Much of the vocabulary around photography is about stopping time for us to examine it, that decisive moment notion that the purpose of photography is to capture the fleeting and from that flows the idea that there is some ownership of what is in essence a coincidence. This is further compounded by the notion that there are some special photographers whose shutterclicks are some how more precise, more intelligent, more special than those of mere mortals and with that magical gesture they are better at seeing than the rest of us. Well permit me to say, that is just bollocks.
I am currently in the process of writing a long piece about work that I showed at Revela-T this year and that work is itself about taking photographs, and because I don’t like writing, I found myself reading an article about Chris Killip in the rather marvellous Huck Magazine. The sheer graft he put into the body of work In Flagrante in the 70s and 80s is breathtaking in it’s doggedness. He has form in this area, it took him 7 years to get the seacoalers of Lynmouth to talk to him for another project. Imagine that, being kicked back for 7 years and still not giving up; I get one form email from something I’ve applied for saying thanks but no thanks for my submission and I can produce a sulk so corrosive it could be used to etch granite.
I think that is one of the interesting dichotomies of photography. Taking a photograph is not difficult. Taking an interesting photograph isn’t difficult either. Understanding why you might take a photograph and to keep loading that film in order to articulate that, well that is absolutely hard. Killip makes that clear in the Huck piece: ‘great photographers need determination, not talent’.
Another problem with photography is the immediacy of the image for the viewer. You look at this or that and move on, even the most stunning images infrequently have us stock still gasping at the content and that can make commentators lazy. In Flagrante is often used as a touchstone to illustrate the awfulness of the Thatcher years and the dissolution of the industries that had employed Killip’s subjects. This casually glosses over the fact that the work was made under successive Conservative and Labour governments. You can look at that skinhead boy on the wall, scrunched up and see some lad doubtless between visits to the dole office with his UB40 swapped from an apprenticeship, the problem is the photograph was taken in 1976 when the self same Thatcher was the leader of the opposition and her main claim to fame at that point was having been responsible for the ending of free school milk. Not such a decisive moment. Still a very good image in a properly impressive body of work that really should be seen in context in order to do it justice.
Taking photographs is work and it requires effort not least because of the complexity of the tools and digital is just one option. In the article Killip says that with film you don’t actually know what you are going to get in the end. Choosing a film to shoot on is something you can only do with considered practice. Loading that film is an act of faith; faith in the factory that produced it, the way it was kept by the retailer, faith in your camera’s inner workings, faith in the battery on your light meter. The list is pretty long. And if you think that digital has done away with all of that, you are forgetting sensor size even before you start considering the myriad other geegaws that clog up your app store of choice with filters, lightmeters, editors, film emulators, dog noses, cat ears… Even with a slight engagement with the discipline, you are still required to make decisions about what and how you photograph before you get the picture.
I’m not saying some photographers aren’t better than others but that is more about the aesthetic peccadillos of the observer than the abilities of the shutter jocky, in the same way some accountants are effective and others less so. It is important to be good at your job, otherwise you just let down your colleagues. If you are a corporation of one, which is what most photographers are, then this attention to detail and willingness to go revise and revisit is all the more important. You need to actively engage with a process to conjure up the picture. Which is why the notion of nimble fingered gimlet eyed photographer trapping the decisive moment in pixels or film rings hollow because it implies a preternatural ability to nail the shot and move on. The most interesting photographers are engaging in a thought process and that underpins the work.
And part of this is being willing and able to speak about this work once it is finished, or as finished as it can be. This is the really hard bit. I’m writing this now because I have failed to draw together the strings of associated writing that I have been doing about my own work and believe you me, there are a slew of bookmarks and underlinings in books an articles that should make it easy to compose. I have this banging tangent about MR James and haunting but I’m having real trouble getting it out of the whumpa whumpa in my brain and into something a human might want to plough though.