WHETHER in a painting or a photograph, a window is a powerful image. The elements are simple and ordinary - light, a frame, perhaps a scene. But they can evoke deep responses. As a subject of art, a window is often a metaphor for a way of seeing: It suggests an opening, possibilities, a means of focusing, the fact of light. A window can hint at a human yearning for illumination. Through a window, light is given shape so that poured into a room it seems both transcendent and touchable.
There's an intriguing aesthetic to the Melanie Stetson Freeman photograph on this page. We are drawn into translucent curtains floating in a border of thick blackness. The black-and-white medium creates a somber, formal effect. As a window on a window, it implies a subjective frame of reference in looking at the world.
Yet the power of this photo is not just aesthetic. It also derives from the scene outside the window, which we discover is the main square in old-town Warsaw. This adds a sense of place and perhaps something of an intangible historical weight to the buildings and plaza: Here kings, queens, the French, Russians, Germans, and Soviets made entrances and exits. Napoleon dictated. Chopin played. Nazis herded Jews. Lech Walesa spoke.
Americans tend to see Europe through a gauzy curtain - allowing Old-World romance to outweigh harder facts of political life. This shot, taken in 1986, is of communist Poland. Moscow still had a grip on the country. Knowing this, perhaps we read the scene differently. The light may seem a bit more severe, the curtains more encumbering, the photo more austere than if we had been told this was a corner in a more tolerant city, say Amsterdam.
This is the subtext. The immediate shot is an everyday scene at around midday. The focus of the entire photo is of a solitary woman, wearing the shapeless dress of the East European working class, making her way across the square. She carries packages in either hand, and the bow of her arms under their weight is timeless - the most human element in the entire photograph. Humbly apotheosized in this way, we might wonder about her: what she did during the war, whether she has children, and where they are.
The power of this focusing on an anonymous woman reminds me of the final scene in the 1981 film "Moscow Doesn't Believe in Tears." In the film a young Russian woman goes to Moscow at the end of World War II, makes a mistake with a young man, and has a child. He leaves and she must go to school, raise the child, and build a career on her own. It is hard, but she succeeds after 15 years. Finally she meets a man, then almost loses him. As they are reconciled, the camera pulls away from the window of her a partment to show thousands of other windows on the dozens of other nondescript high-rises against the Moscow night sky.
See what lies behind these windows, the shot seems to say. From the outside they hide so much.