Photographing from the outside

What do you see when you take a photograph?

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.

The outsider

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

The noise of time

I was struck by a comment made by a friend recently. We were talking about the difference between the practice of painting and photography.

“Of course,” he said to me, “it’s easier to take photographs; you only have to press the shutter and then you’re done. When you are painting it can take much longer.”

This does, as I tried to argue, leave aside the time the photographer may have to spend revisiting a scene to capture the best moment, or setting up a shot. It could be argued that the photographer might take several photographs before settling on the final image in the same way that a painter may make lots of sketches to start with. Then there is the time in the darkroom or at the computer processing and printing off the finished photograph.

My friend was right in one respect however; the physical act of capturing the scene in front of the photographer is an instant compared to the time it will take a painter to do the same. The photographer could be already on her way down from the hillside whilst the painter is still there with his easel, palette and brushes.

A photograph is more than just the duration of the shutter speed

The photograph, however, can represent more than just that instant. To illustrate this, here are a couple of my photographs. One of them; fingers caught at the moment of picking a gooesberry, could represent a specific instance in time: the second; an ancient timbered beam, part of the launching bay for the SS Great Eastern, Brunel’s massive ocean going liner,  could hint at a longer time period.

The first shows someone in the act of picking a gooseberry from a bush. The second picture is of an ancient timbered beam, part of the launching bay for the SS Great Eastern, Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s massive ocean going liner. The vessel was so big it had to be launched sideways into the Thames from a specially made dock in Milwall, East London. This photograph shows a part of that launching bay, one of the huge beams the ship would have slid over on its way into the water back in 1858.

The harvesting of the fruit is a very obvious moment in time. Seconds earlier and the berry would still have been on the bush; moments later and it would be in the bowl with all the other gooseberries. Later still it could be depicted as one of the ingredients for a dessert. Photographs taken at each of those instances would have been very different from the one we have here.

The second picture, however, could have been taken at any moment. The huge beam has been there on the side of the Thames in East London since 1858 when the Great Eastern was launched (sideways because it was so big, and after several unsuccessful attempts). It has been preserved since then was not about to go away in the next few years. There have been changes but these have been gradual; it has become more weathered and the land around it has changed. However very little would have changed if I had taken the photograph five minutes earlier. Perhaps it would have looked different if I had visited at another time or day when the lighting or weather was different but unlike the other picture I would suggest it does not represent a single moment.

“The photograph cuts across time and discloses a cross-section of the event or events which were developing at that instant.”

John Berger, Understanding a Photograph, 2013 p.90

Both photographs do, however, represent more than just the time they were taken. The writer, John Berger, described a photograph as an interruption in time. “The photograph,” he wrote, “cuts across time and discloses a cross-section of the event or events which were developing at that instant.” (Berger, Understanding a Photograph, 2013, p90).

Photographs represent the past and future of the subject as well as the immediate moment

The picture of the gooseberry represents the moment of harvest but also the time before; the growth of the fruit bush and the care and attention the gardener paid it throughout the season. It also represents the time afterwards; the berries being washed and turned into jam or an apple and gooseberry pie. In the case of the beam the timescale is longer. We are taken back to the middle of the 19th century when the Great Eastern was launched, and then through the years as the area changed from one of industry and commerce to a residential park.  And we are taken into a future as the area will change again; the ancient beam will become more weathered and one day disintegrate; perhaps the Thames will rise up and flood the park leaving it under water.

Berger helpfully illustrated his idea with a couple of simple diagrams showing the moment the photograph was taken cutting through a line representing the past and the future of the subject. The more information the photograph contains for the viewer then the larger the circle representing the interruption. I would humbly suggest a slight variation on Berger’s theory. The photograph of the gooseberry being picked could be represented by the continuum of time sliced by the instance of the photograph. The moment of my second photograph could perhaps be represented by a longer period of time. Whereas the first photograph was more of an instinctive response to the moment, capturing the second photograph was part of a longer and more considered process; more equivalent to the painter?

The sound of the shutter firing ripples backwards and forwards through time

In photography, and painting, however the moment recorded is just a part of something greater; the time before and time after. In his thoughts on photography (and much else), “Camera Lucida” Roland Barthes wrote about the noise of time.

“For me the noise of Time is not sad: I love bells, clocks, watches — and I recall that at first photographic implements were related to techniques of cabinetmaking and the machinery of precision: cameras, in short, were clocks for seeing, and perhaps in me someone very old still hears in the photographic mechanism the living sound of the wood.” .

(Barthes, Camera Lucida, 1993, p15)

The sound of that instance when I fired the shutter to capture the photographs of the instance of the gooseberry harvest and the timeless beam ripple back and forwards through time.


This blog was first posted in September 2017

Home town

An enforced sojourn in my home town results in a few reflections on its past and present, and I am struck by the unique attraction of an actual railway line running down the middle of the road.

