Arts Pearls

The Gossips

Henry Peach Robinson (1830-1901) Wayside Gossip, 1883. Albumen print

Robinson sets up a landscape narrative with a few possible interpretations of the scene. His use of lighting and the structure of the scene reinforce these interpretations. The nature of the photograph forces a broadness in viewpoints. This one scene forms the intersection from several narratives which portray themselves in this one snapshot.

We focus on three women. Who gossips? The two women together by the river may be gossiping. A first interpretation implies that they gossip about the stroller, the third.

The photographer designs a tension in this photo by posing the figures in such a way as to reveal a story in a single frame. The path on which the woman walks meanders all of the way back, and yet the two seated women look at the stroller only when she is close enough to be in earshot. They stop talking, watching until she leaves.

The photographer tells a story with each element of the piece. The textured trees and ground provide a backdrop to focus the eyes on the figures. In a sea of repetition, each detail of individual variation of a leaf deindividualizes and is lost, pointing the viewer to look away at the mass as a whole or moreso to the subjects. The two women and the stroller stare at each other. The viewer finds himself following the gaze of both parties, searching for meaning in their glances.

The grass and trees are also blurred at portions. Presumably the wind moved the trees and grass slightly, creating a blur on the negative. The blur indicates the passage of time as they stare at each other. This does not distract.

The path is worn, so it is a well-known path that the gossiping figures knew she could walk down at any time. They aren't scheming, which would cause an out-of-the-way encounter, but merely idle gossip over lunch. The picnic basket indicates a small meal eaten there.

The setting displays a prominent vanishing point in the upper left of the painting just below the corner. This balances the image since the two figures on the right are the most white. Two faces emphasize the right half of the print. Emphasizing the third figure on the left, the vanishing point draws the eyes along the lines of the river and the path to the left to balance the image.

The figure on the left is standing on a walking stick, probably to hold the pose for a long time. The other two also have their hands supporting themselves for a long pose. These poses are taken carefully to attempt to produce a natural image meant to capture a single moment. Careful study, however, reveals the true nature of the poses, and yet these poses still convey an effect of a normal extended conversation.

The seated women are not particularly dressed up for a special event, but rather they seem more natural. It is posed but the are using quotidian pastoral attire. Their clothes give away the time of the photograph, as well as the setting in a rural area. The viewer can feel the quaint aspirations of this rural township, whose most interesting days soak in gossip.

The flat contrast in the background de-emphasizes the outline of the trees and grass. It focuses the energy of the viewer on the tension in the figures, on the actual drama and story rather than the setting. The top of the sky is a beige, so it is easy to ignore it over the also flat contrast trees. The whitest parts of the image are the white aprons in the center on the figures on the right, with the left figure's apron a little darker given the position of the sun. The lighting is behind this woman. The final white is the white of the path on which the woman walks, suggesting a purity in her intentions. The path symbolizes her more innocent actions in contrast to the gossipers who perform darker acts of gossip.

The photographer uses lighting to emphasize their deceptiveness. The gossipers look at the figure on the left, but they hide their eyes in the shade of their bonnet. Hiding eyes classically inspires feelings of deceit. They lack smiles due to the unwelcome friend. Of course, it may just be that holding a smile for a while in a portrait is hard; it is generally unusual in portraiture, and someone cannot be staring at the sun waiting for exposure so shaded eyes are required. Nevertheless, the photographer uses these necessities to enhance the image's narrative.

The setting is open and rational and not quite but mostly static. Certainly, nobody is bustling in the background. The wind however has blurred some leaves. We are in a secluded rural area. The women here found a private place to talk amongst themselves away from eavesdroppers, by the wayside, which surprises them when the figure on the left appears. It halts their conversation.

The other interpretation creates a gossiper of the woman on the left. Perhaps the woman is merely participating in gossip as she meets new people on her walk. They can all be genially discussing the matters of the day, the tidbits of the week. They could be great friends, or strangers becoming new friends. They gossip about local news and people they both know in common. It is odd that she doesn't approach closer and keeps her distance. No mouths are open on either side, implying they are merely staring each other down. Moreover, they are all staring. Normally, one of the ones not speaking of the two on the right would be looking around at random other objects.

The faces are portrayed in profile or semi-profile view which strongly captures their roundness and detail. It generally is a very painterly landscape and figure photo. The dress details are captured well, and he makes sure to position the figures on the right so that the sunlight captures everything. The sun, by the way, is clearly high in the sky; but not noon, which would be overhead, behind the woman on the left. Not behind the other two, the sun lies somewhere on the left.

The photo is in a landscape orientation with a size of 13 inches by 10 inches. The large size allows a lot of the detail in the texture and the small faces show up, but not so much that they look blown up. In very good condition, the glossy print paper is caused by the albumen print. Without abrasions or damage, the quality of the image is preserved. Despite close inspection, no hand-tinting or painting is apparent.

The whitest part of the image are the white dresses of the women on the right, which if you indicate as purity, then might imply that they are not gossiping but it is the traveler sneaking by on the path who is. She is darker, muddying the purity of the path with her presence, which is entirely in the shadow given the sun behind her. She meets them, slides back onto her walking stick, and begins to chatter about the juicy tellings she overheard. This is the most consistent interpretation of her position and stature.

The picture appears to be taken at a great height above the others. Perhaps the landscape slopes up quickly, or perhaps the photo is taken on a stage. The photo is clearly taken many feet above the others. This high view makes the spectator not feel the part of a participator in the gossip. In fact, the viewer becomes a bit of the subject of the gossip, overseeing that someone is telling stories, but too high up and far away to tell exactly what. Too far away to hear or see anybody's mouth moving at all. It is a view more common in painting rather than photography; people shoot photos at waist or head level due to the physicality of holding the camera.

In conclusion, the photo evokes the sense of a daily story which happens in the rural farmland of the UK every day in these times in the 19th century. Gossip happens matter-of-factly as they go on their normal days. This is not a special event, nor is the moment captured unique to one particular story. It evokes a sense of several stories which may happen many times throughout the week.

over 7 years ago on October 5 at 4:42 am by Joseph Perla in art, writing, photography

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Bienvenue. My friends call me Joseph Perla. I studied art history at Princeton University. I play improv comedy at Upright Citizens Brigade. I act on TV. I direct movies and documentaries. I write scripts, essays, fiction, and non-fiction. I philosophize.

Twitter: @jperla

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