This last couple of years has seen me re-evaluating everything that I do as a photographer. It has both good and destructive moments, such is the nature of introspection. But you don’t get far in life in any manner that really counts without the capacity for self-doubt.
A few years ago I saw myself as an aspiring street photographer. With a digital camera in hand I would walk the streets for many hours looking for that ‘decisive moment’. I remember one day in a mid September Berlin when I walked 35 kilometres and took over 700 pictures.
I still enjoy street photography, but it did not give me everything that I wanted from photography. At times I found it stressful and alienating and one of the things that I wanted from my photography was a sense of connecting with things. The rapid almost ‘sniper’ approach to photography that I thought ‘Street’ required left me feeling unconnected.
So ensued a flight to film and the darkroom, to medium format and slow photography. But replacing one approach to photography with another, one camera system with another; one medium with another, one photo location with another has not resolved my underlying sense of being ‘at sea’.
Looking back now, it could not have. Switching to film, traveling to an exotic (?) far-away location (North Dakota), learning my way around the darkroom, enjoyable though these have been, have not got to the core of my problem.
The problem was that I was under a few misapprehensions.
Firstly I had thought that photography came in chunks (called genres), such as street, landscape or portrait and that to get good one had to concentrate one’s efforts at one or two of them. But obviously the world does not present itself in terms of these limited categories. Disregarding genre means that one is more free to see things around you and be spontaneous.
Secondly, I thought that photography came as two basic types which determine a photographic approach and system: story-telling photography (for example street and documentary) and, for want of a better term, ‘sensibility’ photography (for example still life and portrait). But clearly this is wrong. Some photographs point to a story whilst still expressing an underlying essence in a state of affairs. The best street photographs achieve this. Some photographs tell no story. Essence becomes the sole motivation. Story-telling and sensibility are not mutually exclusive categories.
Finally I thought that the best photographers produced photographs as a series of related images, monographs and books (often with an apparently ‘deep’ title). But this is wrong too. Neo-pictorialists delight in the self-sufficiency of the single photograph, un-buttressed by others. Sequences of photographs often detract from the force of the one. A single image is unconditional, simpliciter. It does not rely on other, possibly weaker, images. How often have I looked through someone’s series of photographs and found one or two strong images with the rest just padding?
For me photography at its core is sometimes turning ‘seeings’ into ‘feelings’ and at other times turning ‘feelings’ into ‘seeings’. We choose a style and a system that helps us to bridge these gaps. Personally that happens to be film photography and the widest range of interpretation that can come from darkroom and alternative printing. Category is unimportant. System is not primal. Story-telling and sensibility are not separate. The key thing is whether I can move somebody with a photograph to feel how I felt.
At a recent workshop with a well-known master printer, I was talking about a proposed photographic study of unruly Rhododendrons that live near me. ‘Ah, your Rhododendron phase’! he teased, suggesting that I would ‘get over it’. Point taken. Another phase is probably not what I need now. Not a genre, not a series, not a new location. I just need to see better. And of course, seeing better partly depends on taking photographs of things that you care about, feel something for.