I enjoy a good read. I particularly enjoy a good read about photography, whether non-fiction or fiction, but particularly work that is written by writers who ‘know’ photography, whose intimacy with the ‘thoughts of being a photographer’ are perhaps a result of their own experience of actually ‘writing with light’.

Writer and photographer John Edwin Mason’s recently published and very insightful article  about David Goldblatt, is a good example. It is not only a glorious celebration of Goldblatt as an image maker by someone who understands photography, but eloquently underlines the connection between Goldblatt’s work and that of writer Nadine Gordimer, that literary giant of ‘African writing’ whose words powerfully expose the hidden currents of apartheid that have rippled through, and crippled, Southern Africa; the unseen made visible.  The close collaboration between these two, writer and photographer, is a powerful combination, as any of you familiar with ‘On the Mines’ will know.

And I am still marveling over Lewis Bush’s recent post here on the duck, ‘Google Glass and the Terminal Velocity of Photography’, an astonishingly perspicacious piece that tackles the incredibly complex subject of time, and not just time, but time as it is ‘controlled’ by photography, and photographers.

But when writers don’t ‘know’ photography, and I mean very good writers, those eloquent wordsmiths whose mastery of metaphor and artful alliteration can conjure up whole new worlds we can become immersed in, they lose me.

I read a book recently, or rather I started to read a book recently, by a very good writer. The author conjured up a detailed physical landscape rich in atmosphere and colour, with characters whose very features I could ‘see’ in my mind’s eye. One was a photographer, and the description of this individual rang true, the way he appeared within the narrative space, the way he acted. But then an error appeared, a minor photographic detail, and one that had no effect on the overall plot, but it ‘broke the spell’ for me, reminding me that this was not a ‘photographer’ I was reading about, but someone fictional in a series of events created by a writer who was not a photographer, but appeared to think that because he was a very good writer, that he could create one.

I came across a similar piece this week, ‘The Madness of Crowds: Peak Photograph’ by Will Self. I generally like Self’s writing, it’s often acerbic, ironic and deeply insightful. I didn’t like this piece.

As the medieval astronomical clock in Prague’s Old Town Square strikes the hour, a crowd of tourists duck and crane to capture its face in the viewfinders of their digital cameras and on the screens of their mobile phones. The crowd is so large that those in front go down on their knees in order to afford those behind them a clearer shot…….

………….What should we do about this triumph of trompe-l’oeil; the blotting-out of the real by a blizzard of its selves? Well, to begin with, let’s stop skirting the crowd photographing the astronomical clock. Plunge right in! Interpose yourself between the lenses and their object! It doesn’t matter any more! Whatever respect photography may once have deserved is now superfluous in view of its own superfluity. Amateur photographers may be disregarded – most professional ones outright shunned. After all, while it may be true that a large number of monkeys typing concertedly could probably come up with this column in year or two, any of you reading it could probably take most of the photographs in this magazine, given a couple of hours.

As we walked on through the narrow, winding streets of Prague, I explained all of this to my companion and she laughed bitterly but didn’t demur. It could’ve been because she was steeped in that peculiarly Czech sense of the visual world as a shadowplay (one that has given rise to an unrivalled culture of theatrical puppetry); or perhaps it was simply because she herself was an unhappy pro snapper.

Or perhaps her unhappiness “was simply because” she was accompanied by someone who saw the world very very differently, and much more simplistically than she did, and who was dismissive of her craft?

Whilst affording himself, as a writer, ‘the safety net’ of that old monkeys and typewriters axiom in his dismissal of photography and practitioners of it, what Self fails to realise in his conceit is that he gives the distinct impression he writes from the somewhat narrow point of view of someone who views photographers, and their photographs, as simply recorders, not as creators and interpreters. Self, the writer, and with his limited vision, saw only a clock with a herd of people crowding around, snapping.

When a good writer who is also good photographer contemplates a clock, as Lewis Bush did recently,  the result is far more insightful, thought provoking, and yes…timely:

It seems almost too self-evident to be worth saying, but the passage of time is central to photography. So many stages in the photographic process are bound up in it, from the length of the original exposure to the period of time that has elapsed between the image being made and a viewer looking upon it, and the effect of this on the way an image is understood. Noting the technical similarities between early cameras and timepieces Barthes described the former as ‘clocks for seeing’ an apt metaphor which I find myself constantly returning to.

The thing that I increasingly believe makes the history of photography interesting is that it is really a history of the relentless pursuit of speed. ………….. It has been about shaving off a few more minutes or seconds between the moment that the photographer feels the desire to make an image, and the moment when it is visible to a third person.

I remember reading not that long ago that due to the functioning of our nervous systems, we all live slightly in the past. However fast our reactions, and however close at hand our cameras, photography may never catch up to the present, what we see may in effect have always already passed us by.

But what if we did reach it, what then? Maybe the need to fundamentally reconsider one of the axioms on which photography rests, causing us to question long held truths about it’s relationship to time. Perhaps the cult of speed, which seems so fittingly central to such a modern media as photography, will wither and be replaced by something else. Perhaps photography, which has always been so effective at breaking open familiar narratives of time, will end up exploding its own comfortable narrative, that of the history of photography as one of relentless progress.

The great irony of this ‘cult of speed’ is that we must wait to see what transpires, but no matter, time is on our side after all. So, lets just do that, and whilst we wait lets see what we monkeys crowding around the clock can produce, and consider what that work says about our relationship to ‘time’ and to each other.

Watch your feet though, that may be me, my eye on the clock, waiting for ‘that’ precise moment when I am compelled to press the shutter button, kneeling in front of you in the throng – a wholly fitting prostration before ‘time’ don’t you think?

So please….don’t tread on me.


  • Great piece John. I was reading something recently which gave me a very similar sense of the author knowing about photography, but not really knowing it in the way a practitioner might.

    I think it’s easy to simplify when talking about someone else’s media, to dismiss photography (or writing) as somehow easier than the other. What I’ve found more and more is how similar the two are, how many of the same challenges you face using them, rules you have to follow, rules you can break, and so on. They can teach each other alot.

    As you say, don’t tread on me.

    • Thanks Lewis. Totally agree.

      BIC pens democratized inking pages, but it didn’t suddenly flood the market with Pulitzer quality writing.

      As Tod Papageorge said “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not reading enough”

John MacPherson was born and lives in the Scottish Highlands. He trained as a welder in the Glasgow shipyards, before completing an apprenticeship as a carpenter, and then qualified as a Social Worker in Disability Services. Along the way he has cooked on canal barges, trained as an Alpine Ski Leader & worked as an Instructor for Skiers with disabilities, been a canoe instructor, and tutor of night classes in carpentry, stained glass design and manufacture, and archery. He has travelled extensively on various continents, undertaking solo trips by bicycle, or motorcycle. He has had narrow escapes from an ambush by terrorists, been hit by lightning, caught in an erupting volcano, trapped in a mobile home by a tornado, kidnapped by a dog's hairdresser, rammed by a basking shark and was once bitten by a wild otter. He has combined all this with professional photography, which he has practised for over 35 years. He teaches photography and acts as a photography guide & tutor in the UK and abroad. His biggest challenge is keeping his 27 year old Land Rover 110 on the road. He loves telling and hearing stories.

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