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Searching in the Shadows

February 24, 2010

I am fascinated by photography, much more so than by painting or drawing. Especially since I went digital, I take far too many pictures and spend much less time than I should organising, deleting and finishing. I have no pretence to be technically original, or even proficient. I am, in the old sense, a gentleman photographer: I point the camera at what seems to me to be a well composed scene, and trust that, every now and then, the result will be pleasing, and, sometimes, it is.

My photographs are largely landscapes, mostly seascapes in fact, and I wonder at this conscious decision, though I do realise that I lack whatever skill it takes to put people at ease for natural portrait shots. I love the sea and the coast and I am puzzled that I would get so much joy from halting the movement of the tide in still pictures; surely it is the very changing, moving nature of tide on strand, clouds on cliffs, and spray on rocks that gives the sea such fascination?

Looking recently at a collection of Don McCullin’s work, I reflected some more. McCullin is much more than a war photographer, but, to my generation his pictures of conflict will be defining – both of his work, and the battles he risked his life to cover. In the introduction to the collection, Susan Sontag, no stranger herself to the business of pondering on pictures, described his war photography as bringing back messages from Hell. She suggested, indeed, that, in a strange way, wars and disasters no longer seemed ‘real’ to us unless we were given view of a stream of quality photographs.

What really exercises me is the feeling that, despite the onset of ENG, light weight cameras and advanced video technology, it remains the still photograph, and generally the black and white still photograph that defines great moments for us, that form the frontpieces for the memory books in our heads.  Say ‘Dallas’ to me and  I won’t conjure up Zapruder’s techniclour movie of the moment of assassination, but rather a black and white still of a smiling and relaxed Kennedy, squinting into the sun and the camera, elbow on the windowsill of his limousine; ‘Ypres’  is a grainy War Museum monochrome of burdened soldiers traipsing over duckboards; 9/11 is another colourless still, whether by design or the effects of the building collapse, of a black woman, smartly dressed and made grey by the ash of falling debris.

I’ve been to the Citadel in Hue where McCullin took some of his most potent Viet Nam pictures. Now, when I look at his iconic shot of a shell shocked Marine, it is not the staring eyes or the clutching hands that make the image visceral, it’s the portion of brick wall behind the slumped figure that recalls the reality of place for me. Bizarrely, as I walked the Citadel, the scene of the vicious siege in 1968, I realised the red brick walls were identical to those I had been familiar with in the north of England in my teenage years. In black and white, this had not been apparent, but once I had seen it, the detail took over.

And now, when I look at that Marine, I focus on real memories of my own teenage years, of viewing the nightly news on which Hue and Ha Noi where not even pictures, but words on a grey and white map, and I remember that, for all my marching and protesting, for my arguing and positing in school debates, I had no real or proper understanding of war or human inhumanity, but what I did have were the photographs from brave men like McCullin who froze the moment, just as I freeze the western tides in my seascapes, to give us the time to reflect, to encourage us to think, to provide a focus for the thoughts we need to have.
Black and white stills, be they of war or peace, people or landscapes, start the journey to reflection, engage our imaginations and strip away the extras provided by colour and exposure. We mightn’t like it, but, when we strain to look into the shadows, we eventually see more clearly.

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