12 Nov 2009

books etc

I'm an avid reader of novels set in cities. My street photography is an act of turning a passing moment into something tangible and memorable. Inversely, the words of these novels, fixed on the page, fire up images and snatches of ideas in my mind.
I remember being struck by this passage from Paul Auster's City of Glass not long after I returned from living in New York City...

New York was an inexhaustible space, a labyrinth of endless steps, and no matter how far he walked, no matter how well he came to know its neighbourhoods and streets, it always left him with the feeling of being lost. Lost, not only in the city, but within himself as well. Each time he took a walk, he felt as though he were leaving himself behind, and by giving himself up to the movement of the streets, by reducing himself to a seeing eye, he was able to escape the obligation to think, and this, more than anything else, brought him a measure of peace, a salutary emptiness within.
I can also pick out particular themes that I respond to. For example Jonathan Glancey's London: Bread and Circuses, Iain Sinclair's Lights Out For the Territory and Will Self's The Book of Dave each, in their own way, depict a great sweep of London's history, past and future, factual and fantastical, that changed my perception of the streets I walk today, home of ghosts of the past and the future. Here's Jonathan Glancey's insight...

In a transcendental moment, I felt as if I was rising like some cockney sparrow or the spirit of William Blake and, looking down on my own city - one of the world's greatest - saw it boozing and shopping away its political conciousness as it bopped to the tune of a thousand advertising jingles. Two thousand years flashed before my eyes and I was standing in Londinium alongside a supercilious legate from Rome in a purple-edged toga. "Bread and circuses", he sneered. 
Novels written in the 1920s and 30s such as Night and the City by Gerald Kersh, Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky by Patrick Hamilton and, of course, Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf have a relevance to my present day experience of the city, of an individual's daily life in the crowd, of dealing with universal emotions and issues, while negotiating the modern world. Patrick Hamilton describes a particular event that illustrates this experience for me...

Now there is an extraordinary allure in walking around, or hanging about the streets, in the vague hope of catching (and so justifying your rather bold expectations) one who has no thought of meeting you. You may, after a while, have lost all desire to see the individual in question, but at the same time you find a peculiar difficulty in behaving like a man and cutting a loss. Having gone to the trouble of trailing up and down six or seven streets, you are loth to lose your point for a ha'porth of obstinacy, and are almost convinced that the very street providence has selected for you is the eight. You therefore go up it. Then your eight will probably bring you to some short cut, or other topographically excusable ninth, and unless you are very careful you will find yourself before long calmly attacking your nineteenth.

I've just started reading the novel 253 by Geoff Ryman. It was first published online. In essence it's a series of descriptions of passengers on a London underground train and a single event that binds them together. Individuals are described in a sequence of three paragraphs, each adding complexity, literally filling out the character: outward appearance; inside information; what she is doing or thinking.

In terms of location there is a direct crossover to the subway/metro images of Walker Evans and Luc Delahaye. In addition there is a more fundamental connection to the mystery of street photography, or simply the way we instinctively assess and judge those around us based on our first take of their outward appearance. A photograph of that first take lets us dwell a little longer on that person.  A posed portrait offers an opportunity to find out more inside information yet we discover no such facts from contemplating a street portrait. We have to work a little harder, if we choose, to construct a story about what we see. I'd argue that effort can be as creative, worthwhile and mysterious as the taking of the original image.
Ultimately it's why I'm still driven to do what I do.

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