There are many different things one can taste, and many different ways of tasting them. When you taste wine, some wines give you all they’ve got right away: you may love it or you may hate it, but if you taste it again and again and again, you will get the same thing every time. Other wines give you something new with every approach: Yes? Ah, plums, leather. Yes? Ah, blackberries, blueberries. Yes? Ah, coffee, and that girl you used to know. Yes? Tannins around your tongue like a ring of soft thorns. Yes? A line of bittersweet down the middle like a stripe of chocolate. Yes? A 20-year-old bomber jacket. Yes? Your grandmother’s bookshelf. Yes? That one Christmas in the country. And so on.
Words are like that too. Some – typically ones of which you have less knowledge and ones that connect to less in your life – don’t bring a whole lot. Some bring so many things they’re like the grey murmur of a large crowd in a swimming pool. Some connect to a few things, then a few more things, then a few more. They are doors to libraries; they are Proustian madeleines.
Pictures can be like that too. I like photography, and I try to get photos that engage the eye, that bring a moment or a clear tidy story. But I also love photos that you can spend a lot of time looking at and digging into. Photos that you really have to see in magnification to catch every detail. And yet that you have to see in one broad view to get a sense of the structure, the occasion. Imagine if the events of a novel were laid out before you in the dimensions of space all at once, rather than along the line of time, and you could wander through them and look here, look there, look in different orders. Or imagine if it were not about one person’s narrative but about all the things that occur in a place at a time. This is a picture that teems with detail, information, events.
We all know some paintings and drawings like this. As children, we may have looked at Richard Scarry books. We may have gone on to spend endless time with Where’s Wally books, not only looking for Wally but enjoying the endless little actions and interactions Martin Handford put in. As museum-going adults we may have gone swimming in paintings by Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Brueghel the Elder.
The Germans have a word for such pictures: Wimmelbild. I have been made aware of this word by Ming Thein, an excellent photographer and blogger. Read his article (it’s in English, don’t worry) and look at his photos at https://blog.mingthein.com/2016/06/24/wimmelbild-im-fotografie/ . No, really, read it. I consider it required reading for this. Do it now, then come back and continue.
Wimmelbild is a German word made from two German words: the verb wimmeln and the noun Bild. Bild means ‘picture’; wimmeln means ‘teem’.
Teem. This is a word that teems with meaning and overtones. It is more than one word, even. Of course it sounds like team – and team comes from the same root, etymologically. Team is a word for a group or set or lot of people; teem is a verb for a lot of people, or a lot of things. Or a lot of rain. If something is teeming, it is abounding, overflowing, florescing, crawling with… or pouring with so much rain the drops are like avid army ants by the billion. And that is the other root: the abundance sense comes from Old English teman (with a long e), which also gives us team; the rain sense, which also has a related sense of ‘pour’ as in molten steel, comes from Old English temen (with short e’s). The two have converged; history has led them to meet.
I do not like being in crowds. But I esteem that which teems when it is a thing I can examine at length and leisure. A crowd like a cloud of steam, perhaps, each individual like a droplet in its own path, meeting other droplets backward and forward, all viewed frozen in time or at a comfortable distance. Or any picture that you need to click on to go to the full-size version that you can inspect at length. Perhaps a sweeping array of roofs.
Or a crowd in a square.
Or a crowd in an art gallery full of paintings of teeming crowds.
Or a rink full of skaters in motion, Heisenbergian in its denial of fixed detail for those that are moving, and denial of movement for those with fixed detail.
Or perhaps even just an evening scene of diners on a patio. Does this teem enough? So many stories, moments, invitations to look and read and speculate.
Or flowers and leaves, a symposium all posing and peering at you peering at them.
Or windows – a building side of windows, each with its own life. I would like a wall-size photo of a building side of windows that you could peer at closely almost like an Advent calendar, the prizes being the lives and stories within.
Or people arrayed across a beach. Perhaps an assembly stitched from several exposures – can you see where the same person appears twice? Who is with whom? What will come next? Don’t forget to click to see the full-size view in all its megapixels!
Or books. A whole library of books. Spines with names. A universe of universes. A team of literature, a teeming of literature, an esteeming of literature.