26 May 2004

Sophia's portfolio

A fifteen minute appointment with a young photographer, to look at work, turned into two and a half hours.

I enjoy such conversations. They are the main reason I enjoy teaching – an opportunity to learn from, to be stimulated and excited by, the clear, uncluttered vision of fresh young minds which haven’t yet been closed in by other people’s wisdom.

Interesting choice of word, that: wisdom. I didn’t really mean wisdom ... "received wisdom", perhaps ... and yet – it triggers those lines from Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne:

But he himself was broken
Long before the sky would open
... ... ...
He sank beneath your wisdom
Like a stone.

Anyway ... yes, the intoxicating thrill of seeing through eyes that haven’t yet learnt all the millions of things that can’t be done. And this one was one of the one in a thousand that goes beyond that: so that I would bet money that this pair of eyes will still see just as clearly half a century from now.

But: a chill wind too. I’ll get to that in a minute.

I asked: how long have you been taking photographs?

The answer was "I’ve only had a camera since Christmas, and a printer since February. But I think I’ve been taking photographs in my head for about two and a half years."

That’s good. To take photographs in your head before you take them in the camera is, like making music in your head or writing in your head, one mark of someone who is driven to create and has what it takes to do so. Other good signs too: "I saw a magic picture in Amsterdam, but I missed it. I’m going back to get it" and "I saw a picture from the train, but couldn’t take it from that viewpoint; I had to take another train back again" and "I saw this one, and set up the camera, but I had to wait there for hours before the light was right".

One of the pictures I looked at was "The first photograph I ever took". And that’s where the chill wind first made itself felt. This person who is seventeen years old, who has only had a camera for five months, is showing me "the first photograph I ever took" and I know, with dreadful certainty, that this first effort is better than anything I have ever done in the forty four years since my own first camera. And I had to say so – though it was received as a polite white lie, not the deadly serious truth which it really was.

This is not a story of doom. I’m well aware of, and comfortable with, the fact that I’m only an average talent and that there are many in the world who outclass me a millionfold. To meet one of them is a privilege. Then again, quite apart from feeling stimulated and inspired, I also feel put on my mettle. I wouldn’t have missed this experience for the world. But the chill wind is still there.

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