I never thought this pursuit would be so challenging; this photography. After all, we all ‘see’ and photography can only be one step past that. Press the button. Record what we see. Then why is it that disappointment follows so often. If frustration would be a reward for endeavour then surely I am a rich man.
Thomas Mann defined a writer as ‘...a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people’. I wonder if he thought similarly about photographers. This characterisation unquestionably and clearly befits my persona. Certainly I consider myself a photographer; for better or for worse, successful or not, richer or poorer, and certainly until some demise falls upon me. Even if a lengthy span of time enables me to take advantage of a ‘Grandfather Clause’, then so be it. Yet one would expect the challenges of my chosen malinger would be more fruitful than, say, yesterday or last week or at the birth of my first (and only) born or when my pet rabbit was committed to history as it peered into the lens of my Box Brownie. Yet with each passing day, the gap between what I achieve and what I seek widens with every click of the shutter.
It was said of Ansell Adams that, after spending many hours in his darkroom, processing the results of many days of photographing his beloved landscapes, he would occasionally burst into the daylight holding a freshly exposed and still dripping print and utter excitedly ‘I think I have got it’. How nice that must have been for him. How rewarding. How pleased with himself he would have been. And if we were to ask him (in the figurative) how often does that happen, his reply would undoubtedly be: ‘Not often enough’. He seemed content, at least comforted, with the occurrence of such manifests at least ten or twelve times a year.
I ask myself: What is ‘it’? What makes the difference between a print Adams might have left hanging in the darkroom to falter and fade under the influences of time and the vapours of the fixing tray and the one he chose to proudly display to us all. Does ‘it’ have a name, a shape, a texture, a place within the frame, a colour, an identity at all? Is it tangible or ephemeral? Does it have a formula or form?
Is it the muse, the Loreli who calls us from the broken waters, the angels who ride the silken beams of light that fall from dusted skies?
Or is it the black of death, the mystery of dark corridors, the rage of a rampant thought that carries a crowd to their destiny, the wake of a father over a spent son.
Is it the blossom of a new rose, the smile of recognition from a friend, the fresh skin of a teenage girl or the glisten of muscle above an opened hearth?
It seems each photographer has their own elucidations into the subject matter of their endeavours; their own version of ‘it’.
Some lay claim to beauty (whatever that is), others explicate with such ordinariness that it’s difficult to understand why it is so painfully evasive. There is a suggestion of passion (assumingly on the part of the photographer), of personal expression, of love for and of the object or subject in question. Others talk of ‘the moment’ as if each moment holds the magic as a conjurer contains a rabbit in a top hat.
For those of a more technical and analytical persuasion we might hear them talk of composition, balance, and Gestalt in the same way we might consider items on a shopping list. Finally, we bear witness to those who hold tenure over the latest in digital image recording. They seek reprisal from those who might find photography a more artistic venture than that of algorithms and optics.
For many, it is the recording of memorable events. We do this with such vigour that it is hard to imagine any of us escaping the ravages of dementia before the week is out. From babies to birthdays, parties to parades, holidays to homelands, visitations, ceremonies, pets, people and public events. Nothing escapes our internment of such everyday events.
And what do we do with these metaphors for our daily lives? We plaster them on Facebook or store them in dark and dusty corners of the house (or the electronic equivalent) until a disaster hits. When the fire threatens, a Force 9 gale removes the roof or a magnitude 7 earthquake shakes us from our foundations we grab the kids, the cat and the photographs and head for shelter.
Because whatever ‘it’ is that is contained in those precious moments that we lovingly recorded, it is worth something to us. ‘It’ is our memory, our record of the past, our ancestors, and our history. It describes, explains, expresses, pleases and pleads. For us it can be the words we do not have, the feelings we cannot express, the knowledge we accumulate, the journey we take.
What Mann wrote in his definition of a writer may well apply to us all in some form or other as we seek to express ourselves more fully. For some, the process of writing may be just too hard, so we choose to photograph instead. In this way we allow the viewer to find their own words for what we see. The photographer’s burden is to find the image that says: ‘this is it’ for all of us.
We all continue to search for ‘it’. We all have our own version of what ‘it’ is. The Holy Grail was easier to find. Jason had less trouble finding the Golden Fleece. The Meaning of Life and the origins of the Universe are less elusive. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stop looking. Whatever path we take will take us there and each will know when we have arrived. And when we do, we will speak as Adams did, shake of the excess fluid and hang the image out to dry, pick up our camera once more and continue along another path of frustration and disappointment.
Why? Because that’s the way we are.