Neither of my boys show a strong interest in photography per se. Both, however, will show clear excitement when they see an image they love. But most of the time images just aren’t on their radar. I don’t foist my passion for photography upon them either and figured that if it’s something they develop, it will arise quite naturally.
During a lull on the home renovation front, I sat down on the sofa and leafed through some of my photography books. I had a Brett Weston book in hand, when my eldest son passed by on his way to the kitchen and asked me what I was doing. He peered down to see for himself and gasped, “Woah, that’s amazing!”
The raw excitement took me aback and so I asked him “What do you like about it?” Putting words to his emotional response created a major hurdle for him, so I began turning the pages, while he dug deep. It wasn’t long before he was getting very animated again.
Now I was thrilled and a little mystified. I couldn’t remember ever seeing him respond to photographs in this way. I therefore kept turning and asked him to point out the ones he liked most (a selection of which have studded this article), because we were not making much progress on the why part. It didn’t take long to realise that he was most impressed with Brett Weston more abstract photographs. He liked most of them a lot, but Weston’s conventional images elicited a more lukewarm reaction. I therefore thought I would pluck Koudelka’s Chaos from my bookshelf and see how he took to that. He did not pause at some of the most iconic images which many of us would be tempted to dwell on. Once again, he was soaking up the abstraction.
It was fairly clear what was going on: he had absolutely no concern for content. The history didn’t register, but neither did the identifiable elements in the scenes. He was just responding to them as visual ‘things’ in a genuinely intuitive sense, without any consideration for what he was actually looking at. The other thought which only just came to me is that he is showing interest in some pretty sophisticated work. This isn’t typical ‘glossy photo-mag’ pretty/cool picture stuff, with the obvious quick-burn ‘ooo, ahh’. That surprised me, because he’s 13 years old.
So what came out of this?
For me – and I won’t lie – there was a real excitement that one of my boys may end up understanding, or even sharing, a passion of mine. The other aspect to this and the reason I am writing, is that it served to remind me what is important. Who cares about anything other than how a photograph makes you feel? Who cares what it is, what it’s about, or how it was made? He didn’t and there was no denying the power of his feelings. Certainly many great images offer up this information without us being required to care, or enquire, but my son’s reaction served to remind me that none are essential ingredients. We spend so much time deconstructing images that we can sometimes have to remind ourselves not to do so, but instead to just relish the pleasure they give. I think the deluge of poor quality imagery in the digital era has hurt photography somewhat, because seeing so many photographs can sometimes rob us of the visual energy to seek out the very best. I know this can be the case with me and I am finding it increasingly important to be selective with what I give time to looking at.
These two Koudelka photographs are by far the most conventional my son picked out (both of which I also love):
Writing this has in turn reminded me of a piece of advice for anyone showing their work on their website, or exhibiting it. How many of you share technical information, such as camera type, films, aperture/shutter speed etc? I’d advise against showing technical information. Ever. If people ask, you can decide what level of detail to go into, but this issue cuts to the core of what I am talking about. Surely it detracts from the interaction you’re surely looking for? It also diminishes a photograph to a short list of technical parameters. I am sure some of you will strongly disagree, but I will continue to strongly disagree with your disagreement!
There aren’t many photographers that have made vertical panoramas work. Koudelka did and Ben loved all three of these laid out on one page in Chaos.
My final comments to my son were along these lines: ‘well, if you like this sort of photography, we can go out together and I can help you shoot some abstracts, which we can print at home. Just look at what Weston and Koudelka photographed. Amazing photographs are everywhere.’ This is something else we all need to be reminded of once in a while, myself included. As we get older, our world tends to become increasingly organised and structured. We have less time. We appreciate efficiency and become very goal orientated. I think this makes it much harder for us to gaze upon the world around us with the wonder and freshness of a child’s eyes. Ben just gave me a giant pinch.