In the charmingly neurotic French film, Amélie, the title character is a young woman who engages with the world in a roundabout manner, furtively repairing “other people’s messy lives” while suppressing the realization of her own. She avoids meaningful social contact whenever possible, preferring instead the easier routes of “relating” to people who are not actually present and devising “stratagems” to secretly affect positive change in those who are.
Introverted as she is, it is no surprise that, after five years of living in the same Paris apartment building together, Amélie finally meets Raymond Dufayel, an elderly artist known as the “glass man” because of his fragile physical state: his skeleton being so brittle he must pad his own furniture. In twenty years, Dufayel has never once left the building—a mere handshake could shatter his bones—and he spends his days obsessively reproducing a single work: Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s classic, Le déjeuner des canotiers. He has painted one new copy for every year of his self-imposed exile, yet has never been able to capture the essence of one of its characters—a woman near the center who is sipping a beverage amid the joyous luncheon crowd, appearing somehow untethered from her surroundings.
“She’s in the middle,” Dufayel explains to Amélie at their first meeting, “yet she’s outside.”
A flurry of speculation ensues between these two kindred eccentrics as they begin to conjure backstory elements for the young woman on the canvas. Dufayel suggests that she “rarely played with other kids” as a child. “Maybe never.” Amélie believes the woman’s thoughts are with someone outside of the picture, perhaps a young man she “saw somewhere and felt an affinity with.” But over the course of the film, Amélie comes to understand that the enigmatic female is really an allegorical version of herself. She sees at last how her world of fantasy and stratagems has contributed to an empty, even cowardly, life; and that only by embracing her existence on a deeper, more active level will she ever find true fulfillment.
In my last essay, I touched upon the identification of situational energy, or essence, in literature, and how we might use it to enliven our own writing. Of course, like Amélie and Dufayel, we can also mine visual images in a similar manner, for they all too often contain elements that resonate with some aspect of our personal understanding. As with literature, the essence of a particular image (or a detail within it) is not always explicitly apparent, but must be inferred. It is a sort of subtext, and if you are in tune with the message the image creator is conveying, then you will get it. An example of this that comes to mind is Pieter Bruegel’s sixteenth-century masterwork, The Wedding Banquet, in which one of the minor characters in the painting—a hired bagpiper—arouses especial interest in us due to his hungry gaze toward a pallet across the room that is laden with pancakes.
Whether Bruegel anticipated the effect this would have on his audience is not certain (though I suspect he did), but that distracted musician with his palpable longing steals the show nevertheless.
Of course, the artist need not always be the sole source of authority over a piece of work. We too are capable of acting upon an image, simply by assigning it with some meaning that suits our own purpose. This is why paintings, sketches, and photographs are so often used in writing workshops as prompts. The image becomes a springboard for our imagination. We consider it for a few moments; an idea kernel sprouts in our brains; and in short order, we are off on a creative tear, no longer having any practical need for the image itself, much less the artistic or didactic intentions of its creator.
But no matter whether we are acting on the image or vice versa, visual art is an indisputably powerful medium, not to mention a fabulous tool for writers and others who are interested in documenting or studying the human condition. As a young man breaking into fiction, Ernest Hemingway drew inspiration as well as instruction from the troves of paintings on display in the galleries, private collections, and museums of 1920s Paris—particularly the Musée du Luxembourg. Writing about it many years later in A Moveable Feast, he recalled:
I went there nearly every day for the Cézannes and to see the Manets and the Monets and the other Impressionists….I was learning something from the painting of Cézanne that made writing simple true sentences far from enough to make the stories have the dimensions that I was trying to put in them. I was learning very much from him but I was not articulate enough to explain it to anyone. Besides it was a secret.
Well, no longer, it would seem. And though doubtless it was a challenge to articulate, in the end Hemingway put it well, as usual. Good writing involves more than simply stating the obvious in a straightforward manner. To achieve true depth in a piece—or in Hemingway’s terminology, the added “dimensions”—we must hone our abilities to at first detect, and then to harness for ourselves, the intrinsic, often intangible energy of a scene.
And, as Hemingway discovered, the study of images is an effective starting point.
Often, the title of a piece of visual art is our entrée to understanding its essence. Titles can serve as the contextual ground upon which we build an interpretation. John Sloan, a founding member of the so-called “Ashcan” school of American art, presents a fine example of this with his 1909 creation, Three A.M. Notice how the title alone invites us from the very start to speculate—specifically, what in the world is going on in this kitchen at three o’clock in the morning? The painting sets up the rest for us, but with the requirement that we discern the story for ourselves.
