Friday, 12 March 2010

Photographs that never were

It often happens that the best photographs are the ones that were never taken.  Sometimes, things just happen too fast.  The eye sees and the moment has passed before you can even think of reaching for the camera. 

In his book Some Cities, photographer, film-maker and writer Victor Burgin describes a short scene in a jazz club,:

"The dress looks like silk. Tight. Her face is angular, the nose prominent.  She is leaving the table she shares with an older woman.  Don't Blame Me.  Now she is returning, striding past the chrysanthemums, through the thick smoke of cigarettes. One foot rests squarely on the ground; the other arrested in its forward motion, touches the ground only with the tips of the toes. The moment is gone.  No camera has recorded it."

We don't need the photograph to conjure up the image - we can colour in the missing details from our imaginations - the dress is red, the hair is dark and swept up, the shoes are high, the music plays in the background.  My picture will be different to yours, but no matter.

I used to feel a great sense of frustration about this catalogue of missed opportunities.   If only....the light hadn't changed....the subject hadn't moved out of the frame....I had been quicker...I had my camera with me.  Lately I have started thinking that perhaps it is no bad thing.  Let it go, relax....not every moment needs to be seized or captured.  It can be stored in the mind instead, and summoned up at will.  Of course, other people will not be able to see it, but that's what words are for - it can be described, conjured up to live again.  A picture is not always worth a thousand words.

Sometimes, now, I prefer just to look .  After hours of being alert to photographic possibilities, it can be a relief to lay aside the camera and just use my eyes, letting my attention wander, not thinking of anything in particular, not worrying about the 'perfect moment'.  Suddenly I see it and then it's gone, but it doesn't matter.

Some photographs I didn't take....

A woman in a red anorak and black backpack, her breath curling white in the foggy morning air

A carousel of red washing looming out of the fog, seen from a train window

A red bucket, glowing in the sunshine against the green of the grass, in the middle of  an avenue of tall trees

Suburban back gardens, three separate rows of washing one after the other, each with one red T shirt

A woman in a bright green jumper walking past a road sign 'Greenway'

A small figure in a bright red coat, glimpsed through a dense tangle of tree branches at the edge of a wood

One bright Moroccan blue house wall, in a sea of drab London brick under a lowering slate grey sky

A picture may not always be worth a thousand words, but as this is a blog about photograpy, here are some which perhaps are.....


  1. Oh, I very well understand your thoughts and remarks about photographs never taken -wherever- whenever -for different reasons - sometimes we may also feel a feel of shame or respect of privacy...(I could tell a very sad story about a pupil, highly talented as photographer, who neglected those limits of photographing)- I very like your quotation: the scene has been so impressively described that a photo may not beat or match that? -I like your list of not taken pics: I can imagine them all, in particular nr. 4 and 5 might have been fascinating- our photo-eyes may sometimes discover too many possibilities for taking (wer die Wahl, hat die Qual/who haves the choise, have the difficulty to choose out)- and sometimes it may be better not to have our camera with us- we might see then more a n d less! The photo's you added capture fine moments and things, also red things, only on the last photo I cannot precisely recognize the red bin (?), but I like the fine light- and- shadow- play!

  2. Sometimes I wished to have a camera hidden under the coat... - like Roman Vishniac, one of my favourite photographers, who had the courage to photograph Jewish people in their 'stetls' and milieus in Poland.. and in this way he could preserve a world -at least in the memory- that has been vanished ("Versunkene Welt" is the title of his book).

  3. I agree - I wonder sometimes whether having the camera with us stops us from looking properly. When we are taking photographs out and about we are always so wrapped up in what we are doing that I'm sure many things pass us by. However, there would be no photoblog without photos! BTW the final picture has a red bench in front of the bus shelter - it doesn't show up very well in the small photo.

  4. Sometimes I think the camera is "like a pair of glasses on our nose through which we see whatever we look at, [yet] it never occurs to us to take them off.” (while modifying a thought by Ludwig Wittgenstein), but I think these camera-glassses enable us, too, to look sharperly and to discover more details!