Reflections on the image-making process

November 30, 2008

It is a wet, cold November Sunday here in the UK. The type of day where one needs lots of motivation to venture out: low light levels, stiff breeze, cold, cold air and so damp! Recently I have been labouring under the oppression of a turbulent year in many aspects of life and photography has frequently seemed pointless and unfulfilling. (Does the world really need more monochrome squiggles and shades on its computer screens and walls?)

So it was today that leaving the front door held little attraction, especially when carrying a cold, heavy tripod and made worse by the prospect of fiddling with film holders and a light meter. Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush” captures that dull, resistant mood so well:

“The ancient pulse of germ and birth

Was shrunken hard and dry,

And every spirit upon earth

Seemed fervourless as I.”

And so it happened that my own darkling thrush…

“At once a voice arose among

The bleak twigs overhead

In a full-hearted evensong

Of joy illimited;”

… proved to be the very equipment I nearly left behind. Force of habit forced me to pause near a stand of silver birch trees whose light bark and wiry twigs always look so gorgeously delicate and distinguished no matter what the season nor how deep the gloom. The pause itself revealed nothing to me. Just trees and grass so wiry it looked like scribbles of an artistic child against the dark of the leaf-mould below. A spark of curiosity arose in me; a small heart-leap at the sight of contrasting textures and lines but one so insignificant as to be easily ignored. It had enough charge, however, to make me place the tripod, open the bag and set up the new (and beautiful) pinhole camera made from spalted hawthorn which I recently received from a friend in exchange for some prints.

This unremarkable action, lasting perhaps two minutes, caused me to look slightly differently to the way I would have viewed the scene without a camera. Gradually, but with increasing speed, the wonder of what was before me came back into life. Now, rather than standing somewhat disconsolately in a cold winter woodland, I felt like a participant in an unfolding drama involving trees, grass, wind and humankind. I loved the bite of the cold and the rustle of the few remaining leaves against the twigs holding them fast. Standing next to the pinhole camera in 38 seconds of enforced meditation and looking, I was the camera; the timeline of the vision it was capturing in my presence was my own timeline, a transformation from bleak uncertainty to glorious appreciation of the matter-of-factness of life. One which would remain, if only on a sheet of film and in the cinema of my own mind. And curiously, I sometimes think that the presence of film might not actually matter to me, the photographer, it simply makes possible the expression of the moment to my audience.

I often entertain myself by drawing parallels between the sensuousness of monochrome prints and the tonality of music, high-key print values equating to treble notes and low-key to the bass, with much of the texture of the piece communicated by the middle values. It struck me forcefully today that the comparison of the two media can be taken several stages further and especially with regard to pinhole photography. Notably that the length of the exposures required in much pinhole work makes the very act of exposure similar to that of the performance of music. The involvement of the photographer in the actual process of light’s altering of the silver crystals seems to endow him or her with the transcendental mindset of the performer. The moment of creation occurs during the live act and the recording becomes available later. And, undeniably, the performance – albeit to an audience of one – is a communication (or even a communion) which takes place entirely outside the intellect, allowing the fusion of opposites, the thrill of discovery, the embracing of the immediate without regard to the past or future.

Hardy’s thrush is a musician in just this way, one who takes his audience on a journey of the spirit:

“That I could think there trembled through

His happy good-night air

Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew

And I was unaware.”

So, photography, a pointless and unfulfilling pursuit? No more and no less than music I have to say now. The poetry of photography and the inspiration of music run parallel for me and I could no more give up the making of photographs than I could prevent myself thrilling to the notes of Elgar, Metheny or Springsteen. Nor, indeed, those of a thrush.

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