An Illumination


There really is no sensible argument about photography and art. Of course photography is an art. But there is a more subtle argument about whether photography is an inferior art to painting. Each concerns things seen and remembered. But for my money, painting is the more demanding medium, since more scope for imagination can be enjoyed. At the same time, painting requires special manual skills. Photography is evidently capable of creating imagery of very great force. Painting is, equally evidently, capable of producing the brainless, ugly, lazy crapola which is hung for credulous tourists every Sunday along the park railings of Bayswater Road.

I am no sentimentalist or technophobe. Painting, I accept, is an historic medium practiced today only as a sort of status relic. Other methods of articulating visual memory and visual imagination have long since turned it into a passage – a glorious one, indeed, but a passage nonetheless – in the history of art. Still, a great painting remains a thing of transcendent wonder. While excited by CMOS chips, I nonetheless believe that photography is inferior to painting because so much of what we see and enjoy in a great photo has been the work not of the person, but of the machine. The chemical composition of the red pigment in your favourite Rembrandt self-portrait influenced the result much less than the speed of the processor in Mario Testino’s Canon.

It is true that the new technologies create new opportunities. In terms of erotica my own tastes rather incline to The Wallace Collection and its subtle frivolities, but then I am the sort of person who lays out e-mails as if they were formal paper correspondence. So I was interested the other day when a friend of mine told me she had developed a relationship with her personal trainer which a few generations ago would have been called ‘inappropriate’. My friend? Oxford-educated and belonging to what a few generations ago would have been called the ‘professional classes’. Her trainer? A cheerful young man of Caribbean origin via a North London council estate. She was amazed and amused to be able to tell me that, in the social circle of her trainer, it was customary to record short videos on smartphones to be shared, like a bucket of nachos. The content of these videos was, of course, one’s current love interest in one form or other of personal sexual training.

Sometimes I do believe that electronics has drained enchantment from the world. I like what Thoreau said about electricity: it destroys darkness, while candles illuminate it. This is a thought in the same category as that old distinction between pornography and erotica: a matter only of the degree and quality of the lighting. Certainly, there are great pleasures and benefits arising from digital culture. The ability to capture and store without effort or reflection tens of thousands of worthless images being one of them.

But I think it is sometimes forgotten that one thing we have lost in the journey from the Pentax S1a to the Sureshot is not so much the ability to discriminate borne of a sense of intelligent economy in the consumption of expensive photographic film and paper, but…..the darkroom. This was the laboratory where the mysterious alchemy of wet chemical photography produced its visual gold. The name itself is, of course, evocative. ‘Would you like to look around my darkroom?’ is a question that contains much more promise than ‘Would you like to click on iPhoto?’.

There must be a generation today that does not know what a darkroom actually is (if it is not a penalty in a noisy swords’n’sandals videogame). Let me explain: darkrooms had all sources of natural light excluded, often, as I recall, by bin bags taped to bedroom windows. This tended to create a promising atmosphere of expectation which was powerfully enhanced by the dull red light which had only a slow effect on photo-sensitive emulsions, although quite a quick effect on the libidinous imagination. Already, the atmosphere was like (I imagine) an Istanbul bordello of the cheaper category. The only anaphrodisiac element in the darkroom was the atrocious smell of developer. But we were young.

I remember at school I had a friend. I was about sixteen and a half at the time of this memory, and she was about a year older than me. We both had an interest in photography and, thanks to indulgent parents, we each had a darkroom of a rather provisional sort. In those days, being interested in photography (if you were a boy) gave an intellectual gloss to the study of nudes. And (if you were a girl) made you one of the boys.

When Christie came to my darkroom, she collaborated in the exposure and development of excruciatingly pretentious images of mine. Rusty capstans in Liverpool’s Albert Dock exposed at the equivalent of 6400 ASA so that you could see the molecular construction of the film. That sort of tiresome, artless thing. This ordeal she bore with stoic avant-gardism.

One day Christie invited me to her darkroom. Summer in the suburbs, the back of my neck getting dirty quickly. This was a strange place to be on a sunny afternoon, but not at all unpleasant. If nothing else, being in a darkroom stimulates a keen sense of intimacy and collaborative purpose. Yet up until this afternoon my interest in Christie had been of a photographic nature alone. Perhaps we discussed f-stops or our lust for a Nikon F with Photomic head.

Anyway, after some fiddling with the enlarger the first prints were ready to be slid into the toxic pong of the developer. Always in this process was a sense of excited anticipation nowadays entirely lacking, I think, in pressing the replay buttons. Something in the physical action of the chemicals is suggestive of meaningful transactions: atoms become imagery, an idea takes shape, something which did not hitherto exist becomes real.

Bent over the tray we peered as the first 10×8 photograph slowly materialised. The picture to my astonished delight was a rather frank nude self-portrait. Being a darkroom, I could not see her expression, but I could hear the amusement in her voice when she asked “What do you think?” I thought there really was no sensible argument about photography and art.

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