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Thursday, 23 January 2020


Super piece of writing; resonated with me. I have always felt that my photographs are inherently nostalgic, trying to evoke the feeling of looking through a window at another world that might never have been real, or only been real for a moment.

That's always been one of the more essential, attractive, and vital attributes concerning photography, it is the closest we have come to a time machine- even if it only drives in one direction, backwards. And with it, we can often control, or at least influence how we see, preserve and understand our past- or how we failed to understand it.

Your story about being approached by youths while photographing with a view camera reminds me of one of the several times that happened to me. Just like you, I initiated a conversation and showed them the upside-down image on the ground-glass.

They asked lots of questions, but one question still sticks in my mind - "Where do the batteries go?"

Here's my take on the magic of photography: Photography used to be time travel. We took photographs, and then forgot them. That magic roll of film held the memory safe, tucked away in the dark to be revealed and relived at another time.

A trip to the Fotomat was highly anticipated--the roll finished and developed, it offered wonderful surprises, time travel, remembering and reliving moments. That was the essence of photography.

In this instant digital world, that magic is missing, the distance between creating the photograph and reliving it is non-existent, perhaps why photography feels less fulfilling than it once did. I make a photo, I show it to you, you've seen it, I've seen it, it's all done. Nothing left to do but the chore to get it to you, which I may never do, because who cares, you already saw it.

Thank you, best post in ages.
Really got me thinking. Still thinking!

Mike, you've thrown a shaft of light onto an aspect of what is for me the key and unique aspect of photography: that a photograph shows my view, my insight into, a part of the world when I was there, at that moment in time. And that the subject, and the world around it, continues to change but here it was as I saw it.

You said: This tension is a part of almost all photographs, in my view. A picture which is meant to be "read" and consumed right now, a reflection of the present moment, will always have some aspect of tension with the fact that the pictured moment can no longer change.

Integral to this implied value is that photographs are reflections of the real world. These thoughts go somewhere to explaining why I find manipulation of subjects in current photography so irritating.

Nice essay. I know you are being poetic, still, I prefer to say that it is we who change, not things.

Great post all around! And +1 for Wisconsin Death Trip, it's a favorite of mine.

Regarding the Mike Plews comment: I actually see this as a negative. I like to talk about photography, but not while I'm busy working. A few years back I did a landscape project with an 8x10 camera, and on some days, random passersby wouldn't stop bugging me. The fascination with an unusual-looking camera could probably be leveraged to positive effect for a portrait project, though.

I'd often thought something similar when looking at William Eggleston's work. He famously states that he photographs "life now" - but with the passage of time, he can't help but be a documentarian (and neither can the rest of us).

It's because of that, that I've come to see more value in seemingly throw-away snapshots - they detail the minutiae that is otherwise overlooked - and it's the little things that make up life.

The sight of the silver print coming up in the developer over 20-30 seconds never completely loses its magic. But people at platinum printing workshops who've become used to that, if not actually jaded, *gasp* the first time they see a Pt/Pd print instantaneously appear as the developer is poured across the sheet.

Yes, all honestly recognisable photographs of living individuals have their mortality baked in.

If you're walking in the woods and you find a bearprint in the mud, that's a physical impression of an actual bear—the real bear had to have made it, meaning she'd been there, in the spot you're standing, not long earlier. When you find an arrowhead or a Civil War Minié ball in the woods, it's not the objects that are magical in themselves—one's a bit of chipped stone and the other's a lump of lead. But each is a physical remnant of the people who made them and used them, and the objects are direct connections to a fundamentally mysterious past.

Sometimes just the environment can create that connection, although in my case one could argue that it was a man-made environment. I have been fascinated by history for many years, and one of the most emotional and memorable moments of my life was the first time I went into the GrossMunster church in Zurich.

I stood there almost immobile, occupied by the realization that almost 500 years earlier Ulrich Zwingli had preached the Protestant Reformation in that very spot. (Zwingli, Calvin, and Luther were the Big Three of the Reformation.)

My reaction had nothing to do with being Protestant, Catholic, or even religious. It was the realization that I was standing in one of the places where words were spoken that would create an upheaval of the entire society of Europe, create events like the Thirty Years War, and make today’s world a very different place than it would have otherwise have been.

I definitely felt the direct connection to the past – I literally had goose-bumps. I have gone to the GrossMunster several times on later visits to Switzerland, and have felt that connection every time – albeit not as strongly as the first time.

- Tom -

Food for thought ... I'm sated!

