Friday, 10 October 2008

Sunsets at Dawn

As a keen photographer with what I like to think of as an advanced sense of style and a post-ironic sensibility, I have a difficult relationship with sunsets. If you don't, you probably should. Your average Canon-fodder photographer, of course, cannot see the problem. After all, a sunset is Nature in celebrity mode offering a photo opportunity: "There, get a load of that. Now take your photos and clear off, I'm going to bed." A thousand little flashes going off in the auditorium, while the Big Act is up on stage. It's what cameras are for, right? Sunsets, kittens, flowers, and bland girls with improbable chests. My inner grumpy artist wants to have nothing to do with it.

But it does take great strength of character to pass up a particularly gaudy sunset, and the technical challenge of making it work can be sufficient to mask the disabling blush of self-consciousness. So, yes, I have photographed the odd sunset. Because it (or I) was there. In fact, despite my reluctance, I actually have quite a number of sunsets burning holes in my contact sheets and backup disks, whispering "Print me, print me! You know you want to!". After all, even Richard Misrach -- until then probably the coolest photographer on earth -- gave in and published a book of sunsets. All right, Golden Gate has images artfully taken from the same viewpoint at different times of day, which gives it a certain conceptual angle, but there are a lot of big skies and sunsets, and it's the only Misrach book you can buy for less than the published price on Ebay.

Sunset over Fawley Refinery, Southampton Water

Then this year my friend Andy (who, I think, finds my horror of chocolate box imagery amusing), challenged me to a Duel By Sunsets. Or, as he put it: "Sunsets at Dawn". Who could resist? For several months we fired emails back and forth, each with a mini-apocalypse attached: "Take that!" "Have at you!" "Oof!" "Ow!!" It was fun, and reminded me of our stoned mid-70s college days when revelling in kitsch was a new style (or so we thought) and, in part, a way of freeing ourselves from the clutches of a drab 1950s childhood. It was also somehow liberating to work with sunsets and just not care.

But then my father died two weeks short of his 90th birthday, and sunsets stopped being fun, and started being very symbolic, and rather sad. "At the going down of the sun and in the morning, We will remember them". Indeed.

Douglas Haig Chisholm, 1918-2008,
veteran of Dunkirk, the Western Desert and Burma

Memoirs of a WW2 Despatch Rider

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