Photographs Not Taken: what makes a photographer freeze?
A new book of essays by photographers explores the missed opportunities of images never captured
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 15 March 2012 11.12 EDT
The American photographer Christian Patterson was driving along a deserted road in rural Nebraska when he saw a house on fire. He jumped out of his car and ran towards the house, but the intense heat drove him back. As he was about to take a picture of the scene, a truck pulled up and a man jumped out. He fell to his knees, crying. A fire truck arrived but, by then, the house and all its contents were reduced to ash.
South African photographer Roger Ballen once drove an acquaintance across Johannesburg to the house of a witch doctor. There, in a back room “full of cat’s skins on clotheslines”, the man produced a live cat from a sack. The witch doctor took the cat, weighed it, and paid the man accordingly. Ballen watched the transaction in silence, then drove the man back across town.
These are just two of the 62 stories collected by Will Steacy in a new book, Photographs Not Taken, published by Daylight. In his introduction, Steacy, a photographer himself, describes it as “a collection of essays by photographers about moments that never became a picture”. He writes: “Here, the process of making a photograph has been reversed. Instead of looking out into the world through a camera lens, these essays look directly into the mind’s eye to reveal where photographs come from in their barest and most primitive form – the original idea.”
Twin tower encounter … Sylvia Plachy. Photo: Bru Garcia/AFP/Getty ImagesThe stories also show that there are many reasons not to take a photograph. For several of the photographers here, including Patterson, the decision not to press the shutter is usually an ethical one. Consider the story related by Sylvia Plachy who, on a street in midtown Manhattan just after the twin towers of the World Trade Centre had collapsed on 9/11, encountered a dust-covered man “who had walked though hell”. He was, says Plachy, “the icon” of the human tragedy. Many people took his photograph. She did not. “I would have had to step in front of him, interrupt his frantic pace,” she writes. “I felt ashamed. I hesitated. I questioned. It didn’t seem right. In an instant he was gone. I didn’t do it.”
Plachy spent the following fortnight roaming the streets of downtown New York looking for another picture as powerful as the one she had not taken. “His image haunts me to this day,” she writes, adding ruefully, “Diane Arbus would have done it.”
This story, it seems to me, gets to the heart of the matter. Many photographers share Arbus’s view that you take the picture whatever the cost – to yourself as well as the subject. I have always been uncomfortable with that notion. It says that nothing is too intimate, too private. It insists, too, on the primacy of the photograph over the experience.
Simon Roberts‘s story argues the opposite. On assignment in Zimbabwe, he visited the Mashambanzou Aids clinic where he encountered Priscilla Dzengwe, who had been raped as a child by her uncle and was HIV-positive. She was close to death, but curious and engaging. As they were talking, a group of local girls came in and began singing. “It was a haunting, spiritual and utterly captivating sound that filled the small room,” writes Roberts. “The girls, including Priscilla, began to cry as they sang. For the first time in my career, I felt physically unable to take a photograph.”
Would that experience have been the same, carried the same intensity for him, had he taken his camera out to photograph the scene? In doing so, he would inevitably have placed himself outside the experience. And, as he notes, “no image, however accomplished, could have captured the agonising poignancy of the moment. It was a moment to be lived, not framed, analysed or reduced in any way.”
The book is full of lost moments and missed opportunities, some poignant, some hilarious, some mysterious. (We never find out why Ballen did not photograph inside the witch doctor’s house. Was it superstition, or had he simply gone out without his camera?) One of the funniest is told by Matt Salacuse. As a struggling photographer in New York, he was waiting to meet his father in the lobby of the Ritz Carlton Hotel, when he spotted Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman with their newborn adopted baby. Salacuse went outside and positioned himself by a waiting limo, waiting for the celebrity couple to emerge. Just as he was about to photograph them, Cruise looked straight at him and said calmly: “You’re not going to do that.” Salacuse writes: “It must have been some crazy Scientologist voodoo mind trick, because I looked at him and said, ‘You are right. I am not.’ And, I didn’t.”
Like the others, all that Salacuse was left with from his chance encounter was a story about a great photograph that never happened. Sometimes, as this book shows, that’s enough.
Now see this
Carole Callow, who has printed all of Lee Miller’s work since the photographer’s death, curates Through the Eyes of Lee Miller at Lucy Bell Gallery in St Leonards on Sea. The show will focus on two sets of work: Miller’s portraits of Picasso and images taken at Farley Farm House in East Sussex. From 20 March until 21 April.
In London, Foto8 is showing Rob Hornstra’s images of Abkhazia, the coastal strip of the Black Sea once known as the Riviera of the Soviet Union. The Sochi Project: Empty Land, Promised Land, Forbidden Land runs until 5 April.
thank you guardian uk