The Best Kept Secret

A occasional and yet short lived article about photography for One & Other, an organisation dedicated to York’s news and local interest.

The Best Kept Secret – Part One

When you go outside, move around, walk somewhere, ride a bike, stand in the street, what do you see? I know, essentially, that you see plenty of things. You see people, cars, litter, tourists, shops, the weather. In York we’re constantly shown an entire range of historical, aesthetic, cultural and commercial affairs and, happily, these are a large part of what makes the city so interesting. But how much do we take in? How often are we able to remove ourselves from the flow of life around us in order that we might just pause and look at things? To take a step back from the routine and habitual paths that usually control our day to day lives; to observe the finer detail of existence and our place within it?

You don’t need a camera in order to do this, you don’t need any kind of equipment at all. As John Stilgoe, master of the acute observation of everyday things, suggests in his wonderful book Outside Lies Magic, all you need do is “get out now…go outside, move deliberately, then relax, slow down, look around… enjoy the best kept secret around – the ordinary landscape that rewards any explorer, that touches any explorer with magic… take it, take it in, take in more every weekend, every day, and quickly it becomes the theatre that intrigues, relaxes, fascinates, seduces.”

My photographic practice has long been concerned with this kind of observation. Photography, for me, is a process of exploration, or, rather, it is a chance to document the explorations I make in the world; exploring my surroundings in search of images. I am constantly amazed by the beauty and perfection that can result from arbitrary arrangements of random things in space. True, I could just have easily made these explorations and observations without having recourse to raise a camera to my eye, but being a photographer gives me the opportunity to share an element of my life with a wider range of people than I could possibly do otherwise.

Throughout this series, I hope to do exactly that, to share with you the interest I have and the beauty I hope I have found in the place that I am lucky enough to call home.

The Best Kept Secret – Part Two

Photography, at least for me and my intentions, needs to be a pursuit undertaken without company. I need to have the opportunity to be absorbed in my surroundings, my thoughts and the potentialities of connecting with either of them in a meaningful fashion.

I find it terribly hard to photograph when I am in the company of others, particularly the company of those people who mean a great deal to me. It can make me feel uncomfortably guilty for failing to give them the full attention that I feel they deserve. I wander off, both physically and mentally; I stop abruptly at what must appear to be the most unlikely of places; I linger listlessly, waiting for something to move or for the light to change.

Generally, if anyone is with me they will either wait confusedly, albeit patiently, or they will keep walking and lose both me and the thread of any conversation we may have been having beforehand. Not the most garrulous of people at the best of times, holding a camera turns me into something not too dissimilar to an apparently inattentive mute, content to wander aimlessly, listening to the fresh air betwixt my ears. Fair enough, it may be conjectured that I could feel any company would be a distraction from my engaging fully in the photographic act, but I am quite capable of being distracted by people with or without a camera near by, and those people in whom I enjoy companionship are always a welcome distraction. If I’m honest, there is an element of both in the situation. I don’t like to ignore people nor do I like to miss photographic opportunities.

No, I need to be alone in this. And in being so, I can find my own way in things, I can develop the singularity of pursuit that might look aimless and uninteresting from the outside, but which from the inside (of head, of camera) is the key to discovering the beauteous idiosyncrasies of detail, of pattern, of social observation and of physical interaction with the world.

I may like to be alone when photographing and I may lack the requisite boldness of character to photograph people in any situation but I am far from despondent when I realise that I am surrounded by the world in its ample and generous beauty.

“No place is boring, if you’ve had a good night’s sleep and have a pocket full of unexposed film”. – Robert Adams

The Best Kept Secret – Part Three

Quite possibly, the most famous concept applied to photography has been that of the decisive moment. Henri Cartier-Bresson’s understanding of photography was of it being a “simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event, as well as of a precise organisation of forms which give that event its proper expression”, and while the requisite awareness, sensitivity and speed for such action are to be encountered in the work of many a photographer and even from time to time in one’s own life, a good deal of photographs – particularly those photographs that I am wont to produce – are the result of prolonged attention and unhurried reaction to the surroundings the photographer finds themselves in.

