First in a series of short pieces, a description of Cristina Mittermeier’s exquisite photograph of The Lady and the Goose.
The background is black. A true, deep, flat black. Not a brown black, or blue black or grey black. Black. There are no shadows here, as there is no light. A chasm of darkness.
In the foreground an old woman is walking her pet goose. The goose is not on a lead as you might expect, but on her head, resting on her red felt hat. The goose is lying on its back, legs splayed wide from its body in an act of precarious balance, orange feet flexed, clipped wings tucked. The long neck is tightly folded back onto itself at the half way point, like an alpine chicane, with the head pointing forward in the direction of travel.
The goose is dirty. Filthy, with just a few patches of white but the rest of it a sooty grey. Mud encrusts the feathers, highlighting the individual barbs, making them look like straw, not soft and downy at all. A heavier concentration of dirt is around the eyes, darker, blacker, like a mask or heavy eyeliner, hastily applied with a stick dipped in tar.
The goose seems unsure of this arrangement, on its back on a human head. There is a need for balance, the foot nearest to the camera is slightly blurred, indicating some dry paddling movement is required to keep it from falling. The weight of the head too needs to be carried as far forward as possible to prevent sliding off the back of the hat and the neck and abdominal muscles look painfully strained. The goose’ expression is puzzled, surprised, or perhaps just resigned to the discomfort and its owner’s whim. The beak is downturned, the eyes aghast. Its stance implies that it is resisting entering the darkness beyond, pushing against it with its feet.
The old woman is striding forwards, facing to the left. Perfectly poised, her chin not too high, not too low. Eyes fixed on a point in the distance, mouth pursed a little, making the deep folds of her ancient face congregate at the line of her lips. Her face is tanned and her eyes, shaded by her hat, disappear into the blackness behind her. Her jet black hair at the nape of her neck and the deep shadow below her chin makes it look like her head is levitating above her body. She wears in a bright red coat which matches her hat, the contrast of this is glowing against the dark background. The only adornment is some embroidery on her collar.
In fact there are only three colours in this photograph: The dirty white of the goose, the orange brown of the goose’s feet and the woman’s face and the red of the coat and the hat. This simplicity of palette gives this photograph a painterly warmth. You might think the scene eccentric, but the woman carries herself like this is perfectly ordinary. The goose seems not so sure.
Cristina Mittermeier founded Sea Legacy together with fellow photographer Paul Nicklen. You can find out more about their important work here: http://www.sealegacy.org