A lot with a little
Have more than thou showest,
Speak less than thou knowest,
Lend less than thou owest
— The Fool, King Lear
Some works are better for their brevity.
Fan Ho needs very little: Most of the image is black, or blurry. You can scarcely tell what materials you’re looking at. But the essential is there: A subject and a perspective that makes the scene almost haunting in its depth. That the rest is not there is to the benefit of the scene.
“Photography is stealing and lying” a friend of mine would often declare, and partly she’s right. The canal probably did not quite have this effect in person. It may not have felt so claustrophobic, or narrow, or even particularly long. But in taking the photo Fan Ho does not capture all of what is there, that would be using too much. He zooms and captures a keyhole only, and makes it feel immense. In this way photography is like sculpting: You are not trying to fit a scene with everything, with as much information as possible, but a scene where there is little else to take away.
In doing this Ho is capable of showing more than is really there. The scene is not merely descriptive but suggestive, it seeks to engage our imagination, I think it does this, though it may not feel obvious when it is happening. It is only because our personal visual imagination is already well-developed that it works, and he knows this, so it involves us and enchants. This is the aim of much good art.
~ ~ ~
The same is true for poetry, a few careful words say more than what is in them. Some examples from Japanese senryu come to mind. Unlike the more familiar haiku, which tend to dwell on seasons and nature in a somber tone, senyru are most often about human nature, and can be quite ribald. Many old examples are anonymous. A few from the 1700’s:
the doctor has a cold
but he's eating noodle soup
and resting in bed
The meaning is simply implied — the author knows our minds can complete the picture. This works because, then as now, across cultures, it is easy to suspect that the doctor knows his complex prescriptions are not particularly useful.
Just as everyone knows such a person:
finally stands up to leave
then grumbles for an hour
And other persons:
whatever he says
is discounted by fifty percent
by anyone who listens
"Keep it to yourself"
he says — to how many people
And I suppose everyone understands,
the clerk and the maid
are not on speaking terms—
in the daytime, that is
~ ~ ~
When you have some trust in your audiences’ innate knowledge, you can strip away everything but the essential part you want to focus. When you give this trust you can allow your reader to dwell. The amateur is often guilty of explaining too much. Art can become great when the artist finds a way to explain less. Precisely by requiring more of us does art elevates the human experience.
That is my only thought tonight. But while we are here together, why not one more photograph from Fan Ho?
This is my favorite of his work. The subject, the little girl, is subtle enough that the viewer might not see her in the first instant, but only in the seconds afterwards when one’s eyes begin to wander about the details. She has made the tiny balcony into her own room, and from this much life can be imagined. Is she at play or work? Fan Ho has his own suggestion, or perhaps he knows: the picture is titled Her Study.
The puff of smoke is almost too perfect. The indifferent activity of the city fails to bother the girl. She has her own world that she is mastering. It is not the photograph but the child that makes a lot with a little.