Travel Photographer Gavin Gough and I are switch hitting today. We’ve chosen a topic – Inspiration: Standing on the Shoulders of Giants – and are exchanging blogs for today. You can read my take on this subject on Gavin’s blog HERE. But before you head off there, take some time to read Gavin’s take on the subject.
Photographers! We’re a lucky bunch. Not only do we have a rewarding occupation or satisfying pastime, we’re able to learn from those who have gone before us for free.
Other photographers’ work is readily available and close examination of it allows us to stand on the shoulders of those photographers we admire and to see much further than we would from ground-level. It’s a tricky balancing act, no doubt, but if you are willing to put in the effort, you’ll be rewarded.
And if you’re prepared to stand on a giant’s shoulders then the view will amaze, engage and inspire you. I want to tell you about one or two giants whose shoulders I have hitched a ride on in the past.
It’s impossible to overestimate the influence that Don McCullin’s work has had on me. To say it has been life-changing is no exaggeration. When I first got interested in photography I would pick up books on the subject from the local library. I’d read them on the bus and in the bedroom at home, flicking through them, enjoying the images of rolling landscapes, urban views, charming portraits of people and their pets. I’d read about cameras, lenses and lighting technique and it was all good stuff. I didn’t find black and white photographs especially engaging. I couldn’t really get to grips with monochrome pictures in what is such a colourful world and suppose that I thought it was a bit old-fashioned. One day, with few books remaining on the library bookshelves that I hadn’t already borrowed, I picked up a book of black and white images by Don McCullin. I’ve never seen anything more powerful, more engaging or more harrowing. No, ‘engaging’ doesn’t do it justice, I was spellbound.
It’s many years later as I write this. I’m sitting in another library with a newer edition of the same Don McCullin book open in the desk in front of me. The emotions bound up in those pages leap out and seize me at every page-turn and I’m reminded of how I came to see a place for black and white photography and how I first came to understand that some images just can’t be shot in colour. They just can’t.
“Turkish woman discovering the body of her new husband, killed with his brother and father, 1964”.
I don’t know how to begin to describe this image from the McCullin book. There are two bodies, pools of blood, a grief-stricken widow, a family in the doorway. Bright light pours in and one of the corpses eyes are wide-open. But we’re asking questions. “What happens next?”. “Where do the people in this image go from here?”. McCullin’s captured what Cartier-Bresson called “the decisive moment” but, more than that, we can sense McCullin’s presence in the room and because we have the same view, we’re there too. You can’t avoid the tears forming.
“Christian gunmen leading away Palestinian women and children before they murder their menfolk, 1976”.
Desperate, ungodly acts captured in a photograph that you can’t help but stare at. And stare at. The facial expressions of the women and children show fear and uncertainty whilst the balaclava-clad gunmen are impassive.
And stare at.
Opening that book all those years ago revealed the gripping power that a photograph can have. It was made absolutely, shockingly clear to me that a still image can grab hold of your attention like nothing else. Take a few seconds and think about the Vietnam War. What springs to mind? I’ll bet a pound to a penny that you’re thinking of still images and not moving footage. There was plenty of both taken at the time but our brains can retain a still image much more readily than anything else and, consequently, it is the still image that has most impact.
“But hold on Gavin Gough”, I hear you declare, “I’ve seen your portfolio and you take smiley, blue-sky photos of charmingly exotic places, how can you possibly claim Don McCullin as an influence?”.
Well, let me begin by saying that I can’t claim to have been anywhere near Don McCullin’s shoulders, much less to have stood on them. But the power contained in his photographs did made me think about what it might be like to stand on this side of the camera, trying to capture something that defines my own view of the world. McCullin’s view of the world has often been grim and he admits that his work has taken a terrible toll on his mental state. One only needs to glance at his recently shot, dark and sombre interpretations of the Somerset landscape near his home to understand that he still sees things in a gloomy light but that’s HIS view of the world, it’s not mine. His is an uncomfortable perspective and I don’t believe that I have the determination to withstand anything like the emotional onslaught that McCullin has survived so I look elsewhere and photograph those things that uplift me.
“Homeless Man, Aldgate, London, 1969”.
We don’t know if he’s dead or alive. His body seems to have begun to sink into the pavement, almost becoming part of the scruffy, urban landscape. McCullin has obviously crouched down next to him and we see the grime on the homeless man’s hands, the matted hair, the foetal pose. It makes me shiver.
