“Everyone, in both personal and professional experience, is familiar with moments of regret, of chances seen but not seized. But photographers might have this sensation more often than most.”
– Andrew Moore, from Photographs Not Taken
Photographs Not Taken is a book about photography in which there is not a single photograph. It’s a collection of essays by 62 photographers about the ones that got away: the images — burned to memory and conscience — that, for one reason or another, the photographer could not make.
The photo community has grasped this little book to its bosom. The premise is simple and the emotions expressed, often by big-name photographers — Jim Goldberg, Emmet Gowin, Todd Hido, Nadav Kander, Mary Ellen Mark, Zwelethu Mthethwa, Sylvia Plachy, Mark Power, Alessandra Sanguinetti, to name a few — are common to us all. Readers learn that talented photographers experience wobbles just like anyone else, and that photography, as it reflects life, can be a struggle. PNT is now in its second run after the first edition sold out in March.
Editor Will Steacy began soliciting the essays over five years ago. In a clumsy effort to share material with interested contributors, Steacy posted essays online in a blog format but didn’t password-protect the URL. Within 24 hours of e-mailing the blog to collaborators, it had gone viral.
“I woke up in Vegas after a shoot, had a cup of coffee, sent the e-mail out, went to the airport, and got on a plane. When I arrived back in New York that evening my inbox was flooded with e-mail,” he recalls.
Steacy, who doesn’t have a Facebook account and describes himself as a “Neanderthal” when it comes to technology, quickly put the kibosh on the short-lived liking, tweeting and sharing, and deleted the blog, but the frantic fascination during those few days of teasing access confirmed he was on to a good thing. The final published work doesn’t disappoint.
Many of the essays focus on ethical dilemmas. On the outskirts of Lahore in Pakistan, Ed Kashi is jolted from his journalist M.O. by a filmmaker friend to help the victims of a fatal traffic collision. Joseph Rodriguez, with memories of his own addicted parents, steps in when one of his subjects, a crack-addled man, is shaping to assault his wife. In a harrowing tale, Misty Keasler describes a drunken father’s abuse against his daughters to prove to the photographer how desperate life was for his ostracized gypsy families. “I would never be able to reconcile the fact that violence, especially against children, had been created for me,” writes Keasler.
The book also includes lighthearted moments. Michael Meads recalls the last hurrah of an aging New Orleans drag queen. And Matt Salacuse recounts the moment he raised his camera to snap an image of Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman and their newly adopted baby, only for Cruise to command, “You’re not doing that.”
“It must have been some crazy Scientologist voodoo mind trick, because I looked at him and said, ‘You are right. I am not.’ And I didn’t,” writes Salacuse.
For the most part, however, the contributors are earnest, and even grave. Elusive images are mourned and in their place robust memories are inserted. It’s all quite bittersweet.
Steacy refers collectively to photographers’ memories as “mental negatives,” as if to suggest photographers’ eyes and the proteins and synapses of memory are wired differently. Certainly photographers — by nature or nurture — are visual beings, but, ironically, PNT’s essays render these mental negatives in ways the lost images could not.
The task of singling out one memory invariably summons meditation on life’s fundamentals — the love of family (Carucci, Jordan, Sanguinetti); the absence of family (Elkins); the loss of home (Patterson); threatened lives (Mosse, Webb). For all their devotion to photography, the consensus among the essayists is that images on paper and in pixels are mere reflections of — and no substitute to — lived experience.
And when life is extinguished or hangs by a gossamer thread, photographers’ own motives and compulsions to record are under the fiercest of self-examinations. Photographer Simon Roberts finds himself unable to shoot a portrait at the deathbed of Priscilla Dzvengwe, a young Zimbabwean girl.
“The girls, including Priscilla began to cry as they sang. For the first time in my career, I felt physically unable to take a photograph. It was a moment to be lived, not framed…. A photograph could not have conveyed the horrors that Priscilla had experienced in her short life nor her acknowledgement that she would soon be leaving this world,” writes Roberts.
In a book about lack and loss, perhaps it is unsurprising that many of the essays focus on death. For example, due to cultural beliefs, Zwelethu Mthethwa’s family denied him permission to photograph his dead mother at her funeral.
“No image of the body must exist after its life is gone…. I realize that, in fact, the final image could never have been that specific photograph. The image was, and remains to this day, a nuanced and ever shifting conglomeration of the memories [of my mother] themselves,” he writes.
Peter Van Agtmael’s story from an Iraqi cemetery taught him only that “even the spiritual leadership was not immune to the war’s dehumanizing effects.” The photograph he did not take was of a military chaplain relieving himself while the soldiers radioed in their position. “He zipped up, turned around, and declared it a ‘holy piss.’ As I gawked, rivulets of urine snaked onto the sun baked hump of what was clearly a child’s grave. The patrol moved on,” Van Agtmael writes.
Conversely, Jim Goldberg’s trigger finger was stayed by the beginning of life — during his wife’s long and painful labor. “There was no way in hell I would use a camera to miss those incredible moments,” he writes.
It’s comforting to know that even the best photographers question the purpose and act of image making and that when it comes to life and death, the full sensory experience outside any potential frame is of more importance. Photographs Not Taken is not a book about regret; it’s about gratitude. The missed opportunities are merely the back-stories to photographers’ appreciation for life.
And for one contributor, that life was cut short. Before Tim Hetherington was killed by a mortar last year while he was working in Libya, he submitted an essay that deals honestly about the perennial photojournalist’s dilemma of how to depict foreigners and when to photograph trauma and death.
In his essay, Hetherington describes the aftermath of a road accident in Liberia for which he’s “too far gone to be able to attempt any recording” of the dozens of injured and dead. While understandable, he criticizes himself that earlier that same day he had “no qualms” photographing five tortured corpses. His constant questioning of his own biases is admirable. When selecting images from Liberia for Infidel, a book about American soldiers in Afghanistan, he chose not to include a graphic shot of an American shot in the head out of respect, but notes he had not hesitated publishing a similar image of a “nameless African.”
Hetherington, more than most photographers, pushed discussions about what interests images served. He handled visual documents responsibly in a frenetic digital world. He made choices based upon, not only his subject, but also his audience. His essay adds to his already considerable legacy.
The 200+ pages of Photographs Not Taken do not focus on amazing light, or compositions missed, but on humanity seen, remembered, cherished, learned and broken. Maybe photography can’t live up to experience. Maybe photography steals away – or sullies – the preciousness of memory. After reading Photographs Not Taken, those moments of hesitation, so warmly shared, are far more arresting than some of the most engaging photographs. As Aaron Schuman speculates, those memories are “perhaps the photographs kept, not taken.”
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Book-reading: Amy Elkins, Eirik Johnson and Michael Itkoff, founder of Daylight will read excerpts from Photographs Not Taken and be in discussion at Ampersand Bookstore and Gallery in Portland, OR on May 11th at 7:30pm.