John Berger wrote that:
“Photographs bear witness to a human choice being exercised in a given situation. A photograph is a result of the photographers’ decision that it is worth recording that this particular event or this particular object has been seen.” (Berger 2013)
This post responds to his words by considering the ‘human choices’ I make in my photographic practice. I evaluate my successful and less successful attempts to achieve my intent through examples of my work. I contextualise my work through consideration of the images and photographic practice of three significant influencers in my photography – Don McCullin, Sebastiao Salgado and Art Wolfe. Finally, I consider how my practice might develop in my next portfolio of work.
Choice of location
“The reason I am doing these new landscapes . . . is because it’s a form of healing. I’m kind of healing myself . . . but you can never run away from what you have seen.” (McCuillin, 2009)
After many visits to the Isle of Skye, the Cuillin Hills and the road from Broadford to Elgol in particular I feel a compulsion to return. It is only recently that I am making sense of this obsession with this special place. Working on my project The Road to Elgol I have been inspired by the more recent work of Don McCullin. Don McCullin’s engagement with photography was in the battlefields of Vietnam, Beirut and Africa; mine – as a scenes of crime photographer – was in the battlefields of suburban England. McCullin has found a degree of peace in the Somerset Levels, recording the landscape with dark, intense monochrome imagery portraying his experience of life and death. My experience, although less intense, has had a similar result and my response has been to seek answers in the Isle of Skye.
Choice of genre
Until I joined the course I had been a wildlife photographer, starting with candid portraiture and moving on to behavioural work and then animals in the landscape. My work was exclusively in colour:
However, a trip to Canada and Niagara Falls led me to produce some images in black and white and this sparked my imagination to shift to a different subject:
Having said this, I do not consider myself to be a landscape photographer but in the same way as Don McCullin has attempted to find solace, I am using “being” in the landscape as a means to rid my mind of the ghosts of my past photographic career and to convey and share my journey with my viewer.
Choice to present monochrome images
In my early encounters with the Road I experimented with colour but soon realised that it was a barrier to my expression, not because of any appeal to Ockham, but because I could see no colour there. Colour I found was detracting from the essential reflection of my experience. Below is an early examples of my landscape work on the road to Elgol, before I decided to present my images in monochrome:
Choice of equipment and technology
In my Research Proposal I went further in explaining my reasons for the choices I had made:
“I have resolved that decision making on the presentation of the final images for this project should be mine and mine alone. I do not want to go down the ‘Leica Black and white’ route where a software engineer, unknown to me, makes the processing choices. Nor do I want to revert to film. It was the advent of digital technology that allowed me to overcome the associations with the camera from my early career. With that, I believe I can recount my experience of the Road to Elgol without artifice and with an authentic voice.”
Choice of process and methodology
I describe my work as “phenomenological photography” where what matters to me is not the object of my experience but my experience of the object. My photography is not just a window on the world but also a mirror reflecting my feelings and emotions. In my early portfolios my images were very dark, moody and sublime showing the vulnerability of man in nature:
They certainly demonstrated where I was at the start of this journey. My second portfolio, although heavily influenced by Film Noir, had glimpses of the lighter side of The Road to Elgol.
Throughout my time on the Road I have sought to slow down the process of making images and I believe my work for Sustainable Prospects marked a turning point in my methodology. Although I had kept a journal and attempted to write about my feelings and emotions as I worked, in reality I found this hard and whilst I was able to generate word clouds of the scenes I had taken from the words on my pages, I felt my engagement was limited. As a result my imagery was superficial and was not always successful in sharing my experience of the landscape with my audience.
As I spent more time in the landscape I found ways to slow down, and the narrowing down of my focus to a small loch enabled me to learn more about myself and share some of my feelings and emotions through the shapes and movement of the reeds on the loch. As a result my work has become more abstract, ethereal and ambiguous. It has become multi-layered in its meaning and approach. In striving to achieve simplicity in my image making, while creating multiple layers of meaning, I recognised the need to spend more time looking, thinking and feeling and only then to press the shutter.
