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Photo Writing is the web version of the Photo Writing mini-magazine produced by Limephoto and Emil von Maltitz since 2010. As of 2015 it is now completely online. Feel free to browse through the articles and please leave comments in the comments section if you would like to engage with us.

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Connectivity of the Camera

It is often said that photography is a solitary pursuit. After all, a stills photographer only needs herself and a camera to be able to create an image. More so the case if the subject is a still-life, a landscape, or a building. A colleague’s recent images (see interview with Myllo Menorah) had me questioning this ‘given’ that one creates images in solitude. The idea is that, like the hermit artist, the photographer needs to be alone to contemplate the world through a lens. Then there is the fact that looking through a lens can distance the photographer from the reality in front of them. I wrote about this in Looking At the World Through a Lens. A lot of photographers I have known have been loners and often quite shy. Others, including myself, have used the camera as a shield between themselves as the real world as well as other people. So why on earth would I talk about the connectivity of the camera?
The Connectivity of the Message

On a primary level the image conveys a message to the viewer. The message could be in the form of a straight journalistic image without any contrivance in its creation. Alternatively, it could be steeped with the personality or angst of the photographer wielding the camera. Either way, the creation of the image is a connection between the the thing being photographed and the viewer with the photographer as an interlocutor between the two.

There is connection taking place. Photographers like to imagine that they are the invisible medium by which the connection occurs, but in reality they are not. There are three connections occurring immediately on the viewer casting their eyes over an image: 1) the image as an object that is being viewed in its physical form, 2) The image as a connection between the viewer and the subject matter and, 3) the image as a connection between the viewer and the photographer.

The first is the easiest to consider. On one level we place an image on our wall because it looks good. The artist in the photographer may decry this, but often the motivation behind buying an art print is that ‘it will suit the hallway’, not because of some inner message that the photographer is trying to convey through the image.

The second starts to unpack the image in a more abstract way. The viewer connects with the image because of its content, possibly the subject of the photograph. The message conveyed through the image between the subject and the viewer is multiple in meaning, but there is obviously some connection and some sort of message that is read by the viewer for it have any hold over the viewer apart from it, ‘suiting the hallway’.

The last is possibly the hardest to read into an image, and yet it can have the most depth in the interpretation of the photograph. Richard Avedon famously said that, “My portraits are more about me than they are about the people I photograph” (I would absolutely love to reference this quote but a look on the internet quickly ascertains it has been used and ascribed to Avedon so many times that even if it weren’t his quote, it has now become his). A look through the work of any truly serious photographer and you will quickly come to recognise periods that they seem to have worked through. Reading about these photographers, the ‘periods’ can often be associated with particular influences in their lives, or even the psychological bent that they found themselves under.

The many layers of meaning that are packed into an image all equate in some way to a connectivity between object and people, and people and people. This is fairly abstract though. The connectivity of the camera is far more physical and pronounced than the ephemeral ideas of meaning that we ascribe to an image.

The Connectivity of the Action

Studying anthropology taught me a valuable lesson. We are never invisible to those we watch. For decades anthropologists clung to the belief that they were outsiders allowed precious insider status, made invisible to those they were studying. Monologue after monologue was written in the presumptuous belief that the activities that the anthropologists were writing about were in no way influenced by the very presence of those anthropologists. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, a strong dose of liberalism and feminism (along with various other ‘isms’) we now realise that the individuals under so-called ‘study’ altered their daily behaviours to incorporate the anthropologists. More than that, in some situations the anthropologists were actively manipulated - a far cry from the concept of the invisible observer. To this point Richard Avedom also surmised:
"A photographic portrait is a picture of someone who knows he is being photographed, and what he does with this knowledge is as much a part of the photograph as what he's wearing or how he looks."

It is possible that this realization influenced my own portrait photography in a far from subtle manner. Rather than try to create surreptitious images where the subject is unaware of the camera I often force the situation so that the subject is staring directly into the camera (and have been roundly criticized by my wife for this). The lie that the photographer is not there is made apparent and a direct connection between the photographer and the photographed becomes part of the image.

Frans Lanting, a wildlife photographer I have followed for years seems to have a very similar approach to his portraits of animals. In his much lauded book, Eye To Eye, image after image shows the animals in absolute awareness of Lanting’s presence (but very interestingly, there is a sense of ease in that presence).

The thing about creating an image where the subject stares boldly into the lens, is that the photographer has to emerge from behind the camera and actually interact with the subject. There needs to be communication. A two way dialogue is essential in drawing out the subject and actually getting them to feel comfortable enough to stare into the cold glass of the camera’s lens. as an exercise, every photographer should have their portrait taken - for me at least, it is a nerve-wracking experience. I am most certainly not comfortable in front of the camera, so why should I expect my subjects to be?

The starting point of any portrait becomes the simple line, “may I take your photograph”. In an instant a connection has been made and the action of taking an image involves more than one person. Two world’s have essentially collided to create the image. Yes, the photographer is placing the camera between the subject and herself (as a shield, as a weapon, as a vehicle of co-ercment; just read Susan Sontag’s famous treatise to get a glimpse of all the worst things that photography can be). One of the reasons that I don’t do street-photography is that a lot of what we currently define as the genre involves surreptitious image making. To me, the best images are a joint effort between the photographer and the subject. Images of my own that I feel are good as portraits, are often those of people that I have gotten to know. That knowledge, that ease of my presence translates into the images.

