Tuesday, June 19, 2018

A brief history of photography (part two)

At the risk of sounding pretentious (though I never thought there was anything wrong with that), I feel photography's always been in my blood. My grandfather, who I never met, was a keen photographer and amateur filmmaker; he worked for Kodak and experimented with 16mm colour film before it was available to the public. My uncle, who sadly passed away recently (I helped write his obituary in the Guardian), was a successful food photographer in the 1970s (I remember the surprise of seeing a poster of his in Athena whilst at school and thinking 'He's famous'!) and made adverts in the 1980s. My dad barely ever takes a picture, but my brother and I have always taken them. I would say it was travelling, like with many people, which got both of us into photography. We take similar photos too – of doorways, pavements and faded posters, for example.

Photography was always there in my travels – even if I wasn't the one taking the photos. For example, whilst in a belly dancing club in Cairo in the mid-1990s, my girlfriend at the time and I met two photographers taking pictures of the dancers, and of my girlfriend too when she got up on stage to have a go at belly dancing. They were using a Rolleiflex film camera and promised to post us prints but never did.

Said girlfriend was anti-photography, as I have been too at various times, so I didn't take many photos in Egypt (but obviously, the ones I did are great, such as this and this) or Morocco or most of SE Asia (I took about ten rolls of 36 photos in six months; I might take that in a week now with my iPhone); unique photo opportunities, perhaps, in my travelling days – hitching rides on the back of trucks full of Berbers and goats in the Sahara desert; narrowly missing massacres and revolutions (stuck in Jakarta with dengue fever during the riots and revolution for the fall of Soherto in May 1998, I was surrounded by photo journalists and used to hang out with them in the bars around Jalan Jaksa. I hardly took any photos – I was trying to make a video with a cheap camcorder until it got stolen by a prostitute – see my book Gullible Travels if you're interested). I curse myself now for not buying an SLR and taking lots of photos; it was a different world back then. The things I saw I'll never see again.

But I always felt I was a photographer, just one who didn't necessarily take photos (like Isabelle Huppert in Hal Hartley's film Amateur – the nymphomaniac who doesn't have sex), hence I'm doing a book of Missed Photos (there's something about the photos I didn't take that are always better than the ones I did). Didn't the Japanese used to say – which always seemed to me a bit ironic for them – cameras are an intrusion as they see into the window of the soul? Back then, it felt like I was living life, and photos were just an impingement on life (I always thought photography, like writing, a lonely existence; that's why I think I went into film, a collaborative process).

As mentioned in part one, I learnt how to use an SLR at 'A' Levels, then forgot how; I learnt at art college, then forgot how; I learnt at film school, then forgot how. The first 'proper' camera I bought was a Lomo (it felt proper to me). I loved my Lomo – shooting from the hip was their motto. I worked with a guy called Ken who was annoyingly good at whatever he tried his hand at, including Lomo photography. He took amazing photos with his, and had one published in a magazine, but he had no real interest in photography. I took okay ones, such as this and this.

My Lomo got stolen (also mentioned in part one); in fact I've had about half a dozen cameras stolen from me over the years. I should take heed. Like when my skateboard broke in half (a lovely Mark Gonzales board by Santa Cruz), I knew it was time to quit. I was crap skater (but liked the lifestyle).

Eventually the internet came. I went off photography again in the early internet age, and didn't take any good pics for years. It's like men who think they have a reasonably-sized dick until they come across porn on the internet, and they think 'What the fuck? Is that for real?' (or indeed women who think their boyfriend is pretty well-endowed...). Whatever talent you think you have – genital size, photography, writing, graphic design, illustration... there's a million other people who are bigger, better and more popular than you. Comparisons are inevitable if fruitless at best, destructive at worst.

I enjoy many things – chess, tennis, films, music, writing, photography, travel, for example – but not being brilliant at anything (or even just gaining the respect of my peers or being popular on social media; encouragement from my daughter and girlfriend don't count – that's unfair; of course they do, they're my biggest fans who keep me going – but you know what I mean... they may be biased) is, well, extremely frustrating. Unfortunately, lack of ambition and self-confidence aren't a good combination and don't really help.

With the internet, there's so much talent, sure, but also so much rubbish (or worse still, so much average stuff). A friend told me recently it’s the worst time ever to want to become a photographer – everyone’s a photographer; every day millions of photos are being uploaded. Exactly, I replied, there’s more crap than ever before.