As the year ended I hadn’t meant to find myself in Weymouth, the town of my childhood.

Like many others over the holiday season I was taking the opportunity to see family and friends. I was intending to spend a couple of days between Christmas and the New Year with family in the town I grew up. My plans changed, though, when I fell ill. Nothing serious but enough to keep me in bed for a day.

On the afternoon of the last day of the year, a bright and sunny day, I finally felt well enough to get out into the fresh air. As usual I carried my camera with me. I very rarely go anywhere without it. I am always looking and trying to make patterns, compositions out of what I see. Perhaps it is my way of trying to make sense of the world.

On this occasion I was drawn to the old railway line that runs along the harbour side, almost uniquely, down the middle of the road. This is not a tramline or a light railway; this is an actual full sized railway track on which actual full sized trains used to run.

A very brief history of my home town

Weymouth has had a chequered history from starting the Black Death in England to becoming one of the first seaside resorts

Weymouth is a small seaside resort on the south coast of England. It had first been granted a charter in 1252 and had become a flourishing wool port in an age when wool was a major part of the English economy (wool was to medieval England what oil is to the middle east today). However it was always vulnerable to outside forces; the rats that brought the Black Death to Britain are said to have landed here in 1349; a few years later it was twice raided by French pirates. Its vulnerability to raiders meant that trade eventually moved along the coast to nearby Poole. It bounced back though, becoming one of only three ports licenced for the conveyance of pilgrims to the Holy Land and other sites of religious devotion in mainland Europe. In the 17th century it also became the jumping off point for many heading to the New World, some of them founding the town of Weymouth, Massachusetts.

Towards the end of the 18th century the town reinvented itself as the first seaside resort when George III visited it no less than fourteen times between 1789 and 1805. Around the same time the first ferry service between Weymouth and the Channel Islands began when the port was designated for the packet station for the Channel Islands mail by the Post Office.

The coming of the trains

In 1865 a railway was laid from the town’s station to the harbour side to serve the packet ships. The wagons were at first pulled by horses but these were soon replaced by locomotives. Goods such as broccoli, flowers and potatoes were landed here to be carried off across the rest of Britain. Weymouth’s port side became a bustling and noisy place with the creaking and bumping of wagons and the shouts of men hauling loads to and from the ships that berthed alongside.

Later the railway began to carry passengers. It was possible to catch a train from London to Weymouth station and then on, at a walking pace, through the town, past the houses (you were so close and so high up you could almost look in their bedroom windows) to the port and your boat to France. As a child I remember standing on the roadside watching the huge locomotive and carriages rumble past me. In time, though the railway began to decline. The last freight train ran in 1972 and the last passenger service in 1987. No train has run on these rails since 1999.

And their disappearance

Weymouth’s industrial heritage was hidden in plain sight

As I walked through the town on New Year’s Eve, my eye was caught by the low winter sunlight glinting on the disused rails that ran along the road, sometimes disappearing under the tarmac, but still visible, a ghostly presence of an earlier age.

As I followed the track, past the bus station, around the marina, under the Town Bridge, and along the harbour side to the currently disused port buildings it became impossible not to see the decline of the railway and the port as a metaphor for the turbulent times Britain is living through at the moment. Once Weymouth was a confident port looking and trading with the rest of Europe. Now the port has all but gone and the town has turned in on itself. In the European Union referendum of 2016, some 60% of those who voted in the town, voted to leave the union, in common with many other seaside resorts.

I also noticed that I was almost the only person paying attention to the tracks that run under wheel and foot. Apart from an occasional flurry of interest following a road traffic incident, or when someone would love to see trains run there once again it is ignored. So I set out that afternoon to record this piece of industrial archaeology and a reminder of the town’s prosperous past that is driven and walked over everyday but barely noticed, a railway line fading underfoot.


This article originally appeared in August 2017

Self-portrait

Welcome, and thank you for stopping. It is very kind of you to do so. There are so many demands on our time and attention so I appreciate you taking the effort to pause here a moment.


My name is Stephen Taylor. I work full time (as an e-learning developer and instructional designer) but in my spare time I take photographs. You can view some of my work on this website. Some of it is also for sale on Alamy and nuMonday, either as digital downloads or physical prints. More of my photographs can be found on Flickr and Instagram as well.

We are always learning (I learnt that in my early days as a trainer) and this blog is a part of my learning process (and possibly yours?). Some of the postings will be on the subject of photography itself, based upon my reading on the subject and viewing other photographers’ works. Other postings will be on my experiences as a photographer seeking to improve my art; some of these will be less about the photographic process and more about the subject itself.

I am sharing them because I hope that people will respond with their own ideas so that together we can learn. I am not an expert in the subject but I am happy to share my thoughts and to have them challenged. I hope that in some respects this blog can become a conversation on the subject of photography.