A book like Langford's Basic Photography is a fantastic introduction to a wonderful subject. I can’t see how my life could have been anywhere near as full or as rich as it has been without photography. It’s been everything to me, the electricity in my life, the way to communicate with people, to fall in love, to vent my displeasure at the world, to articulate every fibre of my feeling. Photographing has allowed me to express all of this and to make some sense of it.
Photography’s power is as a passport: it gives you permission to participate in a whole series of situations in life that you wouldn’t be allowed in normally. Whether it’s a car crash or a presidential election, society immediately accepts you into this event because you are a photographer. If you take away the camera you are just like everybody else. Photography, like poetry or philosophy, enables you spend a lot of time scrutinizing the little details of life. It becomes a reason to live in a broader way.
Other people’s pictures are enormously important as a way of solving problems: how someone else dealt with expressing great energy in their work, perhaps, or profound sadness. Photography is so accessible that it’s very easy to produce images that seem to look as good or similar in style or structure to existing work. What’s slightly dangerous about this is that people quickly achieve these more or less adequate results, think: “I can do this” and then remain at that level, aping others’ styles. This is a false way of rationalising your own work, however. Photography is about yourself, how you feel about what you see. Trying to express your perspective through somebody else’s feelings is a twisted way of communicating.
Equipment or image-manipulation don’t matter in themselves; which camera or software I use is no more interesting than which pen a writer uses or microphone a rock star sings from. But you need to know the scope of the technology. Without full knowledge of your equipment’s ability to articulate what you are trying to express, it’s like trying to speak with a limited vocabulary. Experimenting with photographic imagery is age-old. If you look at the work of Erwin Blumenfeld, this is the man who put his film in the freezer in order to expose it through ice crystals during the 1940s, or Man Ray, who toiled away in the darkroom during the 1930s, solarising his prints. A huge amount of historical imagery suggests that many photographers –past and present- do not regard the point of image capture as the only creative moment in image-making. The entire process -right from conception, through construction and post-production to the moment of completion- is important.
I can’t believe that anybody can claim to be aware of every single square centimetre of their photographs. My earliest pictures, done with a 35mm camera and black and white film, were reportage shots of skinheads and potentially violent events as they unfolded in front of me. I remember taking pictures of two girls that I liked the look of, who were standing against a wall in a dance hall. It was only afterwards, when I looked at the contact sheets, did I notice that whilst one of them was holding a handbag, the other was holding a broken bottle.
Contrary to the principle of the ‘decisive moment’ that has dominated the understanding of photography, a photographer just isn’t aware of the full image as it is taken. To describe the process, you force yourself into a situation in order to get the shot, you’re experiencing a crescendo of heightened awareness, pushing and manipulating, doing whatever is necessary to balance circumstances; lighting, relationships with the sitter, whatever it is. Finally, you sense a whole bunch of energy flows converging, which is almost like a melody becoming pitch perfect. You respond much quicker than you ever thought you could, but the shutter goes down and flash goes off in response to the moment prior to capture. The moment documented is not the moment that you see, therefore, it is the moment that you don’t see.
Unfortunately photography has recently been held to trial for its lack of representation of reality. My own view is that photography never lied but neither did it set out to tell the truth. It said “You know nothing of this situation. I’ll give you some of my thoughts on it”. A far more crucial issue is that photographers have some moral responsibility for what they show us. Visual imagery is a very powerful medium of expression and some image-makers are guilty of firing it recklessly, like a gun, without looking at the impact of what they are doing. In a culture that can be so rich, we are so poor with our imagery. There is a whole range of people that just aren’t included in our visual representation of beauty; excluded for their size, individuality, health, ethnicity or sexuality. I believe it is our duty to use our images to acknowledge that the parameters we set for our image of society are too narrow and reflect that these people have every right to be held up in adoration along with everybody else.
It is useful for all photographers to be shown that they are completely capable of screwing up. On any shoot, the first pictures that come out are almost certainly going to be a failure. Standing in front of someone who is supposedly meant to be the most beautiful woman in the world and then the initial Polaroids aren’t very good at all; that’s a reasonably humbling experience. It tends to force photographers into repeated patterns of behaviour, like: “last time I did it this way, or that works so by playing this music and using this lens, talking a particular way to the model or using that light etc. will achieve the same results”. Those confidence tricks aren’t ways of understanding what is happening in front of you, they are a ways of reassuring yourself. You should be metaphorically naked in front of your subject, out of your comfort zone and fighting for a new vision that you’ve never previously imagined. If you can see it already there is no point in taking the picture.