What is it Like to be Alive?
by Chris Arthur
The only information provided is in the caption: “A little boy with a horse in winter, 1958. Sweden.” I first saw this photograph on December 6th 2017. That was the date when it turned up as the illustration on a calendar that gives a different picture for every day of the year. Since then, I’ve kept it by my desk and look at it often. In the way that some photos do, often for no apparent reason, this one speaks to me. It made an immediate impression; it continues to draw my eye – even though by now the elements of the picture are so familiar. For attribution, “Landskrona Museum Collection” is all that’s credited. The name of the photographer isn’t given.
What does the photograph show? A little boy is holding the reins of a white horse. They’re standing in a snowy field or garden. There are four bicycles to his left. Only their rear wheels and saddles are visible, the photo cuts off the rest. The boy is holding the horse’s reins in his ungloved right hand. You can see his fingers clearly. His grip is too loose, and the disparity in size between boy and horse too great, for him to be exercising any real restraint or control. He’s four years old at most. His left hand is empty and held relaxed by his side, encased in a thick woollen mitten. He’s well-dressed for the cold – hat with ear-flaps tied snugly under the chin, heavy coat and trousers, boots. Apart from his righthand fingers, the only exposed flesh is his face. He’s looking towards the camera. It’s hard to read his expression, but he seems content. The horse towers above him; the boy looks scarcely bigger than its head. It’s a calm, unthreatening looking animal, but to call it “placid” would be a misnomer; there’s a powerful sense of strength implicit in its body, which seems massive in comparison to the boy. The horse’s head is turned away from the camera, its attention taken by something out of the picture on the boy’s right. Behind them are some leafless trees with snow-covered trunks and branches. It looks as if it’s almost dusk, or perhaps it’s just a heavily overcast day. It’s snowing, and the camera has caught the pale smuts of numerous flakes as they fall earthwards. It makes it seem as if the sky is stippled with a scattering of blurred stars – and it’s possible that at least some of what at first sight seem like snowflakes are indeed stars, their pale luminescence dappling the fading light. Boy and horse are standing on what is probably a path, partially cleared of snow. A pair of ski-poles has been stuck into the ground not far behind them. It’s hard to tell for sure, but the path may join a wider track or road. Where the ski-poles have been planted could be part of the tree-lined bank that marks the edge of this thoroughfare, which looks as if it leads to a house. My guess is that the photographer was standing in its doorway, sheltered from the snow. Horse, boy, bikes, and ski-poles, the suggestion of a path – there’s something about the whole ensemble that has a sense of arriving home, even though no building is visible.
Describing the photograph is easy. It’s more difficult to explain the impact that it has on me. It seems to have successfully caught a moment, which it offers up – intact and perfect – for the viewer to examine. It’s almost as if a sliver has been netted from time’s quicksilver flow and preserved here, its liquid voltage somehow confined within the frame, as if it were a kind of aquarium, instead of just draining away into the spent force of what’s past. But almost any photograph can claim to capture whatever moment it pictures, albeit few do it as convincingly as this one. It’s not this quality that gives the photo its particular potency.
What drew me to “A little boy with a horse in winter, 1958. Sweden” – and what keeps drawing me back to it – is the way it seems to pose a question, and to propose itself as a contributory fragment of an answer. From the moment I saw the photograph on December 6th 2017, a question came with it. The same question accompanies it still. Whenever I look at the picture, I hear a voice asking: “What is it like to be alive?”
This is, of course, a metaphorical way of putting it. I don’t mean I literally hear someone asking me this question. Hearing a voice that isn’t there might cast aspersions on my sanity rather than explaining anything about the photo’s impact. But the question has become so closely linked with the photograph that I can’t look at it without its asking also happening. Naturally this won’t be the case for everyone. Others will bring to their looking their own interpretative perspectives; they’ll see the photo through the unique filter of the person that they are. I can’t tell what catalogue of associations this winter scene will create for others, or whether they’ll find it as striking as I do. All I can say is that, for me, photograph and question have become so closely entwined that “What is it like to be alive?” now seems a better title for it than the one that’s given.
Who poses the question? The best answer I can give is “the photograph itself.” It’s not as if the little boy – let alone the horse – turn questioner; it’s not as if the ski-poles or bicycles, the trees or snowflakes come emblazoned with this interrogation so that everyone could see it. I don’t think the lie of the land that’s shown here has any question implicit in it, nor does the time of day or season. Yet there’s something about the totality of this scene that sparks the question. Or maybe what I mean is that there’s something about the totality of the encounter – of my seeing this image – that invariably results in the question being asked. Sometimes I try to picture what happens by thinking of the photograph’s elements as swirling contour lines or isobars marking out the shapes of horse, boy, ski poles. When I look at them, these lineaments temporarily detach from their positions, uncoil from the shapes they mark out and snake into me, tangle with the lines of my inner topography. The intermingling that results before they return to the photo braids and knots the psyche so that this form of words is invariably thrown out: “What is it like to be alive?”
