I recently (on a universal if not entirely current scale) had the opportunity to make, and have more recently added to this website, some photographs that set in motion the wheels of the following train of thought.
It was late November and we were offered the chance to help out with an olive harvest. Despite staying up until the small hours drinking and playing cards, we all arose early and headed in semi-darkness up the short but steep track that led to the smallholding we would spend the day working. At just under a month from the winter solstice days aren’t long, but virtually every daylight hour was put to good use and we ended the day with that satisfying feeling that comes from a day’s hard work.
A few weeks later I also got the satisfying feeling of seeing the results of a few brief intervals in which I had skived just a little from my olive picking duties in the frivalous pursuit of photographs. I was really pleased with them and couldn’t wait to share the pictures with our friends and their families. Wait was, however, what we decided to do. Rather than share the pictures via email or whatsapp there and then, we got prints made and I sequenced them and made them into a little book. That all took time, and then it’s not always straightforward to meet up with people these days, so it was another couple of weeks before we were finally able to present the book, and the photographs, to be seen by other eyes for the first time.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how photographs are shared and how to make that process more meaningful, at least for me personally as that is really the only thing I can control, and this felt like the right way to do it in this case. I am still excited to be sharing the photographs here, and will probably share them via other platforms too, but I wanted the first viewing to be done by our friends, and for that first viewing to be of the photographs in print. That felt right, at least on this occasion.
You can see all of the photographs here.
I am what I am not
What also got me thinking was that these were the photographs I was most pleased with in a while and were generally photographs of, or at least depicting, people (going about their business). Similarly, over the summer I made some photographs of friends with which I was really pleased. Both of these sets of photographs mean more to me than the endless photographs of ‘stuff’ I have amassed over the years, only half of which I even vaguely remember.
At some point during the past year, I decided to revisit the work I produced for Teatros del Canal in Madrid. I stepped away from working as a Theatre photographer after the second project but I realised that I didn’t need to hide the work away. It may not have been the type of work I’m trying to produce now but it was good work, and I can feel proud of what I achieved with it – namely two reasonably large bodies of work … which again depict people going about their business. These photographs are now (as of June 2020) on this website and I also made myself a book of each project to remind myself of these past successes.
It’s easy to forget how far we have come while constantly looking ahead for the next milestone.
Revisiting these photographs I realised I had been doing myself another disservice. White I’ve never felt drawn to Portraiture, and that remains the case, I had created a narrative of myself and my work which ran that I did not photograph people, nor was I good at it. Those earlier photographs, the ones from this past summer, and finally these latest photographs from La Oliva seemed to debunk that conception I had of myself. Nobody had ever told me I was bad at photographing people. A few kind souls had even said the opposite and then had to deal with the rebounds off of my impenetrable armour of self-deprecation. To these people I surely owe an apology – you may know who you are.
The realisation from all these sets of photographs was that while I may not be a Portrait photographer, nor am I comfortable being an in-your-face Bruce Gilden type street photographer, however, as long as the person or people know I’m there, and are happy enough with that situation, I’m at least competent at photographing people going about their business.
In a recent issue of Kyle McDougall’s Field Notes series of newsletters, and later in an episode of The Contact Sheet podcast, Kyle talks about the importance of not creating these limiting narratives about our work and our abilities. The past year has, if nothing else, given me a lot of time for reflection and over the past six months or so I’ve been able to realise the fallacy of the narrative I myself had constructed, extrapolating my lack of interest in Portraiture, and my reservations about disturbing strangers for the sake of a photograph into a generalised idea of myself as someone who does not (and/or cannot) photograph people.
Just because you haven’t done something yet, doesn’t mean that you can’t. Just because you’ve mostly done one thing up to now, doesn’t mean that’s all you can do.
Highway to the Comfort Zone
This leads to my secondary realisation which was that photographing ‘stuff’ was not necessarily what I wanted to do – hence my long-standing dissatisfaction with a lot of my work – but it is an easy default mode. It’s easy to pick up my camera, go for a walk, and find (quite literally) ‘something’ to photograph. It’s easy in pretty much every sense because there is no need for any organisation nor are there any time constraints.
In one of his videos about Documentary Photography and the requirements for making a documentary project, Dan Milnor cites Time and Access as fundamental limiting factors for producing documentary work. For my work with Teatros del Canal I needed access to the theatre and the rehearsals I was photographing – without that, there was no project – and for that access to be sustained over several months in order to create a strong body of work. With something as simple as photographing our friends picking olives, access was key – knowing them personally and being invited to their smallholding to be part of the harvest enabled me to make the photographs.
Fundamentally the same is true of most photographic genres. In the case of landscapes you need access to the right location but perhaps the conditions are less than ideal on that first visit, and so repeated visits along with the patience to spend hours waiting for lighting conditions that may never materialise are required to get the best results. Portraits require access to a subject, but the photographer (or artist) needs time with the subject rather than simply making a picture immediately. Indeed, Virginia Woolfe talked about time, (money) and a room of one’s own as being the conditions necessary for any artist.
To an extent these conditions also apply to the photographing of ‘stuff’, if one really wants them to, since I suppose there is a hierarchy of ‘stuff’ where even within Democratic Photography all subjects are equal but some are more equal than others. Access to that ‘good stuff’ and time to wait for adequate lighting will fundamentally lead to better pictures of ‘stuff’ but ultimately what led me to make pictures of ‘stuff’ for so long is the ease of picking up a camera whenever I find myself with the time to do so, going for a walk and inevitably finding ‘something’ to photograph – no access requirements, no need to spend weeks or months revisiting the place to build a strong body of work. It was easy to do, and easy enough to come away with something vaguely satisfying upon first glance but ultimately unfulfilling.
There are two traps of my own making that I’m trying to escape. The trap which has limited my own conception of what I do and am capable of doing, and this trap of ease and convenience.