Speaking personally, maybe it has something to do with my natural shyness, which precludes any great involvement with strangers and their events when I am photographing, or perhaps it is my over-arching interest in strong compositional structures and the resulting ability to work with largely immovable subjects. Either way, there is not many an occasion when I recognise anything in a fraction of a second, nor is there a great deal of realisation that anything of unusual significance is happening around me. Perhaps my decisive moment is the ongoing moment of the continual pursuit of photographic images that might render visible something of how I feel about life and my place within the world. A series of innumerable decisions brought forth through as many, if not more, moments of variable duration. Perhaps there is only one moment.

Perhaps the event of photographing, prolonged and yet intermittent though it may be, is significant enough. It is true, however, that my images are, in my mind, significant. Not necessarily in that they are great events, memorable articles, valuable artefacts or emotionally charged documents – in fact, I don’t think that I have ever made such an image nor will I do so in the near future – but they are signs. Ambiguous, implicit, quiet, and obtuse signs, maybe, but significant nonetheless. The process I am endeavouring to undertake here, of writing about photography has made clear to me an alarming deficit in my practice: I am incapable of explaining my images. I float around the subject and never actually discuss an image directly. Perhaps these abstruse signs are as unclear to me as they might be to anyone who views them. And whilst I feel that this is a strength of theirs, in that any viewer must, if they are inclined to, interpret my images based solely on their own understanding, I will, in the next instalment of The Best Kept Secret, make an effort to explain one of my images.

The Best Kept Secret – Part Four

York, February 2011

As promised at the end of last month’s instalment, I have made an attempt to explain and describe one of my images so as to make my process and methods, my thoughts and my aim that little bit more accessible. As it were, to lay bear my artistic intentions and to stop hiding behind a faux academic writing style or the images themselves. Hopefully, it will serve to make my work more appreciable and perhaps clarify my understanding of my own reasons for wandering around with a camera.

For a long time I was fairly sure that if a photograph needed words to make it intelligible then it was essentially failing as a photograph and while I still feel that an image should be an image first and foremost, able to stand on its own and encourage enthralment, beauty, disgust, or a range of various other emotions, I do realise that my previous reticence was due largely to my immature handling of photography’s central conceptual concerns, a lack of confidence in my image making and a large dose of laziness. However, now I am a grown up and earn my bread as a teacher of photography, the regular attempts I have to make at forcing my students to write about their ideas and imagery have burrowed their way into my own thinking and it does seem that I should swallow some of my own medicine. After all, I am convinced that my students will, by writing about their work, develop stronger conceptual abilities, grow in their appreciation of well made photography and, subsequently, produce better photographs. Might it work for me too?

As you may have guessed, I am doing well so far at avoiding the explanation of any images. This, I believe, is because doing so is very hard. Simply explaining what is in a photograph is, of course, easy, if not pointless – we can see what’s in the picture, why do I need to describe it? Although this does put me in mind of perhaps the most enjoyable and thought provoking conversation that I ever had about photography, which was with a blind person, but that may be irrelevant here.

Anyway, the photograph that I have chosen to discuss employs a tactic that I regularly use; reflections. I shot through a window in the street and kept everything in focus so as to make all of the subject appear on the same image plain, combining elements together to create new interpretations and meaning. The interior walls merge with the exterior features of the street and buildings become built of surreal blocks. The lines of the ceiling emphasise and literally become a part of the street as it recedes into the background. The grey carpet becomes the concrete of the urban environment. This layering of viewpoints gives the sensation of being both inside and outside at the same time, a concept which I think is important to bear in mind when thinking about photography, the veracity of which can make it feel as though one were actually inside a photograph. This is compounded by my reflection in the window. I am in the image occupying the space of both outside observer peering into the space of the image and an insider looking out at you, the viewer, a point that I will leave for you to interpret as you see fit.

