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Posts tagged ‘Photography’

Understanding a Photograph

Understanding a Photograph - John BergerUnderstanding a Photograph – John Berger

I first came across the Brazilian photographer Sabastião Salgado on the tube advertising his upcoming exhibition at the Royal Academy. At Oxford Circus I was greeted by a poster of a Nenet of Northern Siberia turning from the wind toward the camera. The image was black and white. The sky more textured than the land. The Nenet’s cloak was parting open with the swirl of a dervish. For several weeks I saw more of these images on the tube – each black and white like a snapshot taken with the half open eye of a dreamer – each image lodging in my mind for future reference.

So it was with great pleasure that I found an interview with him towards the end of John Berger’s excellent critical introduction to photography. Before reading this book I had struggled with photography as art, trying unsuccessfully to separate photography’s ubiquity from its artistic merit. Photography, Berger argues, is not artistic because it does not interpret or manipulate perception but captures it. It is unique among visual crafts he points out because its “raw materials are light and time” or as Susan Sontag notes in On Photography, “Photographs really are experience captured, and the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood.”  Henri Cartier-Bresson: “A while back I was offered an award for my ‘creative career as a photographer .’ I told them I didn’t believe in such a career. Photography is pressing a trigger, bringing your finger down at the right moment.”

Salgado appears in the book (as he does in his photography) as a man on a mission. In the interview, entitled “A tragedy the size of a planet”, he says: “All the migrants I photographed once lived in a stable way. Now they suffer transition, and what they have with them is just a small slice of hope. And it is with this hope that they are trying to get another stable position in life.”  

Looking at his work again through the lens of this interview, those sleepy snapshots of the half-waking eye seem all the more compelling. Rather than dispelling my perception of his work, reading his interview crystallises it as his world view. His photographs are a literal representation of his view of the world. I have always found novelists and their work to be divorced yet this interview and those pictures are married and in reading one and looking at the other I feel I have met the man in a way that I have rarely felt an interview with E.M. Forster, Ernest Hemingway or Doris Lessing (for example) to have reinforced my view of their books.

On the civil war in Rwanda: “I know these people from Rwanda from long ago. I came to Rwanda the first time, 1971, as an economist. I came to work in the tea plantations, and the tea plantations had a very equilibrated way of life. Rwanda was not an underdeveloped country, not a poor country, was a developing country. When I came back to this tea plantation recently, all was burnt, all was destroyed. All the effort that all these people made was lost. These people were in the road, in the death. And up to that point, until the days I took these pictures, I was sure that evolution was positive.”

In reading Salgado’s interview I realise the most important thing about photography is not the photograph nor the photograph. It is not the act of representing the image that we celebrate in good photography, unlike in painting or writing, for there is no act of imagination, leap of creative ability in producing a photograph.

More often than not the most striking photographs are taken in the most difficult conditions or are the most unlikely confluence of geometry, timing and luck. Salgado’s images are arresting when pasted on a wall in Oxford Circus, as much because they are striking images as because they are portals to Salgado’s effort and bravery in travelling to Northern Siberia to take those pictures. And in appreciating his effort and bravery in seeking out the picture, we are made aware of the effort and bravery of the subject of the photograph whose life we have shared in for those few captured tenths of a second. Each image a single chance to freeze the world and examine it for everything that it is or as Berger notes of Salgado’s images: “In a strange way in all these pictures, one feels in your vision the word ‘Yes’, not that you approve of what you see, but that you say ‘Yes’ because it exists.”

The Editors

“I have read less of the Bible than of Marcel Proust.”

Paris Review 196When I Look at a Strawberry, I think of a Tongue – Édouard Levé, Paris Review No. 196

This is not a review.  Édouard Levé was not a writer. The piece of writing in question is not a book; it is a pure expression of self. I do not know the history of this piece but I hope that it was written in one sitting without pauses because it reads as though the writer has committed to putting down in words an impression of himself built up over many many days or months or weeks.  Reading When I Look at a Strawberry is like watching a man’s heart beating, possibly its last beats, possibly its first. “I have never pulled a knife on anyone. I have never used a machine gun. I have fired a revolver… I have netted butterflies… I recognise the scent of a tiger.”

It is like unfurling a blue print of his soul that is drawn in the same architecture of consciousness from which we were drawn – here walls, there doors, there windows – but yet it is unique, edifying, terrifying because it represents a mental traction, a clarity of self that is entirely alien – like a pair of vast doors – inviting, daunting, unrelenting: “I have made love in the daytime in a public garden in Hong Kong. I have made love in the toilet of the Paris-Lyon TGV. I have made love in front of some friends at the end of a very drunken dinner.”

And just like a vast pair of doors, opening and shutting to provide us with intense glimpses of the enormity of the world beyond, the height of the ceilings of a duomo, the inky black of the pulpit beyond, so Levé opens and shuts the doors of his mind in this manner, opens and shuts the doors of his camera – real and metaphorical as he was a photographer by profession – providing glimpses of people, glimpses of time, glimpses of self – himself and ourselves – through those barely opened doors.

His words screech and roar with all the mechanical greatness of a racing car, the same grip of the subject, the same intense sense of destiny, of direction yet it is listless and desperately honest in places. But none of Levé’s words are the words of a desperate man. None of them are repellent or needy. He eyes himself with the same calm and objective eye as the camera lense. “Not wanting to change things does not mean not wanting things to change, just not having to do it.

Each sentence is a shot. A glimpse. An opening and shutting of the doors, another lap of the race track, a photograph of the subject. And all the time he builds from his soaring and extraordinary opening: “When I was young, I thought Life: A User’s Manual would teach me how to live and Suicide: A User’s Manual would teach me how to die”: towards the ruinous conclusion, noted quietly in a footnote to the piece as published in the Paris Review which says: “he took his own life, in 2007, at the age of forty-two.”

Or as he says it himself in his beautiful but melancholy conclusion: “Only once can I say “I’m dying” without telling a lie. The best day of my life may already be behind me.”

The Editors