I keep coming back to Susan Sontag’s writings on photography and the passing of time. “All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.” (“On Photography”, 1973)
I’m drawn to this in my own work, but not in a morbid way. There’s beauty in it too. We don’t need to pretend everything is perfect, always and forever. Let’s not pretend there are no wind farms, crash barriers or wheelie bins in our most beautiful landscapes; let’s not imagine that our faces can remain glowing and youthful forever, and let’s not depict our children as perpetually clean-faced and beaming. There is beauty in honest reality.
There’s plenty of fear, conflict, and environmental disaster in the world too, and of course that must be explored and reported, must be faced and challenged. Photography can help do that too.
But it’s alright, I think, when the ceaseless barrage of news gets too much, to detach for a moment and look for the beauty, to wander with a camera, to slice out a moment, and freeze it.
When mortality comes close – whether because of personal loss or geopolitical threat – there is perhaps something reassuring in the permanence of an ancient landscape and an infinite universe. ‘Time’s relentless melt’ is there in the movement of the clouds, in the decay of the forest floor, in the rust and rot of human endeavour – and there is beauty in that impermanence. But those rocks, that sea, the sun and stars – they’re there to stay, for a very, very long time.
The next one is not a pretty picture, and it’s not supposed to be. It is the Turnberry Lighthouse in Ayrshire, on a gloomy day at the back end of a seemingly interminable winter. A lighthouse immediately makes you think of danger and death, of storms and destruction. That’s why it’s there, after all. This lighthouse is now part of Trump’s luxury golf resort; it’s the halfway house on the course, and you can stay in the suite for £7000 a night. The manicured greens and slick décor, set in that particular landscape, call to mind Shelley’s Ozymandias, and the vanity (perhaps in both senses) of human power. Knowing who the owner is inevitably brings to mind the precarious state of global politics.
And in the background, if you look closely, the sun’s rays are breaking through the cloud to shine on the magnificent, ancient, volcanic island of Ailsa Craig; rock which somehow puts everything else in its place, renders it fleeting, mutable, mortal.
Interpret these ramblings as you will. I’m not religious, but if you are, you might have a particular take on it. For me, it’s a way of changing my perspective every now and then; one that gives me space to breathe, and which softens the relentlessness of time’s melt.