Home photography

I own quite a few photography books: how-to books, artistic monographs, historical essays, technical treatments and so on. There is one book in my library that I keep coming back to as a source of inspiration – Andrew Sanderson’s ‘Home Photography’.

This is not a how-to book as such, more of an exercise on finding intimate images. Sanderson tackles what I see as one of the biggest barriers for photographers who are trying to develop or maintain a personal vision. I call this the problem of being in ‘Automatic Pilot’.

What do I mean? We walk into our local woods, past that huge oak tree and we say to ourselves ‘how beautiful and majestic’! Being photographers, we take meter readings, assessing angles, look at the light coming through the canolpy. How green! We choose a point of view with an appropriate lens, compose, and take the picture. Nothing wrong with this.

Except one thing: we need to be mindful about how our intention has been shaped by habit. That ‘beautiful and majestic’ tree has been pigeon-holed as such. Every time I see that tree I say to myself ‘how beautiful and majestic!’. I come to habitually see it as such. In time, I don’t even think the words. More time elapses and over the years I don’t even see the actual tree, I simply think I see it, with all of the assumptions that this might bring in.

The Automatic Pilot problem is more acute in your home.

Here’s an exercise. Sit down and close your eyes. Describe in detail the tea-pot on your kitchen table, say. What colour is it? Is it all one colour? What shape is the spout? What pattern is the tea-staining on the lip of the spout? It can be difficult to precisely, or even roughly, answer such questions, even though we see the tea-pot many times each day.

That human memory is poor at retrieving visual facts is common knowledge. But part of the problem is that we do not look at things afresh, as if for the first time. We walk about and fail to notice things unless there is a reason to notice. Once we categorize things from being a tea-pot to ‘the tea-pot’, from a kitchen table to ‘the kitchen table’ and so on, we live in the assumption that we will re-identify that tea-pot every time we see it. But we never see it afresh unless we once again see a tea-pot. Of course, there is a good reason for why this happens. If we took in everything we see individually, we would not be able to function.

To observe properly is to get beyond habit; perhaps to decouple the process of seeing from the process of describing. Back to Sanderson’s book. There are two compelling things that strike me about it:

Firstly, it is written in a self-deprecating style. If you have had the good fortune to have met Andrew, you will recognise from his style a very sincere, open and honest and, above all, a passionate commitment to Photography. He sees compositions everywhere he looks but never rests on the laurels of past work. He is always pushing himself to visually engage with the world in new ways. His self-deprecating style belies someone who is an innovator, unafraid to go his own way and stick to it for the purposes of his art.

The second thing is the private intimacy of his images. When you look at his sumptuous pictures, you understand the personal nature of what he visually shares and how much of him is in those images. I have been to many photo exhibitions in my personal capacity but also as once-director of a Photographic Gallery and also a once-Trustee of The Royal Photographic Society, and I have rarely seen such a quality displayed so convincingly. A few other photographers come to mind, Sally Mann for example, but most work that I see seems soulless, lacking individuality and personal emotion. That is certainly not the case for Andrew Sanderson.

In closing, the strength of the book lies in its very honest and matter-of-fact account and tips in the text coupled to some wonderful personal images. As Sanderson emphasises, we don’t have to travel far to find fresh ways to see. The journey is as much internal as it is external.

I keep coming back to this book.