Do you have a photograph that becomes a defining moment on a personal level? One that epitomises the breaking of your own rules; forcing you step out of your own shadow?
Personally, I have always relished challenges that were technical as opposed to what might be termed creative. Why? I cannot say for certain, it’s probably just my DNA as my father is a retired Industrial Chemist.
During my studies towards a BA (Hons) History degree I’m currently enjoying through the Open University, I received an introduction to the Philosopher Epicurus and realised my view of the world is similar; “living things were originally produced as atoms banged into each other in random ways. Some of these chance creations were better at serving than others, and these are the ones living today” (Pike, J. and Price, C. 2007).
Having picked my first ‘proper’ camera (an Olympus OM10 SLR) in 1995 I set about gaining technical mastery of photography. Then in 2000 I enrolled on a HNC Photography course, to further my interests. Little emphasis was placed on technical ability (as at this level it was assumed competency was there), and a more in-depth view to the creative side of photography was taken. It was very interesting but I was reluctant to absorb it fully. During a conversation with one of my tutors, Graham, a former professional commercial photographer, he stated that my work was “Technically perfect, but boring”. I was fine with that as I’d been selling work on a part-time freelance basis to local newspapers, a stock agency and the ubiquitous weddings, portraits and hair salons. My reflex answer to him, which still surprise’s me now as much as it did then was “I hide my creativity behind a shield of technical perfection”. This I interpreted as creativity was new and unfamiliar ground where I didn’t want to tread for fear of failure.
With one thing and another over the years the technical side stayed at the top, but the satisfaction is not as great. Even as I write this I automatically think of technically perfect images and the instant gratification they can give. They still can be the comfort-blanket, the comfort-zone; that same shield to hide behind.
This image below stands out personally as it is a direct result of challenging my own personal perceptions.
Visiting London, as I like to do, I had been after a good image of the London Underground system for some time. This particular day I found myself stood on the platform with my Leica M6TTL, Carl Zeiss 21mm 4.5 Biogon and Ilford Delta 100. (Yes, these items are important for the equipment is a massive contribution to the story).
In my mind in knew the kind of image I wanted but felt extremely conscious of what I thought those around me would think, probably a legacy of laying on the floor shooting stock images of car exhaust pollution one cold morning and a sniggering bypassers comment of “Why is he taking a picture of that car exhaust?”.
My first shot was hurried and in landscape orientation. It didn’t feel right, but I felt uncomfortable and wanted to go, so I duly set-off down the platform and almost reached the end when something inside of me told me stop; you’re here now, just take the shot and to heck with what other people may or may not think. (In reality nobody actually cares).
Kneeling down once more with people around and beads of sweat seeping onto my brow I framed the composition as I always do, creating my canvas, this time in portrait orientation which felt infinitely better, then waited once again for the final piece to complete it. With a meter reading of 1/8″ at f4.5, and being handheld I was thankful of the lack of mirror (bounce) on the Leica which would assist in keeping things as smooth as possible. As the train came in I took one shot and the lack of viewfinder blackout told me it was pretty much what I wanted.
The shot you see above simply worked the best. All the elements came together because I fully let go and stepped out from behind my shield.
On paper, for me personally, this idea may never have worked but it has done so in reality. Sure there is a little camera shake in the text on the platform when enlarged to 20″x16″, but frankly, who cares.
The guy reading the paper was pure chance but it typifies Tube travellers perfectly (maybe phones now). A faster film would have meant a different shutter speed to avoid camera shake, so to would a faster lens. All these factors to achieve technical perfection would have impacted on the final outcome, such as altering the reader, and the reflection of ‘Euston’ may have been lost on another part of the train. Fortunately, just the right amount of blur and the ability to define the subject balance perfectly with the speed of the train.
This image is symbolic in not only removing my technical handcuffs but losing my self-consciousness enabling all other factors to come into play.
It now hangs with pride in my personal workspace, printed in my darkroom on Ilford ‘Classic’ fibre-based silver gelatin paper; a symbol that defies the personal fear of failure.
And just as Epicurus had stated, by giving my own series of atoms a chance, they came to together perfectly, and therefore survived.