Miles Davis remarked once that as a musician, the hardest thing is to play like yourself. It struck a chord (sorry!) with me because it doesn’t only apply to musicians, it applies to all forms of expression, art, whatever you like to call it. Especially it struck me because a friend had recently remarked about my photography that I seemed to make ordinary things look odd or different.
I had never noticed it myself but I have been aware for a long time that I did seem quite purposeful when I went out with a camera. I didn’t go out knowing what I wanted but I did know it when I’d got it. When I was working professionally, there would sometimes be a moment when the camera viewfinder seemed to suddenly sparkle and the shot just taken lingered bright on the retina for a second or two. It was instinctive but it meant you’d got the shot. It happens with the more free-form, personal photography I do these days too. And my friend was right. I do seem to make everyday things look a bit odd, slightly out of kilter. I couldn’t try to do that. I just seem to pick out those moments or juxtapositions involuntarily.
It takes a long while to get to that position where the instincts have their play. Many photographers never will, not because they are not capable of it but because they never have time to amass the experience necessary.
From the age of seventeen onwards, I was taking pictures every day earning my living. At first you emulate your teachers, in my case the nine press photographers for whom I printed, made tea, swept up and…well, whom I wanted to be. By the time I was on my third newspaper, aged 23, I wasn’t looking to learn from anyone but the very best. That took the form of looking at the work of people like Cartier-Bresson and Irving Penn and great London press photographers like Arthur Steele.
I first realized I had developed my own way of doing things when one very successful Fleet Street photographer remarked to me over a beer that he always knew my stuff – “because it looked like I had thought about it”. He was either making an honest and flattering remark or he wanted me to buy him another beer.
I realized it again when I was photographing an eminent woman psychiatrist for the Daily Mail. Although I had studio lights with me, I preferred to photograph her close to the window, bathed in the natural light. After 10 minutes she asked me if I always put people near windows and I said, yes pretty much, the light was better there. She said that she’d been watching me and she didn’t think that all there was to it. She was of the opinion that I didn’t like to be confined, that I always wanted an escape route available whatever I did. As a result, I had imposed those thoughts on my pictures of her. She’d noticed with other photographers she’d worked with that they thought they did things for purely photographic reasons but that often they were subliminally imposing their own values on their subjects. That was why, if you gave 10 successful photographers a similar assignment, you’d get 10 quite different results.
It also shows how deep is Miles’s observation on playing like yourself. It is hard because you have to have confidence in yourself to the extent that you don’t even consider there might be a better way. My way or no way.
We all start out learning from others, copying our heroes, trying to impress other photographers, asking their opinions on our work and struggling with the technicalities. I remember friends who talked about going out “to take some Cartier-Bresson type pictures” and feeling how pointless that was. There was already a Cartier-Bresson, a man who saw the world in a very personal way. He didn’t take Cartier-Bresson type pictures, he just took pictures which somehow all turned out to look like Cartier-Bresson pictures.
I don’t aspire to C-B’s level of photography, because I’d never get there. But I do aspire to David Thorpe’s level of photography, to photograph like myself. After so many years of experience, the technical side of the craft is no longer a consideration and a reasonably successful career has taken me to places and situations so varied that I never now come across circumstances where I’m all at sea. Even a sea. What that means in practise is that I can go out with a camera and know that I’ll come back with a shot or two that I’ll like. I’d like it if you liked it too but that’s not a motive.
I’m talking here of free-form photography, of course. If you are photographing a football match or wild life we all know what a good picture looks like and more or less agree. And if you have a professional assignment to follow the progress of a building project no-one will thank you for a highly personal and quirky look at the proceedings. Yet, even there, your choice of angles and lenses and when to make the pictures will inevitably put something of a personal stamp on the job.
It’s taken a long time but I now find that when I look at other people’s pictures I don’t have to think of something to say or struggle to identify my opinion. I have an opinion the moment I look at it. It’s a very liberating to see the work of someone like Sebastiao Salgado and recognize, feel instinctively that it is exceptional without having to think why. Or look at some rather everyday picture with long and pretentious caption and to understand that the caption is only necessary because the picture has failed.
I suppose that Miles’ remark could imply a certain pig-headedness or even arrogance – “I know that I am right” – but that will sort itself out. If you are right, the world will beat a path to your door or at least someone will say something nice now and again. If you aren’t you will need either to find someone with a command of art-speak to talk your work up or accept that you are just too good for this world.
The reality of it all was summed up for me some years ago when got a call from a London TV company asking me if I’d do some studio and location work for them. The woman in charge of the PR department took me out to lunch to discuss a deal. I asked how she’d got my name and she said that she was a mate of a picture editor I did a lot of work for at the time. She had asked him for any recommendations. Intrigued and knowing, since she was offering me work, he must have spoken highly of me, I asked her what he had said. I knew the answer already. “David, oh yes, he’s an excellent photographer, great eye for a picture, full of ideas, sparkling personality, your stars will love him”.
Except he didn’t. “he said you were a grafter”, she replied. Now that is oddy personal.