Evening on Whitehall Road

This is not the photograph I would have taken if I had had more time to compose more carefully. But I like it. I need to reflect on how accident has shaped an image that I find quite satisfying.

The photo about was snatched. I noticed the two figures a moment too late to capture them as they crossed in the little pool of light which they are just leaving. If I had had even a moment to spare I might have stepped forward to exclude post for the traffic lights from the frame. But then I would still have had figures tiny in the distance.

Passers-by were too infrequent at that time of the evening for me to go and spend time exploiting that patch of light. I do intend to return to the scene. I will think on these things when I do. But in the meantime I have, partly by accident, ended up with a photograph I find really satisfying: a picture of light and dark, companionship and solitude, old and new, development and its arrest. On the far side of the road is a gap where old buildings were torn down to make way for new which, after 2008, never got built.

These are the same two young women seen in the distance in the photo above. This is taken a moment or two later but it is a photo that I would have quickly discarded, if it were not that I wanted to reflect on my own photographic habits. Gone is the gorgeous orange, the contrasty light. The figures are viewed from an angle (rather than frontally). There is a sense of proper distance. Composition in general is unexceptional, hardly worthy of note. I am tempted to say, unsuccessful. (Especially the pole emerging from the top of the head.) This concern with composition probably signals the sense in which I am not a quiet photographer and this might be considered a “quiet” photograph. Perhaps we need another example…

I had noted the exciting light when looking along the road (Whitehall Road), and was reflecting on these questions when another figure approached. This time I photographed her in a style which many would recognise as very much my own. This was the result…

Is that a good photo? The face does not stand out against the background quite as much as I would like. I could use Photoshop to drop the building a tone or so. But as it stands it is a straight uncropped snapshot. As so often in my snapshots, the geometry seems a bit exaggerated. The diagonal of the pavement goes straight to the solar plexus, helped by the orange wall on the right. Hands and eyes show us exactly what she is concentrating on. The little figure in white is caught in the sun and balances the white of her phone. I even like the neat energy of her slightly bent knees and the geometrical shapes behind her.

Not a great photograph. But it if I pursue my project of photographing the area, in this period of ‘arrested development’, this photo might make the final edit. It is says something about women walking home in pleasant but quite lonely parts of the inner city. It reminds one of the role of mobile phones in offering something like companionship and safety.

Subordinating his own story?

‘The “quiet” photograph is a difficult notion to define with any exactitude, partly a question of style, more a question of voice.”

Badger (page 210) characterises “quiet” photography as modest, self-effacing, not hectoring. Shunning the egotistical mediation of the determinedly expressive auteur. Understated. Eschewing ‘quirky tricks of technique or vision’.  

He goes on to quote Thomas Weski who describes such photographers as shaping their results ‘subtractively’…

Badger’s essay then goes something of a detour, first explaining that the “quiet” photograph is certainly “straight” but that not all straight photographs are quiet. (“The images of both Sugimoto and the Bechers positively scream…”) The “operatic” prints of Bill Brandt or W. Eugene Smith are likewise straight, but by no means quiet. Badger contrasts “quiet” photographs with the obsession with size, and the need to exhibit consistent style that betray a concern with the art world, rather than the world itself .

“The world is infinitely more interesting than any of my opinions concerning it. This is not a description of a style or an artistic posture, but my profound conviction.” – Nicholas Nixon’s dictim is clear but it does not get us closer to understanding the aesthetic of the “quiet” photograph. We might understand this a bit better if we remember Frank Gohlke’s aim of the “‘passive frame’, in which the image appears not to have been composed actively, with any great forethought, but has happened ‘naturally’ as it were.” (p.218)

But this “prediliction for what can be discerned as a hiding of the artist’s hand” doesn’t sound to me like the ‘transparent eyeball’ of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Too much artfulness involved in hiding the art. 

Does quiet photography have to be composed in such an artfully neutral fashion? I feel I need to go and look again at Badger’s examples.

We come to the end of the essay without much of a positive definition or characterisation. And we are offered little guidance for practice. I am not even sure that we have been helped to appreciate the work of Gohlke, Richard Misrach, Robert Adams, Nicolas Nixon or Stephen Shore (p.217). To me they are too ill-assorted, their work too multi-faceted, to really help us grasp this slippery notion of the “quiet” photograph. But I know that I will be looking again (more or less immediately) at the work of each of these men with Badger’s words in my mind. 

The notion has indeed been difficult to define. Although the following words do not add up to a definition they are likely to stay in my mind for some time…

“The voice of the quite photographer remains modest” (p.216).

Scrupulously maintaining the camera’s “inherent neutrality” (p.217), he maintains “a discreet emotional distance from his subject, he allows it to tell its own story, and as the conduit for this story, is content, indeed insistent upon, subordinating his own ‘story’, if you like.”

Tone of voice?

What is the “tone of voice” of a photograph? or of a photographer?

What role does composition play? or treatment (processing)?

