Photographs Not Taken is the kind of book you can dip in and out of. It is a collection of short essays by an impressive roster of photographers who describe, with varying levels of writing skill, images/experiences they did not capture with their cameras. The ‘author’ Will Steacy says in his preface that the essays “look directly into the mind’s eye to reveal where photographs come from in their barest and most primitive form – the original idea.” Logically that cannot be true in these examples or a photograph would actually exist. Steacy goes on to declare: “These mental negatives depict the unedited world that could not exist in a single frame.” So, these are no so much missed opportunities but rather moments in time that were unphotographable? As it turns out, there are lots of different reasons for the ‘missing pictures’ – shock/surprise, respect for the situation or person, permission protocols, a desire to be present and experience the moment with no mediation and so on.
When I first started seriously shooting Street, I became obsessed with some of the images I failed to capture. Sometimes it was due to loss of nerve, often due to movement of the subject or an interloper, occasionally just not being ready. I would agonise over the photograph not taken as if it were a unicorn I almost lassoed. I am much more philosophical about it these days. Unless I ever tire completely of humanity, there will always be an endless supply of these unicorns. And it is the memory of a few images not taken that spur me on to be brave and seize the opportunities when I can.
Not always of course. I got a couple of shots a few months ago and made a mental note to ask if I could make a portrait of them when I have sorted out the backdrop issue. I was planning to contact them via Instagram (having tracked them down through posted images of some other regulars at the Nomadic Community Gardens) as I thought that would allow them to see my work and some credentials rather than being put on the spot without much context. My tutor strongly recommended a face to face approach whenever possible.
Before I had got around to making an approach, I noticed this fantastic image had been shortlisted for the BJP’s Portrait of Humanity. The photographer, David Cantor, talks about meeting Saby here. I then realised that David Cantor had also taken the picture of the red hat man (whom I have seen in the neighbourhood) selected for the Taylor Wessing exhibition in 2016: https://davidcantor.weebly.com/twwp-2016-a.html following a chance encounter in a shoe shop in Shoreditch.
Back to the book… I found some of the essays to be a bit dull and/or ‘worthy’ and self-regarding but I suppose it is no surprise that many photographers are not natural wordsmiths. It does give a good insight into the life of a pro photographer and how, as an activity, photography seeps into all aspects of life. Given the quality of smartphones, we are rarely now outside reaching-distance of a camera.
There certainly are a few gems. Roger Ballen’s cat catcher story doesn’t even mention a camera or a missed opportunity but creates a powerful image that evokes much of his constructed work. And I liked these sentiments:
Laurel Nakadate: “There is a beauty in not being enough. Sometimes, photographs live in our hearts as unborn ghosts and we survive not because their shadows find a permanence there, but because that thing that is larger than us, larger than the things we can point to, remember, and claim, escorts us from dark into light, we emerge from the flames with no one in our arms, and we never unpack the camera.”
Peter Riesett: “Perhaps some images are meant only for the mind and the heart.”
- Steacy, W. & Rexer, L. (2012). Photographs not taken. New York: Daylight.
- British Journal of Photography – Portrait of Humanity