When I hung up my cameras as work tools and turned to using them for pleasure I faced one distinct problem that I’d never had as a pro. It came about because I had never been an amateur . Most professionals were keen amateurs, skilled enthusiasts, before turning their lens in the direction of (hopefully!) filthy lucre. Me, I just applied for a job – and got it – by answering a job ad in a local paper.
The first camera I picked up I was trained to wield professionally and from then on I took pictures of riots and fires and flower shows and politicians and people in the news and rock stars and cuddly kittens and film stars and soap stars and racing cars……and then OUF! It all stopped. I had the cameras but nothing to point them at any more. I had decided to give up my profession.
Welcome to the world of the amateur! Suddenly no-one was ringing me with things they wanted photographed and with the money motivation gone there was no point in me fixing up features for myself on spec. So, what to photograph? And what for? I had no idea and I had no idea where to look for inspiration. If I looked at the bulk of general amateur subjects, flowers, insects. birds, landscapes, I didn’t see much that excited me after the vibrancy of my professional working life.
One truth I had found in most areas of life is that if you keep on doing something, you tend to get, if not good, better at it. If you keep listening to music, you develop a taste and sensitivity to it, just as you do if you drink beer or wine. When digital photography came along with its re-usable recording medium, learning by keeping on keeping on became a lot cheaper. The solution to my problem was simple. Just carry a camera with me all the time, everywhere.
As a long time press photographer, going out without a camera felt like going out naked anyway, so it wasn’t too onerous. I’d always done it. And I’d always kept in mind the plight of a press photographer I knew who was in a taxi in London one night when a would be kidnapper attacked a taxi – the taxi right in front of my friend – and dragged out the occupant. She was a member of the royal family. My friend watched as a struggle ensued and the royal person fought off the attacker and got away. An incredible scoop! Except – he didn’t have a camera with him. He found it hard to get work in Fleet Street after that story had done the rounds. So rule number one – always carry a camera. Actually, there’s a rule number two and just as important if you miss a scoop – Don’t tell anyone!
I kept taking pictures, buds on trees covered in frost, landscapes in mist, people walking anything that interested me as having a (to my eye) pleasing form or unusual or quirky air. Then a friend remarked that he liked my pictures because they made everyday things look slightly strange, disturbed. I could see what he meant after he’d mentioned it but I had no conscious idea of what I was doing. And that is what has informed my photography since.
The pictures I take have no importance and they have no message, they aren’t meant to be beautiful – though I hope occasionally that they are. They are taken to please me with the hope that they please some other people too but that’s not my purpose. I don’t have a purpose.
Here’s a pic I took the other day. It’s nothing, just some pigeons on my roof but I really like it. What I really like is that I can find no words to describe what it is about it that I like. The picture speaks for itself or it doesn’t.
And this one. I came back from a few days away and some flowers had wilted. Somehow they look so much more beautiful wilted than they did healthy. I put them, in their vase, on a black chair beside a window and snapped.
Neither of these pictures requires much technique and certainly not an expensive camera. Many photographers would ignore the subjects because they don’t see what I see and I suppose in a way, that’s what I like about them. Photography for me is not a visual medium in the end. It is the art of observation of things and people, more akin to what a novelist does in words but expressed visually.
Other people’s stuff can be painting like, of course but for me just wandering and looking with a camera is what I like. And with my MFT cameras it’s no hardship. If I sound as if I don’t like the day to day meat of amateur photography, it’s not true. Birds and flowers and seascapes and the like are the staple of amateurs because it is hard to find things to photograph and because the same things are around most of us, it’s inevitable that lots of pictures will look the same. I was thinking about clichés the other day and how tired I was of seeing waterfalls with creamy blurred water and ultra-wide shots of landscape with a stone and lake and the sky reflected. Then I read a forum comment by someone saying that they may be clichés to the experienced but for new photographers it might be the first time they had seen it or tried to do it themselves. It was a good point and I took it on board.
One technique I came up with for finding and making pictures was to nominate a spot, in a park, beside a river, in your garden. Stand there with your cameras and give yourself roaming area within, say, 3 metres of that spot. The exercise is to find 6 pictures from that area. It could be insects in the grass or a detail of a tree, a landscape or the sky, anything at all, there are no rules. Except one.
You mustn’t put away your cameras until you have made six different pictures.
To finish, here’s a landscape. I really like this and it’s a tribute to the little GM1 and its 12-32mm lens. The quality is excellent but the real tribute is that I took it at all. I was on a longish walk and wanting to be unencumbered I wasn’t sure about taking a camera. So here is a camera that will slip in my shirt’s top pocket – and produce this kind of quality.
There really is no excuse to go out naked any more!