Robert Mapplethorpe took a photograph in 1983 that endlessly fascinates me. It's called The Coral Sea and it's a gray, hazy image of almost…nothing.
There, along the narrow edge of the lower part of the frame lies a thin, faraway image of the aircraft carrier that lends the photo its name. The layout of the image breaks all the traditional rules of good composition: clear subject, rule of thirds, defined context; none of them are present. Inside the borders of the frame there's almost nothing for us to hold. The ship at the bottom is as tiny and frail a visual fingertip clutching the edge of a cliff as a photographic subject could be. Described as such, the picture should be hanging on for dear life. But it’s not.
The Coral Sea reverberates with serene confidence. It’s solid. It’s whole. We bring ourselves to the image, seeing what we want to see, feeling what we want to feel. Context for the photo floods in from our own life experience.
There in the gloomy haze, we see a massive human artifact, the product of countless engineering hours and sweaty labor from hundreds of people. We see a container filled with living beings, all of them individually invisible at this distance, to say nothing of how they’re also obscured by the steel bulkheads blocking our view. We know this is a ship of war. This boat and the people on it killed other people. That was the job, no matter how we may obfuscate their purpose by calling it a defensive vessel, a necessary response to the geopolitical realities, a national necessity.
It’s so quiet in the frame. Meditative. Small.
We get a vague reminder of it’s power from the abrasive, rough texture of it’s skin. It’s not a smooth bit of geometry at the base of the picture. It bristles like an overturned scrub brush. But those bristles loose their visual sting quickly. The long, thin horizontal of the boat’s overall shape set against the vast emptiness above convince us like a slight-of-hand that the ship is slipperier than it is. The conning tower with the faintly visible “43” tattooed into its flank reminds us of its human origins.
What are the rules, after all? Do they exist for us to do good things, to do good work, or do people create rules to establish exclusive clubs designed to make adherents feel better? We tell ourselves as a culture not to kill, not to lie, not to steal or envy or abandon those in need, and yet we find ourselves easily committing endless resources to the creation of enterprises like that thin wedge at the bottom of the photo, The Coral Sea. Do we mean it when we declare and repeat our culturally, sometimes religiously proscribed lists, or as a fundamentally creative species are we just making up our own rules to serve our needs as circumstance allows? Do not kill people, we declare… “…but how about we make a giant boat to launch airplanes capable of flying fast and dropping bombs?”
It’s so lovely in this image. It’s elegant. Quiet.
Here’s a photo that provokes thoughtful meditation as much as it churns up discomfiting dreams. In it’s arresting beauty it violates fundamental compositional tradition, and yet by going it’s own aesthetic way it achieves something dramatic and even sublime. It’s a piece of art that breaks all the rules, and by doing so provokes something profound. It asks us in a way that all great and significant questions should be asked, in a clear, level, calm voice: “Do we truly understand the merits of the rules we claim govern our culture, our values, and our paths through the world?”
I’m still looking at the photograph. The answer changes. Then it changes again.