Here, Sloan establishes a visual dichotomy in two women: One is arrayed in an evening dress with a matching feathered hat next to her. The other woman lights a cigarette at the stove and is wearing a nightgown. Her hair is down, and a naked shoulder is exposed as if she has just been summoned from sleep.
About this last point, we do not know for certain. But as you can see, I’ve already begun to hazard guesses as to what is transpiring. And aren’t you as well? Though the woman at right is standing, do you sense a power imbalance vis-à-vis her seated counterpart? With one hand resting on her hip and her head cocked in a manner that exudes a forceful attitude, the seated woman is in the midst of saying something with what appears to be an air of amusement, perhaps also wicked satisfaction. Meanwhile the smoking woman, with her back turned to her guest, is silent, gazing down at the ribboning smoke from her cigarette with a wan expression that conveys…what? Sleepiness? Inebriation? Or rather, is she reacting to a piece of news the seated female is sharing? Is hers a look of despondency? Of resignation to some discomfiting truth?
I have no definite idea about this. Nor, I’m guessing, do you. Very likely, Sloan himself had a storyline in mind when he painted Three A.M.—providing us as he did with that tantalizing title. But in the end, he left it for us to figure out the rest—or in our present case, to make up a story on our own. And what a splendid gift that is for a writer.
Some works include descriptive titles, but we don’t actually need them, since the essential information is more than available in the images. The Great Depression-era photographer Dorothea Lange—famous for her evocative, often damning exposés of destitution, class imbalance, and the inherent nobility of everyday people—provides a case-in-point with one of her later, and lesser-known, photographs: Argument in Trailer Court.
In this vivid shot, the title merely states what is already obvious, thanks to Lange’s composition and the body language of her main subjects—a man and woman in 1944 who quite probably both work in the burgeoning World War II defense industry. We don’t know precisely what these two are bickering about, but their physicality is so manifest that it forces us to conjure a story in order to fill the void. Interestingly, at the bottom of the photograph we can see that two children—presumably the couple’s—are also present in the scene, though Lange has cropped the image so that only the crests of their blonde heads are visible. This cannot have been unintentional. Like the mysterious, solitary woman in Renoir’s painting of the luncheon, the children here are, to paraphrase Dufayel, in the middle, yet outside. Even so, they are an essential part of the scene in the trailer lot. It is quite possible their welfare is even the impetus of the argument.
Another photograph in which body language effectively outperforms the title is Brassai’s, Conchita with Sailors, which depicts a Paris tavern scene in 1933. But unlike the angry subtext in the image of Lange’s contentious couple, the situational energy here is by contrast joyous, bawdy, and brimful with expectation. Conchita, an exotic dancer of the time, drapes her arm around the marin seated at her left, yet simultaneously shoots a seductive glance at the young man on her right. Both men appear euphoric. To be sure, there is tension in this photograph too, but here it is more of a delicious, salacious sort. Something naughty is unfolding, and the night appears to be young. And once again, the beholder is afforded an opportunity to imagine the tale from there.
The work of masters like Breugel, Lange, and others are plentiful, relatively accessible by way of books or galleries, and can work wonders for us in terms of inspiration. But we might also choose to look no further than an estate sale or our own cedar chest for writing prompts. Personal photographs typically contain a wealth of underlying situational energy, and as writers we are free to interpret them in any way that suits us, and even mine them for the stories they awaken. Many times we are separated by generations from these visual records of past lives. And in the case of images collected from outside of our kinship circle, the separation is only magnified. The human subjects depicted in them are, in the words of Julia Hirsch, author of Family Photographs: Content, Meaning, and Effect, “ancestors who have lost their descendants,”
…and we enjoy meeting them…because beyond their particularities, they show a larger order of human history, the condition of being part of a family, a social unit bound by blood, custom, duty, money, and passion.
And so, to close, I’d like to introduce you to an example from my own collection: a family photograph depicting my mother and two of her brothers, taken around 1940. None of them appear to be especially happy here—and my mom looks absolutely sullen. Whether their disgruntlement is over the picture being taken, their proximities to one another, or something else, cannot be determined. All three have since passed away, taking their memories of that day with them and rendering the “real” story forever irretrievable. But I can speculate. I can fictionalize. And I have done so many times, even though I knew these people as well as I could ever know another human being.
You can too. In fact, I invite you to craft an alternate life for these three individuals. Tap into the situational energy and write a story of your own—with your own characters and a scenario of your choosing. It won’t hurt anybody to do so, least of all them. And it might generate something spectacular.
Have at it.