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Seeing as I said so

Some thoughts on photography for the young and curious by Gregory O'Brien, author of <EM>See What I Can See</EM>


<P>While writing the book <EM>See What I Can See: New Zealand photography for the young and curious</EM> (Auckland University Press, 2015), I asked myself, over and over, what is this magical thing that great photographs can do? How can still images &#8211; these flat, rectangular, often small-scale prints &#8211; contain so much of the world, its peoples, the detail of their lives, and the shape of their dreams?</P> <P data-associrn="1527149"></P> <P>Photos tell us what it is like to be alive in a particular time and place. They record a moment &#8211; and they provide a record of how the world has changed and is still changing. The photo <EM>Human zoo, Bondi Icebergs, Sydney</EM> (2015) was taken by a New Zealand photographer, Virginia Were, while visiting Australia. The image is, for a start, surprising (a good quality to find in a photograph). What are those suntanned girls doing in what looks like a polar bear enclosure? Are they really a part of a zoo exhibit? The photo makes us look again, and think again &#8211; then leaves us to figure out what’s going on for ourselves.</P> <P data-associrn="1527150"></P> <P><STRONG>Street corner</STRONG></P> <P>Lucien Rizos takes marvellous, spontaneous photos of people on street corners. Usually the subject of a photograph is located fair and square in the centre of the picture frame - but, in the image above, Lucien has snapped two pedestrians who have only just arrived, stage left, in the photograph. And that’s what gives the picture its energy and spontaneity. Lucien wasn’t looking through the camera’s viewfinder when he took the photo; he was ‘shooting from the hip’. That’s worth trying. (Look at photographs in books or galleries and see if you can spot any images that were taken in a similar fashion &#8211; without looking through the viewfinder.)</P> <P data-associrn="1527151"></P> <P><STRONG>When wrong is right</STRONG></P> <P>Sometimes accidents and mistakes can make a photograph even better. Someone walks, unannounced, into the picture frame … the wind blows off someone’s hat … or a small boy called Jack falls off the back of a tricycle &#8211; as in the photo above, by Bruce Foster. There’s no rehearsing this sort of action. In this situation, however, the camera is perfectly in its element. It captures the fleeting, unplanned, and never-to-be-repeated moment.</P> <P data-associrn="1527154"></P> <P>At Wellington’s Seatoun Beach one afternoon, Gabrielle McKone was photographing a bird atop a rubbish bin when, suddenly, off the gull went. And that was the exact moment she opened the shutter. We’re left with a photograph of the bottom half a bird and some empty space below. Who knows why it works &#8211; but it’s a great image.</P> <P>Other mistakes (intentional or not) that can work well for creative photographers: crooked horizons, out-of-focus subjects, accidental walk-ins, someone pulling a face, over-exposure (too much light) or under-exposure (too much darkness).</P> <P data-associrn="1527155"></P> <P><STRONG>Talking amongst themselves</STRONG></P> <P>Some of my favourite photographs capture a ‘conversation’ between two or more things that you would not normally place together. This is the case with Peter Black’s ‘conversation’ between a spider and a tiny globe.</P> <P data-associrn="1527156"></P> <P>When you look at photographs, be on the lookout for visual ‘conversations’ - between people, animals, or objects, between a solid object and a shadow … The anonymous photograph above &#8211; taken in Tonga &#8211; is another such ‘conversation’, in this case between a chainsaw, a flax basket, and a pair of jandalled feet.</P> <P data-associrn="1527153"></P> <P><STRONG>A portrait, a crowd scene</STRONG></P> <P>I was standing beside photographer Bruce Foster when he took the photograph above, in Santiago de Chile, in March 2013. Out popped Bruce’s camera, at just the right moment &#8211; and then the camera disappeared again, just as swiftly. I don’t think any of the people in the photograph noticed anything &#8211; with the exception, maybe, of the man carrying the painting. When taking ‘street photos’ like this one (and Lucien Rizos’s), no amount of planning could ever deliver such informal, lively, and intensely human images. It is not only a portrait of some individuals, it also feels like a picture of a community, a society &#8211; and maybe even a country, living its life.</P> <P data-associrn="1527157"></P> <P><STRONG>Photographing a photograph</STRONG></P> <P>It’s curious and fascinating how often photographs contain other photographs. I took this photograph (of a photograph) while walking along a footpath in Berlin. I wasn’t sure what the poster on the power pole was advertising &#8211; most likely Paulina and Finn were looking for a flatmate, and the boy with umbrella was just there to get the attention of passers-by like me. It worked.</P> <P>When I took that photograph, my family and I were staying with our photographer friend Mari Mahr, who makes photographic images often using small stage-like arrangements of objects and photos. The one below, titled <EM>Autograph</EM> (1984) is a visual poem or maybe even a riddle. </P> <P data-associrn="1527732"></P> <P data-associrn="1527158"></P> <P><STRONG>A tale from a little suitcase</STRONG></P> <P>A citizen of four countries &#8211; Chile, the United Kingdom, Hungary and New Zealand &#8211; Mari finds inspiration in different places and cultures. Many of her photographs - including the one above from the ‘Tales from a Little Suitcase’ series - are of objects that she and her artist husband Graham Percy collected on their travels. Wherever Mari goes in the world she seems to find exotic objects or images that feel very personal to her; it is as if she has plucked them from the top drawer of her bedroom dresser. Mari’s photographs are like ‘still life’ paintings, teeming with symbols and puzzling objects which hint at broader histories and myths as well as personal stories.</P> <P>While writing <EM>See What I Can See</EM>, I spent a lot of time with photographers and learnt from them how to pay attention to the world around me - to look at the most ordinary of things and see them afresh. I also learnt to notice how sunlight falls on objects - the beauty of colour and tone, the way surfaces reflect or absorb light … The American photographer Dorothea Lange was right when she said ‘the camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera’. </P> <P data-associrn="1527007"></P> <P><STRONG>The world and beyond</STRONG></P> <P>Photographers teach us to open our eyes wider, and also to see patterns and designs that aren’t so apparent in the constantly changing, moving world itself. Paul McCredie took the photograph above in a building I know well &#8211; Wellington’s Futuna Chapel (designed by the great M&#257;ori architect John Scott). It’s a view of the chapel’s ceiling, looking straight up. The photograph allows us to relish the rhythm of the beams and boards; the glowing, translucent wood. I had never noticed this view of the chapel until a photographer captured it. Photographers offer us new angles of vision, new vantage points, and new perspectives on the world.</P> <P>While some photographs tell stories, the magic of other images &#8211; like Paul’s one &#8211; resides in their purely visual, abstract qualities. At times photographs come close to music in the balancing and interplay of their elements. They remind us of the fact that a photograph can be a work of art &#8211; just like a painting, a drawing, or a sculpture. Photography has its own language, and a singular capacity not only to reflect the world but also to allow us to experience this and other worlds in new ways.</P> <P>&nbsp;</P> <P><EM>Many thanks to the photographers who allowed me to use their works in this article. Most of them appear in</EM> See What I Can See<EM>, or on the affiliated website. Virginia Were’s photograph would have appeared in the book if I had discovered it in time, and Paul McCredie’s photograph appears in a forthcoming book about Futuna Chapel.</P>
Virginia Were, &lt;EM&gt;Human zoo, Bondi Icebergs, Sydney&lt;/EM&gt;, 2015

