Updated: Oct 2, 2021
It’s hard to know when the inspiration for an image will strike us, the one thing that we can be certain of is that we should always obey its call. We never know if it will be the only opportunity we get. The photograph at the bottom of this page was made when I was leading a workshop with Joe Cornish in November '13. For the preceding days I’d felt a long way from inspired – not because Cornwall isn’t inspiring but because I wasn’t in the right frame of mind. To be fair, this is often the case for the first few days of a workshop. During this period, my mind is on the clients and what they need. My photography is rightly on the back burner.
The workshop started on Sunday night and I think it was Wednesday when we chose to visit Porthleven. It was my first time in this small fishing village. On the surface it all seems very quaint and charming, all Cornish pasties, cream teas and ice cream. But Porthleven is also famous for something much more spectacular; huge waves breaking over the outer harbour wall and the three story Institute. Here’s an image of mountainous seas by friend and local photographer Carla Regler.
It was slightly breezy, but nothing to write home about, as the group wandered around the inner harbour. We came upon some massive wooden beams that were used to close off the entrance between the inner and outer harbours. Their ends were clad in rusty steel, to my eyes a beautiful blend of warm tones ranging from purplish through to bright orange. Dave Mead, one of the participants, heard me mutter, “Oh bugger, I suppose I’ll have to make an image…” as I began to slip my rucksack off. I’d been struck by inspiration, with an almost literal force. I felt a compulsion to make an image.
Now began the process of finding my composition. I treat composition as a puzzle. It has many different facets – how best to compress three dimensions into two, how to accommodate time, how to balance tone and colour – which all need to be resolved in a successful image. I spent around twenty minutes just looking at the ends of the beams and trying to work out what drew me to them and how I might depict them in an image. Ansel Adams famously said that composition is, “knowing where to stand.” This position is the one where all the facets of the puzzle are addressed and seem to reach some kind of solution. There can never be a single ideal solution to this puzzle.
Every attempt is a compromise. Eventually I felt that I had found a reasonable answer to the puzzle presented by these beams and set my camera upon the tripod. Of course, the problem we try to solve is always personal. By choosing our subject and our composition we actually invent both the puzzle and solution. And the answer we find one day may not please us upon another. This lack of absolute answers is both a joy and the source of anxiety. If we wish to be truly creative, we will forever walk on uncertain terrain without a map. We cannot know beyond any doubt that the way we have chosen to make an image is the right one, the best or the most powerful. These are all meaningless terms as every viewer will have a different interpretation. We can only trust our instincts and make what seems right to us at the moment – listen to the voice that says, “Oh bugger, I suppose I’ll have to make an image…”
Ten minutes later we may have changed our minds. I’m not talking about seeing something new but of having seen something anew. That is actually what happened here. The image below is the second that I made that morning, having quickly rejected my first composition in favour of this version.
Time is the hidden element in all photographs, and it has many facets. As I set up my camera again a group of workers from the council arrived to lift the beams and drop them into place between the arms of the inner harbour. They were very tolerant of the time it was taking me to make my image and stood and watched as I exposed the 5×4. I felt the pressure of their time being wasted but I’m very grateful that they allowed me to continue. Although I wasn’t to know it at the time, this was my only opportunity to make this image. Just a few weeks afterwards immense seas pounded on the beams and smashed them to pieces, forever destroying any possibility of a re-shoot. So this image is not only a reflection of my aesthetic state on that day, it’s also – in its own small way – an historic document, a portrait of objects that have been lost forever.