Monday, 9 June 2014

The Hunter and the Hunt

In the address I gave at my exhibition opening last week I talked about the importance, for me, of photography as a process. I said that, from where I stood, the actual prints were a by-product of an essential process of creative seeing enabled by the camera.  Surrounded as we were by two large white rooms full of eighty-four beautifully framed prints, which I had taken extreme care to make as compellingly attractive as possible, this might have come across as ironic English self-deprecation.  But I meant every word.

A perfect analogy came to me as I was cruising the stalls of a flea-market on Saturday.

When I first visited Austria's Inn Valley as a tourist, as a 12-year old boy in 1966, I was mightily impressed by the ubiquitous hunting trophies.  Every hotel, every bar, every shop had adorned its walls with mounted heads, antlers, and the scalped horn-bearing crania of chamois and ibex.  Above the main door to every old farmhouse a gigantic rack of red deer antlers was hung, where in Britain a large horsehoe might be nailed.  I imagine it fulfilled a similar apotropaic function.  It was all part of the Tyrolean self-presentation: we are a hunting people.

No longer.  Rather like smoking, hunting has become an outsider occupation, denoting reactionary intransigence in the face of modern sensibilities.  The shops in the streets of Innsbruck tell the story: the ones selling tourist tat from Old Austria -- beer steins, dirndl dolls, and antler-decked thermometers -- are closing; the ones selling New Austria -- chic or cheeky t-shirts and baseball caps (No Kangaroos in Austria), hiking gear, expensive jewellery -- are thriving.  Things have changed around here.

At the Saturday flea-market, there was the usual sad-but-decorative detritus of past times: knick-knacks, unplayable instruments, cow-bells, even old cash registers.  But what I noticed were the hunting trophies:  mounted antlers, mouldering heads, and chamois scalps by the box-load.  I imagine you can't give them away.  Or rather, that's precisely what you do.

My analogy was with hunting for sport. Photography is not dissimilar as an experience: you assemble the right kit for the day, you set out for a likely spot, you try to let the experience fill your being for a time, and if you are skilful, or simply lucky, you will find what you hoped to find, and will feel a temporary but deep joy.  But the trophy on the wall is always a by-product and, however desirable or magnificent in itself, is never the point or purpose of the hunt, and no substitute for it.

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