Learning how to look

All the technique in the world doesn’t compensate for the inability to notice.
Elliott Erwitt.

My journey into photography began in the early 80s with a Kodak Instamatic 110. It was light, compact and could easily fit in my coat pocket. It went everywhere with me. It wasn’t a great camera, but that didn’t matter that much to me at the time. I had nothing to compare it with. It was relatively inexpensive, and I had no fear of losing it or damaging it. I was not looking for perfection, and something like an accidental lens flare or a blur could end up becoming something I liked.

I was working in restoration at the time and used to travel around the country salvaging old ceramic tiles. Our workshop lay at the end of a five-mile bike ride down a disused railway track (the other end of the way where I’d had my first acid trip). It was lined with beautiful trees, brick kilns and old windmills. Near the end of the trail, down an inclined plane, was the river, spanned by a rickety old footbridge. In the early mornings, on the way to work, I’d cycle fast to keep warm and then hop off to explore the nearby fields with my camera. If I were lucky, I’d catch the early morning sun hitting the mist as it rose above the river and filled the valley. Despite having lost many of these printed images, I looked at them so many times over the years they’re etched in my memory.

A year or so later, by sheer luck, I got a job working in a film processing plant. With my staff discount and a free film with every print, it wasn’t long before I’d amassed a vast collection of photographs. However, after university, I didn’t go near a camera for a very long time. Just like all those years of not eating meat or smoking tobacco, so many good traditions went out the window when I went to study. I lost interest in just about every creative pursuit I’d had except painting. I guess I either had my head down in books or was too busy partying.

It was not until around ten or fifteen years later, when the more minor and better digital cameras came out, that I started to capture images again. They were initially holiday snaps, but as time went on, I wanted to experiment and take better shots. I got hold of a small bridging camera (Canon G10), so I could do a little bit more with the settings. I was drawn more and more to photographing people going about their everyday lives and less to abstract or landscape.

Street photography taught me how to be in the moment, how to find my ‘zone’, how to ignore everyone around me, and how to be patient. After years of practice, I learned what I liked, the streets I liked, where the light would be attractive at certain times of the day or year. I learned when to walk to find something of interest, and when to wait. It sounds simple but it involves experience and skill to make good use of the time you have.

There’s a skill in knowing how and when to hover in the background and let the moment unfold without disturbing it or being offensive to anyone. Like fishing or hitchhiking, you can have all the tools at your disposal and all the patience in the world, but sometimes things just don’t come together, and you go home with a few reasonable shots but nothing worth printing. However, the experience is still rewarding. You have given something your full attention, and you have probably cleared your mind a little. You may even have observed something new in your environment or in the people you live with.

Photography reconnected me to the things I already liked seeing and sharpened my focus so that I would see more in the mundane. It reconnected me to that feeling of revelation that I’d experienced with abstract landscape painting when I revealed something hidden in the paint and the brushstrokes.

I still feel electrified when walking into a place, and I see the beautiful light as it slides between the buildings to reveal something new or re-interpret its boundaries and colours. I love it when light reveals an unexpected gesture on a face that I would have missed walking down the road trying to stay on the busy pavement and not bump into things. I can stop time and take a slice of the world home in my mind and in my camera. When this happens after a few hours of walking or standing around, and nothing has appealed to you for hours, and then just as your heart begins to sink further, something lights you up inside. The image may not always be perfect, and you may have missed something important or you got the focus wrong. But you never give up because you know there is hope for the next time. You’re like a heron waiting silently by the river, never losing concentration, sensing your way toward a great meal, and never disappointed at what you missed.

In focusing on the use of light as a tool, I learned to observe and think about shadows and what needs to be obscured. It has always been about revelation, about finding hidden treasure. Light reveals; it shows detail. It works with shadows to elaborate and reveal texture.

Photography keeps you at arm’s length from some experiences, but if you choose your time correctly, then you will come away with something more. I’ve come to understand, see and appreciate more of the human face than I ever could have outside of portrait painting or sculpture. So much of human experience and daily life is rooted in seeing, and our interpretation of the human face and its expressions are critical to us.

Street photography also taught me how to wander. Sometimes when I go out, I follow familiar routes. I meander through the backstreets, dodge the tourists, and keep to the interesting architecture and people. Sometimes I’ll just put the light behind me and let it follow me through London’s ancient grid. Or I can instinctively veer off down a side street to see because something unconsciously appeals to me.

Each town or city has many layers to it. Beneath the obvious or the preferred walking routes, the postcodes where the fashion-conscious or workers strut, there are other older and more hidden layers of the city and its past. This is where the afterglow of those who have come before is faintly visible, the psychogeography of the town.

It’s unlikely to affect your photography directly, but it may well change your mood, which in turn changes the way you see things. Some streets don’t have a good vibe, some that are ill-conceived or don’t make sense. You may choose to join with these invisible roads or just follow the path of light or an underground river. It’s all about connecting to networks other than what you usually see or experience. It breaks your routine and introduces new thinking. Street photographers can see the city in different ways to its inhabitants, workers, tourists, and good ones who know how to reveal this and play it back to you.

In the end, through photography, and street photography, in particular, l learned how to look again and be more visually creative. Through the act of looking, pursuing light, and trying to be in the right place at the right time, I learned to reconnect with myself again. Being a good photographer is all about being present and in the ‘now’.