01 October 2005

About words and light

The South Island trip was brilliant, despite the cold I'd picked up shortly before heading to Christchurch. It developed while I was down there, peaking on the weekend of the wedding, but fortunately didn't diminish my enjoyment of the events. In fact, despite having curtailed the trip because I had a contract to get back to, the trip proved one of the most enjoyable weeks I've had for some time.

I arrived in Christchurch late, after a long, trying drive from Pohangina to Wellington, across the Strait on the ferry, into the night along the Kaikoura Coast, through the Hundalees and eventually into Canterbury. The following morning, Rob asked me whether I was getting much writing done. I answered honestly—“No”. I think it's the focus on photos; I'm thinking visually, in terms of images, and I'm out of practice at translating images into words. Or—and of more concern—I seem to be less in touch with what's happening , with how it touches me. Barry Lopez recognised something similar happening to him, and he put his cameras away and never picked them up again, preferring to concentrate on writing1.

What's different about the two processes? After all, both are kinds of translation; kinds of filtering, I suppose. You take what you perceive, translate it, filter it through your own preconceptions, biases, prior experiences, desires, and so on, and you end up with something you can share—a visual image; a collection of words; a poem; an essay; a verbal sketch... so how do they differ? What prompted Barry Lopez to put aside his cameras—was it simply a preference for words over light?

To me, it seems the essential difference is timing. To capture a photo, by and large you must attend to technical details and—for want of a better phrase—artistic demands, and you must do these at the moment of experience. Not later; now. Consistently good photographers attend to technical details almost without thinking, and the best photographers, I suspect, also make artistic judgements about such things as composition and when to take the shot more as a matter of intuition than conscious decision. But those decisions must be made, or intuitions acted upon, when you experience what it is that moved you to take the photo. Two photos, one second apart, can appear completely different; even landscapes, where the scene appears superficially static, can differ hugely because of a momentary—or progressive—change in light, or because the photographer chose to frame the scene differently.

However, verbal images almost always benefit from time between the experience and the formulation. Indeed, trying to write during the experience is next to impossible—even dictating to a voice recorder must, I suspect, be utterly unsatisfactory. What is important is to attend to what's happening; to pay attention; to become caught up in it; immersed in it... anything that distracts, anything requiring decisions that are not part of the experience itself—like what shutter speed to use, or how to frame the image—diminishes the intensity of the moment, so it becomes harder to feel again the emotions of the moment when you eventually try to translate it into words. That, it seems to me, is why photography and writing are so difficult to pursue simultaneously. So, having decided why it's impossible to do justice to both forms of expression, I'd better... well, ... attempt it anyway.

1 Lopez B 1998. Learning to see. ch. 13 (Pp. 223–239) in About this life: Journeys on the threshold of memory. (Vintage Books edition 1999, ISBN: 0-679-75447-4)

Photos and words copyright 2005 Pete McGregor

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