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photo-eye Book Reviews: Photographs Not Taken

Photographs Not Taken. Edited by Will Steacy.
Published by Daylight, 2012.
Photographs Not Taken
Reviewed by Adam Bell
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Will Steacy, Editor. Photographs Not Taken
Edited by Will Steacy.
Daylight, 2012. Softcover. 232 pp., 5-1/2x8".

Photographers live with a multitude of missed moments and photographs that escape the click of the shutter. Equal parts voyeur and hoarder, photographers stereotypically collect moments and images. Anything that escapes is cause for at least a little temporary sorrow if not haunting regret. While they don’t possess a monopoly on this ever-present sense of loss, photographers are trained to be vigilant for such moments and feel this loss all the more acutely. The distinct collection of short personal essays in Photographs Not Taken is not merely a catalog of lost photographs, but offers unique insight into the personal desires and hopes that drive photographers, and points to what photography can’t, shouldn’t and often fails to capture.

Edited by the photographer Will Steacy, the collection began as a blog, which seemed to stop abruptly several years ago. It is nice to see what might have been an ephemeral and idiosyncratic web project formally presented and preserved as a book. From Elinor Carucci to the tragically departed Tim Hetherington, Steacy has assembled an impressive collection of sixty-two contemporary photographers whose work and concerns vary a great deal. The essays all describe what Steacy calls the “mental negatives,” or images that only exist in photographer’s memory or mind – the ones that got away. Reading through the essays, one is immediately struck by the reoccurrence of various themes – the camera is out of reach or out of film; the dilemma of capturing or experiencing a moment; the ethical decisions of helping, bearing witness or simply refusing to raise the camera in difficult moments; and pictures that simply escaped because the photographer was caught in the moment.

Photographers take pictures to engage with, give coherence to and make visible the people, places and things in the world. Since the medium forces us to engage the world, the essays present a variety of different stories. Peter Van Agtmael’s presents a harrowing story of an U.S. Army Chaplain in Iraq callously pissing near the newly dug graves of a child. Sylvia Plachy and Joshua Lutz both speak about their paralyzed reaction to the events of 9/11. Christian Patterson recalls discovering a man who watched helplessly as his home burned to the ground. Breaking the rules of the book a little, Doug DuBois offers a touching, regret filled story of photographs he made of an aging, homeless, and once great, jazz musician he befriended as a young art student. Alone and in DuBois’ apartment, DuBois photographed the man shooting up heroin, and learned, a little too late, about when it is appropriate to take a picture and when you must put the camera aside. While many essays deal with difficult moments, other essays, like those by Aaron Schuman, Kelli Connell and Chris Jordan include more joyous moments that slipped away like making eye contact with a future wife, sunlight bathing a loved one or a unexpected sunburst at a picnic. Still others, like Amy Stein’s reflection on her husband’s reluctance to have his image taken, offer insight into how photographs, or their lack, shape memory and family history.

Despite its many, many limitations, photography’s uncanny ability to capture and distill reality and the world before us means we expect a great deal. I was there. It really happened. Look at this. While some the essay’s themes begin to feel familiar, what is most striking is what the collection reveals about our expectations and hopes for the medium, especially what it can and can’t do. Failure is constant – be it a failure to press the button in time, a failure of nerve or failure of light. It is photography’s persistent and stubborn refusal to capture certain moments, as well as our own human nature, that compels us to return and take more. We may not always take the photograph, but there are always more, even if they only exist in our minds.—ADAM BELL

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ADAM BELL is a photographer and writer based in Brooklyn, NY. He received his MFA from the School of Visual Arts, and his work has been exhibited and published internationally. He is the co-editor and co-author, with Charles H. Traub and Steve Heller, of The Education of a Photographer (Allworth Press, 2006). His writing has appeared in Foam Magazine, Lay Flat and Ahorn Magazine. He is currently on staff and faculty at the School of Visual Arts' MFA Photography, Video and Related Media Department. His website and blog are adambbell.com and adambellphoto.blogspot.com.

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