Saturday, December 22, 2012


Many snapshot collectors hold double exposures in special esteem. The feeling, perhaps, is that the miraculousness of a good double exposure is the miraculousness of snapshots in its most overwhelming, undeniable form. A good double exposure is an extremely unlikely compound event, in which two separately recorded images are fortunate enough, first, to be superimposed on film, and, second, to jointly create a composite image with some kind of distinction. The snapshooter had nothing to do with either step. The entire thing is an incredible accident, and we may feel when we contemplate the result of it that we are really contemplating something like fate (the impersonal forces that brought these images together) and something like infinity (the absurdly small likelihood of their having been brought together interestingly and the absurdly large number of pictures we had to look through to find this one). And double exposures are not different in these respects from snapshots in general. They are just more extreme. So, we may want to believe, the double exposure is the epitome of the snapshot, the snapshot sharpened to its sharpest point.

I am not really immune to any of this. I agree that double exposures are snapshotty, very much within the genre, and that they take something about snapshots to an extreme. I have many of them, and I still buy them. Nevertheless, I find that a certain resistance has set in. Are double exposures snapshot accident in its purest form? Or just in its flashiest form? I’ve come to feel that double exposures are very often just flashy.

It’s important to distinguish two classes of double exposures, or perhaps they are more like poles. In the more conspicuous kind of case, we are very aware of the component images; they retain their meaning, so that when we laugh (or whatever) at the whole, we are responding not just to the incongruity of the parts, but to the incongruity between the incongruity of the parts and the congruity of the whole. This kind of double exposure is a sort of randomly produced photographic “exquisite corpse.” In a Surrealist composite drawing, the expressive qualities of the draftsmanship are irrelevant, even distracting. All that matters is the elements and their successful combination. In the same way, a double exposure is all too often not expressive like a normal photo (I hate the word “expressive,” but never mind). The parts don’t carry a feeling, and the whole doesn’t have one either; that’s not the point of it. It is “good” or “bad” depending only on the relation between the parts and the coherence of the whole. A double exposure actually goes further than a drawing in that, being a photograph, it’s supposed to be a record of something that actually happened. Taken as a whole, the image flirts with reality: we know what we see isn’t real, and yet there it is. Chance has produced an image—a photograph—of something that never was. But as with an exquisite corpse, the greater the incongruity of the parts and the greater the accidental perfection of the whole, the more we like it. We like it for its shock value and for its marvelousness.

The problem for me is that I am not interested in shock and I am not collecting marvels. I am using snapshots for roughly expressive purposes: like anyone who is exercising some sort of aesthetic judgment in choosing among snapshots, I am commandeering their accidental meaning for my own ends. But what if they don’t have any? Double exposures in this first class often resist being used the way I want to use them. They tend to simply beat their breasts and brag about the implausibility of their own existence. They overwhelm productive use—as opposed to mere display—because they are all about themselves; they have no content apart from the ability to inspire awe merely for having happened.

I compared double exposures with “exquisite corpses.” Another (somewhat imperfect) analogy may help: a double exposure is something like a visual pun. Both puns and double exposures are accidental layerings of components that we are able to take advantage of; a pun contains two meanings, a double exposure two images. Why is the pun “the lowest form of humor”? Obviously, because it has no guts. We feel in some way that a mere superimposition of meanings is not enough. Those stories that end with “we come to seize your berry, not to praise it” or “pharaoh faucet majors” are truly silly (at least unless we tell them with some sort of irony), because there is no larger point. Who cares if these words sound like those words? On the other hand, Brando’s “hap-penis” joke in Last Tango in Paris doesn’t make us groan in quite the same way, because it has a context in the movie that takes it beyond mere verbal trickery. So there are puns and puns. In somewhat the same way, a double exposure impresses us as a fortuitous layering of images, but is often empty otherwise. “Wow! It looks like she’s rummaging in his head!” Well, so what? That “Wow!” is an expression of amazement that such a thing occurred at all, and I think that pretty much exhausts what can be made of it.

The other kind of double exposure simply creates an optical effect. It has no semantics, so to speak, no clash of ideas; it gives us no women rummaging in men’s heads, no kids burying or digging up their elders in the garden, but just an abstract design—some pileup of bodies or faces, perhaps, or a shape, a composition. Pictures like these are far easier to use, but I still often find them glitzy.

I want to stress that any good snapshot is a statistical anomaly in precisely the same way as a double exposure. Any good snapshot—though it’s just a scrap of paper!—will still make the mind expand to meet those two big ideas that I called fate and infinity. But it will have other properties, too. It will have content. In sum, double exposures are very often less, not more, than other snapshots. Mathematics and the stars are behind any good snapshot, but I’m not sure how much we can do with a snapshot that is about nothing else.

Here are some double exposures from my collection. I disapprove of many of them, including, I’m afraid, the most stunning, “surreal” juxtapositions. But some do have a feeling, or can be made to carry one in context—they are “expressive,” in my terminology. The first example actually seems sort of demented. The ghostly couple looming above the wilderness is one of several that achieve a certain metaphysical grandeur. And an abstraction like the vortex of machine parts can be made to bear some weight.

For more information on Joel Rotenberg, click here.