Libraries are not what they used to be. I spent the evening at the shiny new library in Halifax thinking that I would be poring over interesting books on Art History and Photography. Of course, most of the information and perhaps inspiration I was seeking could be found with a few clicks of the mouse but I longed for the weight of a book in my lap, the smell of a slightly musty volume and simple pleasure of leafing through the pages while sipping a cup of tea.
A faint memory of drawers jam packed with file cards filled my mind as I walked up to the terminal and started my online search session of the library. I noted the reference number of the first book on the list and used it as my guide to find a treasure trove of information I was seeking. It directed me to the Art History section, as luck would have it, not far from the Photography section. Anticipation welled up inside me as I purchased my tea and headed to the 4th floor to walk along the columns of books to the 790 section.
Something must be wrong I thought as I went from one side of the shelf to the other finding an anorexic collection of books dedicated to the pursuit of art. Gone are the days when shelf after shelf in the library was dedicated to a topic and you could while away an evening randomly selecting books from the shelf and browsing through them. The one book that did not disappoint was a giant volume of photographs “A Photographers Life” by Annie Leibovitz, extra large format and at least 3 inches thick, it sat with a presence on my lap.
I was genuinely surprised when I opened the giant cover to find the ordinary photographs laid out before me. Within the first few pages was a 4 shot spread of her round and slightly sagging mother wearing a bathing suit holding the hand of a young child near the edge of the sea. Her mother's leg was held upright more than perpendicular to the ground in one photograph as if she was about to break out in a Russian march. As I gazed at the photograph, I noticed a comfortable and slightly happy emotion those simple photographs evoked in me. Perhaps I had found the source for my inspiration.
Page after page of seemingly ordinary photographs filled the book each rich with a story told simply and profoundly with a single image. Peering deeply with my photographer's eye I looked for what made these photographs so full of life. Depth of field was ordinary, no creative blurring, shooting angle was for the most part pretty simple too, no post processing special effects. They did have a soft quality and a realness to them. People were not posed and it seemed as though I was standing right there in the middle of the scene.
This same quality remained as the book transitioned from personal photographs to portraits. Everyone seemed to be captured in a private moment when the masks of everyday life had fallen away. As much as I am intrigued by this portrait work and don't believe I will ever be a portrait photographer, I do believe there are lessons to learn from the work. It brings to mind a concept we explored recently in a Contemplative Photography course. In particular the idea of “forming the equivalent”. What struck me the most about these photographs was their realness, the feeling while looking at them that I was there in the scene with the characters caught still on the page.
In the book “The Practice of Contemplative Photography – Seeing the world with Fresh Eyes” by Andy Karr and Michael Woods, the authors discuss the difference between perception and conception. Perception being the act of actually seeing what's before us, conception is the story the mind tells us about that view. Rather than seeing lines and shapes on this page you see words that quickly turn into ideas and meaning. The camera doesn't see concepts, it only sees its own form of perception limited by dynamic range and other technical constraints. Seeing clearly through the lens requires stripping away the layers of a lifetime of learning to reveal the lines, shapes and tones that the camera sees. Visions devoid of meaning.
So why, I ask myself, does the photograph of Annie's mother evoke such emotion in me? Is it that the whimsical shot of her mother with her leg outright reminded me of my own mother's whimsy when she would pop her false teeth out at children of a certain age if they pushed her nose. Perhaps this was forming the equivalent in a different way, the creation of a photograph that touches something common in us all. When I looked again at the photo I noticed that camera angle was unique, it was shot from a level that suggested I was sitting on the beach behind the woman and child, perhaps this is what put me so intimately into the scene. If this is the case. I'm led to wonder how the vast range of photographic concepts like camera angle, tone and focus create emotional impact.