“I don’t just take photographs, I think.”
So said the legendary photojournalist Don McCullin, capturing in a few words the same poignancy and depth of meaning as rendered in each of his images.
McCullin witnessed some of the bloodiest, world changing moments in recent human history as thousands of lives unravelled and homes and countries were destroyed by warfare. But at heart, he was fascinated by the underbelly of society, the ordinary and the unacknowledged extraordinary folk surviving everyday life.
McCullin resisted the label of war photographer. Acutely aware of the responsibility that came with his role, he spoke instead of being on the side of humanity.
It’s a similar agenda that drives my own fascination with how photographs can be a snapshot of more than just a moment. They are a vital, lasting insight into a lifetime, of an individual or even a whole era.
Photographs preserve time and fuel our memories — and spark our imagination — when the moments have passed.
“The contemplation of things as they are, without substitution or imposture, without error and confusion, is in itself a nobler thing than a whole harvest of invention.” Sir Francis Bacon (1561–1626)
I can happily weave a tale with the skills I’ve acquired from a lifetime playing and working with words. But put a camera in my hand and I’m paralysed with both the eagerness to do justice to what I see, and an awareness of my inability to do so.
That’s why I was delighted to happen upon ‘30-Second Photography’, a compendium of tips, techniques, styles and photographers, edited by the filmmaker, artist and writer Brian Dilg. Somewhat appropriately, this was the book I settled on as my meaningful memento from the endlessly inspiring town of St Ives, Cornwall. More specifically, it was the book I discovered in Tate St Ives, which is currently showing a series of photographs by pioneering artists from across Europe, the Americas and Japan, in ‘The Modern Lens’.
A picture is worth a thousand words.
Although a qualification is required to make the saying a true axiom — a good picture is worth a thousand words, for the eye and the hand that grabs it must surely do so with an understanding of the complexity, layers and context that need compressing into a single image so as to make it so powerful.
Good photography not only tells a story but prompts a series of questions about the subject — what happened to make that woman’s face so cragged, what happened to the child after the photographer turned away, how did that landscape become so ravaged, what’s going on inside the rooms of that building reflected on the shiny surface of that skyscraper?
Like all good storytelling, whatever the medium, the power lies in the impact on one’s imagination, first by pushing some kind of cerebral button that makes you pause and wonder — who, what, why, when, how?
“Photography is a language everyone thinks he speaks.” Photographer Philip-Lorca diCorcia
Like citizen journalism, now that the tools are accessible to all, all harbour the arguably mistaken belief that they can acquire the skills with equal immediacy.
That’s not to say that citizen journalism or amateur photography is a bad thing. Far from it, giving people access to new tools and techniques is a wonderful thing and allows for an equality of opportunity and multiple voices to participate in as many aspects of existence as possible.
However, one thing remains inimitable to the true artist, literary or visionary, and that’s talent.
Dennis Hopper, Dorothea Lang, Diane Arbus, Henri Cartier Bresson, Annie Leibowitz, Don McCullen, the list goes on. Humanists, voyeurs, predators, observers, philosophers, intruders, artists — true photographers are so much more than the combination of the medium, the skill and the subject they choose.
And while we can never hope or indeed choose to be anything like them, we can certainly learn a lot from their approach to life.
As Brian Dilg concludes in his introduction to the book that I hope will influence my own progress as a more thoughtful observer of and participant in life, the point of photography is to improve one’s own “awareness of the subtlety and richness hiding in this most democratic of mediums…and that you’re inspired to look at the world around you with deeper appreciation, whether or not you have a camera in your hands.”