Friday, September 07, 2012

Photographing Nothing

Greetings m'Dearios. Well this week we seem to have been a sailin' round in a big circle. 
We set off on Monday with all sorts of waves and well-wishes and we found ourselves back on Friday in the same port with all sorts of puzzled looks and warding.
For 'tis bad luck to return to the port you set off from in the same week.
I have an idea how it happened, and I will blame it on Mog.
That cat.
He'll sleep anywhere, and given we'd been re-caulking a part of the foredeck this week, he managed to get tar on his fur, but, before we had him trimmed, he had a snooze in my cabin, and left some nice tarry marks on me charts.
'Twasn't good though.
I made it onto the dock and was immediately beset by Cap'n Mash.
After our usual sailorly greetings, he took me aside and the following conversation ensued:

'T'isn't right cap'n'

'You're right there Mash.'

He'd found out about Mog

'In my day ship's cats were considered ill-luck when they got tarred.'

'My day too cap'n - we're the same age remember.'

'Oh. Ar. Aye, so we are.'

'You're forgetting yerself there cap'n'

He looked a bit offended.
Anyways after much beard strokin', he said:

'So where are you going to nail it?'

I've risked offending many people before, and I wasn't going to let Mash tell me what to do, so I looked him in the eye and said:

'You've overstepped yersel' there cap'n.'

He took this like a slap with a bowsprit.

'But it is cap'n. Bad luck is what it is. If you don't then I will. That cat'll bring it all down upon us again.'

'Bring what down cap'n?' I asked
He looked at me in a weird way and said in a small voice:

'The Fear, cap'n, The Fear.'

This was mighty strange, but I asked him anyway.

'What fear be that Mash?'

He rubbed at his jowls and took out his cloute and wiped his forehead and looked me straight in the eye and said:


This was getting stranger by the minute.

'It what Mash?'


Mr.Sheephouse had appeared on deck at this time and was observing us - no doubt he wrote it up in his journals. He was holding Mog in a friendly manner and supportive of the cat's behind, just the proper way you hold a cat.
Mog was watching too.
I didn't know what to say, so I let Mash qualify his statement. He was looking swole now, his face had lost that steely look like he was going to stop me and he had more the appearence of a big babby.

'Haven't ye noticed cap'n? 
No matter where ye go, from the Southern shoals to the Northern rocks. 
From warm water to cold. 
From the lands of the sultry-eyed ladies to the lands of the blubber-eaters.
The sea, cap'n. 
The sea! 
That's The Fear cap'n.
The sea! 
It all be the same!'

We headed out on the next tide and I am happy to report that our charts are now fine.
Mog is sitting watching me write this up. He has a dish o'cream and his favourite catnip mouse.
It takes a lot to change a sailor's mind once he's set on course, but a ship's cat is a capn's best friend.
I've raised Mog since I found him half-drowned in a burlap bag as a kit.
There was no chance of me nailin' him to a mast.
No chance at all.


Definition of nothing
·   not anything; no single thing:
    I said nothing
    there’s nothing you can do
    they found nothing wrong
·   something of no importance or concern:
    ‘What are you laughing at?’ ‘Oh, nothing, sir’
     they are nothing to him
[as noun]:
     no longer could we be treated as nothings
·    (in calculations)
     no amount;
[attributive] informal
·     having no prospect of progress; of no value:
      he had a series of nothing jobs
·     not at all:
      a man who cared nothing for her
      he looks nothing like the others
·     North American informal used to contradict something emphatically:
      ‘This is a surprise.’ ‘Surprise nothing.’


