He first met the photographer a few weeks before Christmas, at an open studio event near his flat.
His favoured prints had been framed and hung on the walls of his studio. Industrial landscapes which recalled Burtynsky and the Bechers. A stack of other prints had been arranged in a wooden crate like rare vinyl. Bunting and beachfronts. Bleached-out colours.
As he flicked through the prints, it was clear that the photographer’s technical ability was his strength. These were clean, sharp, well-composed pictures. But they were lacking in some way. Soulless. Without joy or humour. Perhaps it was the digitisation. Perhaps something else.
The photographer was portly and balding, with a careful laugh and the finest trace of a beard. A few years older than he was, he comported himself with reserve, with a studied arrogance, as if he wasn’t completely confident of the quality of his work, his aesthetic. His perception.
He introduced himself and complimented the photographer on his work, explaining that he was a relative newcomer to contemporary photography, trying to bring it into his realm of knowledge. The photographer listened distractedly, then disappeared into a dark room for a moment and returned with a handful of books. The photographer said he should take them away and study them.
The Hungry Eye by Walker Evans. Dream Street by W. Eugene Smith. Shinjuku by Daido Moriyama. He had already come across some of their work in the writer Geoff Dyer’s unfolding digressive essay on photography, The Ongoing Moment. While he admired the American flair for striking compositions, he was by now more interested in the mundane British vernacular of photographers such as Martin Parr or Paul Graham. He didn’t mention this to the photographer, and with gratitude took the books on loan.
The photographer’s partner was also a photographer. Their work was very different. Her work had a depth, a visual power that her partner was only able to gesture towards. Standing in their compact and stylish home, adorned with their respective bodies of work, he found himself envying their life, their art. It was one of her prints he bought that day, framed and ready to be hung in his living room, on the wall where it could be seen from the street.
He wasn’t taking photographs at all back then, but in the months that followed he became increasingly obsessed with the form, purchasing different formats of cameras, trying out different techniques, trying to teaching himself what worked and what didn’t. He studied the websites of the photographers to try to get a feel for what distinguished their work, their individual aesthetic. It was then that he truly appreciated the technical quality to their work, the precision of their technique and the delicate balance of their compositions, and knew he would never be able to replicate it.
A few months later there was another open studio event and he expressed an interest in possibly buying one of the photographer’s pipe pictures. The photographer said he would send him some small prints of the photographs, which he posted through his letter box a week later. The prints had been glued onto small squares of MDF and then joined together with duct tape to make an elaborate concertina portfolio. He looked at the prints, and the prices, and realised he couldn’t afford any of them.
There followed a slightly terse email from the photographer requesting the return of the concertina. He took it to their home and finding the large metal gate closed, dropped them into the letterbox.
The next time he saw the photographer, he had been taking photographs more purposefully, more concretely, for the past year. Upon hearing this the photographer offered him some wall space at the next open studios event. He couldn’t tell if he was joking or not.
When he had a handful of photographs which he believed to be good, workman-like, or not bad for a beginner, he attached them to an email and wrote, Some photographs I’ve taken recently. Quite pleased with how they came out. Now wondering what I should do with them. Welcome any advice.
A week passed, then he received a response. Thank you for sending these over. I see you have been playing at being a photographer. Keep looking at the work of the great photographers, you can learn a lot from them. And always try to get a bit closer.
I see you’ve been playing at being a photographer. It felt like a slap down, a rebuke for infringing upon his territory. After that, they didn’t really speak again.
From time to time he would encounter the photographer in their local branch of Sainsbury’s and exchange the briefest of hellos. He always found it rather odd, seeing self-proclaimed artists engaged in everyday activities like visiting the local supermarket or walking the dog. He always felt they should be creating. As though their lives depended on it.
Years later, after he had left London, he received an invitation by email to another open studios event. Just in time for Christmas, as always. He scanned the list of artists. The photographers were there. He wondered if they still had their little dog.
He clicked through to the photographer’s website and reacquainted himself with his work. It was much the same, a combination of the banal and commonplace, the everyday and overlooked. In his portfolio, he could identify the work of the great photographers, his influences. Few past or planned exhibitions. Waiting for that major retrospective.
He pictured him wandering in the hinterlands of some unfamiliar place, skin pinking in the sun, toes freezing inside his boots, camera lens dangling like a limp phallus. Finding something interesting and pointing his camera at it, framing the image with painstaking precision, failing at being a photographer.