New York

Michael Kirby

Seoul, Korea: Duk Moon Publishing Company

Photoanalysis: A Structuralist Play is a re-creation, in book form, of a play by Michael Kirby, first performed in November, 1976. Kirby, who is best-known for his involvement with Happenings and avant-garde theater since the late ’60s, chose a dramatic format in which three actors—a man and two women, positioned respectively in the center and on the two sides of the performance space—spoke directly to the audience and illustrated their words with a series of black-and-white slides projected onto screens behind them. The actors spoke alternately, each showing slides that related to his or her narrative, so that the spectator saw a continuous slide show while listening to three different, yet interwoven, monologues. The same basic format is retained in the book, which presents the same sequence of photographs, accompanied by expository texts and stage directions indicating which words were spoken by which actor.

Photoanalysis begins with a lecture on the new “science” of photoanalysis by the male speaker, who promises to give his audience a “clear, consistent, unified approach to understanding photographs.” He begins his talk with straightforward, compositional analyses of the images flashing by on the screen, but very soon his “objective” lecture seems to lose its grounding in the visual data, becoming as subjective and speculative as the personal stories that are told, in turn, by the two women. Unlike the male speaker, who adopts a didactic and academic mode of address, the two women speak as though they were leafing through their family snapshot albums and reminiscing about their lives. Their stories are very different from one another, but are equally full of intrigue: one woman (called, in the book, simply “Left”), a Patty Hearst-like figure, tells of her unwitting involvement in underground politics, while the other woman (called “Right”) unfolds a Gothic mystery tale complete with drowned bodies, unexplained noises and sudden apparitions.

All three narratives are based on easily recognizable literary conventions, and all three depend for their development on “clues” gleaned from visual evidence. This is where the plot of Photoanalysis thickens; the three very different monologues are illustrated by the same series of photographs (arranged in a different order for each). Considered alone, the pictures—of houses, people, street scenes, nature and common-place objects—are simply mundane (and not very interesting) snapshots, but taken as the basis of these three interpretations and modes of analysis, they serve to undermine the very credibility of photographic “realism.”

After a while, in fact, the narratives and pictures in Photoanalysis begin to seem like equally elaborate fictions, imaginary constructs that allow the speakers to order, and to ascribe meaning to, their experience. Reality and imagination become hopelessly intertwined as the play progresses, and the entangled threads are never unravelled. The significations of the pictures are as obscure as the solutions to the mystery stories by the time Photoanalysis ends. In fact, they’re more obscure, because Kirby concludes his work by reproducing all three series of photographs simultaneously, in reverse order, and without any commentary at all. By offering the audience yet another perspective on the images—a perspective now freed from all moorings in verbal explanation—Kirby throws the question of pictorial interpretation right in the lap of the spectator, where it remains as the play ends.

Shelley Rice