The Photographs Not Taken is a collection of essays by photographers about the times they didn’t use their camera. I have asked the photographers to abandon the conventional tools needed to make a photograph, and, instead, make one using words to describe the memories and experiences that didn’t go through the camera lens. Here, the process of making a photograph has been reversed. Instead of looking out into the world through a camera lens, these essays allow us to look directly into the photographer’s mind and eye and focus on where the photographs come from in their barest and most primitive form. These mental negatives depict the unedited world and the moments of life that do not exist in a single frame.
It seems too serendipitous that only a few days before I internet surfed right into this book, I was talking to my good friend and photographer Brian about writing the photographs we’ve missed, all the shots that for one reason or another would have been perfect if only the shutter had closed. It could be a way to document those instances for ourselves in words that may show more than the photographs could have. We both remembered March the year before as we had crossed a border in California with a three other photographers and our car was searched. Five of us were asked to take out all our photo gear and sit on a bench in the desert heat under a sign that said “no photography.” It was so ironic, sitting there sweating, weighed down by tripods, film, and more cameras than I can count, both of us just wishing we could take just one photo of the scene. Will Steacy and his book Photographs Not Taken beat us to it.
The essays run a few pages each, and range from hilarious to dire, while the reasons for refraining from taking a photo encompass the sentimental, the ethical, and the mistakes all of us as photographers make.
The stories themselves bring you a little bit closer to understanding the motivation behind the photography, and I’ve really enjoyed looking up the portfolios of photographers who’s essays or ideas I’ve connected with to see bits of their thought process in the photos they have taken.
Gregory Halpern asked questions about the portrait. His book project called Harvard Works Because We Do is mostly a portrait series that asks a lot more questions using portraits themselves about the working class there and it is a complex situation he delicately approaches while making his opinion and the truth very visible. My favourite paragraph from his essay is below:
Matt Salacuse is no bullshit, and I like that.
Tim Davis I think says it best, photography it is a way of looking at the world and seeing beyond yourself. I see things differently with a camera, and as I sling it over my shoulder the uniform transforms a lot of the mundanity into scenes worthy of documenting. It really is something I appreciate the longer I do it, and I think Davis articulates it beautifully.
My two favourite essays in their entirety were written by David Maisel and Chris Jordan. Both romanticize the photographs in their own personal lives not taken, and Chris Jordan’s in particular brought up an image I have of my Grandmother from an Easter dinner a few years ago. My family sat a her long dining room table with the blue table cloth on. I was in the middle, quiet and listening to her with her party hat on and a little bit of food stuck to her shirt from the meal she’d prepared, waving her arms talking about what a sorry excuse for a Mayor Rob Ford was. It was a photo I wanted to take then but didn’t, I couldn’t interrupt her speech, I didn’t want to, and I’ll never forget that mental shot of her commanding the table so seriously, with her party hat all crooked.
I sat outside yesterday on my balcony and read the whole book in the sun in a few hours. It brought me to Uganda, and Pakistan as well as to a backyard BBQ not dissimilar to the one I had attended the day before.
Photographs Not Taken is a short, insightful read in its entirety and give a quick glimpse inside life defining moments not photographed and how they’ve etch their way into the stories told by photographers who subsequent work to those moments is influenced by them themselves.
Can you think of a photograph you haven’t taken?