The same ease is readily apparent in the images by Frans Lanting due to the length of time he spent in creating them. Each portrait has a story. The story exists because of the connection between the photographer and the subject. But the subject in Lanting’s case was an animal. It isn’t that huge a leap of imagination to conceive of a ‘relationship’ or connection between the human photographer and the animal subject, but what about landscape or still-lifes.

I’d argue that the same connection is still there, and still as important as with living breathing subjects. Somebody commented that the images I create of the Drakensberg seem different to the landscapes of other mountains or places that I have visited. In all likelihood they are; as I hold a deep affinity to the Drakensberg and its basalt fortifications. If given the choice of a location to shoot I tend to unwaveringly answer, the Berg. Possibly the camera and the resultant images highlight a connection, but the connection would be relatively invisible to the world without the camera. As it is, the camera allows us to explore the connection more thoroughly, like a lover photographing her or his partner.

The Connectivity of the Pursuit

I am guilty of thinking to myself that photography is a solitary pursuit. I have often quipped that my best images are created when I am alone. Then I actually looked through my library and discovered the opposite. The best images are taken when I am with others. This isn’t to say that we are shooting next to each other, or even that we are using the same tripod holes. It is more that the stimulation of other photographers has the ability to drive one that little bit more.

There’s a reason that photographic clubs exist, and it isn’t necessarily to teach the membership the skills of photography (there is precious little of this in the clubs that I have known and even less substantive artistic critique). No, clubs are there because even as we spout on about the merits of working alone, we yearn for the company of others who see and potentially want to image the world in the same way. Photo walks now abound so that people can get together and create images as a group (personally I think this is going a touch to far in the connectivity of the camera, but I see the allure).

For me, there is a very simple pleasure in going out to a location with another photographer and exploring the land. You may work separately, but you come together to discuss what you have seen, what you have pictured. On viewing each others' work you are often inspired to do more (as a brief aside, this is one of the reasons we have such small groups on the extended workshops that I lead - small means you can still work alone when you need to, but have the stimulation, camaraderie and insight of others when it is needed). As one photographer a few years ago mentioned to me while on a recce in the Drakensberg, "it's so refreshing to be able to go out and shoot with mate rather than students or clients".

Working professionally I have discovered that I often create better images when I am joined by my assistant, Claire Forster. Claire might not even pick up a camera during the day of shooting, but we discuss potential images together and collaborate in executing them. She comes up with ideas that I might have missed. and is often able to steer me away from ridiculous ideas of my own. Working professionally becomes more about teamwork than an individual pursuit. In fact, the bigger the job, the more teamwork is required and the more connections are needed.

The Connectivity of the Image

The image has the ability to transgress time. We are able to look back through early photographs and empirically know more thanks to their recording. We often forget the sensibilities of the photographer in doing so, but the truth is that we have a better hold on our imagination of the world over the last 150 years that any other time before that. Photographic images have the aura of veracity to them. We can look at images from Auschwitz and be horrified in ways that we aren’t when we read about the atrocities that people committed against each other prior to the invention of the photographic process. Images have arguably helped end wars and brought the world’s attention to the plight of the victims of mass violence. We look at the recording of violence in the Middle Ages and even up to the turn of the 19th century in a far more abstract way than we do the rows of corpses after the battle at Passchendaele during World War 1, or the dead bodies that lined the shallow trenches at Spionkop in the Boer War.

Images connect ages, through horror and love. I look at fondness of images of my parents when they were my own age. The photograph enforces the realisation that they were like me; young, aspiring, hopeful, decades still ahead of them in which I too would become a feature. Going further back, seeing images of my grandparents in their youth creates connections across the generations so that they seem more real, more of ‘our’ time than of an era that came before. 
An early family photograph c1950 - my father is second from left in the front row looking straight at the camera
The photograph becomes a conduit for so many forms of communication. In today’s world the camera is ever-present as we point our cell-phones at points of interest and one another. We walk in and out of the frame every few minutes as we stroll beneath security cameras that literally record our every movement (there is a wonderful play on this idea in the hit TV series, Person Of Interest).  Our lives are now narrated, frame by frame courtesy of Facebook and the myriad other social sharing sites where images are paramount. We connect with our friends and family through these images. In a sad indictment of modern society it is sometimes the only way in which we connect to these people in our lives.

Far from being a solitary pursuit, photography and the camera have become our way of connecting with the world. We use the camera to explore the world, to understand it, to connect with it. That connectivity is only going to increase as we move to a world where we even wear cameras. Richard Avedon apparently claimed that he wished there wasn’t a camera between him and his subject; that he could use his eyes to create the photograph. Possibly his wish will come true some day. Either way, the camera wasn’t the obstruction. It didn’t impede his vision. Rather, it was the vehicle through which he connected.


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