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Look at This! An Overwhelming Abundance of Texture

Helen Salkeld at the family farm, Lucknow, Ontario by Rosemary Gilliat Eaton, via Library and Archives Canada

1. What Can We See in This Photograph?

First let's consider the material information provided by this photograph. It's in black and white, and it is square. There are some dust flecks (both black and white) in the image, meaning it was photographed on film and printed on photographic paper.

Next, what do our eyes see in this image? We can see a person who is sitting on a rock, petting a dog, and looking out of the frame and into the distance. With the wooden structure and the fence, it looks like a rural or farm setting.

2. What Else Do We Know About This Photograph?

We also know from the caption of the photograph that this is a picture of Helen Salkeld, on her family farm in Ontario, Canada.

This photograph is by Rosemary Eaton. She took the picture on a cross-Canada trip with her friends, including Helen Salkeld, in 1954. We looked at another of Eaton's photos from this trip in Travel By Train.

Eaton was born in England in 1919 but spent her early childhood in (what is now) Sri Lanka. She moved to Switzerland at the age of six and then on to Germany at sixteen. After school, Eaton moved back to England where she apprenticed as a portrait and commercial photographer before working in the fashion and magazine industry. She moved to Canada in 1952 and lived in Ottawa.

Eaton was a keen outdoorswoman and passionate environmentalist, using her photographic skills to document her projects. We can witness her developing enthusiasm in her pictures if we look at them chronologically.

3. How Does This Photo Make You Feel?

We’re in the great outdoors, and this photograph instantly transports you to mental images of wide open spaces, fresh air smells and bumpy ground!

I don’t know about you, but for me the abundance of textures is overwhelming, even without colour. You have the patchy clouds in the sky, the very smooth clothes (which also provide a pleasing block of dark tones), the shaggy fur of the dog, the rocky ground (and the rocky rock!) and finally, in the background, the stripy edge of a shed. Wow. I think all of these textures would be way too much in colour, but when you look at the tones of each, it actually works really well. The sky darkens to the shed, ground and rocks and then darkens further to the woman’s clothes and the dog—it’s a pleasing gradient.

How about the way the subject is dressed? Her hair is tucked up and she’s wearing slacks—we only really know this is a woman from the title of the photograph. Is this androgyny deliberate? Does it matter whether we’re seeing a man or woman? Firstly, I think the saying ‘Man’s best friend’ springs to mind; and that, on top of the rolled up shirt sleeves, the cowboy hat and the working farm are all qualities we would associate with the masculine, particularly at the time of the photograph. Eaton turns this on its head by having a woman as her main subject, surrounded by all of these typically male qualities.

This photograph leaves a feeling which is lacking in resolution, almost an itch to go to the place the image was shot and see what is off in the direction she’s looking, feel the uneven ground, smell the smells, pet the dog even! I think Eaton’s sense of restlessness and adventure really comes out in these photographs; she never sat still and her photographs don’t either. I think we’d be disappointed if they did.

Your Turn! Woman’s Best Friend… Again!

woman and dog
Woman and dog via Pexels CC0

A very similar photograph to the one we’ve just looked at. Again we have a woman and a dog and once more, we only know this because it was in the description of the image. They’re up a mountain and facing away from us; what is she thinking? Does it frustrate you? Do the colours add or subtract anything from our previous black and white image?

If you're unsure of what to look for in a photograph, check out Dawn Oosterhoff's excellent article: How to Read a Photograph and let us know what you see in this image.

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