What does it mean?



This is the picture on the wall of my office. It’s what I see when I look up from the laptop.

It is called Manhattan from the Brooklyn Promenade and was taken in 1954 by a fabulous photographer called Louis Stettner.

Naturally, mine is a cheap poster version and not the original. But it looks just as good.

I bought it more than 25 years ago as a birthday present for a friend. He didn’t like it at all … eventually I was able to reclaim it.

But what does it mean?

There are several ways of looking at this picture. A photographer might notice the contrast between the strong horizontal lines and the verticals. Just about the only curved organic thing in the picture is the man, seated centre and front.

We might wonder about the back story. Who is this man? Why is he sitting there? He has his sleeves rolled up and he is not wearing a suit or a hat – which would have been quite unusual in 1950s Manhattan. So we might guess that he is a working man, a labourer. Perhaps he is taking some sun during his lunch break or at the end of a hard working day.

But when we look closer we see that Stettner has composed the photograph carefully so that the railings cover the water exactly. The top of the water is lined up with the far shoreline.

This means that the picture is dominated by man-made things – the bench, the railings and the city scape. Nature is subdued, corralled, obliterated.

The railings could be the bars of a prison.But who is in prison – the man, nature or the city? Is this a successful man with the city at his feet … or someone who is trapped by an urban existence?

His posture is intriguing. With his arms swept back he might almost be crucified. But then his arms and shoulders do create just about the only curve in the picture.

There is a hidden sense of movement. The skyscrapers increase in size from left to right. The railings and bench converge ever so slightly towards the right. We can see the wake of a boat. I get the sense that the man won’t stay in that position. Sooner or later he will get up and leave. This is only a snatched moment of peace and relaxation.

Or maybe it’s just a picture. Louis Stettner was wandering along the promenade, saw this man and took an opportunistic picture. It is what it is. It don’t mean nothing.

That is the point of good art, whether it is a photograph, a painting, a novel or a poem. It asks questions, it makes us think, it intrigues us. And when we are in that questioning mode, our imaginations create far more vivid images than the artist could.

The Beatles encountered this when their fans tried to decipher their lyrics. Who is the Walrus? Why was Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds?

The Beatles couldn’t answer these questions. They didn’t know. They were creating surreal imagery to get their listeners thinking. This isn’t a hidden code, to be solved like one of Dan Brown’s thrillers.

Yesterday we talked about show not tell. As a general rule, we should show characters and not tell the audience too much about what the characters are thinking or feeling.

I still think that is a good rule. But there may be something even more powerful than show. We also need to hint, to question, to suggest. If we can get the audience – reader, listener or viewer – to think for themselves, they will come up with far stronger sensations than we could give them directly.

One odd question intrigues me. I have looked at this picture for more than a quarter of a century. I have no idea what Louis Stettner was trying to convey when he took the picture. Would I want to know? If I could find an interview with him or an autobiography where he explained the picture, would I want to read it?

Or would I rather live with my own interpretations?

What does it mean? It means whatever you want to mean.


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