05 December 2013

The trouble with photographs

The trouble with bad art, Tom Stoppard claimed, is that the artist knows exactly what he’s doing. The trouble with that claim is that not knowing what you’re doing doesn’t guarantee you’ll make good art. If it did, I’d be making good art every time I photographed something.

On the far side of the valley, misty rain hangs gloomy in the gullies around Zigzag Road, wraps itself around old macrocarpas and broken pines and scrubby kanuka, softens the morning, softens the ground that’s been drying and hardening as spring rushes towards summer. Some urge compels me to step outside to try to capture the mood of the morning in a photograph. I’ve tried this before—to make a photograph that accurately evokes this particular rainy-morning mood—but every attempt has left me dissatisfied. This time I think I’ve come close, but the thing with photographs is that they need time before their worth—or worthlessness—can be assessed reliably.
Sometimes a photograph excites me immediately. Later, after having looked at it frequently, or after not having looked at it all, maybe for weeks, I’ll open it and study it and be unimpressed. Sometimes I’ll even cringe: is my judgement that bad? Did I know what I was doing?

It’s tempting to say the reason for this inability to immediately assess a photograph remains a mystery, but if it is, the mystery isn’t complete. One obvious reason is that initial impressions are always coloured by the memory of what was photographed—one sees not just the photograph but the image in memory, which we now know is horribly unreliable. But recent memories are likely to be more accurate than older memories; more to the point, they’re more comprehensive than older memories, so when we look at a photograph soon after its creation, the things that excited us enough to make the photograph will be remembered more clearly and comprehensively than if we look at the photograph a few weeks later. Consequently, the photograph evokes a more comprehensive set of uplifting memories. A problem with this reasoning, however, is that sometimes an initially uninspiring photograph will look better after a period of forgetting. Maybe one forgets the feelings that initially detracted from the photograph? Plausible (perhaps), but I’m unconvinced.

Another reason is that how one responds to a photograph will almost certainly be coloured by one’s mood. The Online Photographer’s Mike Johnston noticed this about his perceptions of music and wondered whether the same could be said about photographs; I, like some of those who commented, imagine this to be indubitable. No one’s mood remains constant—or, if it does, they fall into one of three types: saints, arseholes, and the pathologically boring—so one’s response to a photograph might also be expected to fluctuate. While this reason at least has the advantage that it explains equally well why a photograph can eventually look better or worse than it did at first, it fails to explain why the impression of a photograph seems eventually to settle down, or at least not change as wildly as sometimes happens after that initial period.

So, I’m taking a risk with this photograph, which hasn’t yet matured enough to persuade me it does what my early impressions tell me it does. I know some people will see gloom, depression, and miserable weather—which does NOT mean those people are necessarily gloomy, depressed, and miserable—and perhaps a year from now I’ll see that in this photograph too. Now, however, I see hints of wildness and solitude, hints of the kind of weather that keeps the red dust of the world from settling, and that suggests the possibility of being able to disappear, to walk out of the hectic world. This, I suppose, is the difference between a literal and a metaphorical viewing of a photograph. Others would call it romanticism, or worse, but that’s their prerogative. I’ll take comfort in the thought that I wasn’t entirely sure what I was doing.

1. Tom Stoppard’s claim — cited by Clive James (2008) on p. 787 of Cultural Amnesia, New York: Norton.  
2. ‘“Red dust'” is a Buddhist cliché for sensation’ — Red Pine (Bill Porter) (2000), on p. 110 of his translation of The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press.
1 & 2. Two attempts about five minutes apart. A slight difference in feel.
Photos and original text © 2013 Pete McGregor

13 August 2013


I knew the fact — how a bird that weighs only about the same as a can of beer flies further without stopping than any other bird (about 11,000 kilometres from Alaska to New Zealand). I knew them since my childhood and adolescence, knew them where I grew up next to the Avon-Heathcote estuary in Christchurch. Decades later I’d seen them at Foxton, helped sample the mudflats for the food that sustained them on those tremendous flights. I'd even written about them. But I’d never seen them take to the air and leave on the 9000 kilometre flight to the Yellow Sea and eventually back to Alaska. Then, on the last weekend of March this year I finally saw seven bar-tailed godwits rise into the evening and fly fast away from Foxton, the small flock sticking together as if supporting each other, their silhouettes diminishing until even through the binoculars they became little more than dark dots in a pale sky. Then nothing.

