Why? Because within it there lives colour and shape and line. Because it holds a kind of beauty that will reveal itself if only I can get past the words “old” and “rust” and “heap”. This is a gift – one of numerous gifts – that photography bestows: the ability to separate out sensory experiences and see the glint of gold among the dross. So that is why I am here at the Museum of Technology, camera in hand, lens cover tucked safely in pocket (I’m sick of losing the things) – to make images. Not because I have the slightest interested in the history of this junk.
No doubt there are . . . .men who come to wonder and marvel at these exhibits. “Ah yes, the old McPherson, the number six version, I believe. 1892, wasn’t it? Or was that when the bought out the alternating spindle?” I have no such arcane knowledge. To me this is where old machines come to die, just as an aged elephant, when sick and weary, seeks out the place to lay its tired bones among ancient and equally obsolete ancestors.
And I am come to photograph this object here before me. I neither know what it was nor what use it was put to. To be honest I don’t really care. It is what it is in the here-and-now that interests me: an abstract formed of curves and bars: a space divided by blocks and shadows: a sculpture caste in decaying metal. This I do want to know about – what I see, and only what I see.
This entire display is about crumpling decay. The years have laid a dusting of windblown earth on every piece. Spots of rust have blossomed and spread a dermis formed of red flakes that shatter at a finger’s touch. No doubt spiders and beetles – a whole zoology of creepy creatures – dwell among the cogs and wheels and beneath the hardened carapace of century-old grease. I touch the metal – raised letters of some old trade mark – but the words are cold and leave a dark, smeared stain on my skin. I don’t know what it is and I don’t want to even think about that, or how my shoes are being ruined by the mud from last night’s rain. There is nowhere to wipe my hands. Ugh!
I take refuge behind my camera; separate myself from the sordidness of it all by seeing it through the frame. Suddenly I am removed to another place where the object becomes purely objective in a world as sterile as an art gallery. Here is that thing of colours, shapes and lines that I was hoping to find, revealed at every button-press and shutter-click. This is the treasure I am to carry away – no cold wind or rain, no dirt or decay, no subtle creatures to feed upon the corrupted corpse.
And here it is – or will be soon: some small adjustments here and there, a subtle shifting of the light towards the red to emphasise the rust, a darkening of the shadows to heighten dramatic effect. And there we have it, processed, printed, freed from all those sensations and loaded emotions. Is it possible – just possible – that as I suspected, there may be some beauty in the object after all?
But it’s not real, one may argue, not true to life. Quite so, but reality is not the point. Would Brueghel’s street scenes be so enchanting if we could smell the unwashed bodies and raw sewage rotting in the gutter? A pictorial image, by its very nature, focuses on only one of the senses, eliminating messages from the others. Thus a photograph enables us to look beyond what may be distasteful or painful, and comprehend the beauty that lies in the mundane and crude. Is that a good thing? Perhaps it is. It could be that even that rusty old heap may have something to teach us if we look at it through the camera’s eye.
And what about moving beyond other preconceptions such as age, and race and religion? Yes, those things may all be present in the broader scene, but only when extraneous information is cropped away and the single message has been brought into focus, does Courage and Truth and Humanity become suddenly and blindingly obvious.
There is, however, an obverse side to this coin which must not be forgotten.
Daily we are bombarded with images – TV, internet, Facebook, Snapchat, Selfies. No longer merely an enhancement or a supplement to an explanation, the photographic image has now become a means of communication in its own right. But it can only tell a small fragment of a very broad and all-encompassing truth.
They say we are suffering from compassion overload, that we’re overexposed to scenes of crisis and conflict to the point where society is becoming emotionally detached from human suffering. Would it be possible to carry on watching TV over supper if we could actually experience the raw-copper smell of bold soaked streets? I don’t know. Maybe one can get used to anything in time. Yes, the world may be watching, but most of us are watching from a safe and comfortable distance.
Thus the photographer delivers to society an image that is sanitised and shrink-wrapped, whether it be for mass consumption, for select communication or for personal and private revelation. Whatever the intention, by its very nature, a photo image never tells the whole story. If the camera doesn’t exactly lie, it certainly can be very economic with the truth.