“Tibetan refugees at the railway station, Delhi, 1965”. Fearful despair personified.
“Child tied to a bed in a mental hospital which was under Israeli shellfire for five days”.
“The inside of an overflowing hospital, Phnom Penh, 1975”.
There really are no words.
OK, let me back up a little here. You visit David’s blog to be educated, informed and entertained, just as I do. He’s kindly invited me to post a guest article and I’ve hijacked it and with tales of outrageous misery, death and destruction. That’s like accepting an invitation to a party at someone’s house and then gutting a pig in the living room. I apologise. I’m a vegetarian. I should know better.
The truth is that if I start to write about my influences I absolutely must talk about McCullin and I can’t do that without getting emotionally involved. And surely that’s right. If you’re not forced into a ranting, raving, stream-of-consciousness monologue when you talk about your influences then, with respect, you need to find new ones.
“Catholic youths escaping from CS gas, Derry, 1971”.
But enough already. You get the picture. Go and look at some of McCullin’s work when you have time. Avoid the web site pictures if you can because I think they lack something of the impact that turning pages in a book can have. Heck, go to a library.
I saw McCullin once. He opened an exhibition at the Royal Photographic Society. I wanted to shake his hand but I was too scared. Want to talk about regrets?
So, we’re back in the library, I’ve closed the McCullin book and put it out of sight. I’m tempted to leave this article here but know that you’re probably hoping for a bit more from me so I’ll try a neat side-step and hope that moving from the sublime to the ridiculous will allow me to continue.
Martin Parr is what’s called a “Social Observer”. His work is quirky and colourful and shows everyday events; shopping trips, holidays, barbecues and restaurants, with loving humour. He got into Magnum by the skin of his teeth and I’m sure there were many dissenters when his work first gained visibility in the public domain. I’ll be honest with you, sometimes I think his work is made too easily (I hope he never reads this) and that pictures of litter and people in chip shops is the lazy answer. But then I have a firm word with myself and take a closer look.
It’s then that I realise that Parr’s photographs define the very essence of photography. For me, at least.
“That’s a bit bold Gough. Please explain.”
OK. Parr’s images are frozen moments that reveal more about the scene than the content alone. You’re saying “Eh?”. What I mean is that the placement of the subject matter, the composition, the light, the angle of the framing, the depth-of-field, all combine to reveal more about the scene than the subjects alone. His under-saturated photos of English life show the nature of what it is to be English. Cooked breakfasts, Spotted Dick, garden parties, seaside holidays, it’s all here. For me, the power in his work and the inspiring thing as far as I’m concerned is that he demonstrates how fleeting moments can be captured and retained and later examined to tell us things about our world that we might not pay much attention to otherwise.
And that’s my imperative. I want to capture a few fleeting fractions of time as it was during my life. I want to say “This is where I was and this is what I saw. And I liked it”.
David’s going to start charging me if I take over his blog for much longer so I’m going to conclude with a more gentle subject.
Adams used to set off for a week in Yosemite with a handful of heavy glass plates in his rucksack. A handful. We’re talking single numbers here. For a week. You get my point. It’s obviously sacrilegious to say that you’re not always thrilled and excited by Adams’ work so I’ll refrain from doing that (although I’m not always thrilled and excited by his work). But I am definitely thrilled and excited by the manner in which he worked. I love the way he took such great care about his compositions and the way he managed his exposures with scientific precision. I’m grateful that he told us to expect no more then “twelve good pictures a year” because it lets me off the hook a little. If, as a photographer, you need a role model with a work ethic to aspire to then Ansel’s your man. And OK, I accept that some of his work does excite me on occasion. In the right light. 😉
I’d be more foolish than the Mayor of Foolish Town, Foolish County, to suggest that I’ve come close to balancing on any of these giants’ shoulders for very long but I can claim to have peered over those shoulders for many years now and the view, let me tell you, is good.
Looking at other photographers’ work, at all levels, is invariably inspiring and I’d urge you to take every opportunity to do so. But I’ll leave you with a friendly word of caution. When it comes to your own work, seek to emulate, not imitate. You have to find your own voice and don’t be abashed if you feel your work might not be “arty” enough or if you think it should be more “gritty” or less “obvious”. Take a lesson from the great photographers, all of whom shot exactly what they wanted, and shoot what you love too.
And that’s what you get if you look over my shoulders, shoot what you love, love what you shoot. Now where have I heard that before?
Want more? Head over to Gavin’s place for my article.