Only then did I understand what this meant — the enormity of it, the astonishing accomplishment, the sheer incomprehensibility of what it means to suddenly take to the air and set off on a non-stop flight over the ocean to a place 9000 km away. The usual explanations for why they fly in small groups rather than singly — drafting, like cyclists in a race, or perhaps some kind of wisdom of the flock that ensures any error in navigation will be corrected by the other birds — seemed secondary, even unimportant. The real reason godwits fly in small flocks, I understood, must surely be because flying alone on a journey like that is just too scary.

That’s almost certainly rubbish, of course. In all likelihood, godwits just leave because they feel compelled: some urge gets too strong, one bird takes flight and that’s the trigger; everyone in the group goes too, possibly with a sense of relief and some vague feeling that this is what they need to be doing right now — flying in a certain direction with no intention of landing until some other urge tells them this is the place to land.

For me, though, the sight of those small birds speeding through the sky, getting smaller, seemed inconsolably lonely, like watching a plane carry away a loved one on a journey with no return date. Perhaps the feeling’s universal, or maybe it runs in the family: my mother eventually couldn’t wait around at airports — it’s always hardest for the person left behind, she said, and she was right. The traveller looks ahead at least as much as he looks back, but those who farewell the traveller are denied the consolation of that distraction; for them, the absence is paramount.

So I watched through the binoculars until I lost sight of the small silhouettes heading away, and if I’d had wings I’d have flown after them, not knowing whether I was flying away from a known life or towards the exquisite promise of something unknown. What we know can be a joy, but the unknown will always offer that additional hope: the possibility of what might be.

I have an image in my mind, an image of small birds speeding over the deep ocean, far out there in the darkness, passing over the occasional lights of a ship, weaving between clouds, light from the waning gibbous moon on their wings.

Fare well, my friends.

Photograph: Flight over the Himalaya, 2007
Photographs and original text © 2013 Pete McGregor

13 April 2013

Portraits from the past

In the article, Denis Healey talks about Thatcher. But what caught my interest wasn’t the subject — neither Healey nor, most definitely, the odious Thatcher — but Kalpesh Lathigra’s photograph of Healey. Dull, desaturated, drab, without a single strong or even definite colour, so flat that the light struggles to cast a decent shadow — and brilliant. I don’t need to read the article to get a sense of who Denis Healey is; in fact, I suspect this might be the kind of photograph that says more about its subject than the subject understands about himself.

Open-necked shirt held captive by a woolly jersey; corduroy jacket an olive colour (if colour can be the right word for such a non-colour in such an uncolourful photograph) and apparently — and worryingly — identical to one I still own; a chin almost receding, although that might be an illusion created by the wattles, fleshy and stretched, connecting the chin to the neck and throat; nostrils choked with chopped-off nose-hair — and those eyebrows. Exuberant and wiry, they seem connected to a separate part of the brain not owned by Healey but by the eyebrows themselves. They seem, it might be said, to have a mind of their own; even, perhaps, separate minds for each eyebrow. The right eyebrow sits luxuriant above the strongest feature of the whole portrait: the right eye, with its small black pupil focused on a thought elsewhere, proving once and for all that great portraits do not need to stare down the viewer. The left eyebrow, on the other hand, seems intent on escaping from the photograph, pouring down off the brow and across the eye, which consequently can’t be seen clearly beneath the torrent of wiry hair; an eyebrow constituting a different kind of comb-over.
The mouth: a line, inscrutable. A first look suggests the idea of an impish smile; look longer and the impishness recedes, to be replaced by a grimace that might be resignation or even a trace of bitterness. Perhaps the mouth expresses all these things at once. I wish I were as good at multi-tasking.

Of course, I have no idea how well the photograph portrays Healey. In fact, I keep getting the uneasy feeling that it’s a better portrayal of E.O. Wilson, and that might be part of its appeal. What it does do indisputably, however, is portray a person, and therefore it can be considered a portrait — to my mind, a brilliant one. But don't take my word for it. Go and see for yourself.

Photograph: Tuatara at Pukaha Mt Bruce, 13 January 2008.
All content © 2013 Pete McGregor