Saturday, 6 November 2010

Look Here, Upon This Picture, And On This

A few times recently I have mentioned that distinction between photographs which are pictures made "of" things, and those which are pictures made "from" things. It's pretty self-evident what I mean by this but, hey, these blog posts don't write themselves.

I sometimes make a similar distinction, in my work life, between "people who make things happen" and "people who make things work" -- both essential, but often co-existing in mutual suspicion. The art of project management, is to make sure you've got strong exemplars of both, and then make sure they can work together. If you can find them, of course: both varieties are rare and precious. Most people, in my observation, are simply useless dorks who stop things happening or manage to break them.

In photography, people tend to have a strong preference for one type of picture over the other, but there's no reason why they should ever be persuaded to agree or co-operate. Indeed, trying to bring about harmony between the extremes -- let's say, the sharpness obsessives vs. the toy camera crew -- is futile. What would it achieve? For some, photography is an essentially documentary activity, for others, it's an art medium.

Obviously, a camera is just a tool, and can be used for different ends. If you're documenting an archaeological dig, it's no good using the remains in front of you as material for self-expression or experiments in motion blur. "Yes, but it's how I felt about the skeleton" won't save your job. But, equally, obsessive attention to the accuracy and precision of a camera's ability to record is an activity for trainspotters.

As an example of what I mean, here are two postcards:

This first one, I think we can agree, is pretty dull. By any standards. Photographs do not get any more utilitarian, scenery more pedestrian, than that. But it is a classic photograph "of" something. For that is the stage set of my childhood, and thus fascinating and evocative to me. Such purpose-built rows of neighbourhood shops were scattered all over our town -- it was part of the theory of the "new town". You have to smile, though, that -- in the brave new world of the late 1950s -- six random little shops would constitute a "shopping centre". But that curiously innocent and ugly scene is the Eden where our sweets, our broken biscuits, our toys and our comics were bought with pre-decimal pocket money.

This second postcard is something quite different. I've never been to Ashridge, though it is in God's own country, the chalk hills of Hertfordshire. But this is a picture artfully made "from" what is little more than a partial view of some trees on a hill. Every time I see it, I get that thrill that a perfectly-seen image can give. Quite apart from the picture itself, with its bold composition and beautiful tones, I love the letterbox shape of the frame and its placement on the card, and the writing along the bottom. There's something perfect about it as an object. And yet it's a picture of nowhere and nothing in particular.

But sometimes both types of image do come together, and that's when you often end up with a masterpiece. Here is a photograph that combines "of" and "from" elements into a masterful, compelling image of an historically compelling subject. For this wonderfully mysterious, high-vantage viewpoint shows barricades at yer actual Paris Commune of 1871. It was taken by Pierre-Ambroise Richebourg, about whom I know nothing, other than that he did a nice line in plump Victorian nudes, too.

Quite amazing. Both "of" and "from", with a bit of "by", "with", "to" and "for" thrown in for good measure, and endlessly fascinating. That one man, for example, standing transfixed: might he perhaps be thinking, "Mon dieu! Sous les pav├ęs, la plage!!"?


Martin H. said...

I'd never seen the Pierre-Ambroise Richebourg photograph before. Wow!

Huw said...


The last photo reminded me of Alexey Titarenko, who I particularly like.


Kent Wiley said...

The Paris Commune photo is a revelation. I know you've missed a lot of cinema in the past twenty years Mike, but I'm curious if you've ever come across Peter Watkins' La Commune, from 1999. At nearly 6 hours, I guess it's something of a commitment. But his work - at least the bruising Punishment Park - is like nothing else you'll see. He's truly an inspiration, but naturally not easily seen on the screen.

Mike C. said...


Yes, you're right, I hadn't made the connection, but the dark sepia tones and the motion blur are very Titarenko -- I like him, too, and have a copy of his book, highly recommended.


Thanks for the recommendation -- no, that falls squarely into the category of "read the reviews, never made it up to London to see it in the cinema". There is a whole interesting sub-genre of "films too long for a normal human to endure" (even "Celine & Julie" falls into that category, though I notice my kids are happy to sit through Lord-of-the-Rings-athons and Star-Wars-fests ...)


Huw said...

His book starts at £94.99 used on Amazon and heads up from there. Oh well, just have to hope it's reissued.

Mike C. said...

That's ridiculous -- it's a nice enough book, but... I love the bit about "limited to 2000 copies". If all of those have sold it's not exactly scarce.

I'm beginning to suspect the value of my photo book collection is starting to approach that of the house containing it...

If you can stand the postage from the States (I'm assuming you're a Brit, Huw) Photo-Eye shows copies for 50 dollars:

plus some at Amazon Marketplace.