For example in the image above, which is one of my favourites – not least because of its reflective aesthetic – I have captured a sense of calm and serenity. The tone is lighter than my previous work and as a consequence gives a sense of light and hope. The gentle ripples in the water reflect the tranquillity of the loch and help lay to rest the images in my mind of my early police work. The fine lines of the reeds add a delicate and refined dimension to the image and a contrast to the backdrop.
The Loch is calm,
The reeds of Cill Chriosd stand high,
The water is still
The Cuillin and the cumulus above them give strong and disturbing reflections.
At the edge of the Loch my mind wanders to an early career,
The jagged reflections of the mountains extend a menacing backdrop,
I am feeling calm, absorbing the nature of the Loch,
But broken by unwanted recollections of the horror of forensic images
Similarly, the image above demonstrates the multi-layered approach of my practice. The reflections of the Cuillin cast a dark shadow over the surface of the loch. The reeds present a delicate reflection. The shafts of light from the sky suggest a sense of hope. However, the line and shape of the reflection of the Cuillin hints at a female form lying lifeless.
I feel that I am now making progress in unpacking my life, addressing and reconciling bad memories, documenting and conveying my thoughts and feelings and adding words to my imagery.
In addition to the “human choices” discussed above, of course there are many that are taken in the field and during the image making process and these are not all within our consciousness. We make decisions about our shooting location and what we choose to take out of the landscape and include in our frame. We decide when is the ‘decisive moment’ to press the shutter.
As our understanding of the human brain and how it works has developed we now know that we do not see what we perceive but perceive what we want to see. Our choices are a function of two levels of mental activity: the conscious and the non-conscious. Consciously we can choose what to photograph and pre-visualise the image we want to take. The non-conscious is what drives our judgement in the moment as we respond at an emotional level to what is in front of us. Intuitive judgement results from the emotional activation of cue-dependent memories stacked layer after layer deep within the dark-web of the brain. Those memories and the way they respond constitute our most fundamental to our most superficial beliefs about the world. Some are so deep that they resist any form of modification in the face of new evidence, others are constantly being revised and modified within our neural networks by new experiences. The photographic moment, the point the choice is made is controlled by our conscious mind but is driven inexorably by our non-conscious.
I have chosen to contextualise my photographic practice with three photographers – Don McCullin, Sebastiao Salgado and Art Wolfe. It has been a difficult choice but I feel McCullin and Salgado have a similarity to my work in dealing with ghosts from the past and Art Wolfe transcends my interests in wildlife and nature and does some interesting work applicable to the development of my practice.
Don McCullin has long been an inspiration to me and more so as I work in the landscape in monochrome. He has the most horrific memories to live with and he has often talked about how the landscape provides a form of healing for him. His work is based close to his home in Somerset.
His professional photographic career was launched with a photograph of a gang local to his north London home called The Guvners.
The image was published in The Observer after a policeman was killed. As McCullin says “That gang picture was the ticket to the rest of my life.” After taking himself off to shoot a story about the erection of the Berlin Wall he then spent eighteen years working for The Sunday Times Magazine starting his work covering the civil war in Cyprus. His art director at that time, Michael Rand spoke of McCullin as follows:
“He has a particular eye. He worked best in extreme situations, on stories that had a certain edge, social stories about the human condition, like the genocide of the Brazilian Indians. He was not shooting news stories, more a personal view of the conflict. Not what happened, but what it was like.” (Rand in Jacobson 2018)
Rand also spoke of McCullin’s rare skill of being a ruthless editor of his own work with the exception that in his haste to publish images on his return from Vietnam in 1968 he initially missed one of his most famous images of the Shell Shocked US Marine.
