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The Trinity of Incongruity, or Why I Still Love This Tuxedo-Sewing-Machine-UPS-Truck Photograph

When thinking about launching #PhotosWeLove, I figured I’d get the ball rolling by writing a few hundred words about this Eggleston, this Cartier-Bresson, or this, from Rosalind Solomon.

But when I honestly consider what’s given me sustained and lasting joy in the past ten years, it’s been this ridiculous photograph that became an internet sensation.

There’s been a truckload of words spilled over this picture, investigating its source, its relationship to a Seinfeld episode, what happened to the truck, and what the cops are doing, standing around. All of which is well and good.

But what I like best about this photo, is you can show it to anyone who is or isn’t “interested in photography” and it will blow their mind, just a little bit.

The picture taps into one of the most potent questions about photography today: Is it real or Photoshopped?

While sharper minds will debate the photo’s realness (it’s real, folks; it’s Don Sheehy, Assistant Professor of Computer Science at UConn!) the question as to whether or not something is real (and “really happened”) confirms the question photography is consistently answering now that a few billion carry cameras in their pockets.

Pics or it didn’t happen! might be the foremost photographic challenge of our time. Photographs now offer confirmation; I came, I saw, I conquered (by taking this photo with my Caeserian cell-phone).

via Jim Dyson/Redferns via Getty Images

The conquering of the moment when a tuxedo’d guy stood in front of a ditched UPS truck with a sewing machine might have been made with a 2004-era Nikon point-and-shoot, but that’s no matter. It’s the kind of thing that would never elude a smartphone. Even though phones (and consequently, photographers) are everywhere, I’ve yet to see a photo that trumps this Trinity of Incongruity.

I made this diagram to prove how Tuxedo/SewingMachine/UPSTruck is the kind of photograph that will never happen again, which, by definition, is exactly what makes the photo special. Unique.

In a constantly-photographed world, there are fewer and fewer places on the globe that aren’t photographed, or have never been photographed. This location in New Jersey (Princeton?) has been photographed and will be photographed again, but never again with the extraordinary confluence seen here.

And while my eyes still dart around the photograph in amazement, it always ends-up returning to Sheehy’s conspiratorial smile (which sends me off on another loop around the elements). Sheehy’s knowing grin says, “I’m in this with you” — it’s ridiculous, isn’t it? He’s complicit in creating the photo for which he knows (and the photographer, surely) that there will be many questions, but no sufficient answers.

Looping back on itself, the photograph tells a story that never ends: you’ll never know more than you do you now about what’s happening here, no matter how hard you try to see between the pixels.

It’s perfectly pitched, inscrutable, and as welcoming as a cooked telephone when you ordered grilled lobster.

It’s what The Surrealists would have wanted, or at least Lautreamont!

(This piece was written as a spark for Photos We Love, a new publication from Atlanta Celebrates Photography, which welcomes and encourages you to explore how, why, and what we love about photographs, one picture at a time.)