Thursday, 17 February 2011

Picture This

For years, I held out against getting a camera. I had not yet forgotten my efforts with a schoolfriend's instamatic, despite the incident happening many years ago.

Like most adolescents, my friend was self-obsessed. I was too, of course, but I didn't have a camera. She did - and she also had a rather bossy nature. As a result, I found myself pressed into service as visual Boswell to her teenage Dr Johnson.

Sadly, the results didn't turn out quite as she wanted - 'My knee? Why did you do a close-up of my knee?' 'I didn't mean to,' 'Hmm - I suppose you didn't plan this shot of my nose in profile with the bus stop waste-basket and a tramp with his flies undone looming in the background either?'

The experience confirmed what I already suspected - I did not have the artistic gift. In fact, as a photographer, I was completely incompetent, unable to capture a scene squarely, let alone compose it in a way that could be called anything other than odd. As for producing something that could possibly be described as flattering, my ability would never, ever stretch to that. I decided taking pictures was something I should not (because I could not) do.

But what about when your children were born? And what about birthdays and Christmases? In the past, when I mentioned my no-click policy, these were the questions I was usually asked. And I suppose it is sad not to have those kinds of pictures. On the other hand, you can overdo it. For instance, a family I know, (let's just say I'm related to them by marriage), records almost everything that happens to them by taking pictures - to such an extent that I sometimes wonder if they're replacing experiencing events with taking photographs of themselves experiencing them instead.

I am pretty convinced, in fact, that reality gets warped through those relatives' use of the camera: as soon as someone brings one out, everyone else in the family instantly poses, contorting their faces into special, unnatural, 'I'm being photographed', grins. The results to me do not look like any moment that actually happened - they are more like those odd things called tableaux that I've seen in old photograph albums: highly planned scenes, usually based on a theme or mythical subject, involving costumes and careful positioning and often taking an entire weekend to produce.

Anyway, to get back to me, (at last - what subject could possibly be more interesting?), in the end I found myself in possession of a camera, by default. It came as part of a telephone that Vodafone gave me, in exchange for my blood, sweat and tears for a minimum of three years (well, something along those lines). I didn't use it, to begin with. To be honest, I didn't actually realise it was there. And, even after I discovered it, I still remained wary. It was only when it occurred to me that a camera could be a kind of note taker that I suddenly got interested. I saw at last that the thing wasn't just for snapping pretty shots; it could also be used to capture information.

I had this revelation while looking at this sign:

I noticed it on a wall in a street near where I lived in London. The only way to store the thing so I could show it to other people and prove I hadn't imagined it was, I realised, to take a photograph of it. However, it would be a record, not an artwork. It wouldn't have to be artistic; it wouldn't have to be well-composed - all I needed was to make sure it was clear and, preferably, reasonably straight.

I didn't take another picture for quite a while after that one. Even so, the rot had clearly already set in. When I saw this sign, I didn't even make a conscious decision. Before I could think about it, I'd snapped it as well:

Again it wasn't a picture, as such, that I was looking to capture - merely a record of the dreary building and the odd romantic aspiration of its name.

And since then it's been all downhill for me and my camera. A day doesn't go past when I don't snap something. In fact, I whip the thing out at the drop of a hat, taking pictures of any bit of information I see that I can't be sure I'll remember, as well as capturing badly written bits of the newspaper and sticking them up on my other blog (

So, although I still can't take good pictures, I've become an enormous camera fan. It is an absolutely brilliant notebook, a recorder of information, museum captions and even entire volumes of prose. When I use my camera for that purpose, my anxieties about artistry can go out of the window. Smaller than a block of paper, it acts as an electronic jotter. I love it for that.


  1. I can imagine someone in the future, or even the present (an artist searching for a theme, or someone whose hobby is nostalgia or domestic mystery) looking at a collection of tableaux-photographs and finding them charming, evidence of a certain ethnic sensibility, particular to a time, a culture, and a place, but the whole business of someone telling you to stop what you're doing and "Stand over there!" and "Smile, smile, stand closer together, stand closer, bunch up!" and "Now just the three boys," and "Now the two of you together," and "Now with a dog on your lap," and, "Now in front of the Christmas tree," and, "Now by the window," and, "Not with the food in your mouth," and, "Not like that" -- all this idiot amateur stage management, when you know from experience that all you're going to get out of it is another picture of yourself looking like a chinless and disgusting mannequin, makes me want to bite people.

  2. Those tableaux from the early 20th century are worth resurrecting so that people give them as much attention as those participating in them did - I have one cousin who has dozens and dozens in a family album. Her father was a very silent man so probably it was his way of resolving the problem of conversation when lots of people came to stay. Your description of the smile smile variety of picture taking made me laugh. I suppose if you actually did start biting people it would just make another, more exciting photograph for the one giving the instructions to take.

  3. Only they wouldn't take it. The neophyte Leni Riefenstahls who enjoy group-clump photos hate that kind of randomness. They'd be like someone I know who was happy to take a thousand pictures of a thousand impala in Kruger National Park standing among a thousand blades of grass eating a thousand leaves, then turned the camera off the moment two lions started fucking.

  4. Perhaps he knew that when lions finish doing that they start looking for a nice meal of fresh photographer.