Collective memories

Many years ago I cycled to Corfe Castle in Dorset. As I wandered around the grounds looking up at the ruins soaring above my head I remember overhearing a teacher talking to her primary school class about the history of the building. After a few years I do not remember the precise words but I was struck by one thing.

The castle had been held by the Royalists during the English Civil War until it was overcome by the Parliamentarian forces in 1645. I recall that as the teacher told the story to her charges she described the Royalists as the “goodies” and the Parliamentarians as the “baddies”.

History is, as they say, written by the winners. Whilst the Parliamentarian forces won the Civil War, leading to Charles I’s execution, ultimately, with the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the Royalists were the winners. Ever since, the Parliamentarians, or the “Roundheads”, have been seen as the baddies.

This memory has come back to me recently as a result of the Black Lives Matter protests and, specifically, the overthrow of the statue of the merchant and slave trader, Edward Colston, in Bristol. The prime minister, Boris Johnson, described such actions as “lying about our history.”

History is not a single unchangeable event, however. It is constantly changing depending upon the views and the priorities of the people remembering. It is like our memories. There are a lot of things that happened in our own lives that we remember fondly and are happy to recount over and over again. However we all have memories that we rather keep hidden; something embarrassing that we hope never comes to the light again. History is a collective memory and as a collective we have decided what to remember and what to hide away.

The heroic efforts of Lady Mary Bankes holding out against the Parliamentarian forces at Corfe Castle until she was betrayed by one of her members of staff, is one memory, and one which that teacher was passing on to her students on that day out.

There are other memories which we choose collectively to downplay. These aren’t necessarily the embarrassing moments (although they could be embarrassing for somebody – organisations that may have been involved in the slave trade?)

These could be the equally heroic events that we have chosen not to celebrate. For example, during the same war that saw the sacking of Corfe Castle, another person, a man called Thomas Rainborough, stood up and declared:

“I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore truly, Sir, I think it’s clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under.”

Rainsborough was on the Parliamentarian side, a “baddie”, but he was also part of a movement called the Levellers, one of the earliest organisations calling and campaigning for equality for all people. Today we largely accept the idea that we are all equal and, however imperfectly, we consider that we live in a democracy where everyone’s vote counts.

But in the Seventeenth Century society was more rigid and hierarchical. Whilst the Parliamentarians did not believe that the king ruled by divine right, most of them felt there was a rigid social structure where some people had more rights of representation than others. Rainsborough’s views were described as anarchy by Henry Ireton, a general in the Parliamentarian forces (just to show that history is not black and white).

Rainsborough’s life and death (he was killed by Royalist forces during a bungled kidnap attempt) are commemorated by a few plaques: one at Putney Church, where he made the speech above; another one at the site of his death in Doncaster; and a final one on the wall of the churchyard in Wapping where he was buried. On a recent visit I was not able to find his actual grave.

Thomas Rainsborough, like Mary Bankes and Edward Colston, is a part of our history. Lady Bankes and the Royalists were seen as the “goodies” by that teacher. Overturning Colston’s statue is seen as denying history by the Prime Minister of Britain. But how we remember these people is also our history.

So, what does this have to do with photography? London is full of memorials to people great and small. They are usually the “great” such as kings and generals. At the moment I am seeking the “small”, the unremembered such as Rainsborough for whom there is no grand statue on Whitehall but a simple plaque on a churchyard wall, to bring them to light and to add them to our collective memory.

And to remind us that history is, contrary to popular opinion, constantly rewritten.

A photographic memory

I started taking photographs back in the 1970’s when I was in my late teens. My first “proper” camera where I could control exposure and focus, unlike the point and shoot Instamatic the family used on holidays, was a Zorki 4K, a communist Russian rangefinder loosely based upon the Leica. Later cameras included a Zenith SLR from East Germany, and a black Pentax Spotmatic (which I still have, though no longer functioning).

I have no memory of what made me start taking photographs but I do know that it became all consuming. I had just left school and I was considering what to do next. For a while I thought about becoming a freelance photographer and I manged to get some work in that area. I photographed the personnel of a local charity for their annual report and I also worked with a potter to picture every stage of the making of a teapot. Most memorably I cycled around the Dorset countryside photographing village post offices for a campaign to prevent their closure.