You know, looking back over contact prints and boxes of prints I have, I seem to have spent an inordinate amount of money and time and effort on photographing nothing at all.
One generally supposes that a picture needs to have a subject, but as I shall show dear reader my subjects often consist of nothing other than a piece of wall, or fence, or moor, or tree. Nothing you could really call 'subject matter', nothing even that you could really call a snap. So why do I continue on this fool's errand when the world and his brother wants pictures of something?
When I was much much younger and still finding my feet on a fingerboard, my Mother would urge me, even cajole me, to play something with "a tune to it."
At the time, John William's Cavatina was the piece of classical guitar music that everyone wanted to hear, but I simply couldn't play it. I could have made a half-hearted, fumble fingered go at it, but I couldn't just sit down in a room with Mum and Dad, Trevor and Olive, and Arthur and Evelyn and Dolly and Tom and Doug and play it. I could do a passable attempt at the opening bit of the Concerto Aranjuez, or a Chinese-whispers version of Smokestack Lightning, but Cavatina?
No way hose-pipe.
Not a chance.
And I wonder now why I didn't even try to appease them. It would have been simpler, would have won me all sorts of appreciation, maybe even an extra piece of God's own pudding (in case you're wondering, an Apple pie, with shortcrust pastry and a hint of the exotic with cloves added for spice) and custard . . . but I didn't. I prefered instead to mumble and do the hard rasquedo-ey bit from Concerto and that was it. 
I sort of realise now why I was like that - basically, I am stupid.
It manifests itself in many ways, but generally, at the hint of being able to do something that might in the long-run lead onto something, I stand in the corner and just say 'No'.
It has been the same with every single creative endevour I have ever been involved with, and to be honest I find it immensely irritating.
So how does this contrary motion manifest itself photographically?
Well, I must admit that when (and if) in a situation where all comers are photographing the view or whatever interesting is happening, I tend to find myself off in a different direction, or around the corner, or just plain photographing the people doing the photographing. When in landscapes of incredible beauty, I tend not to go for the grand view (though goodness knows I have) but more for the things in that landscape that I find attractive . . . and that is . . . usually . . . what you could call . . . er . . . nothing.
So why bother?
Well I find this a difficult one to quantify.
Apparently John Szarkowski wrote in a forward to one of Ansel Adams’ books, a quote from Fred Astaire in the film Funny Face. Astaire was playing a fashion photographer. Audrey Hepburn’s character asked him, “Why do you photograph beautiful women?” and he said, “Madam, you’d be amazed at how small the demand is for pictures of trees.”
I think that is an interesting quote, because in Mr.Adams' case, pictures of trees and the grand vista were what he made his name with, however my favourite Adams photographs are the ones where people are involved and where the non-obvious is the subject matter.
There is one of walls and buildings from Mexico (where the light is just extraordinary and a dog just pops into the frame and Mr.Adams makes the photograph) that I love very much for the fact that other than the dog appearing at the appropriate moment, there is nothing going on.
But there is also another, a portrait he made on his Zeiss Contax, of Georgia O'Keefe and Orville Cox at the Canyon de Shelly national monument.
I think he out-decisived HCB on this.
From my own point of view, it is full of nothing, and yet it doubtless has something.

Georgia O'Keeffe and Orville Cox, Canyon de Chelly National Monument
©Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust

One wonders what was said, or maybe even un-said. There can be so much read into this seemingly simple photograph, but ultimately it is a photograph of nothing where something is happening.
For my own bizarre ends, you name it I have photographed it, from cigarette stubbers to barren, rock-strewn hillsides, to pictures of mist (taken from inside the mist) to piles of earth and posters and bits of light on walls.
There is never any intended subtext of duality.
They are just plain photographs.
So why do I do it? Is there some sort of attractiveness in my subject matter. Something that might halt a viewer in their tracks and make them say (Hmmmmm . .. I see!) . . Well no not really. A large number of my photographs aren't just as dull as dishwater, they're horrendously boring too. But the thing is, I quite like them. I made them, and even if they are dull to you and you and you, to me they are fine. Not great. Just fine.
I don't make photographs of sports events or society photographs - those tend to be pictures of something. Mine are more like random observations from a chaotic world (isn't that a great book title . . so great I am going to copyright it now):
Random Observations From A Chaotic World ©  Phil Rogers 06/09/2012
There, that's better.
What I think I am trying to say (and regular FB readers will appreciate the fact that every week they're delving into the thought process of a Stromatalite) is that photographic subject matter is obviously entirely a personal choice, but (and here's the kicker) like my refusal to play Cavatina, it doesn't actually have to be of anything at all.
It's a weird way to approach a hobby, but it is my way and unless I change dramatically, I can't really see anything beyond my random collection of images of unremarkable buildings, trees in the middle of nowhere, ephemera and detritus, random mist, forgotten parcels of land and the occasional person passing through the edges of my viewfinder.
A photograph is a photograph is a photograph; be it masterful archival print handled by be-gloved curators in a museum, or a snap permanently pasted in a plastic sleeved album handed round at parties and family get-togethers. From the £20,000 investment on a gallery wall to the plastic-papered object you collect from Tescos, to the thirty billion random examples littering the ether. All photographs. All of them of subject matter that might be something, could possibly even be something, but mostly is nothing.
Hmmmm (rubs beard and re-reads again) this has all gone a bit . . shite. I've got away from what I was trying to say and wandered off again. 
That dear reader is part of how this comes together most weeks. powered by massive mugs of tea my brain slowly grinds into motion, but it doesn't necessarily grind in the direction it was grinding the day before. But please be ensured that, like a fleshy orbital sander, it will eventually get to some obscure point.
Yes, what was I saying.
Why do I do it?
I think it all stems from something Gary Winogrand said when asked why he photographed so much, and his answer was (to paraphrase him) that he photographed to see what the world was like photographed.
There is (strangely) something to this seemingly obtuse, mad and random statement.

