Image conscious

My mother told me yesterday that she’d seen my picture in an events listing in her local paper. I went along to the photography exhibition mentioned, by Dr Tuan Nguyen at Georges House Gallery in Folkestone, and sure enough there was a picture of me playing violin, taken at a recent gig at the amphitheatre on the seafront here. As so often when I play my eyes are shut and the picture has a title “Lost in Music”

Seeing yourself like this is somewhere between pleasing and disconcerting. It’s disconcerting to see yourself out of context, the object of a stranger’s attention, and to know you’ve been put there not because of any of your personal qualities, but because you have grabbed the aesthetic interest of a passer-by. I’m not complaining, because I’ve been doing exactly the same thing myself, photographing people on the street, and by some coincidence this week posted a selection of these images online

I’ve been thinking about these things too because of a recent TV film about the great Don McCullin. At one point Harry Evans (McCullin’s editor at The Sunday Times) praises McCullin’s compositional sense and the way his compassion comes through despite the necessary detachment of the framing eye. I think that’s right but I wonder what it is about an image that can convey such compassion.

In McCullin’s case it’s mostly to do with the subject, and the knowledge we might have of the broader context, and to some extent it depends on our having a compassionate view of that subject: soldiers on either side of the Vietnam conflict (for instance) might see images of their enemies in a different way, though you could argue that this only reflects the emotional self-crippling that soldiers must adopt to function in a war. For the rest of us though images of suffering (or implicit suffering) will draw our natural compassion, and we’ll align that with the photographer’s imagined feelings.

But in less extreme circumstances the effect is harder to pin down. There’s often a question when you capture these street moments of what you’re asking people to think. If you follow the link above to my own Flickr gallery, there are couple of pictures of people with brightly coloured hair, and certainly that’s what first drew my eye to them as possible subjects. When we see these things in company we might nudge each other and say “did you see that?” meaning that we think the colour funny or just bizarre. But a photograph does something different, I think because of its silence and its stillness. Unless there’s some kind of revealing or amusing juxtaposition of subjects it doesn’t tell you what to think, how to react.

This doesn’t mean that the pictures offer an emotionally blank canvas. It’s more about working with the stillness and silence to accommodate different possibilities. It’s why in my pictures at least it’s usually important that there are other signs of life going on around the main subject, and why I don’t use an aperture/shutter setting to blur out the background. By freezing the moment the picture calls attention to the subject, but I don’t want to indulge (or allow) a simple response like amusement or scorn. I want such pictures to be a celebration of the ordinary extraordinariness of our lives, to acknowledge the ever-presence of other lives and delight in that diversity. The images can’t force this response, but they can allow for it.

Another way of putting this is that the pictures should invite a sense of narrative going on before and after the stilled moment in the frame. They should have something of the effect of a Raymond Carver short story, or the brilliant end of The Sopranos, the sense of life going on beyond our attention. This isn’t just about images of people. Good landscape images often have this sense of a rich life beyond us. It is part of the pleasure we can take in landscape, the pleasure evoked by the dying Keats in To Autumn.


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