My second book, Build A Fire, combines writing and photos, documenting a trip from Maine to Florida in vignettes and snapshots. Because I was travelling mostly off the tourist trail, and am naturally curious about people and ‘real’ life, I captured many idiosyncratic images that are – in my mind anyway! – more interesting than a selfie in front of the Statue of Liberty.
The photos were taken on a basic Canon digital camera. Each image was a one-shot-only. None have been retouched, and as a result are different shades, of varying clarity and brightness, and occasionally taken from unusual angles. They hopefully provide the reader with a bit of colour and intrigue. Some are mundane, too, because life can be sometimes. I liked the idea of the photos – and the accompanying stories – giving a brief glimpse into another world, one that is both accessible and evocative.
One person who bought the book described the photos (taken in 2015) as looking ‘vintage’, because they seem so different to the images we are used to in our filtered, retouched world. A world where we can take snaps over and over again until the perfect one is achieved. Perfect both in terms of how the subject looks, and the photo itself: clear, unblurry, perfectly framed and lit. And with the technology we have at our fingertips these days, and the possibility of the image being viewed around the globe, it’s little wonder we try to get the best shot we can.
But it all gets kind of boring. People’s glossy Facebook and Instagram images, of an airbrushed life containing seascapes and minimalist apartments, culinary creations and yoga poses, become ten a penny and, despite the rainbow of colours, often feel soulless. The ‘beauty’ setting on my phone camera makes photos of me look almost rubbed out. Yes, my features look symmetric and my skin looks flawless, but where’s the aliveness, the life that’s been lived?!
Some of my favourite family photos, from the late 70s and early 80s, are blurry shots, often with a finger covering a corner or a head half out of the frame. But of course, back then, you had one shot. You took a chance, put the film in to be developed, and excitedly got the results back from the chemist a week or so later.
My dad got a Kodak instant camera at one point – how exciting it was to have this photo come to life in seconds! I suppose we could have requested another, better photo if not pleased with the first one, but I don’t remember doing this – photos just weren’t such a big deal back then, I guess partly because there wasn’t the chance of them going online.
Then there was the photo booth fun. This was something of a rites of passage. It usually resulted in three good photos and one duff, either because we weren’t ready or were getting ready to leave before the fourth was taken. The actual taking of the photos was secondary to being in the moment, to the good laugh we’d be having with a best friend, boyfriend or girlfriend.
These days photos, even though (or maybe because) they’re everywhere, and the possibility to take them is everywhere, don’t have quite the same excitement. There’s an unspoken requirement to flash the best automatic smile or pout perfectly. Also, by trying for ages to get that perfect image, we miss everything in the moment: amazing scenery that is right there in front of us and that we are so lucky to be able to see and enjoy; the atmosphere; even the people we’re with.
I quite like photos where people are pulling silly faces, partly because they’re so unusual. A couple of years ago I spent Thanksgiving in the USA with people who had their Mexican relatives staying. I learnt from them the purpose of a selfie stick – I’d never really got it before but it made sense trying to take a massive group photo with an iPhone – and one other thing. They would take a couple of ‘good’, million-dollar-smile group photos then at the photographer’s request everyone made a stupid expression, so the final photo would be a bunch of people looking like fools.
Don’t get me wrong, I do admire photos with a technical brilliance, such as long-exposure night-time shots or ones that capture wildlife, in action or in all their crystal clear, still beauty. And long may they continue to be produced. But the more airbrushed images and landscape shots photo-shopped to death I see, the more I long for a bit of…well, something. An oddly framed picture, a portrait showing someone’s natural beauty (or their Resting Bitch Face), a shot that’s slightly shaky.
Hence creating Build A Fire. As a wee tribute to photos – and the people in them – that are imperfect. Imperfect but bold, characterful and with a story to tell. Because, after all, isn’t that what makes life interesting?
The photos above and the postcards below are from Build A Fire, available here