(But Instagram, ah, Instagram. It doesn't even matter what your photos are like. It's about being popular. If you're a popular person, your photos are popular. It reminds me of being at school. The internet is one big popularity contest. Is it just me – yes, I know it is – but the popular photos and blog posts are just inundated with complements: 'amazing photo!', 'great post!', etc – if I ever get any comments, they're mainly piss-takes.)

In a recent interview, Joel Meyerowitz, famous street photographer of the 1960s, declared contemporary street photography dead – the streets are filled with people glued to their phones, he said. I think street photography is the hardest but most exciting genre of photography: you never know what you're going to come across. I love the idea of being a flaneur, wondering the city armed with a camera (which I've been doing on – but mainly off – for 25 years all over the world). Walking down any street, you may stumble across a great photo with a click of the shutter (such as this – which, you know, I love, but think in this day and age, with most people pretty visually astute, maybe six out of ten people walking past it would have taken a shot of it with their phone, and come up with a similar result. The main difference being they probably don't work for Magnum).

(This is what gets me about most office work – you know exactly what you're going to do, every single day. There's no surprises, no eureka moments – but photography, and street photography in particular, you can be walking around the most boring neighbourhood, but if your wits are about you, you may happen upon something beautiful and unexpected.)

The truth is, I've lived most of my life in my head (have I mentioned this before? Oh yes, here somewhere). I read biographies and autobiographies all the time – of film-makers, artists, mathematicians (Alan Turing, if you're wondering), travellers, musicians – from Miles Davis and Malcolm Lowry to Bruce Chatwin and Alan Lomax. What I'm always looking for, in a way, is a clue to how they did it, how they succeeded, and, in a way I suppose, where I went wrong in life. Just as in the film Life of a Leader (excellent, though almost too opaque even for me; the soundtrack the most accessible thing about it, which is saying something for latter-day Scott Walker) looks at the childhood and possible clues as to what ingredients go towards making a fascist dictator (presumably Hitler). So I endlessly pore over clues to what maketh the man (yes, usually a man) a successful artist in his field (Malcolm Gladwell says it's 10,000 hours of practise but I'm not so sure). In other words, to put it another way, why do I feel such a failure (in this area of my life)?

(What can I say? I have friends working in film, advertising, music and fashion; I know people who have published books and directed films; some are earning over £100K a year... I'm genuinely happy for them, if that's what they want. Most of them don't have time to spend their money, let alone spend time with their partners and children. A lot of these so-called glamorous jobs are actually fairly dull; either a lot of waiting around, or not ever leaving the Mac screen. I've worked in most of these fields and though I've been paid well, I've not had any job satisfaction at all. I'll always go my own way, plough my own furrow.)

It might be that I spend more watching my old videos on YouTube, looking at my photos on Flickr and Instagram and reading old blog posts more than anyone else does. I look at other people's work a lot too, and spend time thinking about photography and film, but get disheartened by the sheer volume and talent of it all – and then the comparison thing comes back. I love my films, designs, photos and writing. This is the crux of my failure – no one else agrees with me! At the risk of sounding pretentious again, I try to be creative every single day. I'm not saying it's good or bad, but this is what I've always done, and always will. It's what keeps me going.

Living in my head, I sometimes fantasise that my writing/films/photography/design will be 'discovered' (isn't that how it works? The good stuff rises to the top?) and I'll gain recognition in one of the fields. And make some money! Doing what I like doing! But I'll be aged 82, maybe, sitting in an old people's home, imagining the same thing – I’ll be thinking a Hollywood exec will read a treatment of a film I've written and buy the rights to it; a gallery will call to request an exhibition of my photos; a company will call to use a photo of mine for a billboard campaign; my videos will get millions of hits on YouTube... you get the idea. But meanwhile...

It feels like everything's passed me by. All my interests and passions – films, photography, graphic design, car boot sales, charity shops, old records, books and magazines, art history, travel, my paintings, doodles and writing, my impeccable taste – I just thought it would all lead somewhere. I often think I just want to chuck it all up into the air and have it all land in a different position so I can find a way forward. And get rich and famous.

Turned out to be slightly longer than brief, and perhaps more personal than I envisaged. Luckily no one reads my long blog posts. Thanks for listening if you made it this far.

Previously on Barnflakes:
A brief history of photography (part one)

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