15 October 1987


originally published in Creative Photography, October 1987
©1987 and 2007 by Felix Grant

Photographers are a queer lot. Not you and me, of course. I'm talking about the others.

Imagine that you've just walked into the middle of a group involved in passionate debate. What are they talking about? The format war? Digital versus silver? One person's work over another? Pictorial versus documentary? Whatever it is, it will be firmly photographic. Perhaps someone quotes Henri Cartier Bresson, which reminds you of something that William Golding once said ... but at this point, you're in trouble. You have overstepped an invisible but immutable line. William Golding may have said a great deal of worth on the subject of photography – but he is not a photographer, he's a novelist. It's as if you've just made a rude noise in church. Everyone picks up their gadget bags and off they go. As I said, photographers are a queer lot. They live in a cultural laager, splendidly isolated, with craft-purity their watchword.

In the May '86 issue of this august, forward looking and broad minded journal (creep, creep!) a letter appeared with my name at the bottom. The letter had been edited, and as a result was far tighter and easier to read. In the process, however, the words "artist" and "opera singer" had been tastefully deleted. (I have to admit that Isaac Asimov got through; this is, after all, a Forward Looking and Broad minded Journal ...) Someone, in the depths of Bushfield House, draws a line (perhaps unconsciously) in the murky no-man's-land beyond photography, between science fiction and opera. Why?

Talk to painters, sculptors, poets, writers, musicians and you find that there are no clear-cut divisions between them. The painter has clay on her hands. The poet is listening to a newly-released recording of the Matthäus Passion. The sculptor is deeply immersed in One Hundred Years of Solitude. Maybe the musician has tried writing lyrics, has thus been led into poetry where he learned new ways to look at rhythm ... which, in turn, benefits his music.
The lifeblood of all creativity is experience, growth, endless curiosity, an open and questing mind, the interchange of fresh ideas. Close the doors, and you die. As I type the sixth draft of this article, Suzanne Vega sings The Queen and the Soldier from the hi-fi in the corner of the room. I stop typing and listen to her hauntingly visual language, knowing that the second to last line is appropriate to the paragraph I am writing: "... While the Queen went on strangling, in the solitude she preferred ..."

About description, I learnt more from Ursula Le Guin than from anyone or anything else I have ever come across: and description is what photography rests on. Her short story The First Report of the Shipwrecked Foreigner to the Kadanh of Derb set me working on an impulse that lasted over a year. Ernst Haas's photographs make me feel that I would like to go to Venice; Le Guin's Shipwrecked Foreigner makes me feel that I was born there.

Like everybody else, I had seen endless reproductions of Vincent Van Gogh's sunflower paintings, but a friend persuaded me to go and see the real thing. There were other paintings in that room, but I don't remember them. You can tell me that the room was lit by windows, or spotlights, or whatever, but you'll be wrong; the light came from that yellow paint. When I got home, I threw away every colour photograph I had ever taken. Those sunflowers were still brighter in my mind than the sun and, like Olive Schreiner's Hunter, I have an impossible but enkindling goal before me whenever I use colour.

In St Ives, Cornwall, amid the holiday-makers and Sunday-painters, lives a very great sculptor. Yes, sure, she died in a fire – but she's still more alive than most of us. A photographer works, perforce, with the relations between solid objects in space – so go to St Ives, visit Barbara Hepworth's garden, stand amongst her massive sculptures and learn what spatial relations are really about.

Ansel Adams (yes - you can breathe a quick sigh of relief – we're back on photographic territory!) is known for his precise and systematic exploitation of tonal range to communicate his vision of landscape. The Zone System, right? But Adams spent his early years in training as a concert pianist. What he learnt amongst the austere and unforgiving tonal structures of musical balance is indelibly stamped into the Zone System – and into every photograph he ever made.

In Il Libro Dell' Arte, Cennino Cennini describes the painter's task as being "to discover the reality which is hidden in the shadow of everyday appearances, presenting to plain sight that which does not actually exist". In Photographing the Familiar, Dorothea Lange uses different words but her description of the photographer's role is strikingly similar. In fact, Cennino's words are a good description of the challenge facing every creative worker be it in painting, sculpture, photography, music, dance, film, verse, or, for that matter, theoretical physics. So, if we are all striving after the same thing, why not talk to each other? Why not learn from each other?

By all means, go and see that exhibition of photographs by Smith, or Honey, or Duncan. Of course. But while you're out, get yourself some tickets for the cinema, the opera, the ballet. Watch the street theatre group on the pavement outside the town hall. Stop off at the museum and think about the love poured into that now-broken pot by some long-forgotten craftsman. Drop in at the library for a couple of novels you've never read before – and maybe a couple of recordings by Joan Sutherland or Joan Armatrading. It's a big, strange world outside the laager, but not so frightening once you're there – and it can be unbelievably rewarding.

OK; there goes the lunch bell. You can stop shuffling around in your seats, pretending to look interested. Leave the room quietly, no running in the corridor, last one out close the door, please ...

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