Sadly I did not have the persistence or the assertiveness to make my living out of photography but I still kept taking photographs. I remember thinking that it was something that defined me and that I would always be a photographer of some sort. And I was living somewhere with great photographic potential. Most weekends I would be out on the bicycle exploring the coast and country lanes of Dorset.

My choice of film was usually Kodachrome or some other slide film. The choice was an economic one as the cost of the film usually included developing. I did not need to hang on to exposed rolls before I could afford to get them developed and printed. I would only ever print a handful of the slides. Most of them remained a piece of processed film sandwiched between cardboard or plastic.

The photographs were taken forty years or so ago. For some reason, despite numerous moves, I have hung onto an old shoe box containing many of the slides. Recently, during the Covid 19 lockdown, like many of other people, I turned to tidying up. I found the shoe box and I got distracted from cleaning.

Holding each slide up to the light I wandered back through sunsets and sunrises, village churches, country lanes and solitary beaches. I discovered Weymouth Harbour as it looked in the early 1980’s; and Maiden Castle, the Iron Age hill fort, as it has always been. And as I looked at each of them I began to think of the one thing missing from them all. A figure standing on that beach or in that woodland or on that dirt track holding a camera to his eye.

Photography is often thought of as a form of memory but even though I took each photograph, that I was standing there looking at that scene, I have no recollection of the moment. Time has torn a hole between the person I was then and who I am now.

Once I had finished looking through the photographs and realising that I was not going to go out photographing for some time I thought I would re-purpose these old slides. I could have had prints made of them or scanned them. Instead I decided to try and create something new that would sum up that sense of distance between now and the time when the photographs were taken. I made myself a simple home made light box to view and photograph each slide and I chose a textured surface for the light box to capture that feeling of passing time and fading memory.

You can view some of the results in a gallery here, and a handful will be on a 2021 calendar available for pre-order here.

Riding to the end of the road

As a cyclist I have always been attracted to a road’s potential – where it starts and where it could take me – so I thought I would use my photography to explore this journey. In 2018 I explored the fringes of the Dorset coastline. I sought out country lanes that ran down to the sea to find out what was there. The results were a series of photographs taken from Poole Harbour in the east of the county all the way along to West Bay at the other end. You can view the photographs here.

I have lived in London for many years and very early on I learned how to escape, to find the roads out through the suburbs where eventually the housing would fall away, and fields and woodland would take their place.

Sometimes I cycled so far I ran out of road.

In the summer of 2019 I set out on my bicycle from my home in north London to ride one particular road all the way from my front door to where it finally ended at a place on the Essex coast once known in Anglo Saxon times as Ythanceaster. There is little there now except a chapel standing om the last of the land before the marshes beyond merge with the sea.

My chosen route began at Highbury Fields and I head east to Hackney Downs and Clapton Ponds, all reminders that this was once the countryside. Further out I reach the ragged fringes of Epping Forest as I head towards Wanstead.

London is circled by major roads and I hit the first one when I reach the North Circular where it meets the M11. Even in this hinterland between the roads there are hints of the countryside to come as I cycle along the edge of the River Roding.

Eventually the countryside opens up and I feel I have escaped London. But even here there are occasional tugs that pull me back to the spraw. A golf course, a simulcram of the countryside in the shadow of the the M25; and the M25, London’s orbital motorway. Once I am beyond that though I am deep into Essex, riding along dappled lanes, as I head towards Ingatestone. The “Slow” signs painted on the road remind me to take my time and look around, stop and photograph.

The ride takes me through Maldon where I get the first hint of the sea and then I am on to the Dengie Peninsular, a bleak and isolated part of Essex. The village of Bradwell means I am near the end of the ride. At the church I make a right and head along the final stretch of road.

The end is via a car park for a nature reserve. Now the road turns to gravel. At the far side of the car park there is a gate and a track that runs beside a field peppered with pill boxes left over from the Second World War, and stalked by wind turbines.

The weathered track curves gently and then fades away into the grass. In front of me is the Chapel of St Peter on the wall, and a little shelter where I prop my bicycle under the gaze of a small statue of the Virgin Mary on its back wall.

You can view some of the photographs from the project in the gallery, “Riding to the end of the road”. Many of the photographs were also on display at an exhibition in Lauderdale House, Highgate, London in January 2020.

