I was scrolling through my WordPress reader the other day when I came across a post with this picture:
Longreads, one of the blogs I follow on WordPress, used this photo to highlight a long-form story they came across on the internet. The actual story, which you can find on The Believer website here (it’s only accompanied by a book jacket image, by the way), discusses the wives and girlfriends of famous rock stars from John Lennon to Eric Clapton, and the “real and metaphysical wounds” they suffered.
And while that Believer article is all well and good (and it is indeed a pretty interesting read, albeit a long one), my attention still went to the photo on Longreads. Let your eyes skim back to the young lady above. Go ahead. She does indeed look like a rock star groupie extra, doesn’t she? Frizzy hair; oversized sunglasses, giving her an air of mystery; big hand bag draped over her shoulder; t-shirt with a loud and suggestive print (I bet some retro clothing shop has one just like it); high-waisted pants with a noticeable belt (a retro shop probably has those, too). Yeah, she could have blended in quite easily at some backstage party Stillwater would’ve thrown in Almost Famous… although a stare like that makes one think she’d be casting shade towards Penny Lane all night (and that’s not a reference to those sunglasses either).
Let’s widen out just a little bit and review the background behind her. Yes, it’s out-of-focus and the lighting is not the best, so there’s not a lot to work on in determining where this setting could be. But there is a “seedy rock club” vibe to the setting, isn’t there? Catch a glimpse of that guy in the background (the one in jet-black hair and flashy-framed eyeglasses), and you think he could be the rock club’s owner, fretting over any potential trouble on his property but too passive to care about the lives and well being of those who attend events there.
Whatever the real subject matter of the photo may be, it’s a sure bet that your mind is going a million miles an hour imagining all that could be going on, or at least the backstories of the people depicted. Matter of fact, my mind just recalled a couple of assignments we had back in grade school. One assignment was in 6th grade art class, the other in 7th grade language class, but both had the same principle: Each of us was given a random cut-out from an old magazine, which we had to incorporate into a drawing or a short story. To use the two cut-outs I was assigned as an example: In the art class, I was given a picture of a middle-aged male at a breakfast table, outside of which I drew a sketch of the rest of the kitchen and a rising sun beaming through the window. For 7th grade language, I drew a photo of a beautiful lake, from which I based a short story (under two pages) about that scene.
After we were finished with and turned in our projects, our teachers reunited our assigned cutouts with the rest of the page from which they came — in effect broadening our minds as to what was really going on in the original picture. In the 6th grade art class, the middle-aged male was actually part of an old insurance advertisement, in which he was pictured at the dinner table alongside his wife and children and fretting about if and how they had the right amount of insurance. For the 7th grade language class, my beautiful scene was actually a narrow view of a more spectacular picture, that of Oregon’s Crater Lake in the summertime (which made my story about some family’s vacation closer to the truth; boy, did I luck out there).
So by now you probably figured out that how narrow or wide one’s perspective of a scene or a situation depends on what they can or cannot see. When you think of it, Longreads may have been doing this same exact thing: They took a photo that wasn’t as random as what I had in grade school but appropriate for their situation; the added it to their post for effect; and they allowed the reader to imagine all that may have been going on. It sure worked on me, that’s for sure, for I initially imagined that the girl in the sunglasses and frizzy hair was truly straight out of Almost Famous. But only after clicking on the source link to the photo did my perspective change quite a bit. Here, slightly edited for clarity, is the actual caption that accompanied the photo on Flickr:
A young woman watches as her car goes through testing at an auto emission inspection station in downtown Cincinnati, Ohio… circa September 1975.
Yeah, I’d say more than one person’s perspective changed after reading that caption. So now, instead of seeing some rock band groupie backstage at the club, we’re actually seeing some woman waiting and hoping to see if her Datsun is not a cause of global warming. And the men in the white shirts could be waiting on their cars as well; heck, maybe they work at the garage.
But even though we know what the real scene is, you still can’t help but go beyond the perspective. I mean, that woman could probably be someone who loves to rock out. Perhaps she’s waiting impatiently for her car, or she has all the time in the world today. Maybe it’s her day off from work. Maybe she’s has children or a significant other waiting alongside her.
And since this photo is from 1975, how might this person be today? Is she still alive, for starters? Has she had a wonderful life and a good career? Could she be retired by now? Could she be a mother? A grandmother? Perhaps, depending on her age, a great-grandmother? Really, your mind can’t help but wonder how her life has been the past 40 years.
That can be the fun thing sometimes about seeing someone you don’t know or view a photo of some people or situation you’re unfamiliar with: Your mind wanders and you contemplate just who that person behind those Foster Grants (or whatever brand of frames) may be. Which leads me to the Flickr source where the above photo was found: The U.S. National Archives. I didn’t know the National Archives were on Flickr (though, really, would there have been any reason they wouldn’t be there?), but I perused through their photostream and found an absolute treasure trove of images from the past. You can clearly figure the situation and context from several of the photos; for a majority of the others, your mind starts to play “What If…”
- “Did that man in that military uniform survive the war in one piece? Or did he even go to war at all?”
- “Were the kids in that playground enjoying their free time together?”
- “Did that grandfather with his family lead a long and fulfilling life?”
- “Is that store in the photo still in business? Or is that building nothing more than an empty field?”
- “Where were those subway passengers headed? And what was on their minds then?”
Feel free to check out the National Archives’ Flickr feed; I’ve quickly become hooked on it, I have to admit. There are so many pictures, for sure, and they are each captivating in their own unique ways. But they generate so many questions to ponder, so many stories to tell out right, or at least imagine about… and they all leave you thinking, “I wonder…”