As I sat at my desk yesterday, as I avoided the sun, as I recalled a Sunday stroll through the Volkspark am Weinberg and the many sunbathers, I thought of pale skin, of sunburns, and of freckles. What follows in images and in words is a reflection on and result of that impulse.
As a child I burned. Oblivious to the pain to come I sat at the western edge of our property near a small rock garden, irrigation ditch, and fences. As the water flower through the ditch we diverted much of the stream into our garden and our pasture. It was a simple engineering feat, but it hinted at how agriculture was even possible in Idaho, of dams and canals and reservoirs, and I had fun raising and lowering the barriers that either let the water pass, or blocked it. Across the fence in our garden grew rhubarb and sunflowers.
In the summer my sun-bleached hair turned nearly white. I ran around shirtless and in cut-off shorts. After far too many hours spent in the midday heat I went inside, and hours later my shoulders and knees turned lobster red. A week later they returned to pink after having lost layer after layer of of scaly, stretchy skin that I loved to hold in my fingers, peer through, and compare to that of a shedding snake. Pale, red, pink, pale—never tanned.
I had moles. Several on my legs, quite a few on my left forearm, one near my right armpit, several on my back, and many others that are too numerous and pale to count. And freckles lived everywhere, especially on my nose, as well as my shoulders and arms, and just as my hair turned lighter in the summer sun, my freckles grew more numerous and pronounced.
As a teen I could spend eleven to fifteen minutes unprotected in the sun before I burned, even if the burn itself did not appear for another day. I would return to the air-conditioned shade of our house, but my skin would radiate heat—it continued to cook for hours. If I do not get skin cancer later in life, it will be a miracle.
As an adult I still burn, but many of the freckles have faded. On my face none remain; only on my upper arms do the faint traces of light pigment show against a sea of white.
Variations on a Theme
Project and Reflect
I went across the street to the bakery yesterday afternoon and had a small cup of coffee and slice of Apfelkuchen. I thought of freckles, and that thought turned into a short project: find a bunch of pictures of freckles, or at least of people with freckles, and put them together in a gallery. If I googled, would I find many freckle galleries already out there?
Last September I visited a special/temporary exhibit at the Hamburger Bahnhof—Bernd and Hilla Becher's Typologien industrieller Bauten, which collected hundreds of images of factories, water towers and so on from the Rust Belt and elsewhere. On its own an individual photograph in the collection has little aesthetic value; sure, it is competently done, but it hardly differentiates itself from the other, similar photographs. But in the group and in the collection—or collective—it becomes not just one of many, but a slight variation on a theme; not the individual photograph, but a wall full of like images, is the aesthetic object.
This differs from the ready made and found art, in which mundane and/or utilitarian objects, those not usually considered art, are designated as such, yet there is a certain similarity, especially insofar as the usually-not-art becomes an object of aesthetic or artistic consideration. Whereas the ready made favors a singular object that is put into an artistic context (such as a museum or gallery), this approach, to the extent that we do not treat it merely as documentation, resembles a cabinet of curiosities composed of member after member of the same class. When we lose or suppress the documentary function and when we have to step back and take in the new whole (the selection and arrangement) rather than the elements (individual photographs) there is a moment of aesthetic experience and judgment. The Becher collection resisted narrative or grammar: similar items were grouped together, but between elements and between displays there was no particular logic or syntax. Likewise the semiotic-representational aspect of the individual photographs retreated or at least shifted as the individual became the iconic.
I thought of doing something similar for freckles, but the resources available to me over the course of an evening were not up to the task.
The power of Google's image search amazes, but freckle, freckles, and freckled were particularly anaemic queries, and so I turned to Flikr later in the evening to augment my growing collection of redheads and others whose faces were tattooed by dots and splotches. I opted for a more modest presentation; an extensive typology of freckles was beyond me.
Glances and Stares
Of the fifty or so photographs that I downloaded, I at first chose twenty five, which I cropped and resized to 200x200 squares and arranged as a 5x5 HTML table. I created gray-scale and black & white versions of each image. The originals were kept separate, and the source URL for each file was kept in another file so I could properly cite my sources at the end of the project.
The first table, Variations on a Theme, is centered around an image of a face from a page on “Fortunes from Freckles.” Here I picked only straight-ahead-looking portraits that includes eyes, nose, and mouth. I organized the top row to be the most sanguine; the outer two in the second row have a couple intriguing similarities; the last row is less cohesive, but slightly more severe looks are a minor point of commonality.
The portraits that were not facing straight ahead gravitated toward two distinct groups: those who glanced away or faced away and glanced back, and those in repose, often asleep or otherwise with the head resting on a hand. Because the first group consisted of those who were either looking or facing a certain direction, I figured that I could select from those images remaining a subgroup in which the portraits, if arranged in a square, would look more or less toward a common center. In short, I needed people glancing or glaring left, right, up, and down, as well as up and to the left, etc. I took some license here and there and flipped two images (#4 and #9), and #1 does not look down enough, but I loved the predatory look and had to keep it.
I used the Preview utility on my iBook to select square regions of the photographs. I then used the ImageMagick suite, in particular the convert utility, to resize all the images to 100x100, to flip (or flop) a few pictures, and to change the colorspace to gray. So as to maintain the cohesiveness of the whole, in this case the square, I chose not to wrap anchor tags around the individual images, and instead linked to the source images at the bottom of the page.
In the course of my searching I found many more photos and Flick galleries than I could fit into this brief excursion. While compiling the sources I realized I had used a couple images from Mareen Fischinger. Two of the head-shots I found first were not right for either square, but I liked them so much that I decided to use them in my text segments. The images I used are almost all of young women; Google and Flickr searches provided relatively few male images, and I chose to go for a more homogenous collection.
Variations on a Theme
Glances and Stares
—June 27 2006