Jessica on a red sofa. Photo John Robinson
“There is nothing new in this world” – Ecclesiastes, the preacher, son of David, King in Jerusalem.
When I first got a camera in my hands it was personal; at this point in my life I work well with leather and have started again to make a financial way for myself. Photography has always been a personal thing, now as ever it has always been…
Max and Jason gave me a day job as a leather smith, it’s been a game changer for me I am good at this leather thing and I can get much better too. I feel that where there is leather there is a way forward for me also. I say the following to Max and Jason, “we have a long way together still”.
I have written about perception in the past and it’s personal, now with leather in my picture I am freed to shoot personal, for myself and the best is still to come on all fronts…
I love perspective, photography is also about perspective as it is about cropping, to understand something better I have to sometimes walk across and stand in other shoes. Perspective helps me to to see as other people might have seen.
What is photography?
At the roots of the word photography the words light and drawing lie around. Up to the time of the invention of photography people where painting in multi chrome and drawing in mono chrome; and the pointillists or neo impressionists were beginning to paint with small dots of pure colour that where blended together in the eyes of the viewers of the resulting work not unlike the pixels of modern digital photography.
Their world changed and the new black and white pictures of those first photographers pushed aside the non photographic realist artists of the period as photographers went to the front line of war, adverts begun to employ the photographer rather then the painter and more and more portraits of the famous where done through photography rather then artist and paint brush. There was a time when photography just did realism better then the painter with colour and brush of the time. If the technology of the time had permitted and photographers had started out with colour, we might have been known as photo portraitists rather then photographers.
The realism of that period of photography was backed up by the little slip of plastic covered in emulsion that we call the photographic negative; in the analogue or film age of photography the realness of the photograph could be just broken or backed up by the production of the original negative.
Now in our modern digital photography world news wire services like Reuters ask their Photographers to give in unprocessed .jpg files straight from their cameras because of the eroding of the realness in the public eye by ‘over processing’ of image files in the digital news picture industry and in the modern photography arena in general.
Though I too love the creamy colour of the modern digital photograph, I prefer the crisp image that my rangefinder lens provides me with the no nonsense provability that colour film in my M6 camera still gives me and my readers… JR
Me half way up some stairs in Kinshasa, DRC. Photo John Robinson.
As a self confessed visual poet and spirit thief, I will do well as a photographer to make some of my own spirit more available to the people around me.
In a conversation with T-Bone at the BAT Centre in Durban about the tangibility of the substance of a good photograph, I realized that as a photographer I am able to connect with the spirit of others and or the spirit of the moment before my lens but I am hard pressed to share my self with those around me on a daily basis.
T-Bone asked me if there was a tangible transfer of something when a photograph is taken “like in drama on the theatre stage” I said a big yes to his question, T-Bone is a drama specialist at the BAT Centre. I have seen many ‘stiff’ or ‘dead’ photographs to conclude that something of the ‘spirit’ or the ‘moment’ resides in some other photographs. I told T-Bone that a photographic image that speaks to the viewer is the same as the stage drama that speaks to someone in the audience in this sense.
Take my camera out of my hands and I become a bit of stiff too, but I am learning to loosen up on my spirit in the social sense, it’s hard, but I am making headway. I don’t like the word ‘networking’ and I am an useless networker, but I like the word ‘connect’ and as a photographer I understand the concept. By connecting my spirit with those of others, those others may too get a hold on who I am as a person, while I get a hold on something of their spirits. We are members of human race and all have something in common; and it is for us to find out what our commonalities are and blossom together if possible.
As a narrative photographer I am a task master at lurking on the edge of an activity with my ‘M6 and getting away with some of the gold on offer. As a member of the same race that I shoot I am too now more giving of my own spirit to those others around me. It’s like giving back of what I have gotten over the years as a photog; and it’s good for me too. I am freed up to just be me more often, and in front of others too.
They say “live by the sword and die by the sword”… I add to this by saying I can also live more fully too before the end comes as it will for everyone of us.
