I have been thinking about three ideas last week, but didn’t quite know how to write about them.
1) The seed of this post was planted by a video by Ulysses Aoki in which he talks about “taking photographs of nothing, in the middle of nowhere”. As a street photographer, it would be amazing to capture the vibrant street life of New York, London, Paris or Tokyo, with beautiful architecture and bright lights serving as the perfect backdrop for stylish, quirky, beautiful people. Most of us, however, don’t live in New York, London, Paris or Tokyo and — in the year of coronavirus — street photography in even these iconic cities is quite challenging. Similarly, a travel or landscape photographer who is constrained to their neighborhood might find it quite challenging to take out their camera and make photographs. To stay motivated, we need to learn to take photographs of nothing, in the middle of nowhere. In my case, I became interested in photography during the lockdown, so my photographic possibilities have been limited for the entire duration of my hobby. First, to my home, then to my terrace, then to my neighborhood.
When I am walking around South Bombay with my Fujifilm X-T4, and contorting myself into yoga poses to compose a frame with the viewfinder against my eye, bystanders must sometimes wonder what I am photographing. I’m photographing nothing, really — the gnarled roots of a tree, vines on a boundary wall, a pigeon on the terrace parapet, a bicycle resting against a post box, a rickshaw delivering gas cylinders, an old building frame by a rusted road divider, shadows falling across an empty street, a taxi driver taking a mid-day siesta, a road sign announcing a diversion due to construction. And, I’m photographing in the middle of nowhere, mostly — during early or late afternoon in high heat, in the back streets of mostly residential neighborhoods, with the streets mostly to myself. This is how I’m learning to make photographs — by making photographs of nothing in the middle of nowhere.
2) Then, I watched this video by Sean Tucker in which he talks about how most of his photographs are “visual notes” to remember a the shapes or colors of a particular location, or the interplay of light and shadow at a particular time of day, so that he might return to it again, in the future. These are not final fully realized photographs, but possibilities for future photographs that might be realized with the perfect light, or the perfect angle, or the perfect subject. He typically starts by instinctually taking a photograph, then makes another photograph without any distractions as a visual note, then spends a few minutes working the scene to see if the perfect subject would walk into the frame, or if the light would fall differently, or if he would see the composition from a different angle. Then, he would return to the location again, and work the scene again, hoping to realize its photographic potential.
As I listened to Sean Tucker talk about photographs as visual notes, I realized that almost all my photographs are work-in-progress visual notes. They are not fully realized photographs yet; just potentially interesting scenes without a subject. A terrace parapet with a view of low red and white buildings hidden in a canopy of trees next to the sea. A terracotta water pot on a red brick wall in a leafy back street. A rusty red post box next to bold red, orange and yellow graffiti on the wall. I find myself revisiting these not-yet-realized visual notes again and again, and making photographs of them again and again, now with a pigeon, now with a bicycle, now with a rickshaw delivering gas cylinders.
3. Which brings us to this passage from ‘Extraordinary Everyday Photography’ by Brenda Tharp and Jed Manwaring:
Claude Monet painted many pictures of the same haystacks, as well as of his garden at Giverny, because he kept seeing more deeply and feeling more deeply about his subject.
It’s a process many artists practice—painting, sculpting, or photographing the familiar. And it just makes sense. When artists study a scene and paint it over and over again, they get to know it intimately…
John Burroughs said, “To learn something new, take the path you took yesterday.” If you visit the same place often, you will come to know it more, and you will make more meaningful, personal photographs of that place.
As I walk the back streets of my neighborhood again and again, and photograph the same trees, the same staircases, the same post boxes again and again, at different times of the day, in different types of light, with lenses of different focal lengths, and with different frames of mind, I do sense a growing intimacy with them. And, each time I frame and shoot the always-same, always-different scenes and subjects, I do feel that I have learnt something new about them, developed a deeper understanding of them, and the photographs do begin to feel more intimate, more personal.