I spent last weekend walking in the area around my family’s cottage in the Devil’s Bridge area of mid-wales. I’ve been lucky to visit many beautiful places, but Wales has a strange aura which for me is unlike any other, a beauty which is never showy or obscene, but which is just ancient, effortless and indifferent. Glacial hills, barren moorland, immortal woodland.
Walking for mile upon mile through these surroundings, usually carrying a camera, I’m often minded to remember the inability of photography to directly convey things. Standing at the head of a steep valley after a long climb, looking down through barren deciduous trees scattered with snow, to the sun dappled floor a thousand feet below where an icy river tears past old lead mine works, the thought alone of taking a photograph, of treating this place as another photo opportunity, seems somehow sacrilegious.
And that’s because regardless of the talent of the photographer, irrespective of the specialisation of their equipment, a photograph will never be more than a poor surrogate, a shallow replacement for the real thing. It is inevitable, no camera I have ever come across can convey what the human eye can, cameras operate in wholly different ways, under-performing in some respects, over-performing in others, but always producing something quite different from what is seen. It calls to mind the Winogrand claim to ‘photograph to see how things look photographed’ and the result is often disappointing.
But it is not just the consequence of optics or chemistry. The feeling looking out over that valley is a product not just of radiation, of energy, coalesced into dark and light, but of adrenaline, hyperventilation, exhaustion, cold, euphoria. All of these things come together to make something unique, an experience which cannot be conveyed by a two dimensional print or an image on a screen. Just as the camera is never ‘objective’ nor is the observer. The cameras depiction of these views is maybe even more objective than my own at the end of a long climb, but it is strangely the worse for it.
Clearly few people would claim photographs are a stand in for reality, but it is still common for people to imply as such in their language. A photograph is perhaps more of a taster for a prospective visitor, or a primer for the memory of someone who has already been. A photograph is like a flashcard, or an ink blot test, a fragment of something (or perhaps not even that).
Despite my earlier comment that to photograph in these beautiful environs seems somehow taboo, I must confess that I still often can’t resist taking a picture or two. Not so much because I still want to try and record or the preserve the beauty of what I see in front of me, but more because I am curious to test the limits of the camera. To see, in other words, how badly the camera will fail to do justice to what is in front of me, so later I can compare the failed photograph to the memory in my head, itself I should admit, also often wholly inadequate.