I am currently indulging a fascination with the relationship between perception and knowledge: how what I know influences what I see, and how I interpret and value the things that I have noticed. It is quite common for me to photograph something I find visually interesting – on purely aesthetic grounds, or because some structure seems to hint at a process or pattern of activity – and then to find that my understanding of what I have photographed undergoes radical revision as I learn more about it from background reading, or from talking to people who inhabit or are otherwise familiar with the same places or types of landscape. The more startling the revisions, the more likely it is that I will find examples of similar processes everywhere I look the next time I try to take photographs.
There is a tension between information, particularly information as text, and what I once naively thought of as pure observation. Art has for a long time valued the peculiarly gifted observer, but at least since the Romantics, if not before, an emphasis has been laid on sensibility and instinct: ineffable qualities possessed and employed in a way that is deliberately exclusive of intellectual thought. I, however, am much more interested in forensic seeing, the informed reading of the world practiced by scientists such as geographers, ecologists, and field archeologists, and also by people with deep practical experience such as gardeners or craftsmen, or long-term residents of a landscape, for whom every minor feature bears an associated history or anecdote. What is seen is associated with facts or shared history, and valuation is adjusted by weightings drawn from detailed background knowledge. Photographs informed by this attitude have what I think of as a high degree of visual interest, which can be entirely independent of traditional motivations for looking such as beauty or wonder.
Communicating this mixture of knowledge and the things seen is not easy if you subscribe to the traditional photographic dogma that photographs should stand alone, without the special pleadings of an attendant text. Yet, as is shown by examples from well-illustrated instructional books through daily newspapers to graphic novels and comic strips, a combination of text and images can be considerably more forceful than either on its own. Not just to convey facts, but also to awaken curiosity, and to insipire more abstract feelings and emotions. There is a richness of experience that can be awakened by an accompanying paragraph and which creates a significantly broader interaction with the work than viewing the photograph blind. I am therefore facing the awkward notion that perhaps the best way to present my photographs to the world is to combine them with writing.
I do not enjoy writing, and I will always put it off as long as possible. Passing the point that career or reputation-minded writers would consider optimum for publication is for me merely a first gentle impulse to the process of considering what I might, perhaps, wish to write about. Deadlines, both real, and artifical, approach at speed, loom alarmingly, pass, and then recede into the safe status of bygones, accompanied by a motly gaggle of excuses, apologies, and half-baked genuine causes gleaned from the incidental episodes of my non-writing life.
I do absolutely love *having written*. Rather like getting up disgustingly early to catch a summer sunrise, writing is hideous to do, but immensely satisfying once done. I re-read prior work as a form of encouragement, and although I can’t help wincing at occasional infelicities left unsmoothed, I do draw pleasure and inspiration from having concrete proof that on previous occasions I have found something to be worth saying, and have put together sufficient words to actually say it. The pleasure derived from once having written is a major motivation to write again.
Mere success, on the other hand, is not the stimulant it is usually made out to be. Those times in my life which have resulted in what the external world regards as an achievement have almost always proved flat in the experience. Sometimes, like the well-prepared marathon runner, it is a matter of everything working so smoothly and according to plan that I am left feeling that with a bit more effort I could have done even better. Other times, it is because opponents disappoint with insufficient force or ingenuity. Mostly though, I think it is because at base I am more interested in questions and possibilities than I am in answers or solutions. The process of finding out whether an issue is tractable or comprehensible is far more important to me than publishing or otherwise disseminating any facts thus proved. Heaven is discovering an addressable problem where none had been thought to exist. Hell is being forced to tell others about it before I am ready.
In some ways, my photography suffers from a similar despondency, which is not helped by the necessity to perform actual manual work to produce physical prints. I always found darkroom work a drudge, and have never understood the supposed magic of watching an image come up in the developer. Scanning film for the digital darkroom feels no less like a treadmill. I had thought that digital capture would speed the process from perception to presentation by eliminating some of the dull work involved, but it is nevertheless slowed by the necessary steps of contemplation and refinement through selection and editing. The glacial pace at which I produce finished photographs for others to look at is not merely a consequence of physical sloth, but the effort required to produce a publishable artefact does helpfully provide an incentive to stay put and chew things over one more last time.
The primary difference between photography and writing is that even in my most dormant periods I do continue to produce photographs, and thus I have a physical reminder of whatever it was I was seeing, thinking and feeling, even if that reminder is not sufficiently polished to show to any public. A heap of proof prints undeniably exists, and it may be browsed at will. I find that I can reconstruct my thought processes surprisingly well from the succession of hints and themes which emerge from the stratified piles.
Those thoughts and ideas which should ideally have been committed to text have a way of sinking, not without trace, but down into a layer of background knowledge where they become so basic and fundamental that it ceases to seem worth remarking upon them. There are pleasures to be had in assimilation, as when a new observation re-isolates prior study from the background of memory, and I am rewarded with a pleasing sense of connectedness. There is also the affirmative joy of watching understanding grow by the accretion of different aspects of the same thing to form a complex but coherent whole.
It is just about possible to go data mining even in my unindexed textural records. A fact which has saved me from myself on more than one occasion. My books are organised in chronological order of when I finished reading them, which makes it possible to traverse the prehistory of my interests with a crablike scan along the shelves. Ordering my web browser’s bookmarks or my downloads folder by date achieves a similar trick. Most often though, unrecorded thoughts are subsumed or incorporated into the self-evident background.
