I was reminded of this phenomenon when we purchased a copy of Alec Soth's NIAGARA, a book that certainly should have been in our library years earlier, but somehow didn't actually find its way to our shelves until just recently. In this book, there is an image of the doorway to a motel room (I believe the actual title of the work is No. 48, Cadillac Motel, 2005). I've reproduced the picture below (via the Christie's website).
Prior to seeing this image in the context of the book (which I'll talk about in a second), I had only seen it separated out as a single picture; most recently I saw it both in the catalogue and in person at the preview for the Berman sale at Christie's last October. It's actually printed bigger than you might imagine (40x32), giving it some heft on the wall.
Given our particular interest in city/industrial images, and more generally in the photography of built structures, this work caught my eye immediately, even though I remember thinking at the time that it wasn't exactly representative of what I thought Alec Soth's work was all about. In any case, what I saw then (from my vantage point) was a combination of Lewis Baltz and William Eggleston: pure deadpan geometries (the rectangles of the door and window frames, the repetition of the brickwork, the parallel lines of the roof, the vertical lines of the drapes), accented by a keen eye for color (the call and response of the maroon and yellow across the composition; and the thin line of the fluorescent yellow light tube on the ceiling actually makes the whole picture for me). Given all of this analysis, it seems like a dead ringer for the kind of work we normally like.
Now fast forward to a recent evening in our living room, when I actually spent the time to look over NIAGARA closely, reading the essays, looking at the images, and thinking about the sequencing and overall feel of the book. For those of you who are not intimately familiar with this book, the project tells the story of Niagara Falls, via a carefully sequenced set of architectural shots of tourist motels, images of the misty falls themselves, portraits and nudes of couples/lovers, reproduced hand written love letters, and various still life fragments. Without going through a full analysis of this terrific book, let it suffice to say that it is a melancholy narrative about the search for love (embodied by the mythical honeymoon trip to Niagara Falls) and its ultimate elusiveness.
So let's go back to the Cadillac Motel above. Given this back story, the image of the front of room 17 is, I think, entirely different. I am now completely haunted by the trail of lonely footsteps in the snow leading to the door, now drifted over and forgotten, footsteps that I had hardly even noticed (or generally disregarded) before. While the architectural geometries and patterns are still there of course, the whole image is now infused with a heavy pathos, a gloomy mood that I can't shake. The image has been transformed by the context.
The point of this little mind bending exercise is not to prove that I now "know the answer" and can see the image "correctly". My takeaway is that our brains are programmed to pattern match, to seek comparisons and relationships to things we already know; as such, absent some outside direction, we often see what we want to see or what we already know. Collectors are constantly being exposed to work that is taken out of its original context (at least as intended by the maker); our reaction is to look closely for connections to work we do understand and remember, and to ask about historical precedents, influences, or images that are "like" the work at hand.
I haven't come across a work that has such a strong duality in quite a while, but the truth is, it happens all the time, given the imperfect knowledge of all kinds of viewers. Even when we have all of the important ("right") information that would directly lead us to the conclusion intended by the artist, we're still all connecting to work in unimaginable ways, finding links to ourselves that lie far beyond the most obvious reading of the work. So the next time you ask a fellow gallery-goer or collector the simple question of "what do you see in this work?", the answer may be altogether more complex and unexpected than you might have anticipated.