the sky.
Time’s passing, then, is evoked: across decades, but also within the span of a single day.
Notice the light playing across the surface of those vertical boards to the left of the photograph. The grading of tone from grey to black tells us this is a curved element; there is volume here. We sense the round shape of the silo arcing away, back to the barn.
The horizontal lines on the silo are created by great metal bands binding the boards together. These strong horizontal elements disappear into the growing shadow on the curved surface, echoed and multiplied by the shadows lining the clapboards across the remaining portion of the scene.
The small window draws our attention. There are many reasons for this. First and foremost, here we find the greatest tonal contrast in the print. The bright white of the lead paint is edged by shadow as dark as any on the page.
Our eye rests here, in part, because the window’s proportions echo others in the photograph. The overall window shape is close to that of the entire photograph. Also, the darkened vertical shapes (two panes of glass) within the white frame are close in shape to the silo mass on the left.
It’s interesting that the window panes’ darkness feels different than in the surface shadow areas of the scene. Here is window glass, where our eye might pass through to a more distant view. The lack of light obscures, however, keeping us out on the flat surface of the wall.
Varieties of View
This photograph can be viewed many ways: as a metaphor for everyday life on a Vermont farm; a comment on the weather; a consideration of changes, subtle and swift, over time; a study of composition and tone..
All these perspectives and more are found in this simple scene from many years ago. Turning our gaze from this page, we might consider the complexity and varieties of view in the world about us. We live within a changing kaleidoscope of vistas, infinite and wonderful to behold.
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