Thursday, 25 February 2010

The Art of the Possible

Some photographers stalk their subjects like hunters. They study, they calculate, they plan. They figure out angles and elevations, times and tides; I have even read of obsessives who determine exactly where the moon will be in the sky on their chosen night, using tables, so that the composition will be exactly as they imagined it. If you are lugging a view camera and tripod around, this kind of effort is probably necessary. Or if you are someone who, God forbid, tries to earn their living with a camera. Otherwise, I imagine this approach appeals to the same sort of person who has planned and booked their summer holiday before Christmas.

Needless to say, I am not that sort of photographer. I am that other sort of obsessive, the ones who go round and round habitual circuits in the hope of bumping into something. Sometimes we do, sometimes we don't. As a method, this has something in common with beachcombing (your only plan is to turn up and see what happens) or churchgoing (ditto). Any activity carried out repetitively and hopefully, however secular in nature, tends to take on a devotional aspect; your faith is based on the experience that things change from day to day, that these changes can be revelatory, and that bearing witness to them feels somehow important.

This strange corner, for example. After the disastrous fire that destroyed a large part of our university's electronics and computer research building, a temporary home was found in what had been a "fitness centre" for an optoelectronics laboratory which needed ultra-strict levels of air purity and temperature control. Liquid nitrogen tanks and insulated ducts were lashed up in hurry, resulting in the hulking shapes you see here. I pass them every day, and every day I speculate what a planner would do. Dawn light is especially effective, but the reflective tapes (and, now that demolition has begun, the exposed silver insulation blocks) pose an exposure range problem; a planner would work out the timing, check the weather forecast, and use a tripod to take multiple exposures for blending. There's also the matter of a security fence, through which I have to pass my Panasonic LX3; a planner would arrange access, no doubt.

But the chances are, having planned it perfectly, such a person would only turn up once or twice. As it is, I just keep walking past and popping away. Sometimes I get lucky, sometimes I don't. Once in a while, I get very lucky indeed, and that's something you simply can't plan for.


Kent Wiley said...

I'll admit to being a "planner" w/ a tripod and a view camera. Please don't take me for a pervert, though. I'll admit to a certain perverse pleasure derived from checking the sun & moon tables, and being at the "right" place at the "right" time. But rarely does all go according to plan, which requires further investigation or some spur of the moment response. These plans are usually hatched because of previous visits to the same location that yielded such and so forth results, but which might have been better or at least different with the help of a little planning. Does the gear make me behave the way I do, or have I simply found the correct gear for my personality disorders? Apparently spontaneity is not my preferred methodology.

Nonetheless, I'll be back at my chosen location come the full moon later this month, if for no other reason than to find out where the bloody moon comes up while standing at that location. I look at it as a "project." What else have I got to do come the full moon rise every month for the next year? (Well, I won't be there during "summer holiday," wherever that may take us. Damn, I knew we should have been working on those reservations back in December!)

Mike C. said...


All the best photographers are head-cases -- we can only aspire to similar levels of neurosis and psychopathology.

I think of Thomas Joshua Cooper, a photographer I much admire, smuggling himself into a military base in Senegal:

Now that's mad!