Written Articles

The Book Token


The Book Token

As each birthday approaches the choice of what to give another person becomes more difficult. Its not that we have everything but we do worry about buying a present that is not needed. Giving a token seems a sensible solution and at my last birthday, a cousin had done just that. So with a £10 book token in my hand and feeling slightly like a young child with their pocket money I set off to the bright lights of the high street. However I was soon to be disappointed, not by the quantity but by the limited range and quality. There seems to be a never ending list of How to use your digital camera and further tiles under the general heading of Everything you wanted to know about Photoshop, but were afraid to ask.

For the new crop of people coming into photography I worry about what they are being told and how a whole industry has built up that aims to make photography more complex than it needs to be and surrounds it in mystery. However there are still a number of publications that try to cut through the mystique and concentrate on what matters. Pauls Hill’s Approaching Photography is one and another is On Being a Photographer by David Hurn and Bill Jay The latter is a book that has no photographs but has very clear advice about how to become a photographer. In a simple statement Hurn sums up what is really important, the need for a good pair of shoes and that a photograph is made by where you stand and when you release the shutter, not in a computer. He also discusses the importance of taking on a project that you can realistically achieve, that you know something about, that is visually interesting and will interest other people. Many would aspire to look at the lives of an indigenous people in a far off land, but how practical would that be and what could we contribute to the understanding of these people?

At the end of the book he gives five basic principles that should be followed, I have re- read these several times and have here tried to simplify them further.

• A photographer is not interested in photography but has a sense of curiosity about their subject, which is backed by wider research.
• They must have a passion for their subject and it must be possible to convey their ideas through photography, as opposed to another medium.
• You must practice the craft, so technically you can produce the final result you wish for.
• The photographer must be a clear thinker and be able to analyse their work so that it shows both the subject matter and visual variety.
• Finally it should be remembered that it will be hard work.

The production of the images in An English River has taken only two years and there is still plenty of scope to further develop the project. Although I did not set out to follow his advice, I recently found myself returning to his text and began to relate my own outcomes to his ideas. There are some very simple links and any landscape photograph will own a good pair of boots, as well as understanding when the light will be right, watching the weather forecast and in the case of this project there is a need to understand how to use tide tables. After this there was a need to find out what other events would be happening, not only the date but detail times and locations. There is nothing more embarrassing than to arrive late and then stand on the wrong road when trying to photograph a carnival precession. Another aspect that many photographers ignore and other people don’t always understand but is the need to continually return to the same location or event. Each time you visit your understanding is further developed, you see things missed last time and new opportunities occur.

Initially I produced a random number of images which had nothing in common visually which gave the viewer little insight to river and my motives behind the project. Some locals with an interest in photography felt that I was wasting my time, as they saw the river and landscape as flat, boring and not worthy as a subject for their camera, as if it was below them. They also seemed surprised that I was sharing work in progress, one even complained that they were not mounted. Hurn talks about the importance of using the contact sheet and that these are a great tool for learning. He goes out of his way to share his contact sheets with others, as they may discover new images and ideas, they will also reject those weak images that we are emotionally involved with but add little to the sequence. Although Photoshop does have a contact sheet facility, it seems to be rarely used. Talking to a university lecturer recently he was complaining about his student’s reluctance to even produce quality prints, being happy with viewing on a computer monitor. Time is another learning tool and we all need live with some images, to see how they can work together and be sequenced. A magnetic display board is a worthy investment. Bill Jay explains how Diane Arbus pins prints on the wall opposite her bed, so they are the last and first thing she sees each day.

Photography can be used as an excuse or reason to find out more, to be curious about where we live, or in this case where I had moved to. Picking up a camera is a way and maybe motivation to go out and find out about more about the place we call home. My mother lives in a small village in Bedfordshire called Stewartby, I spent much of my child hood and is where I still call home, although I have not lived there for 25 years. It is also home to the largest brick works in the world, which is about to close. So I was pleased to hear that Michael Collins had been given a commission to photograph the works. There is a review of his work in issue 56 of Source magazine by Simon Denison. However I was disappointed, as was my mother, there were five large scale colour prints of different parts of the factory and landscape, but they gave the viewer little insight to the factory, its workers and the lives of people it dominated. The village was built by the London Brick Company, for its workers and was as influential in social housing as Port Sunlight or New Earswick. This type of late photography, recording something after the event, seems to be gathering a following. Shot on large format colour and then displayed in a “white” gallery space but what does is show? The photographer has parachuted in, taken what they need and left, while Eugene Smith stayed for over 3 years in Minamata to produce one of history’s most insightful pieces of work. So we don’t all have this opportunity but we can make an effort to find out more about our subjects and through our work provide a view that others may not have seen.

One of the aspects to the English River project was set against the change of the seasons and finding the right location was an important decision. There was no way of really knowing how scenes would change, while some worked others proved to be dead ends. I was also interested to look at how small changes in viewpoint would affect the final image, by using two images side by side the viewer is given a wider view, which may reflect how they may look and move around a scene they are part of. These images presented along side other individual scenes allowed the sequence to have breaks and pauses, changes in pace, as the river would. Other smaller themes, such as the marks we leave on trees, a tradition where we show our affection to one another, or a flying Union Jack, also run through the work.

There is a timeless quality about working in black and white, but it’s simplicity is what appeals. While colour can confuse and distract, the monochrome image uses light, form and texture. Many would say the true photographer’s tools. When using these materials for documentary work the viewer can be lead to believe that the scene is from a previous time. However these events are happening now and for many the thought of carnivals and street parties are events from the past. One of the motives was to show that these customs are alive and well. These events contrast the flow of the river which binds them together. The river emerges from the hills of the Forest of Bowland, during its journey it gains in size but also in influence on those who live along its course. Although Hurn’s book does not give all the answers and was certainly written in an era before mass digital capture, it still provides a good framework, asks us to be more critical about our own work and shows how others can contribute the final outcome.

And you may ask – “what did I do with the book token”? To my delight I found Dreaming of Jupiter, the story of Ted Simon who sets off at the age of sixty-nine to retrace his four year long motorcycle journey from the 1970’s which he then wrote about in Jupiter’s Travel’s, which I have read. The world is still full of wonder and for some the curiosity to find out more about it never goes away. David Hurn and Ted Simon both display this desire but use different mediums to share their experiences.

Further Reading

Hill, P (2004) Approaching Photography
Hurn, D (1997) On Being a Photographer
Simon, T (2007) Jupiter’s Travel’s - republished
Simon, T (2007) Dreaming of Jupiter

Ted Simon’s website - http://www.jupitalia.com/

A quick search on the internet will show that all the above books are still available and worth reading, even if you are happy with your life as well as your photography. So if you are given a book token as a present think about ordering a book, rather than just looking at what is on the shelves.