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?

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”.

It is getting quiet around here

Does it make sense to set out self-consciously to take (or make) a “quiet” photograph, in the sense that Gerry Badger uses that term (in his essay on “A Quiet Photograph”). I was thinking about Badger’s essay as I wandered around this rather strange area near Leeds city centre on a quiet summer’s evening.

It was quiet. The whole area was quiet. More quiet than the rapid developments of 5 years ago had ever envisioned. The blue hoarding on the right marks the site of a huge new building planned (just before the slump of 2008) but never built.

In 2006 and 2007 I took many photos here as one of my “Transformations” projects. I curious about how this new spate of dormitory building would turn out and how the spaces in between would be made habitable and become more sociable.


And to contrast with my approach to taking photos down there (Wellington Street / Whitehall Road area) 5 years ago… under intensive development… mean that there was a kind of narrative of transformation…

  • the story as envisioned by the developers…

  • And I wanted to explore that narrative…

  • not necessarily endorse it…

  • or criticise it…

  • Now… finding quiet time to absorb its quietness…

Gallery culture?

Badger’s critique of the culture of art gallery practice is more cogently and more thoroughly carried out in other essays. But the notion of the ‘quiet photograph’ introduces the intriguing suggestion that there can be a photography outside of the photographer’s own strident voice, … his determinedly expressive voice..

This essay does not strike me as one of Badger’s best. I prefer several of the others in the collection The Pleasures of Good Photographs. But it is this essay which has set up echoes that stay with me in the silence, when I am out with my camera.