Earlier this week, I gave a short talk at a gallery in Hampstead Garden Suburb. A few months ago, I had sent a friend something I’d written some years ago. He thought it amusing and he passed it on to the gallery curator who asked me if I’d like to talk about it and I agreed, not knowing quite why. Having prepared the talk, I thought I might as well expose readers of this blog to the images rather than write another emotional piece about current events going on at the eastern end of the Mediterranean, which I might have done against my better judgment. Just as well I didn’t!
Anyway, it all began over 40 years ago. I had been teaching summer school at the University of Toronto and Vivien had gone home with the kids six weeks before me. One weekend, rather than be on my own, I went off with an old friend to Appalachia and while having a “comfort break” along a road somewhere in the mountains, I looked to my left at something that amused me and I thought it was worth a photograph. The resulting image was one that I kept all the years and smiled at whenever I looked at it even though I knew it was pure kitsch. Fast forward two decades and I took early retirement (too early in retrospect) but digital photography had just become a consumer option so I took two courses to familiarize myself with the cameras and also to learn how to edit images as well as scanning some old transparencies that had been languishing in boxes, unviewed for many years — and old Uncle Sam Hydrant was amongst those I moved into my new digital catalogue.
Returning to Israel after 5½ years in London, we moved from Haifa to Tel Aviv, a city I didn’t know particularly well, so combining the new leisure activity (photography) with a need to learn the geography of the city we had chosen to live in, I started walking the streets of (mostly North) Tel Aviv. Over the next couple of years, I photographed many kinds of street activities as I sauntered through what proved to be a limited number of routes in North Tel Aviv, occasionally branching out to broaden perspectives. There were photographs of buildings and streets and there were images of people engaging in all sorts of activities from meeting friends in cafés and restaurants, to roller-skating, cycling, walking and much else. While doing this, I was reminded of what the critic Susan Sontag had written back in 1973 in her book On Photography:
“… photography first comes into its own as an extension of the eye of the … The photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoitering, stalking, cruising the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes. Adept of the joys of watching, connoisseur of empathy, the flâneur finds the world “picturesque.” … The flâneur is not attracted to the city’s official realities but to its dark seamy corners, its neglected populations — an unofficial reality behind the façade of bourgeois life that the photographer “apprehends,” … It’s clear that the armour to which she was referring is the camera, so I became a sort of flâneur of North Tel Aviv.
Fire hydrants have been around since the mid-19th century. The first surviving American patent — for a wooden fire hydrant — was taken out in 1838. (The patent office itself had burned to the ground in 1836, taking with it any earlier hydrant patents, and, presumably, any hydrants that might have been there, too.) Then in the 1860s, several patents were granted for iron hydrants and since then, they’ve been part of the urban scene. The primary function of the fire hydrant, of course, is to be an integral component in fire protection but they are used for other purposes, such as for cooling children off while playing in the streets in hot weather or for dispersing crowds.
Looking back at the early images of fire hydrants that I had photographed, the only reason I chose to photograph them was they just seemed to be there, part of the street scene as I walked by them and at first, I didn’t take too much notice of them. I certainly didn’t think that there was anything remarkable in their appearance. What caught my eye was that almost all the Tel Aviv hydrants were painted red and they just seemed to stand out in a crowd. However, after I changed the image editing application I’d been using, I began to pay them more attention because the new app had a face recognition facility and … I noticed that it was recognizing the hydrants as “faces”. I found this funny for what caused the software to identify these structures as faces was that they appeared to have eyes and/or a mouth and this is what furnished them with a certain “character”. As a consequence of this chance finding, I began to uncover a whole new population of these subliminal street characters who, on the face of it — no pun intended — were seemingly invisible to others.
Once I began to photograph these newly discovered streeties, I found myself searching for “individuals” I hadn’t seen before. Yet, after a year or so, I realized that variety amongst hydrants is considerably less than that among humans — hardly a surprising discovery. Yet even so, every now and then, I come across an individual that looks somehow different to the others — even unique — and into the catalogue it went. In addition, looking through my collection, which now numbers about 1,700, I noticed that I’ve recently been identifying other “street people” that are not hydrants at all. Looking around, I can see all types of other “faces” staring back at me — and not just in the street, either. Consequently, this collection also contains a hosepipe, a garbage container, a tree and a food item, and other things that have “faces” … which reminds me of a story I read in The Times a few weeks ago, which reported that in 1994, a woman in Florida received what she took to be a religious message through a grilled cheese sandwich. While gazing at its toasted surface, she saw a face looking up at her, which she took to be the Virgin Mary, “and she was in shock.” Nevertheless, she sold the snack on eBay for $28,000! This phenomenon of seeing significant patterns, often faces, in inanimate objects is called pareidolia.
I should mention that each individual hydrant was photographed in situ and au naturel. Most of them are from Tel Aviv with a small number from Spain and Italy and even London. All except one of the images are mine and I won’t tell you which one isn’t—but the person who sent it to me might recognize it!! None of my “models” “posed” for me nor did I apply any “make-up” to try to make them appear more attractive. Nevertheless, several of the images have been touched up for publication.
I did consider not assigning captions to the pictures at all, leaving you to have free rein in deciphering the images. Why distract others by forcing them to see what I thought I saw when that is not necessarily what they might see? Then again, if by providing captions, it makes the reader wonder why I thought the way I thought, thereby making her or him look even harder at an image which they might not have done otherwise, then surely I’ve succeeded. And if they apply their own captions that are different from my own, then all the better!
Essentially, the order of the photographs is: Eyes, Faces, Bodies, Speech, Just pictures, and “faces” that are not hydrants at all. I wind it all up with five “normal” pictures just to show that I’m not obsessed with things such as fire hydrants.