On the Nature of Location
This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine Issue 209, December 2017
If I were to take a walk down your street and take some pictures would the resulting images owe more to the physical nature your street or to me? Perhaps you might also walk with me and take some pictures simultaneously – would your photographs of the world you know so well be qualitatively different from mine? Or does the person behind the camera provide the viewer with the ‘real’ location – with the actual topology and events recorded merely playing a part in the creation of the image? In other words, should we consider that a photographer might become ‘a location’ in their own right through the medium of photography.
Thank you for bearing with me during that tortuous opening paragraph. In Geoff Dyer’s book, The Ongoing Moment (2005) in which he suggests a narrative for the history of photography, he considers that some photographers may be considered as ‘locations’ in their own right. Dyer argues that some photographers’ engagement with the world they inhabit is so complete and inextricably linked and borne out over time that no matter what (or where) they photograph their images accrue a certain immutable sense of the photographer regardless of the subject matter.
Dyer offers the work of James Nachtwey as an example of a photographer who’s work bends location to his imagery. For those acquainted with Nachtwey’s work then you will know that he may be considered Capa’s rightful heir. Nachtwey has travelled the globe (and continues to do so) for over thirty years. His pictures of war, depravation and disenfranchisement have illustrated the dark side of humanity. But in every image there is the sense of the man himself. A man who has made himself a conduit for all that is terrifying and humane. In Nachtwey’s work is an ‘everyman’ view of the world – should ‘everyman’ have the courage and creative drive of James Nachtwey. Nachtwey is the photographer of all that is left behind; from the bloody handprints left on a living room wall in Pec, (August 1999) to the faces of Albanian Kosovan women and children fleeing war in a truck (Kosovo August, 1999). The hand prints and faces tell the same story and it is this living history that has become the ‘location’ of Nachtwey’s work. Even ghosts need their story to be told and many have chosen Nachtwey as their bard.
But not every photographer will inhabit the world as Nachtwey. Yet perhaps it is the ‘holy grail’ of photography – to achieve the unalloyed ‘voice’ that speaks of the world that we individually inhabit and record. A world that, in other words, is less dependant on physical location than the fact it is recorded by the individual photographer. Although physical location can’t be denied in a photograph it can be seen as of lesser importance if you consider that the same scene could be photographed by two photographers and the resulting images would almost certainly be different. Different aspects of the same scene may be examined simultaneously and to what would we adduce the difference in resulting images? Any variation in vision would come directly from the particular psychology of each photographer and from what each determined as being most salutary or captivating. A reading of the photographic process, in this case, finds that the photographer becomes primary to the location and the location provides a canvas on to which the photographer must project their own sensitivities and proclivities.
What hasn’t been touched on yet is the question of prolificacy. We cannot claim to exist photographically in a notional ‘location’ without making many, many images. A photographer who occasionally and with little conviction presses the shutter on his iPhone is much less likely to create a world for others to inhabit through scarce imagery. There is no body of evidence or road map for the way this photographer inhabits the world. And so the body of work created by photographers who make images with a consistent effort of will and attention will develop a location that only that photographer may inhabit.
As Dyer says, towards the end of The Ongoing Moment, “Nachtwey’s photographs are a kind of destiny for the medium as a whole, a place where photography has always had the potential to end up.” Those last three words are interesting – “to end up”. They imply that, in some way, all of photography has culminated in the work of one man. At the time of writing this book perhaps it could have been said that Nachtwey’s work was the apotheosis of photography but twelve years have passed since then and, of course, new photographers with new visions have appeared. It is high time that Dyer’s brilliant book was updated. Much has happened in the interim and new themes have emerged in photography that deserve Dyer’s particular consideration.