McCullin has his regrets and two stories he was not asked to cover continue to cause him disappointment. The first was coverage of the Falklands War in 1982 when Margaret Thatcher determined that his photographs might cause political problems and the famine in Ethiopia in 1984 when Sebastiao Salgado was asked to cover the story. The resultant images gained worldwide acclaim and McCullin has confessed to being jealous at Salgado’s fortune:
“I was at my best then. Salgado deserved his praise but this story was made for me. I was left at the bus stop.” (McCullin in Jacobson 2018)
In Don McCullin (2001), Susan Sontag contributed an essay entitled Witnessing providing her insights on photography and McCullin’s work. She talks of how photographs are the primary means of accessing reality of which we have no direct experience and that while we might understand through narrative, we remember through photographs. She explains:
“The photograph is like a quotation; or a maxim or proverb. Easy to retain. All of us mentally stock hundreds of photographic images, subject to instant recall.” (Sontag 2001)
She refers to photojournalists practising since the Spanish Civil War to have rarely considered themselves to be neutral or dispassionate observers. In this regard she describes McCullin’s work and intent as follows:
“In this great tradition of photojournalism, sometimes labelled ‘concerned photography’ or ‘the photography of conscience’, no one has surpassed – in breadth, in directness, in intimacy, in unforgetability – the exemplary, gut-wrenching work produced by Don McCullin.
There can be no doubt of the intentions of this tenacious, impassioned witness, bringing back his news from hell. He wants to sadden. He means to arouse.” (Sontag 2001)
Relevance, learning and inspiration
The interest for me in Don McCullin’s story is in relation to his recent landscape work.
He has described the local landscape of his home in Somerset as “a herbal medicine for my mind.” He talks of his later life as being rich in lifestyle as he takes a spiritual energy from his life in the countryside. He speaks of his career as “a contamination of my mind that will never leave me” and his life in Somerset as providing an exorcism from the horrors of his life journey. In Don McCullin “I hate being known as a war photographer” – an exhibition held at the Tate in 2012 he talks about his need now to isolate himself from people because he cannot share the suffering of his subjects and that he still takes many of his memories to bed.
McCullin talked about his innate sense of when and when not to leave a scene:
“A sense of timing is the most important part of the life of a professional photographer. I have an uncanny way of being at the right place at the right time. And if the time is not right, I can be patient, stay in that place for hours, willing things to come.” (McCuillin in Jacobson 2018)
And he goes on to say:
“If you try to direct the world with your mind, you won’t come up trumps. Out in the field, it’s all about having the nerve to wait. Most of my conflict photographs are full frame, not cropped. It’s all about discipline.” (McCullin in Jacobson 2018)
The art of waiting is something I have worked at over many years and is crucial in a wildlife context. The image below was only captured because we waited after all the other viewers of the cheetah family had left. A juvenile Eland Ox emerged from the undergrowth and the six-month old cub took it down and fed its family.
It is counter-intuitive for me as I am not patient by nature. However, as I indicated earlier I have succeeded more recently in slowing down my practice and need to remind myself of McCullin’s words in the field.
I admire McCullin’s technique and his ability to sniff out the story and the image or have the discipline to wait. He talks about drawing in the people he photographs, making their eyes meet his – and through that contact trying to communicate an understanding of enormous compassion from him as the photographer to them as the subject. To me, this is the essence of his work and is something I have strived for in terms of my wildlife photography. It is about capturing that connection when the animal’s eyes meet yours and reassuring your subject that you mean them no harm.
The first time I saw Sebastiao Salgado’s work was at the Natural History Museum in London in 2013. As I walked through the door the first image I saw was this one:
I was immediately transfixed by the scale, detail and landscape that he had captured and my viewing was all the more poignant as I had recently returned from Antarctica. As I moved through the images taken in the extreme south, many scenes and animals I had witnessed for myself, I was lost in a world of photographic heaven. The scale of the exhibition and the images themselves were overwhelming.
Genesis was a particularly well-chosen title for the exhibition as Salgado wanted to present a world that had not been devastated by man – pristine nature and in Salgado’s words “a way of life that is traditional and in harmony with nature.” The project is on an epic scale and Salgado had braved some of the harshest places on earth in search of his images. He had displayed similar patience and commitment to McCullin from taking to a hot air balloon so as not to disturb hippos to waiting many hours for an iguana to surface – the resulting images often macro perspectives of his subject.
