When the Picture Makes No Sense At All

I have a feeling that most people only glance at a photo, then move on to the next one unless something in it catches their eye.

So what happens when the picture makes no sense? Will the onlooker be obliged to linger for a few seconds or turn away with a sigh of impatience? Either way, it’s an improvement. Confusing the onlooker is the artist’s revenge on those who don’t pay attention.

Forgive me if I sound a bit cross, but I’ve just read my Facebook comments, from which it’s clear that some people can be so impatient they’re prepared to condemn an article without actually clicking through to read it. You, dear reader, are not among them. Thank you for your indulgence.

The Crazy Café
In certain places it’s possible to take a representational picture and still leave the onlooker in total confusion. But first you have to find somewhere that’s visually disturbing on a grand scale.

My featured image (above) is an interior shot of a café in Bangkok, somewhat off the tourist trail. It will be familiar to the residents of the adjoining condo building and their guests, but I doubt if very many tourists will have seen it.

Dimly lit, the Bookshop Bar (at the Ashton Building, Sukhumvit Soi 38) is the sort of place where booklovers will be either delighted or appalled. Here, the designer Ashley Sutton — who’s well-known in Bangkok for restaurant interiors such as Mr Jones Orphanage at Siam Square, Maggie Choo’s, Iron Fairies and Fat Gut’z — has created the ultimate anti-book environment.

This is not a place where you’d actually want to read, unlike true bookshop cafés like the Elliott Bay Café in Seattle. Sutton’s Bookshop Bar is a surreal flight of fancy, a nightmarish vision of old, dusty volumes, twisted shelves, stairs that lead nowhere, feather quills on tables, and the pièce de résistance: books suspended from the ceiling on wires so they can be pulled up and down disconcertingly above the customers’ heads.

You can read long quotations from the books on the walls of the bar, but taken out of context they don’t make any sense. They seem to have been extracted from “penny dreadfuls” or old westerns, whereas the leather-bound (or faux leather-bound) volumes look as though they might be classics. The whole place makes you feel like Harry Potter having a nightmare before examination day.

Like the cakes in Mr Jones Orphanage, the Bookshop Bar is a visual feast — and where better to take a confusing photo? Any photo taken in this café would be puzzling. There are one or two on the Internet which do not include a blurred waiter, as mine does, but they’re still a jumble of nonsensical shapes.

In a still image, there’s no way to show the books going up and down on their wires, but by blurring the waiter I thought I could introduce a little movement into the shot. Frankly, I didn’t have much choice. I needed a long exposure in the dim light. Resting my elbows on a table I hand-held the camera, set it to ISO 1000 and took the shot at 1/20th second.

I think people will give this shot of the Bookshop Bar a second glance, if only to try and make sense of it. They will still continue to flick through other, more meaningful images without pausing, but at least I’ve stemmed the flow for now.

The Crazy Shop Window
Again, in the image below, a strong element of craziness intrudes, setting the onlooker an indecipherable puzzle. This time the designer is Issey Miyake, whose surrealistic clothes are visually striking even without the dramatic treatment they were given in the Selfridges window on London’s Oxford Street.

Selfridges window

I tried photographing the window directly, but as I was standing in sunlight (it was a July afternoon) my reflection was unavoidable. So I decided to take the window at an angle and capture someone else’s reflection instead.

I quite like the result. It looks as though the two female pedestrians are holding sunshades, but no, it’s the work of Issey Miyake again. There are some ghost images, too, which even I can’t quite fathom.

Never mind. It’s Oxford Street on a typical summer’s day. I’d just attended my son’s graduation and I was still tipsy from a few glasses of wine. The subject seemed perfectly natural at the time.

2 thoughts on “When the Picture Makes No Sense At All

  1. Sorry, I don’t want to be rude but both look terrible. I would skip over them muttering ‘Oh god. Another person who thinks a random snap is street photography’ If the intention is to make the viewer pause to make sense of it then it fails for me.

  2. Thank you for your comment, Robin. I’d very much like to see the sort of images you take. That would give me (and other readers) a sense of whether you’re a street photographer or an anonymous troll.

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