I was interviewing photographer Stuart Freedman recently (see Featured Photographers) and when we came to the bit about how he got started, he stressed that much of his learning came “through looking at other photographers’ work and trying to find my own style. I used to go to bed every night with a couple of photography books, and I’d spend hours just looking at pictures.” That struck a chord, because I used to do much the same, and I’ve heard it often from other professionals – simply devouring photographs, everywhere you can find them, and learning who the photographers were, and are, that contributed to the form.
It still remains good advice, but it also needs a cautionary tag, because finding photographs you admire, and photographers you admire, means checking yourself from copying. The difference between following a style and plain copying an image is not as sharp as might at first seem. It’s a slope, and not everyone is completely comfortable with separating the ideas and style from how they were exactly applied to a particular scene.
Another way of looking of inspiration is to go at a tangent – looking at how the same subject has been tackled in a different creative medium. It’s not so straightforward as staying in the world of photography, but it has the advantage that you’ll never be mimicking another artist. And a more subtle advantage beyond this is that ideas coming in from the left field, as it were, can make unexpected and valuable connections. And what more left field for photography than poetry? Painting or motion picture might seem more likely candidates, but poetry – some poetry – has a few good things going for it.
First, a considerable number of poems aim to create visual imagery in the mind of the reader. And next, they tend to do it in a way that is usually more condensed and succinct than prose. Sharply focused pictures planted in the mind, which gives some of them more than a passing connection to photographs. The techniques are totally different – simile, metaphor, synechdoche and so on – and the imagery is suggested rather than baldly explained, but all this makes poetic imagery a very useful inspiration for a visual medium like photography. It presents itself as open for interpretation. Moreover, the use of words makes to easier to express an idea. Here’s one example that I found useful. I did a story once on falconry in Scotland; not easy because of the speed of the bird in flight and the distance when it was hunting, but a fascinating story of cooperation between man, dogs and falcon. But what else? Well, the poet Ted Hughes (1930-1998), who first came to critical attention with a collection called Hawk in the Rain, also wrote another poem about falcons called And the Falcon Came. Its imagery, with lines such as “The gunmetal feathers…the buulet-brow…into the target….With the tooled bill” suggests another layer to the story – the falcon as a ‘delicate boned’ weapon. It crystallised for me a vague idea I had about the Peregrine Falcons I photographed.
Ted Hughes, by the way, collaborated with landscape photographer Fay Godwin (1931-2005) to produce a joint work on the Calder Valley in Yorkshire, titled Remains of Elmet (1979), and later re-titled simply Elmet (an ancient name for the region): “…Blackstone Edge – A huddle of wet stones and damp smokes Decrepit under sunsets.” This is probably the most celebrated juxtaposition of poetry and photography, though not the only one, particularly if we stretch the definition to include prose that has some sort of poetic intensity. For that, look at the 1941 book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, by writer James Agee and photographer Walker Evans. It grew out of a 1936 assignment to document sharecroppers during the ‘Dust Bowl’ era of the thirties, and became a classic of collaborative art.
Then there was the 1961 Life magazine story Monsoon by New Zealand photographer Brian Brake (1927-1988), one of the first purely pictorial photo essays in magazine publishing, accompanied by a selection of Indian poems: “The clouds advance like rutting elephants, enormous and full of rain…” And I’m tempted to mention the collaboration between Americans author Peter Matthiessen (1927-) and photographer Eliot Porter (1901-1990) in their book on Africa published in 1972, but this seems not to have been such a happy blending, and it came out with two clumsily separate titles, one for each contributor: The Tree Where Man Was Born/The African Experience.
I’ve drifted down a sidetrack here, though an interesting one, I think. Back to the idea of using poetry for inspiration in shooting: I visited West Lake in Hangzhou, China. Celebrated in literature and painting for many centuries, West Lake is now overwhelmed with tourists coming to see — and alter — its famous beauty. Photography fortunately doesn’t capture sound, but I wanted to know how the Chinese literary tradition had seen it, and what I could take from that. Here are lines taken from a variety of poems (there are many):-
“Without a wind, the water’s surface lies smooth as a glaze…Oars in lilies, a painted barge moving without haste…Tattered scraps of remnant red, Mist of cotton catkins flying, Weeping willow by the railing…One white egret flying from the Immortal Isle…The painted boat is punted to where the flowers are thick…The shimmer of light on water is the play of sunny skies…I can never walk enough, in the shade of green willows…The blur of colour across the hills is richer still in rain.”
Anyone fancy tackling T. S. Elliot’s The Waste Land?
This article originally featured on The Freeman View.