The Humble Door and What it Symbolises


What was it about the door that caught the attention of photographers like Paul Strand, William Henry Fox Talbot, Eugène Atget, Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange? What were they after? Afterall, the door is just a division separating the exterior from the interior. May be it was this that they were specifically interested in… To take the viewer beyond this separation, to show how the interior could exist with the exterior, and to lead the viewer’s gaze and their imagination to what lies beyond.

One of the earliest photographs of a door, titled The Open Door, was made by William Henry Fox Talbot (1844). The composition is straightforward. The door appears half opened, while a broom is propped at an angle, on the left side, at the entrance of the doorway. On the right side, there’s a lantern hanging on the wall. The light appears bright and sharp, illuminating only the exterior of the doorway, while the interior appears dark and foreboding. Despite this, the interior manages to peak the viewer’s curiosity, owing to the little light entering through the lattice window, far back in the room. One wonders what’s lurking inside the room. Talbot never explained why he was drawn to the particular scene. In fact, he photographed the same setting for a little over two years, finally settling down for what became The Open Door. His only explanation for his interest in the subject was that it represented scenes of daily and familiar occurrence.

More than a century later, Paul Strand made a picture comprising the same elements as Talbot’s photograph—the door and the broom. In the picture, titled Side Porch, Vermont, 1946, the door is open, and there’s a broom hanging on the exterior of the wall. But unlike Talbot’s dark interior, the interior here appears inviting, primarily because of another door situated on the inside (on the right side of the image). This door is open as well, leading the viewer’s gaze to the exterior. In The Ongoing Moment, Geoff Dyer had this to say about the photograph, “The picture suggests, in diagrammatic form, that whatever photography’s capacity for psychological penetration, it will always necessarily come back to depicting the external world.” As for Strand, this is what he had to say, “I’ve been photographing windows and doors. Why? Because they fascinate me. Somehow they take on the character of human living.”

In the book, Dyer also mentions Dorothea Lange, widely known as a ‘photographer of people.’ But every now and then, Lange shot pictures that were devoid of human presence. Dyer gives the example of one particular photograph—El Cerrito Trailer Camp (Day Sleeper), c. 1943. A placard with the words ‘Day Sleeper’ is pasted on the door. It appears worn out and fragile and curling inwards. Just like Talbot, Lange employed the use of light and shadow, which predominantly dresses the image. The square format makes it a crisp composition. But don’t mistake it to be a photograph of a door made in passing. The placard alone tells us a lot about what the interior could hold. The person behind that door could possibly have been someone working the night shift, or someone with an unconventional sleeping habit, hence the placard.

Such thoughts come to my mind when I go out shooting with my phone. I like how personalised the doors are in Bombay, especially the ones at chawls, fishing villages and makeshift homes. Each door is a reflection of its owner, his culture, religious beliefs, likes and dislikes. What I also realised is that for most of us, the door represents a boundary, a sturdy gateway safeguarding the interior from the exterior. But this isn’t always the case. I have come across ‘doors’ that were just plain curtains, hanging loosely over a rod, gently swaying with the breeze. It’s a lot more inviting than a shut door. It tells us so much about the space it’s concealing. Maybe the breeze through the curtain provides some much needed respite on a hot summer day, or maybe it just makes it easier for people to walk in and out of the space. But more importantly, I think the use of curtains or for that matter, doors that are left ajar, reveal how safe people feel residing in the area. Can you imagine flat dwellers doing the same?

I personally photograph doors because that’s as close as I can possibly get myself to photographing people. I stand before it long enough to observe the little stickers, or carvings, or even the nature of the lock. I also like to look at how people place their slippers outside the door, if they’re neatly or haphazardly arranged. Just last month, when I was shooting at Asalpha village, a lady humourously asked me if she should open the door to her home (she found me photographing it). I realised how I must have appeared to her from afar. I smiled and told her, “They just don’t make doors like this anymore.”

This article originally appeared in the February 2018 issue of Better Photography.