Perhaps it is easier to understand what a quiet “tone of voice” in photography might be if we consider its opposite: a strident, or emphatic, tone of voice…

I am a sucker for photographs that are self-captioning. Saturday night is the favourite time of the people grouped in the photos on the hoarding below. It was also the subject of a documentary photography project that I pursued for two years along with my friend and colleague, Stephen Griffin. We used an extensive photoblog, which we called HEADROW (click to view), throughout the project. But what about the following “evening” photograph?

I think this is a “good photograph”. At least, I find it satisfying and I find it eloquent. In it I hear a new tone of voice, rather more subdued than when visited this same area five years ago in order to track its rapid re-development.

The composition here is rather obvious. The viewer is able to read the hoarding and assess the way photography is being used there to talk up city centre living in Leeds (Leeds, Live it, Love it is the familiar slogan in the circle next to the photos on the hoarding). The hoarding has been set in the context of the quiet summer evening, the fairly unremarkable (old) buildings, set off by beautiful evening light.

Just around the corner was another hoarding with a slogan and photos that I wanted to record. The light made it more difficult. I only wanted a record. I put the resultant image through Instagram and the result was the image below.

Doesn’t this image form an interesting contrast with the one at the top of the page. Surely a different tone of voice? The peculiarity of the lovely evening light has been transformed into a screaming contrasty colour scheme. A square crop (the original had the same format as the photo above) has put the figure on the left in direct relation to the slogan on the hoarding. The top of the hoarding directs our eyes to his and highlights his unsmiling stare at the camera. The loose tie, the two bags suggest that this is not his favourite time in Leeds city centre.

One might go further, his path seems to take him ‘downhill’. The hoarding has completely obscured the horizon. But the angles here seem to ‘amplify’ the slogan. It has been given a more strident, emphatic ‘tone of voice’.

Propaganda? I am interested in propaganda. Many of my photographs are reflections on the propaganda of modern marketing. I often use angles and diagonals in quite an extreme way. Here my photo of the hoarding was intended to remind one of the superbly designed propaganda images of the past such as the Soviet poster for OVMED state broadcasting (left).

Recently I have been using a number of tools to re-appraise my approach to photography. Instagram has provided a kind of sketchbook for thinking about a variety of new ideas and notions. (Reading Gerry Badger’s essays in The Pleasures of Good Photographs has been another stimulus for this re-appraisal.)

So let me finish off this post with two versions of my approach to (the path that led me to) the hoardings in the two pictures at the top of the page.  

The Instagram version of the scene is a detail cropped from the photo below. Instagram has intensified the colours and made its own sense of the contrast between light and shadows.

Below I have offered the uncropped image as processed by me in Lightroom. It was a difficult edit. I am happy with this result. Perhaps later I will try it in black and white.

Is it a “quiet” photograph? I don’t know. And I don’t know if I care. It was a photograph taken in the quiet. It is a photograph about the quiet. It is a quiet I wanted to listen to and  respond to. It is a photograph of a space in which I wanted to be quiet, to put aside for a moment, worries money worries, personal anxieties.

I knew that I could return later, and that I would have time to reflect on the patterns and rhythms of human life and development.

Reception ?

“Perceptibility is a kind of attentiveness.”
― Novalis

Receptivity or receptiveness… being or becoming receptive. How is that done?

The camera opens its shutter and lets in light. In order to be receptive to the world it is surely better to be quiet, attentive… to listen. But how do we open not only our eyes and ears, but also our minds?

The ‘negative capability’ which Keats meant the artist’s receptiveness to the world and its natural phenomena, as opposed to a continual striving to formulate theories or categorical knowledge.

“I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason…”   

Eugene Atget’s photos are always worth reconsidering. Reading Gerry Badger’s essays have inspired me not only to look again Atget but also has led me to reconsider my photographic habits.

Recently I have been using Instagram on my phone to re-think aesthetic issues and to reconsider where I want to go with my photography. This photo was taken in a quiet corner away from the main streets of Leeds (not far from my bank).

Badger’s notion of “the quiet photograph” excludes any over-obvious compositional ploys. But photographing even the most easily-overlooked corner it is easy to incorporate the what is lent to composition by the architecture and lay-out of space.

So what is the role between composition (which is for most photographers pretty much a matter of habit) and “the quiet photograph”?

Atget’s photographs are so interesting in their own right. They seem imbued with a deeper, more enigmatic silence, than the notion of “still” photography implies. Perhaps I will use the index to Badger’s book to look at the various mentions of Atget and then come back, in a later post, to consider whether Atget’s images serve as a template for “quiet photography”.

A “quiet” photograph?

Is this a quiet photograph?

It is ‘quieter’ than my usual style of street photography. It is not as clear or graphic as some of my topographic images. The light is rather special. What difference does that make?

The place was quite quiet. Quieter than earlier in the day. Quieter than the developers would have hoped it would be when they built it less than a decade ago.

The image is quieter than the images which, five years ago, I imagined I would be taking in this newly developed area of the inner city. It is also quieter than it might have been if I had not been reading Gerry Badger’s essay on “The Quiet Photograph”.

Is it a quiet photograph?

Does that matter?