Photos Jenny Matthews from her book Women and War.
Visual literacy can be described as the art of reading or writing with what is presented in a visual format as against the written word. A photograph is a 2 dimensional crop of what is; and there is a lot that surrounds me…
All of what you are colours how you see all that is around you. I have presented the same picture of a Swedish doctor working in a Sudanese internal displacement camp to different people. These different people have interpreted the same photograph differently accordingly to their world views. One person commented on how thin the people in the camp were, another commented on how pale the medic was and a third pointed out that there are also African doctors working in the Sudan… While the ‘language’ of photography transcends all the languages of the spoken and written word, it’s not an exact language as a photograph can be interpreted in so many ways, it’s a lawyer’s nightmare in this regard. The subtext of a photograph is also affected by the angle of view of the photographer, by what is in focus, in the foreground and what’s small and insignificant and in the background for example. The message of the photograph is affected by many things.
As much as the world view of a reader of a picture filters the message of a photograph, the world view of the photographer also affects their resulting images. I am an African photographer and I have never been to Norway, but I have seen pictures of the Norwegian fjords and pasture lands. This image of the fjords has coloured my perception of Norway as a whole; and if I got to photograph in their country I feel that the images burnt into my mind will affect my resulting images too. The pictures of the Norwegian fjords were taken by my ex wife’s father on his holiday there, the photographs of the landscape were ‘chocolate box’ in essence. I went away after seeing these images of the fjords and pastures thinking this maybe why the Norwegians too donate so much to my Africa. The social documentary photographer Dorothea Lange said that photographers should work by looking at that which they instinctively respond (Dyer, 2005).The photograph is also as much subjective to the individual photographer as it is also truth.
The photograph cannot exist if not for the camera itself first being present in the Sudan or the Norwegian fjord for example. I use cameras to make photographs to message a truth to my visually literate readers but have found out that the presence of a camera itself can alter the very subject that I have come to message to my readers. Jenny Matthews in her book Women and War talks about photographing survivors of a rebel attack in Mozambique, in Matthews’ first photograph the woman looks like a war weary refugee, in her second image the woman noticed the camera and she became the beatific mother, both moments happened, both images are truth. In the second photograph the camera itself changed the resulting picture. The woman in Matthews’ example became normative in that she put forward a face that she felt appropriate for a photograph of herself when she saw a camera pointing at her.
As a narrative photographer I have to have a handle on the dynamics of what surrounds me when I use photography to message to readers of my images…
I always carry my Leica M6 around with me because it has become a habit, it is my comfort blanket of sorts; and there is always a roll of colour film in it and a spare roll in my shoulder bag. Without my camera on me I have no chance of shooting a decisive moment, with my M6 on me I may just be in with a chance as it where. Decisive moments are not only in places of high drama and action worthy of front page news, often the best of them go past unnoticed. The photographer just has to be at the right place at the right time, that place can be anywhere that life is being outworked. But I am not writing about just getting out there and snapping pictures, this is about playing it forward.
I liken narrative photography to walking carefully through a flower bed, I want the telling pictures but without plowing up the space that I am working within.
The other day I took a long walk to clear my head and to put the city behind me; and the beach does that for me. I am working on a body of beach scape pictures, it’s a move from the person centric portraits of my South Beach work to a more environment centric focus of local beaches. I made a dent in the project with a few new images, but then the rest of the afternoon was quiet time for me to just absorb the space around me. I could have loaded a fresh film but the feeling to sit on the outskirts of the day’s activities and just look at what was was stronger.
Cuttings Beach is an 1.5 hour walk from where I stay in Durban South, it is just beyond a cemetery and a wetlands and between the Mondi paper mill and the SAPREF oil refinery. It was a Sunday that I felt that just looking was the better option. A large group of believers in the local Shembe faith were there alongside the normal subsistence fishermen who have made this place a home from home. By just sitting on the side I got to look deeply and enter into a conversation with one of their church elders, I came away with an understanding that will be of use next time I am communicating more fully aspects of the Shembe faith.
