Thursday, March 5, 2009
(Illustration and photography are rivals, but I love photography. Here is an article I wrote for Hemispheres magazine; I illustrated it with photographs. The illustration above was done for Travel & Leisure. Er-H)
My wife and I were in Crete years ago. We traveled light, everything for two people in one small athletic bag. She discovered olive groves and beaches, I discovered photography. Everything I saw seemed as if it had been invented in that spot, that arrangement, that original and unexpected but inevitable form, just for me to take its picture. Trees shaped by Mediterranean centuries. Box-sized shops with open fronts spilling Greek housewares and hardwares and textiles and groceries. Houses sized and shaped to fit into a photograph, like little Parthenons. People in picturesque costumes stared at me from chairs in front of blue-painted doors, daring me. My wife, who is far more sensitive than I am, told me it would be rude to photograph them. I remembered that in some places it was believed that cameras took your soul. I hesitated until the moment was gone. Henri Cartier-Bresson once said “Photographers deal in things which are continually vanishing and when they have vanished there is no contrivance on earth which can make them come back again.” But people with cameras aren’t neutral any more than they are invisible, and natives of every place are entitled to their souls. I haven’t looked at our photos from Crete for years now, but I can still remember the pictures I almost took, the regret having made them indelible.
When we went to Italy with our children, age three and six, we gave them each a disposable camera to use. At dinner with our friends at their villa above Rome we joked about collecting the disposable cameras at the end of the trip and throwing them away as their name suggests. Grown-ups are arrogant about their own superior eye, but saying children’s eyes aren’t trained only means they haven’t learned to be snobs about what they see. Painted walls in churches are judged by the same criteria as painted billboards along the autostrada. In either case, what is new is new. While we were in Rome our son took three pictures of different arrangements of his friend Sam’s toy airplanes on a blue bedspread. In Siena he took pictures of motorinos with the same gusto that he collected Italian comic books. One of our hosts is a museum curator; he watched the shot selection with professional interest. I was the one giving stupid advice: “Do you really want another picture of a motorcycle?” Of course he did. And Italian cars. There are fine examples of Renaissance architecture in the background of some of the pictures, somewhat out of focus and severely cropped. When we returned to Rome we visited the Colosseum. The modern jostles and impersonates the ancient everywhere in Italy. Handsome Italian men dressed in gladiator costumes were hiring themselves out for the tourists to pose with and be photographed. Our son found one of them seated over near the truck selling sodas and gelato. The gladiator had his girlfriend in his lap kissing him while he ate his gelato. Evan went right up to them, framed the shot and took their picture. Unluckily, all of his film was used up. We find the most revealing images when we turn away from what we are looking at, and at that moment we are usually just out of film.
We visited London one April. As if to prove what T. S. Eliot had said about the month, it was cruel and cold and wet. Luckily, London is a city of interiors and enclosed space. It is also full of photogenic incident and irresistible, un-photogenic people. For me London has always presented a problem. I grew up imagining it, and only saw it for the first time when I was thirty. Our English friends knew ahead of time that it wouldn’t live up to my expectations, and told me I would need to learn to “avert my eyes.” A camera is a useful editor-out of unpleasant, modern things––scaffolding, graffiti, incongruous Americanisms (like sandwich bars and other tourists) but you can only spend so much of your time looking through a camera. Use the viewfinder too much and you miss things. I came home in 1986 with hundreds of wonderful photographs that I store in the basement and never look at. There are certain things that must be photographed. We call them “sights.” Big Ben was behind scaffolding when we visited the first time. This time St. Paul’s was undergoing its facelift. It was wrapped in scaffolding, which was itself enveloped in an enormous cartoon of the cathedral printed on cheesecloth. I preferred the scaffolding; at least it was authentic. I averted my eyes. Since 1986 London has grown much more prosperous and clean, more American. The city is systematically removing its old self, not unlike a snake shedding its skin, but more like a caterpillar becoming something completely different, in this case a moth I think. The bobbies with tall helmets, lawyers with periwigs, the men in bowler hats are disappearing. One by one the London streetscape is deleting the familiar red pillarboxes, the red phoneboxes, replacing them with useful, dull, modern reductions that nobody needs anyway because everyone communicates by cellphone. We decided to take our annual Christmas picture of the children at one of one of the few remaining phoneboxes beside a gated park in Kensington. Children are as likely to resent the intrusion of photography as any picturesque native staring at us from a private doorway. Ours hate having their picture taken too, especially together, but for once they seemed to take it as a lark. They peered out of the red, many-paned door, wearing secret, knowing smiles, like the Mona Lisa or the cat who ate the canary. It was a perfect moment in a lovely place. No-one who received the photo at Christmas would know that the insides of London phoneboxes are papered with the calling cards of prostitutes in lewd poses and various states of undress. Having our pictures taken on vacation we are capturing ourselves at a moment in time as much as a place. They are high points, usually, when all of our feet are momentarily off the ground. Like in a slowed down sequence by Edward Muybridge, we and our children are growing older and wiser in front of the camera, disclosing some things, hiding others, describing the journey in a subtle variety of ways.