I put together a short video of that exhibition which you can view below:

The photographic impulse

Just what happens in a photographer’s head when they see their subject in front of them? I can’t answer for others but here are a few of the things that went through my mind when I was out cycling through the Hertfordshire countryside last Sunday.

My first thought as I cycled up what a few moments before had been an empty country lane was, “My goodness; what an awful lot traffic has appeared!”

The verges were lined with parked cars and more vehicles were coming in each direction. For a moment I thought something terrible had happened; a car crash that had closed the lane perhaps? Then I looked over to my left across a hedgerow.

As far as I can see was a field of red bobbing poppies. And amongst the poppies were a lot of people. Some of them were just strolling but there were quite a few clearly there for the purpose of photographing the scene so I felt I had to join in.

A field full of poppies screams to be photographed especially on a day such as that with blue skies and fluffy white clouds but how to approach it? At first I thought I would focus on what had first attracted me to the scene; the people.  But then I thought it would be great to get some pictures of the poppies themselves. After all it is not everyday you come upon such a magnificent scene.

It is at moments like these that the photographic impulse kicks in.  Henri Cartier-Bresson spoke of the “decisive moment” but there can also be an indecisive moment when you are so overwhelmed with your subject matter that you cannot seem to make a decision when to fire the shutter. I know how I want to make a photograph that sums up this place and moment but what does it look like?

I have lately been reading “Towards a philosphy of photography” by Vilem Flusser and one of the things that has struck me was his description of a photographer as a stalker hunting his or her prey: That’s what I felt like as I roamed along the edge of the field, looking this way and that, sometimes dropping down low and occaisionally looking through the viewfinder to see if the potential photograph matched up with what I could see unmediated by the lens.

I took one or two wide view shots of the entire field then focussed on an individual poppies either against the sky or from above isolated in the midst of the turned soil. In the end the photograph here was taken as I was about to leave and I observed a small group crossing the middle of the field.

For me it seems to sum up what I saw and felt in that field on that morning.

Later I cycled on to a nearby church to explore. It stood down a short side road off the lane. At that moment in common with other places of worship it was still locked but I was happy to explore the outside and to add to my collection of photographs of the quiet corners of churchyards.

For a second time the photographic impulse came over me but this time it was for a slightly different reason. The sun was shining and I could hear a gentle breeze and the bird song in the trees above my head. This was the furthest I would ride today and at some point I would have to head home but for the moment that could wait.

Sometimes I feel like I would like to keep on photographing, to not stop. I first started taking photographs when I was in my early twenties and I can remember at the time that I felt that there was nothing else I wanted to do. Being a photographer defined me. With everything, of course, we move on and the thing that seemed so important can fade into insignificance as other priorities take its place. So it was with photography for me until recently.

Now I find myself again wanting to hold the camera and to wait for the right moment when time and space is aligned within the viewfinder. I think it is that time and space, that sense of moment that I am trying to capture. In the churchyard before I got backon the bike I scribbled a few thoughts, making a note of the time (ten to twelve). It’s a habit of mine from when I used to write a diary (all long vanished) and would record the actual instant of writing; my surroundings and the time.  It is as if I am trying to capture or stay in that moment forever. Is that what I am trying to do when I take photographs?

The corners of a churchyard

On my cycle rides around the countryside I end up exploring many churches. Some of them are grand statement buildings with their towers rising above the neighbouring houses and trees asserting their authority on the land and people around them. Others are much smaller and self-effacing, nestling amongst the trees and tucked away from view. Some of the churches have stood almost unaltered for centuries. Others have been knocked about over the years displaying a tapestry of architectural styles, and some have been knocked down completely and replaced (usually in the Victorian era when there was a church building mania).

Whatever the age or size of the church I am always keen to explore its details particularly the features that make it more human. If I can get inside (which is rare these days unfortunately) I am more interested in the space behind the organ, the door to the vestry where the priest robes, or the prayer books by the door than the architectural features. If I cannot get into the church I find myself exploring the churchyard.

Some of the more human aspects of a church can be found amongst the graves. Here is the grave of a man who died young and alongside him his wife who lived without him for another forty years. And underneath that tree there is a cluster of gravestones marking lives that never made it out of childhood. And then there are the newer gravestones where perversely I am attracted to those who were born at about the same time as me but who have already died. It is a reminder of the random nature of life and the necessity to use it.

