To essay…

or “How to Read an Essay…”

It might seem patronising to want to offer thoughts about ‘how to read an essay’ but I am sort of learner who thinks it is always worthwhile to go back to basics. And here ‘basics’ means remembering that an essay is usually an attempt, an experiment. It is often worth asking about any essay with which we engage: what is being attempted, what is being tried, or tried out?

Simply put: Gerry Badger tried out the notion of ‘a quiet photograph’ in prose, with examples. I want to try out that notion, in practice, but with some reflection in writing.

If we think of an essay only as a noun, it is in danger of being seen as simply a text among texts. Structural and post-structural linguistics has shown great ingenuity in ‘reading’ all kinds of writing as ‘texts’, and even applying textual analysis to what was never written.

The danger is that we see all kinds of communication as somehow argumentative in the same way… in the words of a sage dear to me… ‘They all have their own agenda, don’t they?’

Google offered the following on the topic of “Essay

Noun:
A short piece of writing on a particular subject.
Verb:
Attempt or try: “essay a smile”.
Synonyms:
noun.  attempt – try – trial – test – experiment – assay
verb.  try – attempt – assay – test – sample – endeavour

Let me illustrate my point by reference to Gerry Badger’s essay on “The Quiet Photograph”. I suspect that when it came to selecting materials for inclusion in the admirable collection The Pleasures of Good Photographs Gerry Badger might have felt some sentimental attachment to this piece. After all the ‘quiet photographers’ he lists, Frank Gohlke, Richard Misrach, Robert Adams, Nicolas Nixon and Stephen Shore (p.217) are favourites of his, some of them close personal friends. What if this was the first piece of writing in which they were yoked together as a kind of tribe? And then maybe this was the first attempt, the first time he has essayed the notion of the ‘quiet photograph’. Maybe this essay has survived only because it launched an intriguing notion which has not really been explored more productively elsewhere? I wish I could offer some of the facts to fill in here where I have essayed only speculation.

The notion of ‘the quiet photograph’ is, for me at least, an intriguing one. This blog is an attempt to demonstrate why that is so. For me, it has pointed up something about my own approach — but by way of contrast. I am anything but a ‘quiet photographer’. I want in future posts to explore a notion I see as related but not synonymous: the notion of ‘slow photography‘. My own skills have been developed in a quite different direction: my photography is neither quiet nor slow. My most recent project has been the hundreds of images on the theme of consumerism and retail therapy that I collected on my phone and processed through Instagram to form the two ‘stained-glass windows’ which went into the recent Your Retail Soulmate exhibition (see example above).

One reason I was able to ‘collect’ so many ‘street photography’ images on my phone so very quickly is that I have been thinking about consumerism and the image environment it has created for a very long time. At least since I saw John Berger’s brilliant 1972 BBC-TV series Ways of Seeing soon after it was first broadcast in the UK. Another is that I have a quick eye, well-developed habits of geometry and composition and I have had several years of practice at just this kind of photography.

The phone was better suited to the ‘style-for-the-job’ than a 10 x 8 camera would have been.

My ‘stained-glass’ windows were a commentary on the image-ecology (you heard it here first, folks… I am essaying that notion, here) of consumer capitalism. The windows contain a mass of individual images but many of the images themselves combine numerous images or image-layers. Attention is demanded in order to resolve the cacophony of image-arguments into specific moments of our encounter, engagement and seduction by the images that surround us.

This is not the place for a detailed account of my own thinking or practice in that project. (I have already put together two small books of images and will be going back to my translation of Walter Benjamin and the essays of John Berger in order to explore these themes more fully.)

Within this blog I want to go on to explore the notion of ‘slow photography’ and to explore issues of authority and modesty, and to look at the implications of the larger formats – and the 10 X 8 camera in particular – for the ‘tone of voice’ of the photographer. In order to do so, I will – in later posts – look at some of my favourite photographers including John Davies, Mark Power and David Goldblatt.

And ‘ecology’ — a concern that links Badger’s ‘quiet photographers’ — is another notion that is worth returning to. Give me time.

[Above] A portrait of yours truly, Lloyd Spencer, in front of one of my ‘stained glass windows’. The portrait is by MartinM (or Martin Musiol) who took a series of 40 wonderful photos at the opening of the Your Retail Soulmate exhibition.

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.”

Responding to an essay

I like the idea of a “quiet” photograph. I want to think a little about the idea of a “quiet’ photograph. I want to do so by re-reading some essays and looking again at work by some great photographers but also by taking my own photographs and thinking about them.

In order to do so I have spent a little time this week taking a variety of photographs. I am not sure that any of them are examples of “quiet” photographs. But they may help me think about the appeal of the idea of “quiet”.

“Without Author or Art: The “Quiet” Photograph is the name of an essay by Gerry Badger in his book The Pleasures of Good Photographs. I am not altogether convinced by the essay. There are several others in the book that seem more coherent and compelling. But it is this essay that has set me thinking and made me want to go out with a camera.

A difficult notion to define…

‘The “quiet” photograph is a difficult notion to define…’ Badger announces, and then proceeds to offer definitions mainly in negative terms… ‘the photographer’s voice is not of the hectoring kind’… eschewing quirky tricks of technique or vision.. modest, self-effacing, understated. Hmmm. I think understand what Badger is getting at but I am not sure how useful this characterisation is, nor can I relate it to his chosen examples in that essay.

I understand the opposition to “the determinedly expressive auteur”, “determinedly grand subjects, to the “loudest most obvious voice”, to the reductive effects of style, the Mark Rothko tendency (e.g. Sugimoto). And I note the opposition to the “operatic”, heavily worked prints of Bill Brandt and W.Eugene Smith.

Just for the moment I want to think about some of these issues — with camera to hand. I want to meditate practically. What might the “quiet” photograph mean for practice?