Through The Mirrors Of My Mind
Through The Mirrors Of My Mind
This article is intended as follow-on to my essay ’Influences and origins of my own ideas in Photography’, published in the Summer 2006 issue (No. 32) of the Royal Photographic Society’s Contemporary Photography magazine. That essay was invited by Richard Sadler Hon FRPS, the magazine editor, but further prompted by the visit on 20th March 2005 of Gus Wylie Hon FRPS to speak at the photography group to which I belong, Lancashire Monochrome. In some of the images Gus presented, he evidenced how he was influenced by artists, whose work he admires, for example, Ben Shahn. He placed great emphasis on his open acknowledgment and celebration of those influences, from whose artistry he would occasionally borrow in the making of his own photographs. In the 2006 essay I cited those whose work has had an influence on my own photography, but fell short of saying how that actually worked through in my own thought processes. This essay is to correct that particular shortcoming.
Professor Gerry Badger, in an essay published in 2000 entitled ’How You Look At It’, made reference to what he termed ’quiet photography’, the thought processes of the ‘quiet’ photographer being a complicated amalgam of mirror and window. He describes the photographer, along with his or her personal tendencies and preferences, withdrawing behind the visible world and dissolving himself/herself into the formal structure of the images and making himself/herself ’present’ in the photographs produced. On the surface there is, he maintains, a sense of the viewing frame of the camera having been laid on the scene without interpreting it very much. I consider myself to fit into the category of quiet photography, but just how do I apply that in practice and in a way that I can engage consistently to convince that my images do not result by chance?
I was listening to the radio, while driving into work one morning, when the Diana Ross song ’Reflections’ was being played……….’Through the mirror of my mind, time after time, reflections of….’ and the penny dropped that this was how I could explain my own photographic thought process. I am fairly precise in most aspects of my photography and the notion of mirrors reflecting not light but thought, and in some preset relationship, held considerable appeal. I do have a profound regard for the work of other photographers. From some of these I note attributes that I view as tenets for my own practice, whilst in others what I would draw upon is a quality I would wish to introduce more into my own work, i.e. borrowing from their artistry. From the photography of Walker Evans, for example, I resonate with the precision with which he appears to frame a scene but, since I feel that quality is already a consistent one in my own practice, I do not need to be influenced further by his work in that particular way. His images are those with which I immediately feel very comfortable because, I suppose, they possess an attribute with which I accord. On the other hand, I enjoy a dry sense of humour, sometimes laced with irony, and wish to draw on this more in my own work so the photography of Fay Godwin and Joel Sternfeld pushes my thinking further in this respect and I therefore cite these as influences or ’mirrors’ in my own photographic thought processes.
I have two or three different sets of ‘mirrors’ or influences in my mind, each for different locations where I take my photography most seriously. My own thought process I liken in part to a prism, into and through which the mirrors that I employ reflect light (thought). Through my mental prism I can refract that thought into its component elements, much as Gus Wylie had explained how he had utilised the artistry of other individuals, each representing one or more attributes that I may be taking (borrowing) from my interpretation of the work of another practitioner. In this way, I consider the influence of each separately but then combine them into Gerry Badger’s amalgam, whilst not introducing so many influences as to overwhelm or confuse the decisions I must make in the taking of each photograph.
The process I am trying to describe is intended to result in an outcome that is removed from plagiarism, one that is honest and resulting in original seeing. Each mental mirror has a slightly distorted surface, formed by my personal interpretation of someone’s photography whose attributes I admire. We may all have our own ’take’ on another’s work, whether or not that is itself influenced by reading other critiques on that same work. The influences we choose may not be, in the main, photographers but artists working in other media such as paint or poetry. Each influence we choose further enriches our seeing and extends our capacity to capitalise on photographic opportunities.
It has always been my desire to create a series of images that have an identifiable and consistent streaming of thought running through them, and that this may be recognised as a form of ’signature’ in my photographic seeing. I must be honest with myself and acknowledge that my work is a complex product of many inputs. To concentrate on achieving this I have simplified my use of equipment, materials and chemistry. On the Cumbrian Coast, my longest series, I use only the Leica rangefinder and its 50mm standard lens. The ‘normal’ viewing angle of this lens tends to select out of the scene only that frame which captures my attention. The use of the monochrome medium is a simplification in itself, as is the discipline to print on Grade 2 paper always to exactly the same 12 inches by 8.3 inches format. I feel that to have any more equipment or to use any variance in technique or process would be to get in between, in the way of, my thoughts and the scene to be photographed.
On occasions, I am entranced by the light and readily admit that the act of taking a photograph, or deciding not to take a photograph, is a very dynamic and challenging activity. Photography simultaneously calls upon the exercise of technical skills, visual acumen and (mental prisms aside) grey matter processing. The inclusion of other influences, more often than not, reduces the number of pictures taken because the threshold for the decision to release the shutter is raised. I submit to the desire to make my own photography as accessible to the viewer as I can and believe this actually requires it to carry a repeatable signature, one which the viewer can recognise and build their own understanding of, and appreciation for, with each successive image they view in any single series. I do enjoy my photography even though I consider that I pursue it through a highly disciplined and constrained approach. I know that my intuitive side is often suppressed in this process, but I prize that consistency and signature above all.
This essay is only one way of explaining how I take my photographs. Looking at the issue from the more emotive standpoint, I actually feel as though I am walking with Raymond Moore on my outstretched left hand and Fay Godwin, held quite a bit closer, on my right. I have assimilated Fay’s photography more fully than Ray’s, so tend to use his influence more ‘left field’, and I am right-handed (if that makes sense). A number of other photographers are walking close by with me, such that I feel I can almost reach out and tug them by the elbow, to come and help out if needs be. There I am then, with the camera on its tripod, surrounded by a gang of other photographers all of whom, of course, are not there in actuality but who do exist in my photographic consciousness.
Keith Launchbury FRPS