A Perfectly Mimed Moment

Some painters in the 19th century feared photography would render painting redundant. Not so: In spite of the advances in photography throughout the 20th century, painting still proliferates.

It is increasingly recognized that photography and painting are just different, with their own capacities and limits. A new technology does not necessarily make an older technology anachronistic.

Similarly, color photography has not replaced black-and-white photography. Instead, monochrome work is found supreme in certain ways, color in others.

Melanie Stetson Freeman's photograph is not in color because the Monitor, in 1985, did not require color. This picture of villagers in Guatemala would have lost, in color, much or all of its atmosphere - potent inscrutability, oddly sinister undercurrents.

Color might easily have made it picturesque or folksy. But it is not glamorized, this strange dark group of hunched and behatted men, whose expressions we cannot see or gauge. Their concentration is apparently centered on the woman whose face the photographer has made sure we glimpse. But this face, all but kept from us by the line of black backs, is a mystery, too - like an actor's animated mask that serves its wearer for any mood, morose or buoyant, comic or tragic. The woman seems to be telling a story that has her listeners spellbound ... but who knows?

The silence of a photograph (no less than a painting) is like an overheard foreign language: Since we do not understand a word, we may completely mistake the meaning. Photographs speak only through visible signs and hints. They are wordless, and the people in them perform in mime. But even that mime is frozen to a motionless tableau, in which the protagonists are stilled in perpetuity.

The paradox of a photograph is that it pictures movement, even a split second, by its opposite: by stillness and by a permanence fixed and framed. The paradox of a black-and-white photograph is that it pictures color without color. But these very ''limits,'' when seen and used as expressive advantages, can surpass themselves and be turned into something indelible, something hard to forget.

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