That day I made more then one new friend and made concrete for myself the concept of walking softly through the fields of photographic flowers.
As a narrative photographer I don’t want to be so busy taking pictures of all that is around me at the expense of first engaging with aspects of these subjects. How can I my photographs narrate fully if I as the author don’t first engage with the spaces? I want to dig below the surfaces with my images; and my conversations that Sunday opened up these narratives for future readers of photography. Instead of just a picture of an ‘unaware of it’s fate’ chicken on an African beach I can have a deeper outworking, by now knowing somethings more of the goings on of Cuttings Beach, Durban, South Africa.
Durban’s People, a young model on a street fashion photo set, Bulwar Park, Glenwood, Durban, South Africa.
As a narrative photographer I take pictures of what is around me, I don’t go into a studio situation to get a picture of say ‘two people looking meaningfully into the middle distance’ or ‘someone next to a window in the morning light.’
I once saw the Oliver Stone film Salvador with two student friends, Hamish was studying commercial photography, Bruce was studying journalism and I was a interior design student. Salvador is a film about two photogs covering the war in Salvador in South America, I came out of the cinema hyped, telling Hamish that as a photographer he should do this type of work when he was finished with his diploma, Hamish just looked at me as though I was mad. Hamish went on to be a successful commercial photographer and I went onto scraping out a living as a narrative photographer. Though both Hamish and I use the same cameras, I seem to think quite differently about photography to Hamish as a commercial photographer. I never wanted to become a war photographer as in Salvador but I have perceived life as it is around me as a photographer.
As Hamish though I was mad, I too have had a hard time understanding the ways of some other photographers in the portrayal of the human form. I posted the following on a Facebook photographic group: What is it with some (group Name) photographers and young womans bottoms and boobs? I got 10 likes and 1 reaction and the comments ranged from because I like it, I can and a sarcastic don’t you know? to the quite defensive and the inclusion of the word pornography. One photographer’s model said “if you have it flaunt it.”
Then there was also the inclusion of the word passion and the sense of the decisive moment which I as a narrative photographer can understand too, I now think that it is something about the personal thrill of the photographer concerned in getting a preconceived concept together. Maybe it’s the same way I get a thrill when a moment came together when I have done a portrait on the streets of Durban.
I think we all as photographers have our driving forces, some forces are exclusive to the different types of photography, and other forces are common to us all.
Sisters in Woodlands, Microsoft Lumia 435 ‘phone camera, Photo John Robinson
Cell phone cameras do not produce the same image crispness of a medium format Carl Zeiss lens, but the ‘phone camera does have the same ability of a medium format to take pictures out of the way of the human contact between the photographer and the person photographed…
Way back when I was just starting out on my own photographic journey, I remember Jenny Gordon commenting on the ‘feel’ of her photographs taken on her medium format Hasselblad camera at the time. When a Hasselblad camera is used, it is usually mounted on a tripod out of the way of the photographer and the persons photographed at the time; and this reduces ‘strain’ on the person or persons photographed.
Click your shutter button now, don’t chimp, look and be surprised later. When using a ‘phone camera in bright light it’s often hard to see the coming image on the camera screen, so just have a quick look to make sure of your angles, the camera has already a surprisingly good hold the exposure and focus side of things. So just get on with capturing the moment – it’s only digital, so no loss as ‘they’ say… And your pictures will be more spontaneous and ‘of the moment’ too.
On the theory side, when someone is being portrayed they can become ‘normative.’ Another way of saying this is: they present themselves to the camera in a way that they think they should be portrayed. The result of this behavior by the person been photographed is that the photographer does not get the moment as she or he saw it. The ‘phone camera is much less “serious” in the mind of the person photographed and so they get less up set by the process…
To end this piece, I say spend more time taking pictures and less time getting hung up in photographic gadgets; I also think that if H.C.B. had had a ‘phone camera he would have used it too.