There is much to view in a churchyard but the feature I always seek out is usually tucked away around the back. It will typically be close to a small side door into a church. There will be a tap and a couple of watering cans. Usually there is a bin or two, one of them for grass clippings and faded flowers removed from the graves. Sometimes there might be a wheel barrow and a spade and garden fork propped against the wall. Perhaps there will be a pile of slates from the roof or some crumbled stonework that fell from the walls and has been shoved out of the way for the time being (and that time could be very long). Then there could be markers used for freshly dug graves before the headstone is put in place; a line of tiny crosses propped against the wall.

Sometimes this space is kept tidy with the watering cans and bins lined up in a row. Others are less formal and the discarded flowers sprawl from an impromptu compost heap blurring into the surrounding grass.

All of these spaces represent a different side to the church away from the building’s soaring grandeur or its ancient lineage. It is a more intimate part of the church usually hidden away. As I photograph them I sometimes have a feeling that I am intruding upon something private, almost like photographing someone’s laundry hanging on a line.

However I think it is worth recording because there is something to celebrate here; the practical workaday rituals of the bereaved. It is the visits people make to the resting place of their relatives, the process of clearing out the old flowers and tidying the grave, putting in the new flowers, filling the watering can to water them, then throwing the old flowers onto the compost heap. It’s a working part of the church showing that they continue to have a role to play for many people.

To view the photographs visit the gallery, “A quiet corner of a churchyard”

Notebook

I’ve bought a notebook! And I have got myself a pencil! And that pencil was bought in Woolworths which closed down in the UK a long time ago.


I started taking photographs in the pre-digital age and in those days I would carry a little notebook with me to record the “what” (subject), “how” (exposure settings) and, occasionally, the “why” (why was I taking the photograph; what had attracted me to the subject. These days with a digital camera the “how” is stored with the photographs and the deluge of photographs I can take now that I no longer have to ration myself with a single roll of film, means that I can end up forgetting about the “what” and the “why”.

With a film camera I could take a maximum of thirty-six photographs until I had to reload, plus there was the cost of developing and printing them. The economic imperative encouraged me to think a little longer each time before I pressed the shutter; taking down the details in a notebook added to that thought process.

A digital camera gives you the opportunity to take 100s, if not 1000s of photographs before you run out of space. There is very little cost apart from a handful that might get printed out. Sometimes it can be very easy to keep firing the shutter in quick succession with little thought for the process.

In my experience this seems to reflect how many of us live our lives these days with more and more stuff coming at us faster and faster, and we have to move faster to keep up. However there have been efforts to slow things down such as the Slow Movement which originated in Italy in the 1980s as a protest against the opening of a fast food outlet. Most of us recognise the need to take time out although it can sometimes be very hard to find that time.

One of the things I would like to try to do is slow down my photography and a part of that process will be to carry and use a notebook to record my photographs. Some of those records may well appear in this blog.

Interestingly, the digital camera does offer a chance to pause which was not available with film photography. After firing the shutter there is an opportunity to review the image and decide whether I have got it right; does it reflect what I was trying to capture or should I take it again in a different way? However, with the sheer amount of photographs I can take sometimes I will only give the preview a cursory glance and there have been a few times I must admit when I have not bothered to look until I have got home (ironically, this can replicate the moment when I would pick up my prints from the developer, along with the accompanying delight at the well-captured moment or disappointment when I realised the final result did not live up to my expectations on the ground).

I will attempt to take notes of the photographs I take, not necessarily the technical aspects such as the shutter speed and aperture; the camera takes care of that. I will use it to try and record some of my thoughts around the experience of photographing the subject; why have I chosen it and why this particular composition, for example. I will share some of my experiences here.

The edges of Dorset

The road narrows, grass grows down the middle and the edges begin to crumble. Potholed and patched, the tarmac gives way to loose rubble and turns into a dirt track. Gradually it spills out into a wide expanse, before fading away into scrub land. The scrub itself clings on until the cliff edge and there is nothing but the sky and sea beyond. Otherwise the track may dip and twist between woodland offering glimpses of the sea before tumbling onto a secluded beach and disappearing into the sand.

As a cyclist I have always been fascinated by roads; where they might take me and what could be at the end of them.

