Monthly Archives: December 2006

Portobello. December 2006.

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Chemistry and Light. December 2006.

I take photographs; it is one of the things that I do, one of the things that define me. I have been taking pictures for more than thirty years. I started because I was doing an O level in Astronomy, and I had to do a practical project; someone suggested taking photographs of stars, planets and the Moon – perhaps it was one of a set of options – and it seemed like a good idea. I bought a heavy, cheap Russian camera – a Zenith – and started taking photographs.

The very first photograph I took was of the beech tree opposite my house – in golden leaf on a bright autumn day. (The tree is still there; so is the photograph, somewhere. It exists, though I don’t know if I have it, or even the negative.)

It isn’t easy to get photographs of stars printed: commercial studios think there is nothing there – mere dust, spots on a negative. (What is any photograph but some marks on a negative? Or rather, what did they used to be? Curiously, astronomers – professional astronomers, not spotty teenagers taking an early O level – habitually use negative images: the stars are dark against a white background; it is easier for them to work from.) So I started to develop and print my own pictures – badly at first, and then with more competence and control as I got used to the chemicals, the darkroom, the claustrophobia: changing the light, changing the whole image.

I am still lazy in the darkroom: it is hard to keep prints clean of dust, to keep watermarks (drying marks) off them. I always have – or rather, had (since I doubt I shall ever use a darkroom again, with the advent of digital) music on in the darkroom, dancing around as I wait for the pictures to emerge from hiding in the chemical baths (and trying hard not to dance when using the enlarger – since it would shake, and blur the picture).

Because I had started taking pictures in low light – the stars in the sky – I continued: I took my camera to gigs I went to, something I have started to do again after a gap of several years. And when, at university, I put my understanding of light to use on stage, doing lighting for plays; so I took my camera with me too.

I have a lot of negatives (and now, a lot of digital images). I have always reckoned that it would be better to take a photograph than later wish that I had – the cost of a negative was low, lower than going back to try to recapture the image. (And it would never be the same: the light would be different, the sky would be different, the weather, the place; me. It would have been a different picture. It would be a different “me”.)

There are certain things that I have photographed a long while (I even thought about taking pictures of the stars a month ago, when there was a wonderful clear night, the stars strung out clear across the sky, the Milky Way splashing white); I sometimes feel that I am constantly taking the same pictures – and I am sure that I do. Repeating myself, driven to see things the same way.

Unless I am taking pictures of people, I don’t like people in my pictures: if I photograph a landscape or a building or something else, they are devoid of people. In my photographs, New York is an empty city, empty of life but full of geometry and lines and shadows. I take a lot of photographs of buildings, looking at the details, the small things that add so much. I like the angles, the straight lines, the curves of arches. Looking up from the pavement, they became a maze of angles and diagonals, the light picking out the textured walls. I like the angels.

I often take photographs of windows; maybe a Hitchockian reminder of the inner voyeur common to any photographer; or an allegory – looking through the window into something else. I like the shapes they create – the way to look inside a building, breaking up the flat walls – and I like the reflections as the glass obscures the entry. (People have eyes; and they have curiosity. So there is something voyeuristic about all of us. Maybe photographers have a little bit more, capturing what they see, saving it for later.)

Doors and archways work too, framing the view beyond, adding an attractive curve – the curves working well with shadows. And I like chimneys and roofs, the joining of the wall and the sky.

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At one time, I started a series of photographs through windows. I was travelling a fair bit, staying in hotels; and each place I stayed, I would take a photograph out of the window. Thinking about it, it was something I had been doing for quite a while anyhow; I just intended to formalise it. I still take pictures from the windows of most places I stay – only now I am more discerning: only if it makes a reasonable photograph.

Buildings work together with skies: a steep angle creating an intense blue, offsetting the pale stone below it. The angles create abstract shapes, minimalistic and cool. Shadows are important, bringing the seemingly flat surfaces to life, adding texture and shape, differentiating one side from another.

I find the marks left behind on walls interesting – signs of a previous life: flaking paint, forgotten words, torn posters, especially if these tend to abstraction, like paint removed from a painting, revealing what is hidden below. (I must make a series of these: the writing on the wall around Edinburgh: there are lots of old shop signs, painted on the wall, the paint faded and ghostly. I really must do it.)

I do take pictures of people, but then the people are the subject – they fill the photograph. I take informal portraits – at parties or in bars, or just sitting around. I have a strong dislike of posing people – only equalled by my dislike of being posed: posing removes the fun, the spontaneity from the image. Maybe if I had a studio, where I could control everything (the sitter as a marionette), I would feel differently; but I am happier to let the faces speak for themselves – to tell their story rather than mine – for the life to shine through in the moment. As long as I can capture it.

I like eyes (maybe like windows) – angular and curved, the geometry of the face. I like smiles changing the shape of the face, adding lines (more geometry) and texture.

I like beauty; well, maybe not beauty: perhaps attractiveness is a better word. I tend to photograph women more than men, perhaps because they smile more, or are more vivacious, and give more of themselves away (behind the make-up), though I photograph men as well (drinking, smoking, talking; smiling).

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I really dislike flash photographs – the flash flattens the image, making it stark. I like low light – candles work well (but they are hard); and I like natural light, people by windows (windows work both ways). No – I hate flash. It kills a photograph. I rarely use it.

And landscape: mountains and skies; more lines and curves, fading in the light.

The latency of photographs: when does a photograph exist – when it is taken, when it is developed, when it is seen? And what if it isn’t seen – does it exist? I still have undeveloped films: a couple go back three years nearly, a party in late January; a surprise party – I was the decoy, taking G away so that K and friends could prepare for the evening. It was a big affair, so the decoy had to work all day. We went drinking (it is what we do); all day. And then I took photographs by candlelight – I love taking pictures in low light, atmospheric, hidden, unbidden; and I like ignoring people who tell me there isn’t enough light. (There is always light if you can see it, if you know how to find it; if you like working the chemicals, bathing the film for longer than the recipe says, push it further, washing hands in alkali; waiting to see what has been captured.)

I should develop all these films; I meant to do it during the summer – the heat makes it easier (time and temperature are the relative dimensions in the darkroom – warm it up and it is faster, and one can escape the claustrophobic darkroom, stop dancing around, stop washing the photographs sooner). I’ll show them to you; sometime.

It is not about the technology – I have a lot of wonderful pictures taken on throwaway cameras; and the instancy, the lack of technology is fun, because everything has to be there when you take the picture.

Someone recently told me that they thought I was talented; that made me sound special, and I don’t feel special – I don’t believe there is anything complicated about taking a photograph, especially now that cameras are everywhere – everyone has the tools to take photographs.

Instead, I said it was just the way I see the world, the way I use my eyes, the way I know I exist. And that, they said back, is talent.

Holding a camera makes me feel at ease, makes me happy, feels right. It is proof. It is part of me.