There is a riddle within photography that appeals to me. A photograph represents
a frozen moment in time, we all know that, but I find myself drawn to pictures that
capture the passage of, or put the viewer in the presence of,its passing and its
presence within the landscape. Its about atmosphere and the trouble with atmosphere
is that it cannot be appreciated fully by somebody who hasn’t experienced it or something
sufficiently like it to pick up on the signs. The more I think about it, the more
surprised I am that I have never attributed the importance of time to the essence
of a photograph. I realise now that time is absolutely key to photography.
It impacts in a couple of ways. Sometimes a picture will show the effects of time
immediately. An elderly person's timeworn features for example. Sometimes, time has
to pass after the picture is taken to become the key element, as in a picture of
someone who has died, a building that no longer exists or an event that once happened,
never to be repeated. The depiction of history.
The more one thinks about it, the more obvious it becomes that it is as much to do
with the immediacy of the process as anything else. It was our most recent visit
to Wales that set this train of thought in motion.
Wildlife photography is a curious art form. To most wildlife photographers, the final
image is all that matters. They care not whether the rare or interesting subjects
that they are seeking might be dying, tame or even sometimes captive. A beautiful
image is all they require. Leaving aside the issue of how the subject is located
or the picture secured, there appears to be an emphasis on perfection. So a bird
with feathers missing or an image with extraneous clutter within the frame fails
the quality test every time.
These considerations and techniques, it seems to me, fritter away the one attribute
that photography holds proudly and successfully above all other art forms, spontaneity.
Spontaneous wildlife photography is as difficult, and rare, as it can be easy. We
set up perches and feeders, flashguns and reflectors, and above all we garden. Stray
grasses, obstructive branches and the like are trimmed and pruned lest they adversely
affect the perceived perfection of the final image. We walk around the subject, wait
for the light and move stuff around until it is all just so.
But that image, pretty as it might be, is just an attempt to create a painting, an
idealised portrait, where only what the artist wants in the picture is put (or left
) in the picture. That is not playing to photography's unique strengths. More and
more often, I get home and begin the trawl through the day’s efforts only to find
that the images I like most have flaws and rarely feature the subjects that I set
out to get.
A news photographer wouldn’t hesitate. A documentary photographer wouldn’t even think
about it, and neither would a street photographer.
There are a lot of subconscious things going on at the same time, but if you don’t
press the button, you don’t get the picture. That is an obvious factor when photographing
the grand swirl of a red kite feeding frenzy, but maybe not something that the majority
of photographers would do when photographing for example, rose bay willow herb in
a sunlit woodland glade, or the juxtaposition of blackcurrant coloured seedheads
against a wash of fine grasses and meadowsweet.
But that is how I work now. I don’t care that there are brightly lit, pin sharp bramble
leaves in the bottom corner to draw the eye. I don’t care because I didn’t see them
when I took the picture and now, back at home in the digital darkroom, I rejoice
in them. They are, and were at the time, part of the scene that drew my attention.
Nature is complex and multi-layered. To make a photograph in which everything but
the subject is eliminated is frankly unreal, and worst of all, uninteresting.
If I wanted that I would train as a painter. I doubt that I would be much use at
it, but a painter has the choice. He can invent his light and his composition and
the position of his subject and manipulate his picture to reflect those choices.
A camera is a documentary tool and I like to use it that way.
Point and shoot is a derogatory term among photographers, but that is what photography
amounts to and is its greatest virtue. So, now I see something that catches my eye
and I point my camera at it, compose what appears in the viewfinder to the best of
my limited ability and shoot. It takes a few seconds max, more often one or two and
it feels very liberating.
I started this piece by expounding my thoughts on photography and time and this last
image is probably the one that triggered those reflections. To many it must seem
a simple perhaps uninteresting picture taken in a wet Welsh wood, but it has an atmosphere.
Ferns and mosses, lichen and liverworts - and trees, carry time within them and add
it to a picture in a way that flowering plants cannot. They are rich, saturated in
both colour and water, they can stifle an atmosphere so that one is almost scared
to breathe lest the spell is broken and put you in the presence of times long, long
gone. I doubt that it is an image that will resonate with anybody who never visits
such a wonderful and hallowed places, but to me a quiet moment among the aged oaks,
where the restful green light is filtered through layers of time, age and thickly
luxuriant green mosses becomes an almost religious experience. It is as though I
have been given a brief glimpse of the real world. One that is almost lost to, and
is certainly hidden from, us. Point and shoot. Capture time and save it for posterity.
That is the camera’s job whether it is in the hands of Cartier Bresson, you or me.