In the picture

Perhaps I know less about photography than I know about music. It is hard to say, for my ignorance of music is formidable. I am thinking here of the sort of knowledge that can come only from practice & participation; not “academic” knowledge, which is quantitative, & cheap. The theatre critic, who has never tried to write a play, or act in one, is rightly dismissed as a public nuisance. So might be the critic of photography or music, whose participation has been desultory at best.

But these are not activities I have avoided, rather, subjects in which I may be unteachable. A music master in school — a man of beneficent calm & patience — was once driven nearly to despairing violence by my inability to grasp the “concept” of a choir. It wasn’t only my failure to sing in key. I could not be made to understand when to start singing, & when to stop. Nor was he my first victim; for in my earlier childhood a kindly Pakistani lady, who claimed that she could teach piano to anyone, withdrew the claim after trying to teach me. My own saintly aunt, an organist & choirmistress of considerable accomplishment, knew better than to try. She was happy if I would just keep some personal distance from her musical instruments.

But I love music. Whereas, I do not love photography. It provides, I strongly suspect, machinery with which to capture what is without substance in the scene before one. The more convincing the picture, the more empty & therefore false it becomes. Photography cannot be a substitute for any form of visual art. Worse, it is an extremely dangerous & distracting aid to artistic production, & a dubious method of recording — paintings, especially. This much, I think, can be judged directly by the employment of one’s eyes.

Too, it may be confirmed by the experience of the wise. An old friend, who happened to be a cinematographer, said he had often wondered whether movies could be considered a legitimate art form. He continued in confusion about whether the moving picture medium (with or without soundtrack) could ever express a coherent “aesthetic idea.” But he was quite certain that still photography could not. For art requires truth, even when it departs, into lying. Whereas, film is just a chemical reaction; & if I understand correctly, digital is not even that. The skills come down to point-&-shoot. We do not consider the product of a rifleman’s ministrations to be “art” in the strict sense — even if he has carefully tied up his target beforehand, to assure an intended result.

It is true that photographs can be pretty. But this is something genuine art eschews: the reason Impressionist painting is such a waste of canvas. It is like the difference between “sexy” & “beautiful,” or between rhetoric & reality. Nature is never pretty like that; & in being made pretty for the benefit of a camera she is manipulated against her will; & shall have her revenge in due course.

My father presented me with an old Brownie box camera when I was a wee lad. Most of the pictures I took with it — around Lahore, in Punjabi villages, up in the hills by Abbottabad, &c — are still in my possession. They were remarkably sharp & well-composed, if I do say so myself; but then, I depended entirely on the viewfinder, like Henri Cartier-Bresson; with the advantage over him that I was usually dealing with subjects that held still. A greater advantage, at age seven, may have been freedom from any kind of photographic “theory.”

Later, as a (very) young journalistic hack on my own in South-East Asia at the beginning of the ‘seventies, I acquired a camera again, or rather, two of them in succession. The first was a Nikkormat FT, along with several lenses. These required too much fussing, & I soon gave the whole kit away. The second was a Nikonos II “Calypso,” with one lens only (35mm). It was waterproof & as indestructible as the Hermes 3000 portable typewriter that travelled with it. The Nikonos could be used in any weather, above or below the waterline — whether for taking pictures, or if necessary as a weapon when swung from its strap. It was the workhorse among the more intelligent hacks, during the War in Vietnam. The mere possession of it conveyed the coolness factor required for self-recognition as a photo-journalist. Better yet, I liked its overall simplicity (the side-knobs for adjusting focus & aperture, which ceased to be counter-intuitive when the lens was installed upside down); the rewind mechanism (that compensated for my absent-mindedness); & the viewfinder (of the Albada type, showing the rectangle of the picture frame precisely). On the other hand, it was a pain to open & reload.

The preceding Nikkormat had led me into sin: into self-conscious artiness with the contact prints, from which I would select & crop obsessively. I would take multiple tries at almost every shot, sometimes dozens of what promised to be a “nice” composition. This was appallingly wasteful & wrong. Better, in the field, to prime one’s mind to the notion that one has one, & only one chance to get it right. Too, it is more useful to blame oneself than to doubt the camera.

I mentioned Cartier-Bresson above by way of self-aggrandisement. Though he used a Leica, he seemed to understand the moral conditions governing photographic reportage. As a well-trained painter, & constant draughtsman, he kept photography in its place. Let me count the ways, in which I purposefully or instinctively emulated his habits.

Most important, I never knowingly took a colour photograph. (It is necessary to insert the qualification, for I have several times agreed to snap a picture of some tourist, with his own camera, & who knows what may have been inside it?) I have said photography captures what is empty or false, but with colour it garishly fills the space, painting over what was nominally there. Black-&-white is crucial to any one-eyed essay in three-dimensional representation, wherein shape, texture, & the slighter variations of depth can be conveyed only through subtle shading. As a medium to record sculptural & architectural detail, photography can sometimes supplement or (rarely) even rival drawing. When the subject is living, it gives some hint of that animation: of the time dimension in the scene. It may even capture some spark of character in the depiction of a face: provided that the photographer has reflexes comparable to those of a good cricket batsman, for such visual effects are fleeting.

We could go on with this all day. I was just looking by chance at a colour photo of a tropical fruit stall. For all I know the semi-geometric fruit mounds came pre-composed by the costermonger, & were not instead carefully assembled for the photographer’s “artistic effect.” But assuming perfect candour on his part, in presenting each visual component, the photograph still lies, shamelessly. It omits, for instance, the fragrance of the guava, rising in the tropical heat. Or rather, it does not merely omit, but masks. I have seen black-&-white pictures of fruit stalls that do not impinge on the imagination in this way; wherefrom, at a glance, the scent of the guava is immediately called to mind.

No “special effects” should ever be tolerated, when photographing on the human scale. They may be necessary to resolve images at the microscopic or macroscopic scale, in scientific work. Indeed, colour film may be indicated, to the specialized purpose of showing refractive patterning in an animal, vegetable, or mineral specimen. But in environments that humans are capable of inhabiting, even the seemingly small issue of cropping the images comes immediately into play. For it is the first step down that slippery slope, to fakery.

The next is the use of flash, or any other lighting gimmick. The light available belongs to the scene, & any attempt to tamper with it necessarily involves a fraudulent intention. As I recall, Cartier-Bresson compared the use of a flash to shooting off a pistol at a concert. It changes the nature of the performance too much. It is frankly intrusive. And that is the opposite of what a photographer should be, in his function as a recorder. The man himself wrapped his Leica in black tape to make it look inconsequential. He snapped his pictures furtively.

That he understood the wrong in what he was doing was indicated by his own shyness. When speaking to groups, he would hold his prepared text directly before his face, to make getting a photo of him nearly impossible. And I was told by someone who knew him, that he was entirely sympathetic to the belief of traditional Muslims, & many rural & tribal of all cultural locations, that the camera is a tool for stealing men’s souls.

Fortunately, it cannot succeed without the active cooperation of the subject. But the proof that these “backward” people are astute may be demonstrated in the lives of fashion models; or worse, the behaviour of those engaged in endless self-portraiture with their cellphones & other hand-held devices. Imagine, a person so depraved, as to persevere in the theft of his own soul!