Are you the girl in this photo?

Are you the girl in this photo?

Curator Photography Athol McCredie looks at a photo by Max Oettli capturing a moment of curiosity in a little girl’s life. But who is she? Is she you?

In 1972, photographer Max Oettli was wandering around a department store on Auckland’s Queen St when he spotted this girl. The store had new escalators, with satin steel sides and a hand-grip belt of black rubber. To a child who had never seen an escalator before this belt might have looked like a giant liquorice strap. Or maybe she thought its warm, moving form, as it curved down into the floor, was like a tongue disappearing into a throat. When the world is a giant adventure playground, why not?

Max Oettli, Department store, Auckland, 1972. Gelatin silver print. Te Papa (O.030450)

Whether liquorice or tongue, I am reminded of my own daughter practically bursting out of her car seat restraints with excitement when she saw snow for the first time as we drove towards Mt Ruapehu. She thought it was a giant mountain of ice cream we would be rolling in.

Is this how the mind develops? By analogy: understanding the unknown in terms of the known. And do we ever leave this process behind as we understand new things in terms of the old? Is this the very essence of human thought? Maybe this what Oettli intuited when he framed the shot and subconsciously saw analogy also operating visually in the echo of the escalator top in the girl’s striped dress.

Where were the girl’s parents? Oh, her mother was probably off shopping in another part of the multi-level mall, says Max. He saw it quickly, took one shot and moved on. You can see that in the successive frames he shot in the store – some massed desktop fans, a man signing a hire-purchase agreement or similar, and then the girl.

Max Oettli. Escalator girl negative strip.
Max Oettli, 35mm negative strip. Photo by and courtesy of Mark Strange
Max Oettli, Fans, department store, Auckland, 1972
Max Oettli, Fans, department store, Auckland, 1972. Photo by and courtesy of Max Oettli

Did the girl know she had been snapped? If she did, would she have understood anything of Oettli’s purpose? Would anyone? Perhaps his project was no more or less than to delight in the world as much as the girl. And equally, to try things out – to see what he could capture when he turned his camera on the unnoticed moments of the world.

But aside from all this, who is the girl? Is she out there somewhere? Does she remember the sensation of tongue on belt? Did she decide that maybe she wouldn’t do that again? As an adult, does she feel a twinge of suppressed excitement when she sees an escalator? Or revulsion at the thought of all that grime running over her tongue. We’d love to hear from her.

Listen to Max talk about the photograph

See the photograph in The New Photography at Toi Art at Te Papa until 13 Oct

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