The colour is also very important for me. I work mainly in black and white as it allows me to concentrate more on composition and formal elements and so the use of colour when I am working becomes an element around which I build images, focusing on details and arrangements that would otherwise become lost in black and white. In this image in particular, it was the warm glow of the sunlight and the intense burst of red as they sang out from an otherwise grey and cold space. The light fills the space, cramming warmth and an almost solid presence into the room. The red wall paints the street and brings the bricks of the buildings to life whilst also providing a beautiful contrast of tones against the hard grey carpet. I also like the fact that the traffic light is also at red, but I couldn’t say that I remember doing this on purpose.

I must admit that, although I have done it briefly, I’ve enjoyed explaining this image, not least because it brings out details that I might not have considered otherwise and highlights the necessity of remaining aware whilst photographing and also of the enjoyment of interpreting an image and coming to some kind of understanding with it. Through discussing and analysing this picture I have made it my own, much more than by having simply taken it and I think that this is where the beauty of art is to be found; by engaging with art, trying to understand it, the artist and our own reactions to it, we can own it, use it and enjoy it fully. Hopefully, you have found something of your own in my work.

The Best Kept Secret – Part Five

This way, that way, God how arrows implore you… I love arrows, particularly as elements in photographs. They have a specificity that seems to negate everything else around them. They literally mean ‘right here’ and, to a certain extent, this is a concept that I hope my photographic practice encompasses. The essential ‘thereness’ of being in a certain place and producing an image that could not be made at any other spot is an attribute of photography that no other medium that I can think of has.

Painting a landscape does not require the painter to be in a landscape, nor even the existence of one. Writing or singing a song may be affected by the venue or situation in which it happens, but the performer’s moving a matter of inches in any given direction does not potentially affect the ultimate success of a piece nor how it might be understood by the audience. To me, photography can be a process of emphatically exploring the existence of the photographer and their relation to the surroundings they find themselves in. The people, the buildings, the light, the movement of their eyes and mind through space, if observed and experienced, can all act as points in which the photographer, in fact, any body, can find, and reflect upon, themselves.

Perhaps my concept lies opposed to Paul Klee’s understanding of it. In his Pedagogical Sketchbook, he explained the arrow as the offspring of the thought: ‘how do I expand my reach? Over this river/ This lake? That mountain?’ and perhaps such thoughts lie somewhere, in some form, within the psyche of the person directing the arrow but as far as I am concerned, the arrow encountered is the contraction of space, of freedom, it is the express concern of direction toward a specific point. Klee’s ‘Thither!’ full of potential and excitement is the social environment’s no-where-else. In this concept, I am not espousing any type of anarchic movement against social constructs nor do I wish to deny the occasional helpfulness of the arrow in the right place. It does, however, appear that many arrows, particularly when applied to impermanent signage, become divested of any meaning when the sign itself is ignored, as many signs are. So perhaps, when photographed, the meaning of an arrow, other than its natural thither or its no-where-else, can be passed over and turned into I am here, right now, and I may go where I please?

The Best Kept Secret – Part Six

York, February 2012

York, February 2012

Some photographs are difficult to talk or to write about. An overly unpleasant or controversial image would not likely be susceptible to carefree and enjoyable analysis. Perhaps the subject of a photograph may be so esoteric as to put it beyond the viewer’s abilities of explanation. At other times, it can be because the image relies entirely on the viewer’s understanding that a photograph is the only way of knowing the intricacies of an incredibly small moment in time or is part of a much larger and overwhelming occurrence and is therefore inadequately explained in words – while a picture is worth a thousand words, a photograph very often necessitates none. So much so that it oftentimes becomes common to fall into the trap of attempting to explain a photograph merely by describing the content of the image, a process which is all but pointless, unless, of course, the photograph is absent, in which case, the words will not do it justice regardless of the lucidity of the description and will ultimately create within the recipient’s mind a unique image largely variable to the original. Images, photographs especially, describe their own contents and it is the viewer’s role to understand the contents as they can.