This series of photographs is an exploration of what is at the end of those roads.
The first part of the project was the Dorset coast. It’s an area I know well; it’s where I grew up. It runs for 88 miles from Poole Harbour in the east, through the Purbecks to Weymouth Bay and the punctuation mark that is Portland Bill. Chesil Beach sweeps off westward, capturing behind it the Fleet, until it reaches West Bay. Here the cliffs rise again to include the highest point along the south coast, Golden Cap. Finally, at Lyme Regis, Dorset ends.

Most of the main roads run along the coast although there are some that lead to seaside resorts such as Swanage or Weymouth. I was interested in the loose ends, the threads that unravelled from those roads and meandered to the more secluded parts of the coast.

I wanted to explore the roads, their changing state and their eventual disappearance.
I was keen to avoid where possible the more obvious ends such as Lulworth Cove or Portland Bill and wanted to seek out those roads that faded away, where the tarmac turned to a dirt track and eventually to open grassland or the sea itself. In each case I was using tracks that were, as far as I could establish, publicly accessible by bicycle such as bridleways or byways.

These photographs were taken in the summer of 2018 on a series of rides east and west from a base in Weymouth.

The places I found and recorded include a beach a short distance from a “Quiet Place” that looks like a scene from a book by Arthur Ransome; coastal views of Portland across Weymouth Bay from Ringstead: boats gently bobbing in the shelter of Chesil Bank; and found artwork beneath the terraced cliffs at Burton Bradstock.

Visit the Dorset coast gallery to view some of the photographs.

It’s just like flying!

Not all the articles in this blog will be about photography although they will all contain photographs. This article about cycling (another passion of mine) includes pictures I took of cyclists riding around the part of London I live in. You can view more of these and other photographs in the Cycling and Cyclists gallery.


A cyclist on their commute home through Highbury Fields, Islington, London

For many of us cycling is second nature. It was something we learnt as a child and when we jump on a bicycle, even if we only do it once a year, it is something we never forget. But do we remember the process of learning to ride a bicycle? I was once privileged to work as a cycle instructor training people to ride bicycles. This article reflects upon my experiences from that time and outlines the basic steps for teaching someone to start cycling.

Learning to fly

As a cycle instructor the most magical moments usually came when I was teaching an adult to ride a bicycle for the first time. For some reason they had missed out on the chance as a child and now they wanted to make up for it. There was one young man I recall training who was in this position; as a child he had been driven everywhere with limited independence. Or there was the sixty year old woman who had recently retired; she was now catching up on all the things she had missed out on earlier in life.

Teaching an adult how to ride a bicycle can be broken into three steps.

Cyclists crossing, Islington, London

Setting off

First of all you are going to practice setting off. Right now your trainee won’t need to know how to balance so you will take hold of the handlebars to hold the bicycle upright. Your trainee should sit on the bike and hold the handlebars with their fingers covering the brake levers (this last bit is very important). One foot will be on the ground and the other should already be on a pedal, at about the two o’clock for maximum leverage. You are going to practice pushing down on the pedal and picking up the other one as it comes around. For the first few goes your trainee can look down to see what they are doing but gradually they should begin to look up and where they are planning to cycle.

Stopping safely

The second step (usually combined with the setting off) is learning how to stop safely and under control. Most new cyclists imagine they are going to fall off and this can make it difficult for them to be able to start riding independently. If they can feel that they can bring the bike to a safe stop under their own control then they are more likely to be able to set off on their own. You should still be holding the handlebars but now you will need to walk backwards as they set off; your trainee will set off for a short distance then, when they want to stop, squeeze the brakes gently and set one foot down on the ground once the bike has stopped. Practice this and the setting off process until your trainee is able to pick up the second pedal, ride forward, squeeze the brakes, stop and put one foot down again.

Staying upright

For this you will need a big open space.

Once they have got the hang of setting off and stopping the bicycle now they are ready to move on to balancing.

Bicycles don’t stay upright because of gyroscopic forces. They stay upright because they are constantly wobbling! The bicycle is falling all the time; what stops it from hitting the ground is that it is constantly steering into the fall to bring it upright again. This is why a bicycle will fall over if its wheels get caught in a tram line for example; there is not enough room to steer into the falls. For experienced cyclists the constant steering is barely noticeable; as a new cyclist it is going to be more exaggerated until they get the hang of it. Which is why you need a large space!

Training somebody to ride a bicycle can be hard work.

