Sunday, February 11, 2007

Mall Windows

“That’s a small building for a school,” my son remarked. We were passing the church school, not a block from home
“It doesn’t look small to me,” replied his friend. “The building goes way towards the back.”
“It does? I never noticed.”
“How long have you lived here?” she asked.
"Seven years. I can’t believe I haven’t noticed.”
“Maybe that’s because you live here.”

Blindness to the familiar may have evolved over the millennia to free us from attending to the commonplace. Seeing while not consciously registering our environment allows us to concentrate on more difficult encounters. This is a handy survival trait, but a hindrance if one aspires to “perfect sight.” The phrase is Ralph Waldo Emerson’s. To have perfect sight is to see beyond our everyday world. “What is a day?” Emerson asks.
“ What is child? What is sleep? To our blindness, these things seem unaffecting.” To see truly is to be affected by “the miraculous in the common.” Emerson thought this ability “an invariable mark of wisdom.”

Though the distance between being unaware of a school building and perceiving the miraculous may be great, the two lie along the same path. Emerson recommended starting the journey by “turning the eyes upside down,” so that one could experience “looking at the landscape through your legs.” Seeing anything anew is a first step toward knowledge.

For several years I have been trying to see with fresh eyes a ubiquitous phenomenon in our culture: the store window advertising photograph. “We are now so accustomed to being addressed by these images that we scarcely notice their total impact,” the critic John Berger writes. In my experience, Berger could have eliminated the adjective “total.” During the countless times I have visited the mall, I have yet to run across anyone looking at a display window. And people to whom I’ve mentioned my interest often respond with quizzical looks. “What photographs?,” most say.

Scholarly inquiry about the cultural impact of advertising is vast. University courses explore the subject and I’d wager doctorates are offered in the field. For those of us outside the academy, Berger’s Ways of Seeing suffices. If there’s a more cogent brief critique of the display window images that populate malls across America, I haven’t found it.

Advertising photographs “propose to each of us that we transform ourselves, or our lives, by buying something more,” Berger observes. Indeed. Four years ago one of the department stores in the mall I visit had as its ad campaign an overt statement of this goal; lettered on each of the store’s windows was “Re-invent yourself.” Advertising photographs persuade us we can re-invent ourselves by “showing us people who have apparently been transformed and are, as a result, enviable.” We envy them because they are glamourous. Buying the product they advertise will make us glamourous too, envied by the unglamourous.

Glamour, Berger writes, “depends precisely upon not sharing your experience with those who envy you.” To own the product is to distance oneself from others. The model in one mall display I photographed wears a tshirt that asks, "CAN YOU AFFORD ME?" Can you afford to buy the tshirt, the display asks? Can those who see you wearing the shirt afford to know you? Can they dare to associate with a woman who wears clothing that slyly evokes the streetwalker? That the tshirt raises such questions is part of its appeal. To be glamourous is to disregard those who see you. “You are observed with interest but you do not observe with interest… It is this which explains the absent, unfocused look of so many glamour images.” But not all mall images have unfocused looks; many gaze directly at us in a way that makes Manet’s Olympia look demure. Like silent sirens, they capture our interest with their gazes so we will buy what they have.

Is feeling the impact of mall window advertisements the same as being affected by "the miraculous in the common"? No, nor is it a mark of wisdom. Still, my re-photographed advertising images help me see what I might otherwise disregard, a step on the path to understanding.

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