Anyone looking through my flickr photostream will probably notice there’s a paucity of pictures of people. There are probably only half a dozen or so shots in which you could identify the person featured, and half of those were taken in 1967 by my Dad. There are a few others where there are obviously people, but they are either obscured, distant, out of focus, or otherwise unidentifiable. Apart from these my photographs are of a strange world seemingly devoid of humans. In the landscape this is perhaps normal, even expected, but even in urban settings I will try and avoid having people in a shot – sometimes no mean feat.
The reason is partly paranoia – I am uncomfortable photographing people, and since my photographs are potentially going to end up on a public forum, I don’t want to worry about possible legal ramifications. Mainly though it is that I have little interest in people. I admire a great deal of portrait photography but it’s not something I see myself doing because I feel awkward in getting close enough to someone to really capture elements of their personality, and also because I don’t think the posed formal portrait really fits my style. I’m more interested in natural appearances and behaviour and it’s generally the case that if someone knows a camera is pointing at them, that’s not what you’re going to get.
But aside from photographs of people, I steer clear of photographs with people wherever possible, because in my view having a person in a photograph dramatically affects how that photograph is viewed. The eye is drawn to human figures almost immediately, so any other compositional consideration is secondary to how the figure is placed.
In this example even though the figure is tiny it changes the image completely from an almost abstract, minimalist landscape, to something else. The scale of the field becomes more apparent, the perspective is subtly different, and there are more questions raised by the presence of the figure – questions of identity, motive, etc. If the figure were replaced by, say, a lone tree the composition might remain the same, but fewer questions are posed and the scene returns to a simple landscape.
For some situations, then, I can use figures but mostly I don’t – why? Well, while there’s something of a contradiction in the term “natural landscape” when applied to most of the British Isles, it’s usually a simple, natural scene that I’m trying to depict. Although much of our landscape has been entirely shaped by human activity, I don’t particularly want to depict the activity itself when it’s embodied by an actual human presence. Even in a city I’d rather have an early morning tableau of deserted streets, or a haze of ghosts blurred by long exposure, than a set of figures frozen sharply in an instant.
Perhaps I’m simply looking for the easy way out – avoiding having to consider the complications of a person in the frame. But mostly I think I’m trying to achieve a sense of stillness and isolation, so that when I look back at the final image, I can rediscover that feeling.