I always wanted to be a writer
Looking at Jeff Ward’s photographs at Visible Darkness over the past few months, I often used to wonder why he stopped making those beautiful, mysterious, intelligent pictures. Today Jeff’s reminiscence of transforming himself from a photographer to a writer unleashed a torrent of memories. Jeff gets the sounds of camera shutters just right: “the near-silent fftt of a Leica or Rollei to the loud WHAP of a Mamiya RB-67” and the CLUNK of the Nikon F series. For a long time, I used Nikon F models for exactly the same reason as Jeff: the viewfinder showed 100% of the frame. Then I settled on the Hasselblad. The viewfinder showed a fraction less but I loved the square frame, the 2¼ negative, the solid THWUMP of the shutter and mirror, and—above all—the sense of control. Again Jeff nails it:
The real stuff happens at the edges, and I wanted control. Control, control, control … the world must be ordered, there must be some sense behind it all. Standing in the empty concrete and brown spaces of Southern California, I tried to make it work. To find in those rectilinear spaces something that I felt was inside myself. What I found out was— the harder you look, the less likely you are to find it. I suppose what I wanted most of all was mystery, and mystery just won’t come when called. Year after year of trying to make sense, when really all I needed to do was let go and let sense and mystery find me.
“Year after year of trying to make sense…” For the nearly twenty years that I was a photographer, I was never bored for an instant. Photography was endlessly fascinating: the perfect amalgam of art and science. I enjoyed sloshing around with chemicals, the solitude of the darkroom, the beauty and precision of expensive cameras, the physicality of taking pictures (requiring a kind of athletic grace more akin to sports than making art). Like Jeff, I was captivated by the intellectual challenge of transforming chaotic three-dimensional space into a cohesive flat plane.
I loved the fact that it was difficult and I could do it. Most of all I loved the idea that pictures could touch people’s hearts and change their lives.
In 1987 I bought a Macintosh. I had commenced photographing in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit of the Children’s Hospital in Sydney and thought a computer might bring some order to my unwieldy project. Which it did. I showed the pictures—the best work I had ever done—at Watters Gallery in August 1987 to general, though not universal, acclaim. Some viewers thought my photographs were intrusive, that I had exploited vulnerable people at a desperately unhappy time in their lives.
This was not true. I never photographed without permission and was acutely sensitive to every agonizing nuance. The only couple to ask that their baby not be included later changed their minds as their child hovered on the brink of death. For many parents, I had created a record of their child’s struggle towards recovery and their responses to that struggle; for a lonely few, my photographs are the only tangible evidence of their baby’s brief existence.
Then I stopped photographing.
It was not a sudden decision but rather a feeling that built up over the course of a year. Perhaps I had come up hard against the midlife crisis and this activity that had absorbed most of my waking attention gradually became meaningless to me. I certainly did other midlife crisis kinds of things: quitting my teaching job at the university art school, drinking too much, going out with girls half my age.
Maybe my disaffection sprang from a conviction that television had rendered photography almost irrelevant, a process only hastened by its elevation to the status of an Art. Or I was appalled by the corrosive influence that “theory” had begun to exert on practice, as an opportunistic postmodernism analyzed pictures to within an inch of their lives before abandoning them in the cul-de-sac of political correctness.
I know I yearned for those photographic values which started with Walker Evans and finished with Robert Frank and had fallen into disrepute. Possibly I accepted the fact that I’d done the best I was capable of and it was better to walk away and begin anew.
Most probably I had exhausted my reserves of love and compassion.
Desperately needing a new obsession, I attended an Apple conference in early 1989 where I saw the beginnings of what would become “multimedia.” I realized that this new medium combined three of my passions: images, writing, and movies. Multimedia metamorphosed into CD-ROM and then the Web. I learned to write and kept practising.
At the same time I discovered multimedia I fell ardently in love with a Japanese woman, a love affair that—although it lasted less than a year—rekindled a fascination for Japanese language and culture that had waxed and waned through all my time as a photographer. A few years ago I visited Nagasaki. Walking through the Peace Park, which contains an astonishing array of kitsch sculpture, I saw a gigantic statue of a Japanese woman looking lovingly at a dove perched near her shoulder. When I looked more closely, I realized she bore an uncanny resemblance to Ayako.
Jeff Ward learned to write because he wanted to talk online about the pictures he was making. I learned to write in order to fill the void that opened up when I stopped making pictures. Jeff never wanted to be a writer. I realized recently that I always did. Now we’re a couple of ex-photographers who spend most of our time writing (though we both include photographs in our weblogs). Jeff thinks “words are easier!” I’m not so sure.