I am often as much impressed as I am amused in by the way we humans creatively use our environment. Quite often I see evidence of other people using what is around them to overcome the limitations of their own resources or environment. This student for example not having access to the space or clothes dryer he needs to dry his underpants. Simply takes advantage of the warm sunny weather opens a window and hangs them out to dry. Fantastic!
On the platform of London Bridge walking up to the front of the train heading home. I looked up and saw this old gentleman wandering down the platform ahead of me. He seemed ready to head home and kick back and relax after a hard day in front of his desk. Luckily he wasn’t moving that fast so not only could I keep up with him (I’m a slow walker), I also had time to get my phone out, unlock it and take a photo before I got on the train.
Today, I took a trip back in time with myself to when I first started taking photographs. I have been asking myself a lot about what photography is and means to me. I have been looking out at the enormous wealth of talent out there on the internet and wondering if I have a place there. If I could or even should put my work up here too and more and more I am getting back in touch with the things that first started me on the road to wanting taking pictures to be part of what I do in life.
I took a walk out this morning to a graveyard and walked around remembering myself at 15 when I first got hold of a 35mm camera. I don’t know why I chose that setting to begin with, maybe because it was quiet and people would not get in the way of my lens. I started thinking back to being a younger child and going out to the graveyard with my grandmother for All Souls, every year we would bundle up in the car and tend the graves of our families, bring them fresh flowers, tidy up and maybe leave a bit of something they liked to drink. As a child it marked for me these places as somewhere special to reach out and connect with those we love and who had loved us, not so much as scary gruesome places for a good horror scene.
So as I walked around I began to look again at what was really here in this place, I started to notice the words. Places that had been tended and others not. The stillness, the quiet and sadness.
This is one of my earliest portraits and still today one of my favorites, there is a lot of story behind this image for me and every time I look at this image it reminds me of the warmth and admiration I have for this woman. When I first began working on photographing people it was uncomfortable for me I would often find myself apologizing for the intrusion of my camera on their lives and space. It wasn’t until this image that I really got what portraits were for me.
Instinctively when I began to photograph people I tried to make myself invisible, what I wanted to capture was not their camera face or mask but the expression of their faces without the tension often visible when people know they are being captured on film. I was like a thief stealing moments from them, it helped that when I started I was photographing people performing who had been instructed to ignore the camera. This didn’t however translate very well outside of that environment. When I tried to photograph people outside of that space in the same way it was often uncomfortable for both them and me. I would hover around trying to be unobtrusive taking images of them when they weren’t expecting it which would often end in me giving up because I felt their discomfort or they would ask me not to shoot them. The images I produced as a result of those encounters were often tense and closed and lacked the quality I was looking for. Over time I became more and more reluctant to photograph people and honed my skills on things which didn’t care if I was there or not like buildings or flowers.
Then in the early 90’s while I was experimenting in my home with camera techniques that required me to shoot someone moving. I managed to cajole my flat mate to help me out by walking from one end of the room to the other. As a general rule she didn’t like being photographed but something in our interaction changed the way she behaved in front of the camera and I went for it and just asked her to sit on a stool and let me take her portrait. The image here is my favorite of the series and the only one I have left sadly. Looking back at that interaction I realized that what I had with her which I hadn’t had before was a connection to her as a person and not just a subject I was photographing. In the time we spent playing about trying to get a sense of movement in the images before, she and I had built a trust, we were interacting with each other and as a result of that interaction the camera and I were no longer intruders, but participants.
I took that lesson back out into the world to see if it would translate to other people, instead of attempting sneak attacks with my camera I came out from behind the lens. I took the time to talk and connect with the people I was photographing, learned about what they were doing, how they were feeling, what things they were going for at the time. I found that more and more the images I captured of the people I connected with had that open relaxed quality I was looking for, they were willing to allow me to see them and not hide behind a camera face. Now when I go to take portraits it is about getting to know the person in front of the lens and what they are going for, trying to get a sense of who they are and getting that to shine through in their image. Capturing for them what they want to show the world.