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Where Photos Lead

by Darron Davies

Great is the human who has not lost his childlike heart.
Mencius (Meng-Tse), 4th century BCE

Photography is a great way into this world and others. To sit and look at a photo is to grant oneself the time to reflect, to capture a moment, and to ask questions such as, "What would it have been like to have lived in that time? What happened before this photo was taken? What has happened to this person since?"

In recent months I have been perusing photographic books and moving between photographers that I like. I have been looking into other worlds, and into other times, entering into new spaces or simply withdrawing – here is an opportunity to simply watch a moment, relax and dream about the many worlds within and before this world.

Time has found me perusing websites e.g. The Masters of Photography site or visiting academic libraries where large and rare photographic books can be found. The irony is that these books, so beautiful and so cherished by many hands, are also so wantonly vandalised. Students, I guess, tear out photographs leaving empty pages. Librarians repair these with poorly defined photocopies. With the upside one is often reminded of the downside.

For a long time I have been drawn to photographs as a resource in education and training. Photographs can inspire discussions. They can be brought to life through imaginative drama. Students can create a still image of a photo, bringing it to life through dialogue. Similarly they can explore the moments before the photograph was taken ending with the snap of the shutter. Similarly they can ask, "Who is the photographer? What was his or her relationship to the scene?" Students can even create diary entries or stories inspired by photographs.

This personal journey through many images can be very moving. There is nothing like a startling image to arrest one. Images can almost burn themselves into your memory. Or they can creep up on you. The second or third viewing shows just how deep they are. I am beginning to feel this myself with the extraordinary close-ups by Paul Strand. We enter as if into the world experience of the man or woman. The world is etched on a face.

It is being experienced. They are within, somehow trapped by forces that we cannot know. We get a glimpse into the inner, written on the outer.

When I think of compassion I think not only of Dorothea Lange’s intimate portraits of dustbowl victims during America’s depression but also of her portraits of Japanese internees shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbour. The close-up of faces show people like you and I. We are probably just like these people, embedded in a time, open to changes and forces that can so easily sweep in.

In these current times of aerial bombings, where conflicts are abstracted and distanced by media spin and military technology, a face can still speak a million words. Art allows us into a space where the individual is cherished well beyond the flattening stereotypes.

Something very human can touch us in photography. I find it quite astonishing when I come across an old photograph with a strangely modern pose. One usually expects to see within the grain strangely innocent faces rather unaware of their own image. Caught in the elaborate workings of the photographer these people don’t seem to have developed a sense of self-image like we increasingly see in our suave media world. We feel the innocence yet can also be struck by the surprise of an unusually modern face. See Alfred Stieglitz's portrait of Georgia Engelhard.

I am moved by the stark images of Robert Frank. One image – Charleston, South Carolina, 1955, shows a black American lady – one presumes she is a nanny – nursing a white baby on a street corner. The child is extraordinarily white and translucent. This contrasts with the nanny’s face. There is something very haunting about this photograph. It is angelic and extremely tender. It also seems to speak a reality of black and white issues at the time in America. Who is this child? Who is this nanny? What has become of both?

This is a similar question posed by Roland Barthes in his text Camera Lucida. Here Barthes analyses a series of photos and reflects on their meanings. In one photo – Ernest, Paris, 1931 – he asks the question, "It is possible that Ernest is still alive today: but where, how? What a novel."

One wonders. One may also be very disappointed. Ernest has grown and what was captured in this photograph may have vanished for good. This reminds me of the rediscovered face of the young Afghan woman made so famous by the Steve McCurry National Geographic photograph. There is no disputing that something of the hardness of Afghanistan has etched itself upon her face.

Andre Kertesz captured in Ernest a heightened moment of the boy’s innocence. This is an extraordinary photograph of a young boy opening up to the camera. There is warmth and an engagement with the camera and the photographer. Perhaps one can also compare this to the another Kertesz photo in Barthes book – "The Puppy, Paris, 1928." Is this an extraordinary insight into adolescence? The boy’s face is a mask. It is as if any emotion is being expressed through the puppy. As Barthes says, "That lower class boy who holds a newborn puppy against his cheek, looks into the lens with his sad, jealous, fearful eyes: what pitiable, lacerating pensiveness! In fact, he is looking at nothing; he retains within himself his love and his fear: that is the Look."

We can also find quirkiness in old photographs. Look at photographs of The Band or Bob Dylan and one can see photographs posed as if these musicians were 1800’s labourers. Look at the photo below of a work team of Navvies from England in the 1850’s and one sees a man who looks extraordinarily like Bob Dylan. How strange? How photos can throw up odd likenesses.

‘Men of the Crystal palace gangs in 1853.
These are the first known photographs of navvies.’

Move through old photos in history books and one sees nameless faces. Imagine my family’s surprise when looking at old photographs of Stockton in England when my Mother spotted herself in a photograph. It is a simple photograph of a market from the late 1950s. In the centre are two indistinct women. One is my mother and her mother-in-law during one of their weekly forays. My mother can recognise the dresses and the handbags. She is in dark clothes. My grandmother in a lighter coat is turned towards the camera oblivious of the shot. How strange to be captured in a photograph and find one forty years later.

Photography moves us in its surprise, its shock and in its tenderness that invites us into another time, another place or just another feel.

To glance at photographs is more than seeing an instant captured in time. It is an invitation into a world of questions where our dreams are caressed yet never truly answered. It is the dream of sight taking us away from a literal world, into another, and on the odd occasion into the embracing arms of metaphor.


Darron Davies

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