Photographing Dwelling

328 Stevens Street Rhinelander, WI

328 Stevens Street Rhinelander, WI

Dwelling. Where we live much of our interior life, alone or amongst several others. In this particular case, not places of community. Not the workplace. Not the pub, church or ball field. Not the journey or the destination but the place we return to at journey’s end.

Dwellings are centers of one’s life containing mementos and collections infused with talismanic effect that is often understood more as feeling than thought.

The “#1 Dad” mug looks like it was just pulled from the box and enjoys pride of place on a shelf along with tended philodendron and maranta in the front window. Outside, the blistering paint on the frames and shutters beneath a warped and failing awning and sagging gutters speak of prolonged neglect.

How is it possible to explain the disregarded window box half-filled with faded silk flowers contributing to the mise-en-scene? Penury? Indifference? Inertia or ennui? What should be made of the wind chimes and the new satellite dish? What of all the other signifiers and clues that would help lead to an informed speculation? Is it even worth knowing the answer?

Can the photo, just a representation of a dwelling along a small town street, give support to ethnographic interpretation or serve as an exemplar of the chorography of Rhinelander WI along Stevens Street in July 2016? This photo captures the moment in a folded temporality when/where this place is being used by _______ who just _______ and who is facing certain ________ within a few years. Is it useful to fill in the blanks? This place shares its moment with the Ojibwe, the glaciers and the tons of organic material evidencing countless lives compacted into thin strata over many millennia.

Maybe the mug was positioned in the window out of the reach of arthritic hands by a son and is meant as a merciless ironic reminder to his father of the failings and frailties behind the beatings and the abuse when she was defenseless and an easy target.

Maybe the mug was placed in the window by a grateful father and was a gift meant by his daughter to affirm the familial bonds that continue to sustain the man who two years ago today, on the day before his birthday, was let go from his job of 26 years at the plant and has struggled with depression and guilt each day thereafter. 

Do we photograph to ask as well as to answer? What makes a photograph a collectible? Compare the Google Map street view available on line with the first shot above (assume it would be made into a 40x60 print). In the photograph has the place been moved a step away from documentation and closer to the experience of dwelling (Heidegger by way of Marsden in Rising Ground: A Search for the Spirit of Place)? Has "presence" been added or enhanced? Or is it just one of billion images made on a particular day that will be buried under a digital tide?