Virginia Were, Human zoo, Bondi Icebergs, Sydney, 2015

Lucien Rizos, from &#39;Traffic Lights&#39;, 1981

Lucien Rizos, from 'Traffic Lights', 1981

Bruce Foster, from ‘Family Contacts’, published in &lt;EM&gt;Sport&lt;/EM&gt;, 2001

Bruce Foster, from ‘Family Contacts’, published in Sport, 2001

Gabrielle McKone, &lt;EM&gt;Marine Parade 16.09.07&lt;/EM&gt;

Gabrielle McKone, Marine Parade 16.09.07

Peter Black, &lt;EM&gt;NZ Spider&lt;/EM&gt;, 2010

Peter Black, NZ Spider, 2010

Anonymous, found photograph, Tonga, 2013

Anonymous, found photograph, Tonga, 2013

Bruce Foster, &lt;EM&gt;Santiago&lt;/EM&gt;, 2013

Bruce Foster, Santiago, 2013

Gregory O&#39;Brien, from photo-diary, Berlin, 2009

Gregory O'Brien, from photo-diary, Berlin, 2009

Mari Mahr, from ‘Tales from a Little Suitcase’

Mari Mahr, from ‘Tales from a Little Suitcase’

Paul McCredie, &lt;EM&gt;Futuna Chapel, Karori, Wellington&lt;/EM&gt;, 2015

Paul McCredie, Futuna Chapel, Karori, Wellington, 2015

Mari Mahr,&lt;EM&gt;Autograph&lt;/EM&gt;, 1984

Mari Mahr,Autograph, 1984