A Photograph Shows us the Patterns of Existences
This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine Issue 202, May 2017
The dispassionate gaze of the camera reveals evidence of the unseen dynamic forces that shape our lives.
There is a photograph. It depicts a man alighting at Waterloo. It is 7.34 in the morning. He steps down from the train joining the mass of people all heading towards the ticket barrier. It is a Monday morning. The acute observer would notice a slight heaviness in his stride and a hint of resignation on his freshly shaved face. The observer might also note his age, about 59, and his dress; a suit that looks like it is one of a number such items; smart enough to get through a day unnoticed in an office. The suit is worn with a familiarity that does not approach what the observer may consider ‘style’. The suit is a uniform bought without enthusiasm and worn in the same vein.
The acute observer has little more to go on… The man is greying, white, with the pale rough complexion of many such British men of a certain age. The observer does not know where he has come from or where he is going but he can make some informed speculation as to the condition of this human being and the forces that shape his life.
Lets say that the ‘observer’ is a photographer. A photographer who is depicting the human condition in the 21st century and in particular the conditions that pertain to the plight of the salaried worker. It is the camera that allows us, the observers, to gaze on the patterns of life and all the marks left behind by time. Through the lens of a camera and the still, everlasting image it is possible for us to discover the eddies and dynamics of life lived.
It is precisely because the photograph has the limitation of being a single still image that can be scrutinised continuously that patterns are revealed at almost every level of perception. What is meant by a pattern? There are three definitions of the word; there is the definition which describes the repeating graphic shapes such that you might find in the rings of a cross-section of a tree. There is the kind that relates to an order or system – perhaps this kind is the one which we can relate most closely to our man in Waterloo. And finally there is the definition that describes a pattern as being a model or paradigm that depicts a mode of thinking or behaviour over time.
The analogy of the photograph taken at 7.34 of a man starting his week touches on all of the definitions of the word ‘pattern’. The first as outlined above places the man in the physical state that we find him. There is an easily observable pattern to all the people shown in the photograph; they all look the same because the conditions of their lives mean they must all conform to time and place and dress in broadly the same way. Although they look the same we know that hidden in each of those grey suits rushing for the exit is a beating, human heart that is full of fear, loneliness, anticipation, sexual longeur, regret, hope, pride and so on. The photograph is the only way we can glimpse the pain and hope we share with each other.
The second definition is the one that describes a dynamic system or order. We observe the image and wonder at what kind of primal force could put this scene together. All these people, at this instant, brought together and engaged in exactly the same activity. All moving with the same purpose, day after day, week after week, month after month. The photograph can slice through time and show us the monumental repetition or dynamic and physical pattern of a human life. If a painter were to replicate this scene it would be just that – a replication. A painting would require the artist to engage with the scene on a personal level and the result would always be an ‘assimilation’. The photographer can be dispassionate, recording the scene without personal engagement much as an anthropologist does. The value of this detachment is that the viewer can project themselves onto the photograph bringing all their experience to bear rather than having to see the image as depicted through the experience and aesthetic sense of another human.
The final definition, that of the model or rule-set, describes the imposition or unseen hand that controls events. To what purpose are we organised in the way we are? Who benefits from the order or disorder that surrounds us. What (or who) shapes our lives? These questions are relevant whether you take part in the daily, orderly migration from suburban home to urban office or if your tribal village has seen the horrors wrought by sectarian violence and the destruction of the patterns or laws that are required for orderly life.
The patterns easily observed in nature such as the spiral of a snail’s shell, the ridges of a fossilised ammonite, the layers of sediment in a cliff face, all speak of the forces of nature and evolution. These forces work over periods of time that we cannot comprehend but can understand through their accumulated physical form. A pattern is a visible manifestation of an invisible force. Only a photograph can reveal these forms and the story of their origination in a way that renders them poetic and human.
Next month I will be discussing the controversial yet crucial link between money and art.