Is it possible to make a credible argument that photos, text and film are how we learn from elders now? We tend not to spend time with them around a campfire or in the cave. I wonder if I need to add "apps" to that list.

The second is the emergence of the image on the photo paper in the developer tray.

"You're gonna like this picture." The Bob Cummings Show, January 2, 1955 to September 15, 1959.

and here I was worried about outer-city youth

Here, here!... now. Any attempt to define the present will always be by defining the past, even in future tense. What will be, is now, by definition?

This is vintage Mike Johnston at his best -- the kind of writing about photography that has made me a follower since your days at Camera and Darkroom.

Nice post, Mike. Enjoyed reading it...
I teach my middle-school students that photography is a way to stop time, and view that moment forever, but I think I'll have them read a portion of your post to take that thought further. Thanks.

Nothing to add. I just wanted to say that I like ruminations like this one. (And, having gone through a similar view camera fantasy myself, I can easily relate to your account.)

..."history deserves to be remembered"...

This is the primary reason why I persist with polyester-based black and white sheet film as well as fiber-based wet prints. Even though my digitally-originated inkjet prints look better (to me) than my best darkroom efforts.

For those images that might be worthwhile to history, I use the darkroom. They're few and far between, since I'm no Ansel Adams. However, the small subset of my work that might be of interest to others some day, it's worth the effort. I write optimistically.

In addition to what you said, there is one element of photography which, I confess, gives me a frisson of discomfiture. Taking a photograph is, in the end, an act of taking -- as in taking ownership of something which, before you fired the shutter, was not yours.

Of all the variants, the most discomfiting is street photography. After all, you are taking (absconding with a frozen image of) a moment of someone else's life, whether the moment is joyous, sad, quotidian or merely serendipitous.

Even landscape photography cannot escape this willful, clandestine act of taking. I submit there is an element of lust involved here. So, the mere privilege of being in the presence of the grandeur of nature is not enough? No sir, I must take a picture of it so I can own it forever? And if I don't have a camera with me -- no, a phone does not count -- instead of awe and elation, I feel strangely cheated, deflated.

That can't be right.

Unlike every other art form, photographers don't create. We don't make something new. We take.

Okay, it could be my years of catholic schooling talking (and haunting me) here. Tell me you have no idea what I am talking about.

I’ve been describing my photographic technique recently as:
Take pictures of everything then stick them in a drawer and wait 30 years and see what turns out to be interesting.

Great article, as always! Just wanted to point out a tiny typo: "developer try" should be "developer tray". 5th paragraph, I think.


Here, here!... now. Any attempt to define the present will always be by defining the past, even in future tense. What will be, is now, by definition?

Talk about coincindence - I'm just reading Gibson's latest novel, "Agency", which was published just now, and takes place mostly in 2017.

Smack On!

A clear statement of what seduced me 60 years ago and has held my interest too and through today.

Thank you

I’ve always loved the idea that photographs start as snapshots, evolve in news, and ultimately become history. And great point that every photograph of a person will ultimately end up a photograph of someone dead. That is truly a powerful friction; no wonder we’re all in love with photography...

With respect to talking and engaging with people about photography, one thing I've found is that bringing out the TLR is a sure way to get some interesting looks or comments from random people. I've had many conversations with total strangers who either had one, or they remember their uncle using it at family gatherings, or through just plain old curiosity about it. And showing them that view through the ground glass is always a "wow" moment. I've said it for years... *everything* looks photographable through that ground glass. Though, I have not had the opportunity to do so through a large format camera, likely much to the benefit of my bank account.

If one was the type of photographer inclined to talk to strangers on the street and take their portraits (which this one is generally not), this would be a great approach.

Apropos of this, photographs are also indices of change. That image of the Cash's is 50 years old----but it doesn't look that old today. Think of the difference between that image from 1969 and one from 1919, and you'll understand what I mean. Looking at photographs, plural, allows us to dip into the time stream and watch it speed up or slow down.

While I have always felt photographic images are not so different from other images in fundamental ways, they do capture an image synchronically, while paintings tend slightly more to the diachronic because of the way they tend to be more self-consciously positioned in the stream of painted images.

This is why I read TOP every day.

It seems to me that every last person who has ever commented on TOP, "Fewer articles on gear, please, and more articles on photography" should be commenting on this excellent post.

Ferdinando Scianna once said: ‘A photograph is not created by a photographer.
What they do is open a little window and capture it. The world then writes itself on the film.
The act of the photographer is closer to reading than it is to writing.
They are the readers of the world.’

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