Many look, but how many see?
Dr. David Mitchell returns with a touching personal reflection about what photography means to him. Many look, but how many see?
I recently listened to a podcast where two photographers I like were talking about what motivated them to take/make photographs and it struck a chord with me. If you are anything like me it’s not particularly a topic you reflect much upon, but think about it – something that you may have spent thousands of hours on (and likely much more) and you are not quite sure why you do it?
So I thought about it for a few days and got nowhere – I came up with some highbrow notions about capturing space and time, and once I parked those notions I took up a piece of paper and pen and started to scribble down some of the thoughts that had rolled through my head – bear with me…….
After some random scribbles, what I had written was grouped together under five headings – creativity, technology, environment, seeing, and a strange part I called ‘me’ – being a 50 year old bloke I immediately put that at the back of the queue.
So, creativity then;
I would love to be able to draw or paint properly, but I can’t to any degree of satisfaction. A camera has always been a way for me to capture what I see and interpret it to others, or try to articulate what and how I see things.
I played drums in bands for many years – I think most things have a rhythm to them in life – photography included.
I like design and greatly respect craft – I don’t mind if it is a skilled carpenter or a baker making bread – I love the passion of others for ‘their thing’ and aspiring for greatness in their craft. I believe photography can be a craft when practiced in a particular way.
I love technology – from waterwheels to 3D laser scanning (https://www.engineshed.scot/about–us/the–scottish–ten/) and especially the tech I can get my head around and manipulate. From day one I have been a tech sponge for photography. I am most definitely not into the mathematics of photography, but I love nice design and functionally and mechanically clever things. I think it’s why I went back to film – a high end digital SLR is great, but not satisfying. I don’t always understand technology, but enjoy frying my noodle trying to learn.
I love the outdoors – I think nature is both fragile and remarkable – I like when it puts us in our place. I like the built environment (goes with my job) and, because I know a little, I can ‘see’ things others might not – I particularly like little things – details. Capturing them draws attention to the things I think people miss.
I have always liked to look at things – I like to observe – an early art teacher at school had us spend lots of time learning to see and it had a big impact. I am a natural daydreamer – something else I did to escape the boredom and constraints of school. I instinctively compose things in my head – I frame things up – actually have done for years when I think about it. Don’t take it as arrogance but I get confused by the formulaic approaches and in-depth studies of ‘composition’. I look at things and my brain computes the right ‘balance’ – well I think so – others might not!
So, the tricky self-reflection bit….
My job means I am fortunate to have access to some remarkable places – I work in the cultural heritage sector and I understand the importance of documentation so that is maybe hard-wired. I think life is fast and transient – things change rapidly, and I get to places few others might, and I feel a sort of obligation to document this.
Capturing ‘moments in time’ is a fairly common perspective in photography. I particularly like looking at the large format images of the past – it is time travel plain and simple. I also love those photographs where the photographer has captured something much more than an image – that is the point where photography becomes something else. For me, those images very often involve people but a very few photographers like Edward Weston were able to take the mundane – the pepper or the toilet – and transform it.
I am really not a people person, but I do find them fascinating. To capture the spirit of someone at a particular moment and do that ‘dance’ with them is remarkable – for me it is the thing I am most afraid of, but most curious about. Photographing strangers is scary, but every so often I summon the courage – anyone with kids knows they are the best possible models as they grow – until they gain self-consciousness.
So that’s all very well but when I looked through my Flickr account I struggled to see a consistency of approach or anything I could understand as a ‘style’. I had been looking for images to create a brief portfolio for a review as part of a photography festival and, strangely, the curator thought I had a distinct style – weird.
Eventually I realised what the thread was, and I felt a little stupid that it was actually so bloody obvious. I also then understood what it is that I love about photography – it is all the stuff above but fundamentally about light.
I have always loved natural light and what it can do. I have a terrible memory, but I remember places and experiences with light – regardless of whether I had a camera or not. I vividly recall light streaming through the windows of my classroom and lighting up a teacher I liked – she was reading us a story and the light transformed her. Thinking back, she was a beautiful woman and if I had been seventeen instead of seven I may have put a different perspective on it, but that has stuck with me for 43 years, so it means something!
We have all had that sense of excitement and even panic when the light is so good it seems like it cannot be real. We even look at the images we make at such times and have a sense of disappointment that it looks ‘overcooked’ – digital manipulation is such now that you assume no–one will believe you that that’s what it was really like to be there at that point in time.
Having said all that, there is no generic formula – we are all motivated by different things and we can all look at the work of others and be moved by something another might not see. We can largely understand a technically competent image, but I have come to the conclusion that, for me at least, my best photographs are where I have captured what is in my head – not what is in front of me.
Want to see my truly favourite photograph? If someone asked me to do an exhibition I would never select this, but I like it because I captured what was in my head. A short stopover in the US Midwest found me in a smallish provincial airport. Waiting to board, the late afternoon light outside was stunning, the cabin crew walked past, and it all felt romantic – the spirit of the 1930s – and then I saw it. A perfectly designed aviation chair – all chrome and leather – going nowhere and going at 200mph at the same time and the light and the smells and maybe even a few beers – I picked up my camera and translated all of that stuff and made a photograph. I have no idea if others can read any of that and why would they?
But I can and that’s why I am a photographer – I am fascinated by lots of different aspects of photography but it is about chasing those fleeting moments where the universe aligns and then if we are very lucky, the light takes something interesting it makes it extraordinary.
Dr David Mitchell