Grain destined for export stacked on Madras beaches (February 1877) I've started writing a series of posts on photography on World...
Thursday, 25 February 2016
A Picture of a Prawn Sandwich
I walked along to the station yesterday morning, and as sometimes happens, I decided to look at the photography along the way. There was a lot of it, serving a multiplicity of purposes. None of it stuck or really mattered. I imagine it didn't much matter to anyone. Not to the people who commissioned it, not to the people who see it, not to the photographers who made it.
It's possible some of the photographers involved got a bit of pride from the technical aspects of the work, in the same way you get a bit of satisfaction if you make a perfect club sandwich, or if you're tearing a bit of paper in half and you make a really nice straight rip that makes a good sound.
There is a pleasure in that. But it's not right up there in the upper echelons of the hierarchies of taste. We're talking about work that, like almost all work, is made at a basic level. It's eye candy decoration designed to suck you into some kind of consumerist clothes-buying, body-fretting, finger-licking, phone-humping mindset. I'd like to think I'm not affected by the multiple attacks of this broad branch of photography, I'd like to think that it doesn't affect me. Except for the times it does - which is most of the time.
Because of course these images do work on just about everyone, including the ones who deny it (that's why they're made), and different people have their different susceptibilities. I have my weak spots and that is where pictures attack. This kind of incidental advertising works in mysterious, but also very straightforward manners, manners that make me wonder at the power of photography and how, on an unconscious level, they undermine everything I consciously hold dear about art, photography, photobooks, documentary; the power to inspire, delight, surprise, explain and enlighten,.
That's what I like to think, but in reality (sometimes), the most crass, dumbest, paper-rip, finger-licking, phone-humping club-sandwich pictures have a power to influence and affect me more deeply at the most fundamental level.
That was certainly the case with my most influential picture of 2015, my most memorable picture of 2015, the one that struck me to the core, the one that got my punctum rising, my aura glowing, my noumena throbbing.
And sad to say it wasn't a picture from a book, a magazine or a newspaper, it wasn't a picture of a child lying on a beach, of a whale and its calf, it was nothing to do with war, refugees or protest. It was a simple picture of a prawn sandwich.
I saw it on the back of a Morrisons van while returning from the Bath University swimming pool. Our car was stuck behind it in a traffic jam on Bathwick Bridge as we were waiting to turn into the London Road. It was a big over-exposed picture of a prawn sandwich cut into diagonals, shot from a 45% angle from above. The prawns were your basic thawed-from-frozen variety, but came smothered in mayonnaise on white bread. It was a 1 minute product shot, one of a hundred shot that day, Fordist photography on the back of a van.
But I was hungry and so was my wife. I looked at the prawn sandwich and my wife looked at the prawn sandwich and then we both looked at each other and we both said "I could do with a prawn sandwich."
It was that simple. We were hungry so the picture got us on that level, but it also got us because of the summeriness of the sandwich. When we went into the pool it was raining (and had been raining for the previous two weeks. I live in England), when we came out it was sunny. So the prawn sandwich hit the spot perfectly.
I don't know why it resonated so well with us. Is there any theory that can tell us that? It seems fairly basic visual behaviourism, a picture which contains free radicals of unanchored symbolism that is ready to attach itself to anybody, like myself, who is susceptible to this kind of thing.
But it still doesn't explain why the prawn sandwich resonated so. I can see pictures of other foodstuffs that I like much, much better than a prawn sandwich - and they will do nothing for me. I spent three weeks walking past a bus stop with a picture of ribs stuck to it last year in all kinds of states of hunger - and I love ribs - and it did nothing for me. Chocolate, beers, chips, chicken, nope, nothing, but the prawn sandwich! That worked!
Joachim Schmid once said that he wasn't going to take any more pictures until he had used up all the ones that existed already. I think the same might go for photography theory. We keep on coming up with new(ish) ideas (actually, it's just the same old ideas rejargoned) to do with the technical, emotional, ethical and intellectual makings and readings of photography.
But essentially the new ideas are just a means of not answering the old questions in a different way. Maybe we should stop coming up with new ideas and just try to use the old ones to answer old questions. Or try to make new versions that are a bit more elegant and punchier (because let's face it, that's why ideas gain traction) than the old versions. Because sometimes there is much to be more elegant about. Photography theory can be an ugly business in so many ways.
But then there would be nothing new to write about. And that wouldn't do.
Mmm, feeling peckish now. Perhaps it's time for a prawn sandwich.
The Sandwich Guide to the prawn sandwich