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Sometimes a nondescript photograph intrigues me, although at first glance it seems to have nothing to say. Probably most people would look at the picture below for one second and move on and never give it another glance or a moment of thought. All the same it intrigues me, so I am going to pick it apart to see if there is something there I could learn and apply to my future pictures.

A couple of days ago someone, rather apologetically, accused my pictures of reminding them of Norman Rockwell, the American magazine illustrator. What an insult!? To be spontaneously compared to a lowly illustrator, perhaps the greatest illustrator of all time, now that’s a real insult. What? … an insult?

A car in front of a brick wall

A black car parked in front of a brick wall with a tree, hydrant, sign and pot. Click to enlarge

The picture of the car parked in front of a brick wall does remind me of a Rockwell, but it lacks a cute kid paying rapt attention to his mom as she carefully lifts a sleeping baby out of a stroller, which is carefully held still by an adoring dad, into an ideal family car. And yet this picture does have some of that feel, with the blue motherly pot with dying weeds, near the masculine red fire hydrant of protection from danger, just above a worn yellow cautionary curb and with a white cautionary no-parking zone and a warning sign. Why is the car so very black and hearse-like with an empty jacket where the corpse would be, and why the living tree in dying colors springing so dominantly out of it into the center of the picture?

Behind these foreground figures is a masterpiece of brickwork bathed in glowing light, but why are the windows permanently boarded up funeral like, or are they just perfectly shuttered from the cold of the coming winter? On careful inspection you can see someone has spray painted a heart symbol onto the bricks, but that has been carefully removed. What foul person would desecrate such loveliness with what was clearly an unwanted message? This simple picture starts becoming confused with over-thinking the potential symbols and their histories. This is no arcane religious Hieronymus Bosch painting; it’s just a car parked temporarily in front of a brick wall.

What about the structure? Is there anything interesting about the strong left-right symmetry of the background and the symmetrical vertical banded layering that makes this picture intriguing? Or is it the foreground objects which are seemingly pasted onto the scene and have none of the symmetry or the vast amounts of repetitive detail of the bricks and tree? What is the correspondence between a pot with a withering old plant and a man-made fire hydrant to a shedding tree and a man-made hearse like car with a jacket? I don’t have good answers for any of those questions but perhaps that is why I like to look idly at that picture.

Sometimes a good picture invites more questions than it answers.
[Update: Ten days after writing that post I noticed the black car looks like a panther stalking prey. It’s the squint-eye that emphasizes that effect and may have been what gave me the eerie feeling about this picture from the beginning. Anything that looks like stalking eyes is wired into our genetic code as dangerous.]