In Praise of Ordinary Photographs

It is Not Forever!

As the world seemingly stumbles from one existential crisis to another I believe we need photography, and photographers, more than ever. Not just to record the chaos, the destruction and the fighting back against the calamities we seem to be inflicting on ourselves but also as a reminder that there could be a better world.

A world where people actually care about each other and the planet on which we all depend. One in which we go about our daily lives using what we have rather than what we feel we need or is our ‘right’. Maybe even a world where money is not the be-all and end-all but happiness and a recognition of the small things in life is what really matters. The smile of a young child, early morning birdsong, the aroma of freshly cooked food, a glorious sunset as well as the company of friends and family. These are the things that are really of value and the ones we should cherish most. As the author Bronnie Ware says life should be about being present in the present, listening to your heart and giving yourself permission to be happy.

But, what’s all this got to do with photography?

During, and since, lockdown I have found myself looking more and more at the work of other photographers. Three photographers in particular, whose work I have been studying, have made me realise that it is not about where, when or who, you make pictures (of) that leads to great photographs but that recording the mundane and the everyday is often more interesting as well as long lasting. These are the images that, when we look back at them and remember the time or the place where they were made, evoke not just feelings of nostalgia but ones of wonder of the beauty that the world possesses if only we could learn to be at peace with what we have.

The three photographers, and their books are:

Saul Leiter
Don Mccullin

When the American photographer and painter Saul Leiter died aged 89 in 2013 he left behind two East Village apartments filled with paintings and photographs from his long and productive life. Leiter is probably most famous for his street photographs but also made portraits fashion and nude images. In the recent book Forever Saul Leiter (as well as his earlier work In My Room) you are struck by the ordinariness of his images as well as his enormous appetite for recording anything that seemed to appeal or which passed in front of his lens. As he says…

I happen to believe in the beauty of simple things. I believe that the most uninteresting things can be very interesting.

Saul Leiter

In The Landscape Don Mccullin has turned his lens away from the images of war and famine, for which he is best known, to ones of cityscapes and landscapes, often within a stones throw of where he is living. Inevitably McCullin’s landscapes are not picture postcard affairs but usually have dark, brooding skies, heavy with rain or snow that loom over dark waters, muddy fields or ruinous towns and cities. They are images which seem heavy with the weight of the trauma and stress he must carry within him having played witness to some of man’s most heinous crimes against humanity. For McCullin…

Photography for me is not looking, it’s feeling. If you can’t feel what you’re looking at, then you’re never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures.

Don McCullin

For over half a century Fred Herzog observed and photographed his adopted city of Vancouver, Canada. Like any big city, Vancouver had its demure and genteel districts but these were of no interest to Herzog which he thought did not give rise to “interesting pictures”. Instead, Herzog frequented the billiard parlours, pubs, stores and barber shops of the less well to do parts of the city whose unpredictability and vitality gave him and his camera rich pickings that would keep him occupied during the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s. During this time he averaged two boxes of Kodachrome a week which amounted to well over 100,000 images. A random look through Modern Color reveals folk going about their business in the shops, second-hand car showrooms and docks as well as pubs, cafes and casinos. Herzog’s photographs epitomise the ordinary and the mundane whilst at the same time capturing frozen moments of a time now long gone in a city changed beyond recognition from Herzog’s time. For Herzog it’s that…

Only a few people can see but most people don’t even look.

Fred Herzog

What links all of these photographers is not just their passion for capturing their subjects but also their determination to just keep making images. All of them continued (and still do in McCullin’s case) to work well into their 80’s. None of them cared too much about the technology and the gear and adopted relatively simple techniques but nonetheless captured important and timeless images which have and will continue to stand the test of time.

It doesn’t matter if you own a top-of-the-range DSLR or a ‘humble’ smart phone, what’s important is to get out there and record what’s around you whilst it’s still there and share it with anyone you can to remind them of how precious life really is.

To finish, here are a few of my own “ordinary photographs” taken over the last year or so which are special to me in various ways all taken locally and are ones that have a special meaning to me.

After the Storm, South Devon
Hello World, Dorridge
Toward Berry Head, South Devon
X-T3 XF16mm 1/170 @ f5.6
Path with Tree, Dorridge
Along Regent’s Canal, London
Tree Line at Sunset, Devon
On Goodrington Sands, Devon

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