I don’t know Ed Henderson’s story, but that voice talking to him from offscreen definitely belongs to John Baldessari. In this piece, the artist doesn’t ask nor seem to expect that we know or learn much about Henderson, other than that he looks and sounds on the young side; that he wears shiny black-rimmed glasses and what some a “jewfro;” and that he retains only imperfect memories, if any at all, of recent pieces of photojournalism. Pushpinning a series of newspaper photographs onto the wall, Baldessari asks Ed to describe what he thinks they depict.
“Looks like it was in Northern California,” Ed says about one. Another moves him to finer-grained geographical specificity: “It’s Los Angeles: palm trees, trashy little houses.” In the photo Baldessari has put up, a pair of cops train their guns on a t-shirted fellow flat on the sidewalk. “Police don’t pull out firearms unless it’s absolutely necessary,” Ed assures us in the flatly optimistic tones of the True Stories-era David Byrne. “Obviously, this is a military man,” Ed says of a strapping subject in a harshly folded hat doubled over and sniffing his way along a trail; “basic jungle training,” it seems. One image, harder to make out than the rest, appears to contain a beaked creature in its corner. “This, I’m almost positive,” Ed ventures, “is some sort of rare hummingbird.”
Unaccompanied photographs, even muddy ones seen through Portapak footage like these, combine a surprising richness of information with a total lack of context. Of course, Baldessari has done some of the decontexualizing himself, snipping away the articles they illustrate. I can’t write anything more incisive about this phenomenon, and certainly won’t write anything more voluminous, than documentarian Errol Morris has in his New York Times blog and his blog-based book, Believing is Seeing. Suffice it to say that we get in trouble when we examine photographs and our minds wander beyond the frame. Ed doesn’t say anything too patently ridiculous in the video — I did chuckle when he initially mistakes a beach full of crabs for a beach full of “bugs,” though I felt I was laughing with him — but we have know way of knowing how close he comes to the target. More to the point, we have know way of knowing what the “target” even is.