Drifting into a book like drifting into summer.
It wasn’t a conscious choice; there I was, drifting around town in the heat wave one afternoon after work. Dripping with sweat, clothing sticking to me like an unpleasant second skin. In search of air conditioning, I am drifting round the shops, even those shops I never go – the tired provincial clothing emporiums that offer up a choice of sad clothing for middle aged men. Suits, shirts, shorts – all in varying degrees of beige. You get to an age where colour is no longer an option and as you fade to grey you do it in beige. Not yet grey, I am at that moment in life where beige is seemingly the only colour available.
In a bookshop, standing next to an electric fan which is placed in the « P » section; philosophy, photography … there’s this thin « reader friendly » kind of book by French photographer: Raymond Depardon – entitled « Errance » it is filled with pointless photos of « nowhere places » – The first few paragraphs just seem to fit my current drifting state of mind.
« Une impression de malaise me gagne, un manque d’enthousiasme, des projets flous, des désirs frustrés, enfin, rien de très inquiétant, ce sont des pensées un peu sombres. (…) Que faire ? … je suis libre. Il me manque de désir, c’est-à-dire, le plus important. »
In rough translation – I guess I’m getting a bad case of the summertime blues. Lack of enthusiasm, vague ideas, failed projects and dark thoughts. What am I going to do to snap out of this? What’s missing is the will to snap out of this. I seem to have lost my creative appetite.
It sounds better in French.
I normally welcome, broach and embrace summer with open arms. I often wish my arms were wider so I could simply wrap them round the sun in a huge loving embrace and hug it to my heart and let the warmth and lethargy ooze slowly down into my soul. I dream of long summer Sundays driving aimlessly round the countryside, stopping off in inviting wayside bars for a long cool drink. Those ivy-covered fading roadside bars in far-flung villages that are only ever place names on a local map. Those bars with their metal chairs, wonky tables and worn sunshades that bare the names of our national drinks – Dubonnet, Pastis, Suze – this is my “douce France”. I dream of heading south on the long frustrating bumper-to-bumper road to the sea. Chugging down to the shores of the Mediterranean to do something utterly pointless – sit in the sun.
I stumped up the 8€ for the Raymond Depardon book and left the cool bookshop to head out into the suffocating heat of the dead street. Dog days and dog daze. We are in the middle of a heat wave, 38°c, but this is early summer. People are still at work. School is not out for another week and we still have structure and purpose. Even if unusual for this time of year, the heat is made bearable by the work-a-day logic.
There is perhaps nothing worse than a small town in the heart of summer, when everyone has escaped to their holiday destination, when most of the shops and businesses are closed, when it is too hot to move and there is nothing to move for because there is nothing to do. I hate my small town in summer. It is hermetic and claustrophobic enough at the best of times, but in a high summer August heat wave … It makes me think of that song by the Lovin’ Spoonful « Summer in the city ». I think of old 50s B&W clichés of New York and Paris, where some benevolent soul has broken open, a fire hydrant and the kids that never made it out their neighbourhood and jumping around the water as it gushes everywhere like some mini urban Niagara.
Flicking through the pages of my new book. Photo upon photo of pointless places – at least the photos are pointless, they are those clichés that no reasonable person would ever bother taking; long dusty lone tree highways that seemingly lead into the middle of nowhere; broken down empty petrol (gas) stations, empty supermarket car parks – dead places, lonely places, shattered places – the kind of clichés that others might look at and say « what did you take that for? That’s a waste of a photo. » And so it might have been back in the days when you were confined to the limits of your 24 or 36 exposures. In this brave new digital age though …
I suppose when photos came on rolls of film, we snapped less, we were careful about what we took – happy family clichés were the nor. Perhaps more accomplished amateur photographers might try a few landscapes. In the pre-digital age, nothing was superfluous to requirements
Back on drifting.
Someone recommended I read that iconic Jack Kerouac novel « On the road. » I did, and found it an immensely annoying book. I promised myself that I would read « Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance, » … I’ll probably give this classic a miss though.
I think we are conditioned in the way we drift or at least our definition of drifting. We all lead some form of structured lives, if we chose to truly drift, we would have to accept giving up this structure, because drifting is … well it is exactly that. In his book « Errance », Raymond Depardon makes the same point – as a press photographer he has been conditioned all his life to shoot to order. He claims that press photography is not true photography and that first and foremost he is a photographer. In the opening paragraphs of his book he has very much lost his way, he is drifting rather aimlessly through life. He is suffering from some form of mild depression.
“Depression” announced my therapist, “is like a rudderless boat drifting aimlessly on a vast ocean.”
« I would like to be drifting, » I replied, telling the therapist that I was very much in the Doldrums.
She gave me « a little something” to help me along. A box of white, yellow and purple pills that I would take in prescribed doses. « Take these over the summer … » smiled the therapist as she signed the prescription with a flourish that sent her pen flying off the page.
I diligently took my multi-coloured magic pills for an entire week and honestly felt worse than before. For sure, I wasn’t drifting anymore, I was in a static senseless limbo, robbed of any feeling and the capacity for feeling itself. The pills went in the dustbin and I applied my tried and tested therapy; if I am depressed, the cause is within me, therefore the cure is in there as well, just find a way to tap into it – photography. I wandered round town with a camera just snapping away at seemingly pointless stuff – that was the criteria. The beginning of my errant and pointless snapping coincided with the start of the digital age. I started off with a small memory card and two million pixels, then I worled up to five million, and now … I always carry a camera (I’ve got three cameras) I am loathed to use a phone to take pictures, it just doesn’t feel like real photography.
