Prior to 1991, my photographic undertakings were perfunctory at best. I used a camera only for ‘special’ occasions — like birthdays and vacations — and I parsimoniously rationed each exposure to minimize my film and processing costs. I was both blithely ignorant and squeaky cheap.
That year, I experienced a monumental photographic awakening. I don’t know what caused it, and I can’t point to any one single image or photographer that was responsible. But I suddenly became voracious in my consumption of photographic images. I studied every page of every publication in every photography section of every bookstore in San Francisco. I attended any gallery or museum that tacked photographs to its walls, and I purchased dozens of photography periodicals each month — even the French and German ones. Never mind that I didn’t speak those languages, I was on an insatiable quest. And as my gluttony grew, my ‘food’ supply ran short. In these primitive, pre-internet days, photographs were a finite commodity — and soon, the only way I could see new photos was to take them myself. What a revelation! My world changed in an instant, and suddenly everything in it looked completely different — life, itself, had became a photo opportunity.
And thus, I was ignorant no more!
But I was still squeaky cheap. So when the time came to start shooting my own film, I decided to save stacks of cash by processing and printing it myself. This, of course, meant black & white. And the more I shot it, the more I became enamored with its graininess and contrast. I would often purchase the highest ISO film stock I could find, then shoot in the darkest and murkiest places. Shadows began to interest me more than the subjects that cast them. Indefinite, grainy edges became sources of intrigue and mystery. Everything I shot was cold and distant yet, inexplicably, warm and inviting. In short, I had become enamored with texture.
Texture became one of the biggest creative influences in my life — not just in photography, but in the densely dark music I was writing and producing at the time. In some ways, I didn’t adopt texture, it adopted me. In those early photographic days, I couldn’t afford to shoot, process, or print brightly colored images. I couldn’t afford sharp, vivid lenses. My tools and materials limited my options, and thus expanded my creativity.
Technology advanced and, as the years progressed, my cameras, lenses, techniques and knowledge all improved dramatically. Eventually, I was able to produce the sort of high-calibre professional images that were beyond my grasp in those early years. And, with my photographic appetite showing no signs of waning, I was more than happy to feed it all the bright, clean, colorful, rich, and radiant images I could muster.
But recently, something new has entered my ongoing evolution as a photographer, and it’s actually something quite old — texture. I am, once again, beguiled by its imperfection and its incomprehensible shadows. I’m drawn to its secrets and, like a lost love rekindled, this attraction has energized me with a renewed spirit and a feeling of youth to belie my years.
In my quest to become a more ‘professional’ photographer, I’d forgotten what it meant to be a ‘personal’ photographer. For me, photographic beauty lies in the defects, flaws, cracks, scratches, deficiencies and limitations of the textured image. These are the sort of images I once took for myself. And these are the images I’ve started taking again.
At the top of this article, is an image I shot in early-February. I had planned to publish a series of Valentine’s Day ‘street’ photos but fell ill, which forced me to scrap the project. I’m publishing the image here as a tangible example of texture’s magical properties. Because love, itself, is timeless, I wanted the image to convey that same sense of timelessness. Shooting at a fairly high ISO speed and with manual focusing, I was able to create the sort of grainy, imperfect image that can’t be identified with any particular era.
The second image is a self portrait. I shot this today, from the hip, into a filthy and broken mirror outside an abandoned nightclub on Granville Street. The cracks and stains provide both a slightly distorted reality and a different type of texture than the beach photograph.
While the technology behind photography has always been a quest for perfection, texture is about imperfection. It sets a mood and suggests a feeling. In a medium meant to depict reality, texture provides a way to inject surreality.
©2009 grEGORy simpson
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