There are lots of reasons I made the enigmatic father, Jerome, a playboy war photographer in 'All the Lovely Ruined Things'. What else defines the twentieth century better than photography? Think of all the greats - Cartier Bresson, the Magnum reporters, the swinging 60s photographers of 'Blow Up'. I was lucky to meet a fascinating old guy at the gallery in Chelsea one day - the most impeccable tailoring I've ever seen (Egyptian apparently), beautifully manicured hands fluttering over sumptuous photographs he had taken of doe-eyed shepherd boys in the hidden deserts of Saudi fifty odd years ago. I think the impression he made fused with my interest in photography (I wrote my thesis on photography, fantasy and fashion). It's one of those 'almost' dream careers we were talking about a couple of days ago. There's something magical, alchemical about the whole process of developing your own prints. A dark room is up there on the wish list.
One of the things I miss about that career are the trips to Drouot - the Paris auction rooms. Next door to a big Orientalist sale, you'd find a humdrum house clearance, full of the ephemera of one person's life. Sometimes they were almost unbearably poignant - all that was left of one human existence. I'm always drawn to photograph albums. Now, when everyone has camera phones and a hard disk full of unprinted digital images it's hard to imagine how exotic photographs once were. Whole lives contained in a single album. Even in our lifetime, do you remember how you treasured single photographs of lovers, pinned up or carried with you?
I have to admit, I still have more fun with my old 35mm SLR and a roll of black and white film than with digital work. This is what photographers like Cartier Bresson were talking about with the 'decisive moment'. The one good shot. Roland Barthes talked about how photographs have the ability to 'pierce' you, the punctum. For anyone interested in the theory of photography, his book 'Camera Lucida' and Susan Sontag's 'On Photography' are fascinating - thought provoking for anyone involved in the creative arts, not just photography.
Photographs - your own, found albums in flea markets or auctions, or iconic images like Brassai's Paris street scenes are some of the most powerful prompts you can find for writing. What's the story with this image by Brassai?:
What does this picture by Tina Modotti tell you about female strength? How does it differ from the still from 'Blow Up' at the head of this post, or the gorgeous girls in Fellini and Sagan's 'Mirror of Venus' video clip at the bottom? I love them all for different reasons. 'Mirror of Venus' is out of print but I found a copy on one of my first dates with the pilot at an old book dealers - a good omen?
What's this woman thinking in Eve Arnold's beautiful image? Each one is a short story in itself, or the beginning of a bigger tale.
Annie Liebowitz's high gloss work for Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair always reminds me of court paintings of the past - it's a new kind of royalty, a new celebrity class. What does this picture of Arnie tell you?
One of my favourite images is Modotti's roses - it always reminds me of my Great Aunt Rose (the brave woman who saved her husband from the Nazis by hiding him in a secret room beneath the staircase of their hotel, and helped the Dutch Resistance). Every time I see it I think of her, how she always wanted to write but didn't. Somehow the fact that her inheritance gave me the chance to finish and edit the first book (it was that or a longed for 10th anniversary trip to Venice ... the book won), is poetic justice for her. I hope she'd enjoy it.
TODAY'S PROMPT: Why do you think it is so many people say the first thing they would save in a fire (after partner, children, pets) is their photographs? Photographs seem to tell the truth - but do they really? Is it a partial truth? Why do you think teenagers photographs themselves obsessively - is it trying to see how they appear to other people? Do you have any photographs of yourself that you like? What great photographs appeal to you and why? Today, why not take one of the images above, flip through your albums, scour magazines or surf some of the photographic sites online to find a picture that inspires you and plot out a character or story. If the children are at home today, why not give them a disposable camera or Polaroid and go out for a winter walk - seeing your child's eye view of the world is fascinating (and a great help writing a young character). Have fun - smile.