Perspective | Boyish energy bursts from Billy Abernathy’s 1967 photo, “The Screen”

I love this photograph by Billy (Fundi) Abernathy. It shows three boys looking out a window, their faces and hands pressed against a fly screen. The tattered screen has holes in it. The frames of the window are similarly beaten-up.

The vertical frame on the right is exactly aligned with the edge of the photograph. It looks particularly ragged, which creates a feeling that the border between the world depicted in the photograph and the world I’m in might be permeable. Photographers think hard about edges, so I don’t believe this is an accident.

Photographers also think hard about space, which recedes differently in photographs compared with how it recedes to human eyes. Some photographers like to minimize the distortions of photographic space by photographing things that are close, opaque and parallel to the picture plane. Walls. Building facades. That kind of thing.

That’s what Abernathy has done here. There’s nothing remarkable about it. He has simply photographed a flat space that’s very close and parallel to the picture plane. What’s wonderful about the photograph is simply the way the three children burst out of that almost abstract, two-dimensional space and create, all by themselves, a sense of sculptural dynamism.

Abernathy (1938-2017) was a photographer associated with the Black Arts Movement, the African American artists collective known as AfriCOBRA and a loose-knit group of photographers known as the Chicago School. He Africanized his first name by changing it to Fundi in the 1970s.

“The Screen,” as this photograph is titled, is from a series called “Born Hip,” which helped to define notions of Black style, confidence and poise in the 1960s. It later appeared in a volume called “In Our Terribleness: Some Elements and Meaning in Black Style,” a collaboration with the poet and author Amiri Baraka (who was born LeRoi Jones). “In Our Terribleness” was designed by Abernathy’s wife, Sylvia (Laini) Abernathy and published in 1970. Its title comes from Baraka: “Our terribleness is our survival as beautiful beings, anywhere.”

“The Screen” has a “Ta-da! Here we are” quality that I find hilarious. The effect is accentuated by the way the three heads burst out of the picture’s flatness along a vertical axis. They look out in different directions — the boy at top to the left and the two boys beneath him to the right — and their faces respond to what they are seeing with such immediacy and candor that they animate the imaginary space all around the picture. What have they noticed? What has their attention?

You wonder, too, what is going on inside the room they emerge from. Is the boy at top standing on a chair, for instance? Is the boy at bottom crouching down? Is it a classroom, where the teacher has stepped out for a minute? Are there 20 more kids milling around them? We know nothing of any of this. We just see three faces and four hands, which are themselves beautifully expressive. The combined effect is like the stacked faces and hands of those clusters of donors and saints in Renaissance altarpieces.

Children come into adults’ lives in just this way. They may be our own kids. They may be our students. They may enter our lives in other ways. But they transform a world that experience tells us (erroneously) we know and understand — a world that can feel more or less flat — into a world of many dimensions, packed full of unknowns.

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