Strap on a helmet - he's headed off in a different direction again . .this is the Winogrand by-pass:

Gary snapped away like a good'un; like there was no tomorrow.
On the surface, seemingly endless random shots of people and situations.
Photographs of, really, nothing.
Tiny slices of time, chaotic and juxtaposed. Fleeting moments that would at their time of occurrence have absolutely no meaning at all to their perpetrators. An arm lifted here, a conversation there. A laugh. A burden. A fall. A bag. A coffee. The movements of the world. Bits of time that you would never analyse.
But with crafted observation, transformed into art.
When you view his images there is something that hits you straight in the nose.
He was a humanist.
There is great feeling and warmth deeply inherent in his photographs.
There is pathos and a very refined sense of humour.
They're not gritty in the way a lot of photography of the 60's and 70's was.
They're honest and human, no set-ups, just lightning fast reactions to unfolding situations; anticipation to the Nth degree.
But ultimately photographs of nothing made into something.
Here's a couple of examples - they're mad and funny and strange all at the same time.
The first image is almost like something from a surrealist painting don't you think?

Democratic Convention, LA, 1960
© Winogrand Estate

It's bizarre to think that in photographing nothing: three people, at random, up close (with the incredible fact that none of them seem to be aware of the camera) Mr.Winogrand has, like Mr.Adams, made a photograph into which so much can be read.
My next example from him is probably one of my favourite photographs these days.

Untitled 1977
© Winogrand Estate

Again, a picture of nothing.
A boy and a sheep (?) in what looks like a stock shed, and yet, one wonders what is going on.
My own thoughts are (every time I look at it):

Who is looking after who?
Is that some strange alien and the boy is disgruntled because he is hogging the limelight?
Have they had a fight?

Again in photographing the mundane Mr.Winogrand has provided us with an image which raises more questions than it answers and with the added bonus that we smile and chuckle and then this great photograph is now our new best friend.
I call it genius.
Sadly Gary passed away in the 1980's leaving an archive of tens of thousands of unprocessed rolls of film. One wonders what other gems are in there.

Ok, we've taken a left and now we're back on Sheephouse Drive

At this point in time, I have decided to shamelessly shoehorn some of my own photographic nothings into the proceedings . . . and why not . . . FB is my little kingdom and I can do what I like.
Of course these images are in rather grand company, but I like to think that if either Mr.Winogrand, or Mr.Adams were still alive and came round, we could sit and have some tea and good old chin-wag, so I am sure they won't mind my paltry efforts.
The photos I have included below are essentially images of nothing.
They're random snaps (well the first two are) from random moments of time.
There's nothing going on and there's nothing happening.
The first two were made on holiday with my trusty little Olympus Trip 35:

Mersey Ferry, 2012

Yes, that flag is on the Mersey Ferry - I dunno, it just seemed like a nice little bit of Britishness that I rather like - but essentially it is a snap of nothing. I was just wandering around the deck blazing through a roll of film and pretending to look:
a.) Arty
b.) Important
Nobody was fooled - my family remained in the cafe area and looked unimpressed.

Two days before we had been a-wanderin' in the rain around the beautiful and lively City of Liverpool, when I spied the next subject.
The man was drunk or homeless or just plain desperate, but his back and the way he moved caught my eye and I had to briefly follow him and make this picture.
I felt (and still feel) sorry for him actually.
He exuded an air of complete lonliness.
It was him versus the world and the world was winning, and it was raining.
I should have bought him a coffee in hindsight, but such was his air that he would probably have told me to shove it.

Man In The Rain, Liverpool, 2012

The third is the most mundane, but it shows how, sometimes, unplanned and strange things can happen.
It was a lengthy set-up involving a 5x4 view camera and a large tripod.
Nominally it is a picture of nothing, that somehow seems to have become a picture of something.
Something weird.
Just why I decided to photograph this clump of trees is totally beyond me.
It took about 20 minutes to set the camera up, a few minutes to sort out the meter readings and make the exposure, a few minutes take-down time; and then of course there's the lugging time, the getting back to the car time; the processing time (one sheet of film at a time) and then the printing time.
A large chunk of my life has been wasted on making an image of absolutely no consequence or worth to anyone . . at least that is what I thought.
However, somehow, light and rocks and leaves and their positioning in the landscape have led me to capture an image of a dead man's face. You can see it quite clearly, near the bole of the left hand trees. He looks like he has been trussed rather in the method of Bronze Age sacrifices, and, putting arms and legs onto everything as usual, I feel that maybe some of the spirit of this quiet clump of forgotten land has manifested itself in a natural apparition.
We are programmed for faces. Just look around you and they are everywhere in the natural world. Strangely, I just seem to have found one in a pile of rocks and leaves, in a public cemetery, early on a May morning.

The Drowned Man, 2010

I could have illustrated this FB with loads more images of total inconsequence, but I have spared you dear reader.
They are dull.
Maybe when we get to know each other better I'll reel them out and await your judgement.
In the meantime, don't fuss over your photographs, just go and take a walk and take a picture of something that you find interesting to look at.
For the sheer hell of it, why not follow Mr.Winogrand and just photograph to see what the world looks like photographed.
It might well be nothing in the eyes of the world, but it will be your something.
God bless, thanks for reading and (as usual) stay dry.

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