Organising both thoughts and photographs is complicated by the fact that I am highly resistant to the idea of projects. Themes, bugbears, interests and dispositions are recognised and accepted with thanks, but a project – to head out with a shoot list intending to take photographs of things I already know I want to photograph – strikes me as entirely missing the point. Consciously filling gaps to create a logical or comprehensive survey is likewise something I avoid where I can. Empiricism and serendipidity are far more important to me than any sense of mission or of a priori coherence. The sense of discovery is far more wondrous than that of confirmation.
This can lead to problems when it comes to presenting work to others, where a common theme or thread is so helpful to understanding as to verge on the necessary. Usually, my ever-present mix of procrastination and perfectionism ensures that I have enough material from which to select a thematic subset – a process best described as drawing a target whereever my arrow happened to have landed. I end up feeling slightly unclean at having magicked a topic out of thin air, not least because for me the overlapping and interconnection of the multiple themes of the entire raw data set are one of its major charms. However, I appreciate clarity in other people’s work when shown to me, and it seems churlish and arrogant to expect anyone else to immerse themselves in every last detail of my personal motivations and musings. An unusually strong motivator such as world-fame is generally required before it becomes possible to receive that degree of dedication, or purience, from your readership.
Both my writing and my photography follow a similar generative path. The best starts with an observation, a noting of something seen, or learned about the world, which sufficiently intrigues, annoys or fascinates that I nag myself until I take a closer look. At that point the empirical scientist kicks in – is this thing real? typical? unique? reproducible? Most tempting of all: is it the visible result of a pattern-forming process at work.
It doesn’t really matter that much whether something is typical or unique. The usual can be woven into a work just as easily as the one-off exotic, and a combination of both is a staple of many kinds of storytelling and reportage. Similarly, the distinction between real things and imagined ones becomes less important when my main concern is individual perceptiveness: machine vision doesn’t necessarily tell us more than fantasies or dreams. These distinctions are more about categorisation than valuation. They affect how an observation might be incorporated into a finished body of ideas for presentation, but they do not of their own give it particular value or weight.
However, I am, and have always been, instantly captivated by the interplay of patterns and processes, particularly ones which have to be inferred from the interpretable forensic clues they leave scattered in plain sight. This is undeniably a value judgement, and I welcome it as such. It forms the major part of the division between information I personally find interesting and that which is merely bumpf.
This places me in mixed company. Enlightenment natural philosophers were similarly entranced by the explicability of the external world, and it is tempting to regard myself as an heir to that golden age of empirical observation and wondrously applicable predictive analysis. There is however, also a kinship with precocious children possessed of annoying books of thrilling facts, not to mention gnostic high priests, conspiricy theorists, and various whizened scholars of the detailed and useless.
Therein lies a second great difference between my photography and my writing. In photography I do not defer to authority. I consciously work hard not to care too much if a viewer catagorises me as a Diderot or a Huckleberry. This self-awareness is a necessary reaction to what I see as an immense pressure to fit in and to make photographs which look like other photographs – a constrictive pressure I see as endemic to the worlds of amateur, commercial and art photography. I took a vow when I first started to think seriously about photography that I would have the courage to dare to be myself.
In writing I am more conformist, if only because I am an autodidact in much of what I am writing about. Having sometimes taught the self-learned in subjects in which I am well-versed, I know the generic pitfalls of having myself as a mentor. Mostly it is a question of emphasis and context: it is hard to assess the significance of a fact if you lack a complete overall understanding of the field. Sometimes though, a new fact when learned opens up a vast and worrying unexpected territory of common knowledge which somehow had slipped past my understanding. Sinkholes make careful treading a sensible tactic.
So in writing I tend not to challenge conventional wisdom, at least not head on, and not unless I am fairly sure that I can make my cheek intrinsically interesting or amusing. My photography, on the other hand, is deliberately more personal, and being wrong or muddleheaded is not necessarily an automatic mark against me. If one attraction of my photography is that it represets my personal response to things seen, it should allow the possibility that my response is factually wrong, or at least misguided. Provided I don’t pull the same trick too often, the tension between my perceptions and those of the audience can add to the experience of viewing my work.
In principle, I could alternate between playing the expert, and playing the ingenue. In practice though, my unavoidable habit of background reading usually means that I am more likely to be trying to illustrate what I have learned than presenting a fascinating but unfathomable observation. I do not think this is just self importance at work. So much of what I think I have discovered myself has turned out to be well-established lore within communities external to the photographic world that I have become highly suspicious of the naive approach. Many photographic projects strike me as being poorly researched shades of anthropology or sociology, and there is a prevailing lack of understanding or empathy, which is often justified as a form of artistic vision, but which seems to me to be more like wilful ignorance, or laziness.
Thus I am playing with ways to combine text and images into a whole that is greater than its parts. For inspiration I am studying medieval manuscripts and instructional books of the 50s and 60s – for me, a golden age of well-designed, illustrated non fiction – and playing with titles, captions and various ways of arranging text around images without fragmenting or subjugating either. I would like to think that on-screen reading with interactive layout and content should be able to provide a better way of combining text and photographs than linear paper books, but thus far I have not found or come up with a scheme which is anything other than incredibly annoying. The optimist in me says that this too may just be a sign that I need to do more research.
At some point, of course, it will become necessary to actually write and publish something, to resolve the tension between perfection and possibility and commit my thoughts and photographs to some particular format. Experience suggests that I will not find this to be an urgent necessity, nor that I will avoid my usual procedure of paving a five lane trunk route to Hell with the finest quality good intentions. I have learned to live with this, if only because my muse delivers only dullness when forced. However, I can say with one hundred percent confidence that I am now definitely, confidently, sure that publication will involve both writing and pictures, and that it will happen. Sometime. Soon.