It is clear to me that Salgado sees his images as works of art. This is demonstrated in the Genesis images which are often the size and shape of artists’ paintings. See below:
More generally, Salgado’s methodology in producing his photo essay is extended and painstaking. Often his work is produced over extended periods of time – an average of six years – and involves extended stays within the communities he is working in. In contrast to Henri Cartier Bresson who is said to have moved quickly through his subjects in capturing the decisive moment, Salgado is said to dwell on his subjects, trying to see into their realities, trying to find elements that might not immediately be visible. He does this using short lenses, preferring to share the space of his subjects.
There is no doubt that the work of Salgado invariably creates a response. As Parvati Nair acknowledges in her book “A Different Light”:
“There are those who leave his exhibitions with tears in their eyes and those who feel somehow ennobled, yet humbled, by the images they have seen, as if the pathos and the splendour of these visions of human struggle, and above all human survival, had touched their brow with an extraordinary brush of light. There are also those who voice in no uncertain terms their objection to the representation of social disempowerment through images that can only be classified as exceptional works of aesthetic appeal.” (Nair 2011)
Nair also picks up on a point made by Susan Sontag on McCullin’s work about the photograph providing access to inaccessible places, events and experiences:
“For many more, most particularly members of his avid following in the cosmopolitan metropolises of the West, his images frame otherwise unseen realities, both in terms of the particular and the general, and transport viewers across not merely the distance between far-flung continents and geographies but across differences of class, context, and power.” (Nair 2011)
I leave the final words to Salgado:
“If you don’t like to wait, you can’t be a photographer.” (Salgado 2014)
Relevance, learning and inspiration
Salgado, unlike McCullin, rarely goes for the decisive moment, according to Laura Cumming, reviewing the exhibition in The Guardian. She observes that there are few action shots rather
“His images are generally poised, polished and perfected; he works best with absolute stillness.” (Cumming 2013)
“Perhaps this is why the photographs of the Nenets in northern Siberia are so superb. These people endure the coldest temperatures imaginable. They stand like statues, apparently frozen still, positioned against the snowbound winds that drive the snow across the picture in silvery blizzards. They stand, and they withstand.” (Cumming 2013)
For me, the perfection Cumming refers to extends into his post processing and the immaculate quality and tonality of his images. His images run from dense coal black through silver and bright white with all shades of grey in between. The tonality is enhanced further through spectacular light and strong contrasts. His choice of monochrome is defended and described by Cumming as follows:
“And the further one goes through the show, the more significant the decision to photograph the world in black and white becomes. Nothing can have absolute or accidental priority in monochrome, nothing can leap out simply by virtue of its colour. Black and white puts everything on equal footing, on the same planet.” (Cumming 2013)
For me the learning points are about meticulous practice, patience and the highest quality of production and presentation – spending extended periods of time in my chosen location with my thoughts, feelings and emotions.
More research into the surfaces most appropriate to my images will be defined with Salgado’s work as the gold standard.
I have chosen to include Art Wolfe in my research as he is a photographer that works in the same genres as me – wildlife and capturing the wider natural environment. He also works in black and white and colour and seeks to capture intimate landscapes. He records the patterns and textures in nature. I see his work as potential inspiration for me as I move to a more abstract style and approach to recording the landscape.
Wolfe begins his book The Art of Photographing Nature with a reference to the human choices we make as photographers:
“Seeing is something we all do unconsciously, like breathing. In one sense, we all see alike. . . But in another sense, no two of us truly sees alike, even when we are standing side by side. We see not only through our eyes but with our minds. We interpret and select. Everything we look at is filtered through our experiences, emotional responses, our prejudices and preference. So while we might look at the same scene, we see different pictures within that scene.” (Wolfe and Hill 2013)
This quotation captures my view of photography very well and refers explicitly to the inclusion of the photographer’s emotions and world view as an influencer, not only of how the image is visualised and implicitly to the camera looking both ways. As Freeman Patterson said “The camera always points both ways. In expressing the subject, you also express yourself.”