To start with you have spent your time holding onto the handlebars and walking backwards as your trainee gets used to setting off and stopping. Now you need to hold on to the saddle or the seat post so that the trainee can take control of the steering. Make sure they set off in the same way that you practised earlier. Walk behind them, holding until you get the sense that they can stay upright on their own.

Some of their early journeys may be very short but gradually they will get it. At some point they will set off and come to a stop a little distance away. They will look back to see where you are. Nowhere near them. You will have let go and they did it all on their own! That’s when it becomes magical! With a bit more practice they will be able to ride the bicycle unaided and control where it goes. It was about this point when my one of my trainees (the young man) turned to me and said, “It’s just like flying!”

It’s just like flying!

Riding home

That feeling never leaves you. I had a conversation with my brother not so long back. He told me that he had been out cycling the country lanes near where he lives. It was a gloriously sunny day and he was just freewheeling down one particular hill when all of a sudden he just let out a whoop of joy. Like my trainee before he was experiencing the delight of his own velocity!


A version of this article first appeared in June 2018

Photographing from the outside

What do you see when you take a photograph?

It can depend on the purpose of course; a selfie of you and your mates out on the town for the night to share on social media, or a magnificent sunset over the silhouetted ruins of a castle to remind you of a wonderful holiday in an exotic location. In such cases the answer would seem obvious.

However in this instance I am not thinking about the subject of the photograph but the photographer. How do you see yourself as you take the picture? Dorothea Lange, documenter of the Great Depression in the 1930s said that every photograph is of the photographer. The question came to my mind, following my exhibition of photographs of the old railway in Weymouth as it appears today, and my subsequent (and inaugural) blog posting on this site.

“… nothing charms me so much as walking along the lower classes, studying them carefully and making mental notes. They are interesting from every point of view.”

Alfred Stieglitz 1896

Alfred Stieglitz, one of the pioneers of photography as an art form, wrote, “nothing charms me so much as walking along the lower classes, studying them carefully and making mental notes. They are interesting from every point of view.” (1896). He was very much the outsider looking in.

“Photography has always been … a way of attempting to understand what it means to feel kinship with another.”

Larry Fink, On Composition and Improvisation, 2014, p.58

Other photographers have taken a more empathetic approach. Larry Fink, the observer of New York life, is one such photographer very much engaged with his subject. For him photography has always been “a way of attempting to understand what it means to feel kinship with another.”

Both photographers have created excellent work but their differing outlooks meant that the work they created was very different.

The outsider

As an outsider there is a danger that you begin to impose your own judgement on what you see. This is what happened when I set out to photograph the track of the old boat train in Weymouth. Despite having grown up in Weymouth the photographs I saw myself as that outsider and the photographs I took reflected that view of myself.

For me those photographs were very much about the shape and form of the tracks. They were taken in midwinter so I was attracted to the strong low light falling across them. I was also fascinated by the decay and the neglect; the weathered lines, the disused buildings, and the litter. One of my personal favourites was “End of the Line” showing the track running into overgrowth. Decay has always been a popular theme in many of my photographs as many of my closest friends would attest.

There are very few people in the photographs and, where they do appear, they are very much compositional elements in a landscape. It seemed to me that most people ignored this piece of industrial heritage beneath their feet and this is how I represented them.

This could not be further from the truth as I discovered when I read the comments in the visitor’s book and when I spoke to some of the people who came to the exhibition. There is still a great deal of passion for the old railway line. The visitors’ book became a debate between those who wanted to see it retained as a unique feature of Weymouth’s history and those who wanted saw it as a hazard and wanted it rip out! During the exhibition afterwards I met with an old man who reminisced about the time he worked on line, a woman who’s father had been responsible for hiring labour at the docks, and a young man keen to see the track preserved for posterity.

My exhibition showed one view of the old railway line, possibly an outsider’s view, but there are other photographic projects that could be made of the boat train that used run through Weymouth.


A version of this article was originally posted in November 2017

The noise of time

I was struck by a comment made by a friend recently. We were talking about the difference between the practice of painting and photography.

“Of course,” he said to me, “it’s easier to take photographs; you only have to press the shutter and then you’re done. When you are painting it can take much longer.”

