The Limitations of Photography

The common phrase that everyone knows is, “A picture is worth a thousand words” and throughout Tretheway’s poems it is evident that photography does play a vital role. However, in my opinion Tretheway challenges this common idea that a photograph can reveal a lot of information. Instead I think that she insinuates that a single photo can be very limited and not necessarily tell the whole truth. For example when Bellocq photographs the dying sister the narrator describes the photo as, “To the left, dressing gowns hanging empty/ on the door. And beyond that door, what you cannot see.”  (28) Illustrating that the photo may be capturing this dying women and comparing her to her healthy sister, but that something is missing behind the door, which could reveal more truth.

Only a few poems later the narrator explicitly acknowledges the disadvantages of photography when saying, “I’ve learned  the camera well – the danger/ of it, the half-truths it can tell” (30) She knows that the camera cannot capture everything, for instance movement, which is important. In the poem “Photography of a Bawd Drinking Raleigh Rye” the first two lines say, “The glass in her hand is the only thing moving- / too fast for the camera – caught in the blur of motion.” (34) Photography has its limits in that it can not capture motion, which can sometimes reveal more than a still photo.

Also, Tretheway brings up the idea of a single photo being interpreted in different ways and how what one person sees another may not. For instance in the poem “Photography” the narrator states, “I look at what he can see through his lens / and what he cannot…./ the yellow tint of a faded bruise -/ other things here, what the camera misses.” (43) For her it is clear that this photograph captures her physical pain because its her, however to anyone else looking from their own perspective they would probably miss the agony that is portrayed by the bruises on her body.

The entire book of poems ends with two great lines that also point to this idea that photography is limited: “Imagine her a moment later -after/ the flash, blinded -stepping out of the frame, wide-eyed, into her life.” (48) The camera catches a single moment, but not one’s life, meaning that a photo portrays only a small fragment of what is reality. For instance a single photo of Ophelia may make her appear ok, but once she steps away from the camera and into her reality, life may be very different.

1 comment
  1. You’ve hit upon a central theme of Trethewey’s book, Mariah, and I’m sure we’ll talk about this at length. What’s more, I’m very pleased that you’ve remembered to include the line breaks as you’ve quoted the poems. Well done, indeed.

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