Nevertheless, there is still space for elaboration and interpretation through writing and discussion, a process which can begin with description. And through description can be deduced meaning. So what then, is the potential meaning of this photograph I have supplied here? The photograph would seem to be of nothing at all really. There is no moment of decisive import, no persons of beauty or influence, nor even a single purposeful object of interest. Perhaps it was the light. The thick, physical spread of late afternoon light as it floods golden horizontal across the day, warming the spaces between everything that we see and etching with more splendid clarity the detail of textures previously insignificant. In the sun, moments – time, life – become more palpable and stretch across the ostensible surface of phenomena to discover a more beauteous and gorgeous presence in which one’s own present may become more fully known. All of the past and every future happenstance is equally of the moment and no effort need be exerted in aligning oneself with what life may bring forth. Everything is possible in the sun.

While this image is not able to replicate such feelings nor envelop us as does a blanket of strong sunlight, it does, I feel, portray something of that elemental knowledge understood by everyone.  

 “The sun never knew how great it was until it struck the side of a building.” – Louis Kahn

The Best Kept Secret – Part Seven

Photography has a particular way of addressing who we are and where we are. We all take pictures, very nearly all of the time, recording the events that we are involved in and gathering memories for recall at some unspecified but apparently universal time when we will want to look back on who we were at a specific point in the lives that we have led. But, conversely, most people are generally unaware of their presence when taking pictures. We’ve all seen those photographs with the finger of whoever is holding the camera blurrily interjected across the image, we’ve all had pictures returned from the developers with the photographer’s shadow impolitely budged into the frame. And yet we remain unaware of where we are and what our presence implies when we take a picture. Perhaps it is because it is so very easy to take a picture, to pick up a camera and make an image that, on the whole, we don’t stop to think about the wider implications or the larger content of our photographs. And maybe this is a good thing. After all we wouldn’t have such rich and diverse knowledge of almost every aspect of every social situation on the planet nor would we have such quick and informal access to the lives and imaginations of our loved ones if it weren’t for the ease of image making and dissemination that we all so willingly participate in. But aren’t there larger issues at hand when we make pictures? Aren’t we trying to make some kind of philosophical expression of our lives with each release of the shutter? Making, as we make each picture, the statement that ‘I was here and I saw this’?

Roland Barthes, in his influential ‘note’ on photography, Camera Lucida, comes to see photographs as embodying a sense of mortality, of containing within them the deaths of those who are depicted, and while he may have been writing the book in an ostensible search for the likeness of his deceased mother, I do feel that there is, within images of people and especially in images of oneself, a very definite attempt to retain life. There is also present in the image of oneself, the uncanny understanding that what is being engaged with was undeniably you and yet is thoroughly removed from your present self. The knowledge that while one is explicitly being in the present moment, the ‘me’, the self that is being observed in the image is, of necessity, no longer being and, in the future, that the self of the present moment will also cease to be.

In my own work, I often take pictures to try to deal with my presence in the world. To confront my self, my mortality, and to present it as potentially interesting or exciting, to remove myself and my conception of myself – my self image – from the flow of life and to accept that life does not necessarily make sense nor, indeed, very often flow. And yet there I was and there I found something that both fitted within my (perhaps received) understanding of beauty and took me out of the mundanity of normal existence. It could be that just seeing my shadow made me aware of myself and therefore stimulated within my photographic intent the need to make a picture. It might also be possible that by acting as a photographer, I am making the decision to negate the mundane and am, thereby, absorbing myself in me and what I do; directly entertaining the narcissistic streak inherent in any artistic act. Nevertheless, when I am concentrating photographically (this does not always necessitate a camera) I often see myself, am taken out of myself, and try to know myself in more detail through observing what I am doing.

Many other artists have spent large parts of their lives trying to know more about themselves through self portraiture. I would encourage you to look at the work of American photographer Lee Friedlander, particularly his Self Portrait series, the self portraits that Rembrandt painted throughout his life, the photographs that John Coplans made of his body in old age, Marc Quinn’s on going series ‘Self’, watch the short documentary series by Matthew Collings about self portraiture through history, or just think about yourself in relation to the objects and people around you.