Melissa Brandts and her husband were hiking in Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada and decided take a shot of themselves with their backs to a spectacular scene of Lake Minnewanka. As the camera autofocussed, a curious squirrel popped up to inspect the source of the whirring noise. The camera automatically focussed on the squirrel and shot it, leaving an amused couple out of focus.
This image circulated the globe as a light relief news item, it made a lot of people smile, if not laugh. But why? Why is it funny?
This question can’t be answered. But we can at least speculate a little on the many reasons in this case. For me, the reasons are based on an uneasiness. In order to explain why, let me get a better handle on the image itself. The image has a random sophistication and reminds me of Velázquez’s Las Meninas. The squirrel is practically in the centre of the image in the foreground, to the right of the vertical squirrel sit a blurred-out couple and in the distance our idylic mountain/lake scene. The other ‘player’ in this situation is the camera which has autonomously focussed and shot the image having been set to do so. The image is an intersection of culture, nature and technology (which I regard as outside of the culture/nature dichotomy – maybe I’ll post on that at a later date).
The squirrel ‘pops’ in the image in a posed yet uncomposed way – i.e. imposing. The couple seem marginalised by the very presence of the squirrel, and they are: not are they just visually pushed to one side by the presence of the squirrel, they are also of course blurred out by the nearer proximity of the squirrel to the camera, which took the squirrel in its blind reason to be the subject of the image it was about to capture. The human, then, has been marginalised by the interplay of an animal and a machine.
This explains what I mean by uneasiness. Comedy is often described as the space between our ambitions and actual achievements. The couple set out to picture themselves in a beautiful scene, perhaps as a momento with a little vanity. The unthinking actions of the squirrel and the camera (and I mean ‘unthinking’ literally – they do not think), is the rude eruption of machine and nature not conforming to the control we try to impose on them and doing so in an uncannily human way. It’s as if the beautiful scene has revolted against its captors.