Wolfe quotes the artist James McNeil Whistler who wrote:
“We look at a painting to know the painter; it’s his company we are after, not his skill.” (Wolfe and Hill 2013)
Wolfe argues that photography is no different and I agree. When we look at and consider a photograph we imagine being in the photographer’s shoes at that moment in time – we want to feel and understand their emotions and experience.
I could not resist viewing Art Wolfe’s Travels to the Edge: South Georgia Island as part of my research – a place I visited in 2017. Wolfe talks about establishing a sense of place through an initial wide-angle shot and then focusing on details. He photographs the details of the silver and gold patterns of the King Penguins. He explains that getting unusual shots can mean getting into unusual positions and demonstrates this with a group of Fur Seal ‘weaners’ where his low wide-angle shots allow him to get close and personal. Of particular interest to me was a short piece on photographing the lichens – he calls this approach “intimate landscapes”. I think this is a good description of some of my recent work and his description gives me inspiration for the subjects of my next portfolio.
Relevance, learning and inspiration
Art Wolfe has long been an inspiration to me not just in his photographic approach but also in terms of the breadth of his work in the natural world. His work ranges from sweeping vistas to his intimate landscapes. As Jill Waterman explains in Art Wolfe’s Intimate Landscapes:
“Wolfe often shifts his focus from documenting the world on a grand scale to exploring the realm of intimate space—a world that is more a function of one’s imagination. “What I truly like to do is get in close, and I’ve done that ever since I’ve picked up a camera,” he says.” (Waterman 2018)
Moving forward into Informing Contexts I see Wolfe as being a major influence in terms of his abstract landscape work and also his advice provided in Art Wolfe’s Travels to the Edge to find unusual angles and positions.
My tutor in Surfaces and Strategies encouraged me to be more curious and I now feel ready to take up that challenge.
Plans for development of my photographic practice in Informing Contexts
I have a number of ideas for developing my practice in this module. I would like to continue with a more focused approach to my work by concentrating on a small aspect of the road or a confined location. I would like to develop my abstract work further. During the break I was compelled to return to Loch Cill Chriosd that was the subject of my last portfolio and the magic returned. These are a selection of images from one short shoot:
However, I am also considering working in the Cuillin Hills and focusing on the sky-scapes, cloud forms, shapes and weather along the Black Cuillin Ridge:
Another option is to concentrate on the abstract potential of the many trees along the Road to Elgol:
I will also consider the potential for producing colour images in the subtle and subdued winter palette.
Through in-depth research into the work and practice of three iconic photographers I have contextualised my past, current and future work. As I move through the Informing Contexts module I will use this post as a benchmark and a point of reference for the development of my photographic practice.
BERGER, John and G. DYER (ed). 2013. Understanding a Photograph. London: Penguin Classics.
CUMMING, L. 2013. Sebastiao Salgado: Genesis – review. Natural History Museum, London. The Guardian, 14 April 2013.
HOLBORN, M. 2001. Don McCullin. London: Jonathan Cape.
JACOBSON, C. 2018. Don McCullin talks war and peace. British Journal of Photography.
NAIR, P. 2011. A Different Light – The Photography of Sebastiao Salgado London: Duke University Press.
SALGADO, Sebastiao with Isabelle FRANCQ. 2014. From my Land to the Planet. Rome: Contrasto.
SONTAG, S. 2001. Witnessing, in Don McCullin. London: Jonathan Cape.
TateShots (2011), Don McCullin: “I hate being know as a war photographer”
WATERMAN, J. 2018. Art Wolfe’s Intimate Landscapes. Explora.
WOLFE, Art and M. HILL. 2013. The New Art of Photographing Nature. New York: Amphoto Books.
WOLFE, Art and R SHEPPARD. 2013. The Art of the Photograph, New York: Amphoto Books.
WOLFE, Art. 2015. Art Wolfe’s Travels to the Edge, South Georgia Island