I’ve always been a photography nut. I don’t know if I can take a decent photo. Before the digital age, I used to love mucking around in the dark room, experimenting with different settings on the enlarger, trying out different papers, dosing up the chemicals to get different results each time. The subject matter was not as important as the visual result. So, I miss the photo lab, but I like the instant results I get with a digital camera and I enjoy the spontaneity. You are virtually unlimited in how many clichés you can take of the same subject – you are not limited by a pre determined number of clichés. So, I’ve been snapping away at anything and everything for over ten years, much to the chagrin and annoyance of my family, who stand around and wait as I take photos of everything. I can understand at times that they want to disown me. As other tourists are taking photos of monuments, I am photographing dustbins or building sites. Yes I am mad (or am I?)
It was one day on a Channel ferry. I had just eaten breakfast and I was taking a photo of the leftovers – it was a good photo, a kind of culinary carnage – the texture of the scrambled egg, the half-eaten sausage … My wife stared at me. The waiter stared at me. The other passengers stared at me . No, I’m not mad. This is art.
Then along came Al Wei Wei. I took my family to see his exhibition at the Jeu de Paumes gallery in Paris – endless photos of … half-eaten food, building sites, rubbish – all the stuff that I had been taking for years. There was a point to my pointless photographic driftings.
Next came Raymond Depardon. In 2013, he set out across France to photograph the “real France” and the results were astounding – those photos that the instamatic holiday snap generation would have considered as “a waste of a photo.”
In “Errance”, written in 2000, as a “cure” for his depression, Depardon set out to simply “drift” and just take photos. Of course having been worked for years as a press photographer, Depardon first had to divest himself of his professional conditioning. Just go anywhere and take photos of anything instead of taking photos to order. Where do you go? What do you take? When you have been places all your life with a specific purpose, it is difficult to just set out and snap away.
Just drift. But how do you just drift? Where do you drift to? An errant photographer with no purpose other than taking photos of anything and everything. It is not easy.
The first rule is not to take people. Not intentionally anyway. There might be humans in the photo, but they are not the subject matter. You are never working in close up, you are always distant and at some point, someone complete stranger will stop you and just ask “why?”
I think photography in this mode is all about taking those photos you’d never thought of taking, in those places you never thought you’d be and now you’re there, you wonder what was the reason for coming. It is at times like this that you might take the best photos and you will take the photo that no one else will ever take.
Using this criteria, I’ve decided to post a few of my pointless favourites. Some are from places where I never thought I would be, and others are just the result of drifting.
This first photo – a long dusty road from … to … I am bumming along in the front seat of an army land rover. It is 2012 and (as every year) I am on manuvers with my students (French army cadet officers). We are on the military truing ground at Mourmelon in the east of France. We have lost the students and we have lost our way. We are just following this road hoping that it might lead to somewhere.
Once again in Mourmelon. The town used to be home to a huge French army training area, bristling with soldiers all year round. After a hard day’s training nothing better than a trip to the local cinema to relax – of course times have changed, soldiers are a breed on the verge of extinction, pretty much like Mourmelon, almost a ghost town. A ghost cinema. I had to take this, the place just looked so sad. I reckoned by taking this photo, I might give this dead place some kind of sense.
A row of garages behind my house on a hot August day. I talked about the claustrophobic boredom of a small town in the middle of a hot summer, I think these garages just about say it all.
Two local landscapes on a summer’s afternoon. It’s hot, I only have air con in the car, so I go for a drive and this is where I end up. I wasn’t drifting though, I set a precise objective – to drive for 30 minutes in a straight line from my house into the local countryside and take a photo of what I saw. Actually very pointless.
Paris, one of my favorite places. I get off the train, hop on the Métro – any métro and get on and off at will and wander. I have no tourist agenda in Paris, I just drift. No better place than a big city for drifting, the place is full of anonymous and errant souls. I think we are near the Canal St Martin in early December – not the sort of season for going to the beach and certainly not this beach.
Filling in time. The futility of waiting for … the first photo is taken at the Pompidou center in Paris one Christmas Eve. Two souls – the wife and daughter as we simply wait around before heading off to celebrate Christmas with friends. It is 4pm though and the festivities don’t start until midnight, so we wait in the museum, which is about the only place in Paris still open. I like that pre-Christmas end of the world feeling. We are on the brink of a planetary shut down, the shops are closed and if you haven’t done what you had to do, it is now just too late, so you just have to wait until December 26th. Second photo “This is not here”, so where is it and where would you rather be?
Drifting around my coal countryside – a pointless winter’s afternoon drive. I can go home, but for the people behind that wall, this is the final destination. Makes me feel what is the point to life if you end up in a place like this?
Driving around Corsica on a hot afternoon. Seems like the whole world is having a siesta and I am the only human on the road. I don’t like afternoon naps, I want to be active, but why not just stay home and have a nap rather than driving pointlessly round the countryside? Well, this photo of an abandoned stain gave my journey a purpose – I like the boat pointing out its prow just on the left.
Thanks for taking time to drift with me.