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Friday, 1 May 2009

How not to Photograph: I should get out more Part 7: The world of interiors

picture: Colin Pantall - That's what friends are for!

If you don't want to photograph people in the street, why not get away from people altogether and photograph at home. The advantages are endless. We don't have to pay to get in, we don't have to worry about the weather, we don't have to ask permission, we can go naked and when all our energy and ideas have disappeared we can look our old photobooks and, find inspiration from photographers who have photographed interiors and use that to rationalise whatever it is we're planning to do.

The disadvantages? Just one, but it's a biggie. There's fuck all to photograph.

There may be fuck all to photograph but there are so many ways to photograph it - all of which are doomed to failure. At one extreme is the ultimate expression of slackjawed waste of film; those pictures where we photograph our own feet. This is Tourette's photography where we just can't help pressing the shutter despite our best intentions. It is the photographic equivalent of yelling "Arse" in the fruit and veg aisle at Morrisons; mildly rude but completely pointless and nothing good will come of it.

A step up from photographing our feet is the domestic World of Interiors shoot. In Charlotte Cotton's fine book, The Photography as Contemporary Art, there is a chapter called Something and Nothing where Cotton talks about how everyday objects "can be made extraordinary by being photographed".

It's true - the ordinary can be made extraordinary. Something can be made out of nothing. The problem is it's a long shot, right up there with Elvis being discovered alive on Mars or the Loch Ness Monster getting down with Godzilla live on BBC News.

Because most of the time you start with nothing you end up with nothing. Even when the nothing turns into something, the ordinary-turned-extraordinary isn't really that extraordinary at all. We have a quiet meditation on our world of interiors, a short haiku on the streaks on the window pane or the angle of the wall. It's quiet, it's gentle, it's meditative and curiously fascinating if we look at it long enough. And that's a big if.

Most of the time though, our attempts to make the ordinary extraordinary fail. Our ordinary stays ordinary. Worse than that, it becomes less than ordinary. Three-dimensional (a light bulb for example) ordinary is ordinary enough for most of us, but at least it has three dimensions. We can feel a light bulb, we can turn it in our hand and wonder at its full, round lightbulbness. In two dimensions, it becomes less than ordinary, the light bulb becomes a picture of a light bulb, a flappy, scrappy bit of nothing. It doesn't matter if we mix our light bulb up with a lampshade, a cup of scummy tea, a bug in a dirty sink and a plate of sweetcorn (just a few of my personal favourites) - we still end up with is a mundane repetition of the squalor and tedium of our domestic life.

But we stay in our flat or our house and still we do it. We look at William Eggleston's wanton light fittings or Uta Barth fall-of-focus and believe we can do the same in the comfort of our own home, but it's a darned good bet that we can't.

The general tenor of these how not to postings is to have a subject, mention some photographers who do phenomenal work around that subject, then say that they do it well because they are obsessed, hard-working and unrelenting in their vision but that if we try to scoot along and copy them without the obsession, hard work and relentlessness our work will be doomed to failure. It's normally easy to think of photographers who fit the bill for a given subject, but for the world of interiors, especially unpopulated interiors, I have a blind spot. It really isn't that interesting or perhaps that's just me.


Unknown said...

you are effing histerical Colin. i found your blog from a reference over on colberg's blog.

for the first time i've read something in a blog that actually belongs in print. if i bumped into this writing in waterstones, that book would be coming home with me.

if you ever get up north to Edinburgh give me a ring, i'll pay for the drinks and you can just keep on being entertaining.

until then, i've just added a blog to my favourites, keep it up mate.



mark page said...

I can't help photographing my left hand, which no doubt says plenty about me.........

Anonymous said...


I'm shocked you haven't got a list of photographers whose subjects include the interiors of their homes. Josef Sudeks images of doors and windows leading to his garden are worth a mention.


Anthony Deak said...

When there’s nothing to do and I feel the urge for the lens but no the outdoors, I often find myself shooting around the house, doing exactly what you described; trying to turn the unordinary into something extraordinary. Most of the time I fail but end up with nice wallpapers for my laptop. Other times I find my self somewhat successful. There’s about a 1:50 chance of success. So when it comes to photographing around the house you have to be really creative and have an eye for the unusual, or at least a mind for the unusual. For example, just two years ago I was cutting grass at my house and that it would be interesting to put the mower on the roof. From there I started the series “Don’t Try This on the Roof,” which I believe has been my most successful piece to this day. Check it out at http://anthonydeak.com/self_portraits. Great posts so far! I look forward to reading the rest!

colin pantall said...

Thanks Joe - I'll take you up on the offer if I'm ever up in Scotland but my conversation runs to "Turned out nice again" and thats about it really.

Hands are good too, Mark. Go crazy and do the right one - then you have a pair and the book layout is sorted.

Go on - you give a list. I was thinking but got stuck on Eggleston light fittings which aren't really what I'm talking about but... you know, it does for now.

Hi Ant - I like the shaving one best. Hilarious - reminds me of a series of travel books a few years ago with titles like Around Ireland with a Fridge and Riding a Parrot to Tajikistan. Keep up the good work!