It is, obviously, an impossible question to answer – or at least to answer fully and conclusively. Maybe one of the things that keeps drawing me back to the photograph is the way the question beckons to itself a whole swarm of contributory answers. What is it like to be alive? It’s like having the warm smell of horse in your nostrils as snowflakes fall on your face and melt there. It’s like sitting writing this sentence, trying to choose words that convey my meaning. It’s like the taste of sun-warmed wine, the feeling of thirst, the glint of candlelight on hair. It’s like a pilot’s view of runway lights, an egg hatching, a leaf falling. It’s like feeling the bits of rust from an old anchor chain come off on your hands as you haul yourself aboard an abandoned fishing boat left beached and abandoned in a remote bay. It’s like being ambushed by a question held invisibly in a black and white photograph of a little boy holding the reins of a white horse.
I’ve tried out scores of formulations since first seeing the picture on December 6th 2017 and I know I’ll try out more. But however large the swarm of answers grows, they’ll never amount to more than a few droplets in a tiny rivulet that’s one of billions feeding into an immeasurable ocean.
Who took the photo? The calendar gives no name. When I contacted Landskrona Museum, they told me that the photographer was Anders Hilding. This isn’t the only Hilding photograph in their collection, but none speak to me the way this one does. I can see the others are accomplished compositions, taken with a high degree of technical competence, often accompanied by considerable artistic sensibility. That’s not surprising. Hilding was a respected press photographer. Born in Landskrona in 1931, his pictures appeared in the area’s newspapers over a period of forty years. In 2007 the museum held an exhibition of his work. His pictures also appear in a series of books compiled by his friend and colleague Kalle Berggren. I’d like to have asked Hilding about the circumstances of his picture of the little boy and horse, and wish I’d done so when I saw the photo in 2017. By the time I came to write this essay, it was too late. Hilding died in April 2020.
Looking at the Museum’s holdings also alerted me to the fact that Ven (formerly Hven) is within Landskrona Municipality. This is the island in the Øresund Strait where Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) built Uraniborg and Stellaeburgum, his two famous observatories. I like to think of Tycho gazing into the same night sky the little boy in the photograph would have seen years later. What is it like to be alive? It’s like lunar light falling on Tycho’s retina, his brain forming pictures of the moon orbiting the earth (his accurate observations of the stars provided crucial groundwork for future discoveries). It’s like losing his heart to Kirsten Jørgensdatter, the commoner with whom he contracted a morganatic marriage, in accordance with the law at that time, alienating many members of his disapproving noble family.
And what of the little boy? I know nothing about him beyond what the photograph reveals. I don’t know his name, where he lived, who his parents were. I don’t know if he had brothers or sisters, whether he enjoyed school, what path he followed through the years, what gave him pleasure, what caused him pain. I don’t know if he’s still alive – but there’s a good chance he is. Is there somewhere in Sweden today, drawing breath into his lungs as I write this sentence, the man in his sixties who the little boy grew up to be?
What is it like to be alive? It’s like knowing there are lives glimpsed in passing which unfurl beyond my notice into whatever shape they take. It’s like looking at a picture of Anders Hilding and knowing that the eyes you’re looking at once looked at the scene framed in this photograph. It’s like sailing beyond sight of land, feeling another’s heart beat close to yours. It’s like walking in the rain and shivering. It’s like the recurrent knowledge of our certain death. It’s like walking down a crowded city street, or passing time with friends. It’s like the sound of school playgrounds and the silence of the desert. It’s like seeing injustice done and being powerless to prevent it. It’s like the taste of cinnamon and blood and mint. It’s like hearing a new-born’s cries, watching news reports of famine, listening to an old man’s fading breath. It’s like balancing a tower of sea-polished pebbles till they fall, or throwing sticks for dogs.
Perhaps part of the appeal the photograph holds for me is that in 1958 I was about the same age as the little boy pictured. This makes me feel a kind of fugitive companionship, knowing that we’ve run life’s course together, kept pace invisibly through the years without either of us realizing it, he following his life-story, I following mine, each locked into our own particular orbits of concern, members of a secret guild of unmet contemporaries, innocently complicit in the simultaneity of our momentary being. I imagine our two dots of sentient existence, the glow of our personalities, as tiny dust-speck meteorites following their trajectories across the space of our species’ canvas, the biosphere of time and space that’s occupied by Homo sapiens. What is it like to be alive? It’s like living amidst the enormity of daunting numbers, knowing you’re in the world with 7.8 billion unmet strangers, occupants of one planet among countless others in a universe that’s some 14 billion years old. It’s like forging a niche of familiarity, a cocoon of home and family, amidst incomprehensible scales of time and space. It’s like knowing that, in the end, there’s no image that can catch life’s likeness, but simply the extraordinary reflection of our experiences looking back at us through the mirror of our consciousness.
In that most engaging of modern philosophical classics, Sense and Sensibilia (1962), J.L. Austin makes an observation that always comes to mind when I look at Anders Hilding’s photograph. Austin says that “like” is a “flexibility device”, with whose aid, “in spite of our limited vocabulary, we can always avoid being left completely speechless”. He sums up this point in a memorable image, suggesting that “like” provides the linguistic equivalent of being able to shoot round corners. The photograph’s question seems to have taken Austin’s valuation of “like” to heart. What gives “A little boy with a horse in winter, 1958. Sweden” its power is that it helps to avoid speechlessness when faced with the raw fact of Being. It encourages me to shoot round corners. Looked at directly, life shrugs off our attempts to net its nature or explain it. The obliqueness of the comparisons the photo prompts provides glimpses of fleeting meanings, elusive faces, glimmers of a sense of sense.