It can depend on the purpose of course; a selfie of you and your mates out on the town for the night to share on social media, or a magnificent sunset over the silhouetted ruins of a castle to remind you of a wonderful holiday in an exotic location. In such cases the answer would seem obvious.
However in this instance I am not thinking about the subject of the photograph but the photographer. How do you see yourself as you take the picture? Dorothea Lange, documenter of the Great Depression in the 1930s said that every photograph is of the photographer. The question came to my mind, following my exhibition of photographs of the old railway in Weymouth as it appears today, and my subsequent (and inaugural) blog posting on this site.
“… nothing charms me so much as walking along the lower classes, studying them carefully and making mental notes. They are interesting from every point of view.”Alfred Stieglitz 1896
Alfred Stieglitz, one of the pioneers of photography as an art form, wrote, “nothing charms me so much as walking along the lower classes, studying them carefully and making mental notes. They are interesting from every point of view.” (1896). He was very much the outsider looking in.
“Photography has always been … a way of attempting to understand what it means to feel kinship with another.”Larry Fink, On Composition and Improvisation, 2014, p.58
Other photographers have taken a more empathetic approach. Larry Fink, the observer of New York life, is one such photographer very much engaged with his subject. For him photography has always been “a way of attempting to understand what it means to feel kinship with another.”
Both photographers have created excellent work but their differing outlooks meant that the work they created was very different.
As an outsider there is a danger that you begin to impose your own judgement on what you see. This is what happened when I set out to photograph the track of the old boat train in Weymouth. Despite having grown up in Weymouth the photographs I saw myself as that outsider and the photographs I took reflected that view of myself.
For me those photographs were very much about the shape and form of the tracks. They were taken in midwinter so I was attracted to the strong low light falling across them. I was also fascinated by the decay and the neglect; the weathered lines, the disused buildings, and the litter. One of my personal favourites was “End of the Line” showing the track running into overgrowth. Decay has always been a popular theme in many of my photographs as many of my closest friends would attest.
There are very few people in the photographs and, where they do appear, they are very much compositional elements in a landscape. It seemed to me that most people ignored this piece of industrial heritage beneath their feet and this is how I represented them.
This could not be further from the truth as I discovered when I read the comments in the visitor’s book and when I spoke to some of the people who came to the exhibition. There is still a great deal of passion for the old railway line. The visitors’ book became a debate between those who wanted to see it retained as a unique feature of Weymouth’s history and those who wanted saw it as a hazard and wanted it rip out! During the exhibition afterwards I met with an old man who reminisced about the time he worked on line, a woman who’s father had been responsible for hiring labour at the docks, and a young man keen to see the track preserved for posterity.
My exhibition showed one view of the old railway line, possibly an outsider’s view, but there are other photographic projects that could be made of the boat train that used run through Weymouth.
A version of this article was originally posted in November 2017