This does, as I tried to argue, leave aside the time the photographer may have to spend revisiting a scene to capture the best moment, or setting up a shot. It could be argued that the photographer might take several photographs before settling on the final image in the same way that a painter may make lots of sketches to start with. Then there is the time in the darkroom or at the computer processing and printing off the finished photograph.

My friend was right in one respect however; the physical act of capturing the scene in front of the photographer is an instant compared to the time it will take a painter to do the same. The photographer could be already on her way down from the hillside whilst the painter is still there with his easel, palette and brushes.

A photograph is more than just the duration of the shutter speed

The photograph, however, can represent more than just that instant. To illustrate this, here are a couple of my photographs. One of them; fingers caught at the moment of picking a gooesberry, could represent a specific instance in time: the second; an ancient timbered beam, part of the launching bay for the SS Great Eastern, Brunel’s massive ocean going liner,  could hint at a longer time period.

The first shows someone in the act of picking a gooseberry from a bush. The second picture is of an ancient timbered beam, part of the launching bay for the SS Great Eastern, Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s massive ocean going liner. The vessel was so big it had to be launched sideways into the Thames from a specially made dock in Milwall, East London. This photograph shows a part of that launching bay, one of the huge beams the ship would have slid over on its way into the water back in 1858.

The harvesting of the fruit is a very obvious moment in time. Seconds earlier and the berry would still have been on the bush; moments later and it would be in the bowl with all the other gooseberries. Later still it could be depicted as one of the ingredients for a dessert. Photographs taken at each of those instances would have been very different from the one we have here.

The second picture, however, could have been taken at any moment. The huge beam has been there on the side of the Thames in East London since 1858 when the Great Eastern was launched (sideways because it was so big, and after several unsuccessful attempts). It has been preserved since then was not about to go away in the next few years. There have been changes but these have been gradual; it has become more weathered and the land around it has changed. However very little would have changed if I had taken the photograph five minutes earlier. Perhaps it would have looked different if I had visited at another time or day when the lighting or weather was different but unlike the other picture I would suggest it does not represent a single moment.

“The photograph cuts across time and discloses a cross-section of the event or events which were developing at that instant.”

John Berger, Understanding a Photograph, 2013 p.90

Both photographs do, however, represent more than just the time they were taken. The writer, John Berger, described a photograph as an interruption in time. “The photograph,” he wrote, “cuts across time and discloses a cross-section of the event or events which were developing at that instant.” (Berger, Understanding a Photograph, 2013, p90).

Photographs represent the past and future of the subject as well as the immediate moment

The picture of the gooseberry represents the moment of harvest but also the time before; the growth of the fruit bush and the care and attention the gardener paid it throughout the season. It also represents the time afterwards; the berries being washed and turned into jam or an apple and gooseberry pie. In the case of the beam the timescale is longer. We are taken back to the middle of the 19th century when the Great Eastern was launched, and then through the years as the area changed from one of industry and commerce to a residential park.  And we are taken into a future as the area will change again; the ancient beam will become more weathered and one day disintegrate; perhaps the Thames will rise up and flood the park leaving it under water.

Berger helpfully illustrated his idea with a couple of simple diagrams showing the moment the photograph was taken cutting through a line representing the past and the future of the subject. The more information the photograph contains for the viewer then the larger the circle representing the interruption. I would humbly suggest a slight variation on Berger’s theory. The photograph of the gooseberry being picked could be represented by the continuum of time sliced by the instance of the photograph. The moment of my second photograph could perhaps be represented by a longer period of time. Whereas the first photograph was more of an instinctive response to the moment, capturing the second photograph was part of a longer and more considered process; more equivalent to the painter?

The sound of the shutter firing ripples backwards and forwards through time

In photography, and painting, however the moment recorded is just a part of something greater; the time before and time after. In his thoughts on photography (and much else), “Camera Lucida” Roland Barthes wrote about the noise of time.

“For me the noise of Time is not sad: I love bells, clocks, watches — and I recall that at first photographic implements were related to techniques of cabinetmaking and the machinery of precision: cameras, in short, were clocks for seeing, and perhaps in me someone very old still hears in the photographic mechanism the living sound of the wood.” .

(Barthes, Camera Lucida, 1993, p15)

The sound of that instance when I fired the shutter to capture the photographs of the instance of the gooseberry harvest and the timeless beam ripple back and forwards through time.


This blog was first posted in September 2017