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Monday, 27 April 2009

How not to Photograph: The random backdrop

picture: Colin Pantall - Isabel standing against memorial mural of Ben Foster, murdered behind Grosvenor Place in the dumbest drug deal ever (except I thought it was James Dean until Robin told me it wasn't)

Who you photograph is problematic, so is where you photograph. We choose the location we photograph in; the forest, the street, the home, the urban landscape, the empty lot or the industrial wasteland.

Or it could be none of these. It could be whatever catches one's eye on a particular day. This is the random location, the location that often serves as the backdrop to the picture that's going to happen in front of it.

At one extreme, there is the spectacular random. You know the kind of thing, the picture where someone is walking along and there in the background rises Ayers Rock or The London Eye. If it's in a foreign land, the random background picture will be some poor sod harvesting wheat or rice while just by chance the Taj Mahal, Borobodur or a volcano rises in the background.

Then you get industrial or urban random where the backdrop is something out of the Bechers reject pile. Pylons might be involved, chimneys are good, and if you have a full-on smelting tower, you're on your way to photo-nerd nirvana. We all have our favourite locations, those little places where everything looks good and a little bit more real than our normal surroundings. Sometimes these locations look ugly-good, sometimes pretty-good, but in our heart of hearts we know they are always random-good.

And random-good=bad, because if the backdrop is random, then how is it going to join up with all the other pictures in our series. We can pretend there is some geographical, political, psychological or temporal connection between our random images - what after all is the roadtrip for? But if there is no intertwining and overlapping of visual themes, then all our pictures will stay self-enclosed items of randomness. Perhaps some captioning/artist statement sleight of hand will transform our set of dislocated landscapes into a cohesive commentary on the whatever-it-is we are cohesively commentating on? Perhaps, but probably not.

That counts double if we have a figure in there. Our opportunist glee at finding this wondrous backdrop to photograph against will need some mercurial alchemy to tie in figure and ground, to transform the random location into something where subject and location exist in a manner that ripples with layers of meaning and emotion.

If we don't succeed in this, we don't just end up with a random location, but with a random subject too. Random location, random subject, random picture, Flickr here we come! I'm going to have to just throw away the cameras and die!


Anonymous said...

Burn them all! In a big heap, and put all those anti-aesthetic bums on top as the flames leap higher and higher.

Brenda said...

Colin I love you.