I don’t know how many “favorite” photographs I have, but I know that one of the frames in my sanctum of photographic love holds Imogen Cunningham’s “The Unmade Bed.” It’s clicheish to say that you could look at a particular artwork every day of your life and never grow bored with it. In fact, though, I can pretty much say that truly of “The Unmade Bed.” A postcard of it has been pinned to the corkboard that’s hung in every office I’ve occupied since I got my last diploma. Whenever I see that card, it draws me away, into its lyrical silence.
Why do I love it? What our conscious mind grasps and can tell about such things is only the fractional edge of an ocean that stretches out endlessly, through our experience and emotion and ideas and who-knows-what-other-kinds-of-causes. Still, I’ll try to describe at least some of the features and factors and facets of my ardor for “The Unmade Bed.”
Its atmosphere is the first thing that absorbs us. The contrast in the print is moderate, like music turned low. The scene feels private, intimate. Most of the bedroom is dim or dark, and the light is softly diffused. There are plenty of curves, but no right angles or sharp-cornered shapes in view. And we’re alone in the room. We see no person, just clues to who was there and what may have happened before we looked in.
As our view moves outward toward the edges of the frame, the light diminishes gradually, the bedsheets and blanket grow darker. What we see most clearly, the folds of the upper sheet and especially the flat sheet below, are like the space inside the periphery of attention in a loving gaze or in making love; everything outside tends to blur or vanish.
The smooth transitions between shadow and light evoke a feeling of gentleness and, in this case, even tenderness. At the same time, the curving folds of the upper sheet remind us of sexual movements, of the curves of the female body that we imagine has recently lain in this bed, where a woman has left a few hairpins on the sheet.
Those hairpins, though small, are the center of our attention. The waving folds of the upper sheet surround them as hills surround a small cluster of houses in a valley. The pins are the most sharply-defined objects in the scene, showing all the more clearly because they’re placed on the brightest area in the image. They make us think of a woman unpinning and taking down her hair, for sleep or for love. The number and size of the pins imply (at least to a “layman” in matters of female grooming) the luxuriance of the hair that they held. And their lying together as they do suggests the care that the woman must have taken in laying, not tossing, them down. Our response is subtly affected as well by the pins not lying dead center in the scene, but “modestly” to the side, cradled by the upper sheet that surrounds and rises behind them.
All of these things make for an experience of sensuousness, not sensuality; of savoring, not ravening; of grace and quiet and attentiveness.
You feel, indirectly, the loveliness and gentleness of the woman who was in this bedroom just a while ago.
In part, I love this photograph because for me it’s a mirror in which I see my wife’s reflection. When it comes to why we love certain works, we can’t overlook their reach into the personal particulars of our lives and our selves. In a poem of mine (“The Wedding Poem”) that was first published in the year after my wife and I were married, I quoted another artwork that I love, a poem by the 9th-Century Chinese poet, Chang Hu (translated by Witter Bynner), that’s the literary kin of Cunningham’s visual image. Both works are sexy without being showy, and both embody an irresistible tenderness of spirit in the artwork’s maker as well as in its subject.
And beneath your talk I could see
the woman of that Chinese poem that I love:
When the moonlight, reaching a tree by the gate,
Shows her a quiet bird on its nest,
She removes her jade hairpins and sits in the shadow
And puts out a flame where a moth was flying.
I’m gratefully moonstruck, as I have been for years, by the lovely folds, dim light, and loosed pins in Imogen Cunningham’s photograph; by Chang Hu’s compassionate heroine, removing her hairpins by a moonlit window; and by the glorious, unpinned hair of my own gentle beauty, pictured below, glowing in a new scene of moonlight and shadow: