We moved to the US in 1981, the year that Roland Barthes’ final book Camera Lucida was posthumously published in English translation. I had no more knowledge of this book then than I had any notion that my interest in photography would take a back seat for nearly a decade. This is neither whinge nor regret. It was simply that life, family, work and financial imperatives had to prevail.
I had already retired by the time a copy of Camera Lucida found its way to me. Indeed it was, in part, a retirement gift, intended as a torch to light the future rather than illuminating the past. Let me say that forty years after publication, I have found great insight into my own interest in photography through the pages in this book. I have come to see how and why some of the perfections that photographer friends have chased have not mattered quite so much to me.
I am or was a geophysicist and argued for years that there was a difference between accuracy and precision. I used watch-faces to illustrate my point of view. It’s the relative position of the hands across the face that conveys time to the most peripheral of glances. I didn’t need the precision of peripheral enumeration to know the time accurately. As a novelty that became fashionable, I wore a Casio digital watch for a few years. I found myself disliking the numerical precision so much that I was delighted when it emerged dead from a washing machine. And forty years on, my Fitbit displays soulless digital numbers that I can hardly bring myself to look at. That I am monitored is enough.
In my mid-career, I argued for tailoring geophysical surveys to solve the immediate exploration problems rather than future-proofing at prohibitive cost. The desire for precision was increasingly being conflated with the genuine need among the exploitation specialists. That was when subsurface structures were of interest, when I thought uncovering a buried mountain was of greater value to my employer than precise mensuration of the topographic aspects of known subsurface reservoirs. Put another way, I preferred to help locate new oranges rather than trying to squeeze an extra 2% from an existing one. I preferred to have fifty extra chances before we’d be worse off. Serendipity then put me in the right place at the right time and with access to the required funds. And perhaps most importantly, I had good people to work with. Several good people.
We did well, very well in fact. We found no oranges (perhaps a mandarin or two) but we avoided the expenses of future-proofing projects that had no futures. Then things evolved, technology changed and in the case of the resource industry, the opportunities diminished. When I left university, state companies controlled some 15% of the global energy resources. The relationship had inverted by the time I retired.
Interest in structure had given way to massive technology improvements that allowed the geophysical surveys to detect sediment changes and often reveal their fluid contents. And this was being done commonly in partnership with risk averse state companies for a ‘share’ of the future revenues.
I had colleagues and friends in industry who were themselves interested in photography. They delighted in the exquisite technical details of their geoscience and engineering. And brought the same obsessions to photography. One liked capturing the faces of insects in fifty or a hundred exposures, each with the focus shifted by fractions of millimetres, then summed in a ‘focus stack’. Another former colleague coordinates his family holidays with opportunities to capture beautiful landscapes around the world. And another former colleague takes the most amazing nebulae images from his urban garden. I met a man recently who loves to freeze milk drop splashes in his garage with high speed strobe lights.
I wrote to one seriously obsessive and compulsive French photographer, Thierry Legault, and he gave me permission to use one of his amazing photographs in my geophysical workshops and training classes. This transit of the ISS in 2010 is what I used though it would be replaced by this awesome 2020 transit if I was still giving classes. Legault’s transit images require that he be in the right place at the right time with the right equipment and the right weather for a potential image of an event that lasts less than a second. There’s no forgiveness at 27,000km/h. There are no second chances. Here he is in his back garden in Paris showing some of his devices that take images of the Sun, the Moon, planets and nebulas after dark. His dedication to preparation was what I hoped would inspire someone, anyone in my audience.
I love geography and maps because I was taught how to read them. I was never really taught to read a photograph. I have about two metres of bookshelves that document my efforts playing catch-up over the years. Barthes’ words occupy but one centimetre among spines from Dyer, Adobe, Magnum and many, many more.
It cannot be a coincidence that Barthes starts each chapter with boxed numbers, the boxes like photographs, leaving the subject to the memory or imagination of the reader. One artifice he uses is to leave the titles in the pages of contents and nowhere else.
The Photograph Unclassifiable is Chapter 2. I have struggled with the idea of classifying images for years. I’m a bit OCD and so created a taxonomy that would allow me find a photograph quickly. Note the emphasis here is find. To this end, I devised a simple schema that got increasingly complex as time and re-purposing demanded.
I still have no idea how to create a taxonomy that enables anyone find these photographs should my memory fail me.
Let me illustrate how I fail the challenge using three photographs I print on muslin or silk and sell as scarves. Two were taken on our back deck, within a few metres of our kitchen. The other was taken 10,000 km away.
The first I called Black Bamboo which I have sold a few times as a scarf on muslin. It’s a purposefully overexposed image of a backlit potted plant on the back deck that caught my eye as I sat in the kitchen. Here are some of the terms I attached to the metadata so that I could find the photo later.
2016, abstract, all, bamboo, Developed, dropbox, Garden, gifted, handheld, highkey, hue_grey, ireland, mono, monochrome, nixplay, outdoors, plants, printed, SB01, scarf, wildlife
The second I called After the Barbecue. It’s a rotated image of the fat that dripped down from the very slow roast of a leg of lamb in our charcoal fired Weber barbecue out on the back deck.
2014, 20140419, abstract, all, book01, cooking, Developed, dropbox, Easter, fat, handheld, home, horizontal, hue_brown, Lamb, macro, nixplay, outdoors, scarf
The third I called Tokyo from Roppongi Hills. This inverted or negative image is a spectacular nighttime view of Tokyo from the top of Mori Art Museum that made the visit worthwhile.
2017, all, buildings, cityscape, Developed, dropbox, gifted, handheld, hue_blue, inverted, japan, lowlight, night, nixplay, outdoors, printed, SB02, scarf, tokyo, triptych
In no case does the metadata convey the italicised descriptions that are summarised in the captions. Good luck to anyone hunting through several digital databases of more than 100,000 photographs that I’m trying to keep track of.
My point about Barthes is that this is just Chapter 2. It gets much better when his concepts of Studium and Punctum are proposed. But that will be another day’s work entirely.
‘The Photograph belongs to that class of laminated objects whose two leaves cannot be separated without destroying them both: the windowpane and the landscape, and why not: Good and Evil, desire and its object: dualities we can conceive but not perceive …’
I always learn from your articles. Fascinating stuff. I’ve never felt the urge to be a photographer but I admire the people who do it so well and make such beautiful and inspiring images.
Simon Robinson says
Very kind words, thank you.
Pick up a camera. The urge should follow.
I went for a ‘photographic’ walk with a nephew last year. We walked the Thames from Westminster to Greenwich. He’s an artist (and forgot to charge his battery) and I saw things through his eyes that were very different to my perceptions.