Details

Many years ago, I attended a photo staff meeting at my newspaper and the photo editor was complaining about a picture that a very talented staffer had made. For him, it was too arty.

“This is a newspaper,” he said. “Our photographs must be clear. We cannot have any ambiguity in them. If it is a picture of a house, I want it in the center of the frame, and I want the whole house. Like a real estate photo. We are not making images for a gallery; we are showing readers what the story is about.”

I remember cringing, but I said nothing. I was not on the staff, but just a travel writer who made my own photographs for my stories. I was in the meeting by default. 

The idea that a photograph was merely an illustration to back up words bothered me then, and it bothers me now. Instead of a supplement, I thought of them as amplification. 

Some things can be said better visually than verbally. The photo might very well be able to stand on its own. 

But, in a culture of verbal people — as a newspaper tends to be — a picture is a stand-in for words. You should be able to point to something in the photograph and name it: “House.” The name then, takes over, and any visual information is immediately rendered moot. Very like when you head to a rest room at a McDonald’s and the pictures on the doors tells which one to open. The image becomes a pictogram. 

This is the way many people regard photographs. They look and they name. “Aunt Julia.” “The house I used to live in.” “Niagara Falls.” Then they turn the page in the album. “Here is me at my prom.” 

Much of the visual information in the picture is passed over, not registering. Was that a blue tux at the prom? Did those horn-rim glasses make you look dorky? Were the shoes cropped out of the picture? Can you remember, then, what shoes you wore? 

Details matter. When you name the image rather than see it, you miss the majority of what is pictured; you miss all the pleasures you could enjoy — the colors, shapes, textures — and all the information that is there to mine. I am reminded of those impatient people I have seen in art museums running from painting to painting and reading the tags next to them. “This is a Renoir. Oh, this one is a Picasso.” 

Naming things often gets in the way of seeing them. Naming is a very low form of intellectual activity, but one it is too easy to become proud of. It does not actually indicate your intelligence if you can name ever painting in the gallery, or the make and model of every car you spot on the highway. It just means you can memorize. 

When, before I was a writer, I was a teacher, I would sometimes draw two shapes on the blackboard and ask, “Which of these shapes can you draw more accurately?” Most students would pick the square. It had a name and they could see the square, translate what they saw to a word, and then retranslate that word onto the paper with their pen. In the process, details of the original are obliterated.

Notice that the square here is not a perfect square. It has some sketchy lines and it is not completely closed up, and, in fact, it isn’t even a square, but a low-aspect-ratio rectangle. All of that visual information is expunged when you replace it with the name, “square.” The amorphous shape, on the other hand, would require you to look at it and attempt to follow its contours with your pen, forcing you to pay attention visually. 


Your blob would be drawn more accurately than your square. 

In his groundbreaking book, Principles of Art History (1915), Heinrich Wölfflin described the differences between Renaissance and Baroque art with a series of oppositions. Among these is the contrast between art which emphasizes the unity of the whole, which may suppress detail to the benefit of the overall design; and art which revels in a multiplicity of detail, even if it confuses the overall design. 

It isn’t that the classic art doesn’t pay attention to detail. In fact, it often takes pains to make everything equally easy to recognize, well lit, well placed in the frame. But the whole is more important than the parts. 

Balancing that is art that may even obscure some detail to make others more prominent. 

This dichotomy occurs repeatedly in art history — from Classic Greek art to Hellenistic Art, from Renaissance to Baroque, from Neoclassic to Romantic, from Modernism to Postmodernism. In Nietzschean terms, classic and romantic, Apollonian and Dionysian. 

The 20th Century, which we are most recently heir to, unity was valued as supreme. Artists, writer and poets who filled their work with profusion of detail were denigrated. The most concise poets were held superior. Painters who reduced their subject to basic forms were extolled. Musicians who subdued florid detail in order to render the overall form of the music more clear were applauded. They had a “grasp of the structure.” 

The complaint lodged against pianist Vladimir Horowitz, for instance, was that he never fully expressed the form of longer pieces of music, such as sonatas, getting lost in multifarious musical volutes and whorls. Of course, when you listen to the ancient recordings of the great pianists of the early 20th century — an era of romantic piano playing — all of the pianists focused on details. It is where the fun was to be found, the flavor of the ingredients rather than the melange of the whole.  

Romanticism in general relishes the detail, and can often get lost in it. That’s what makes it Romanticism. (Well, one of the things). Detail is where we find the pith, the essential oils, the meat. 

Classic painter Joshua Reynolds taut the “grand style,” and recommended choosing the general over the particular: a stylized tree over the quirky oak in the back yard. Romantic artist William Blake read Reynold’s book and wrote in the margin: “To generalize is to be an idiot. To particularize is the alone distinction of merit.” You can also imagine him chasing kids off his lawn. 

But his point is that the world is made up of details, and meaning is found in them. The collection of details fills out the impression we get from the quick overview. It is the detail that we know the whole. 

Through this essay, I have sprinkled photographs of the details of a house in Maine. It is one I know and love very well. 

If you look closely at them and absorb all the tasty detail, you can have a much fuller understanding, not only of the house, but of the style of Down East Maine, its economy, its culture, the nature that grows green in profusion everywhere. 

Crumbs to make a cake. 

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