In the eye of the beholder…

I’ve recently been thinking about how a photograph can contain many levels of meaning. At the most basic level a photograph conveys its message from the objects within the frame and their relationship to each other. One of the hardest things a photographer must learn if their photographs are to be meaningful to others, is to separate themselves from the peripheral experience, the memory of the events and experiences surrounding a picture. Too often the photographer makes the mistake of thinking that the emotions that accompanied the making of a photograph are somehow automatically imbued within the picture.  Only when you learn to be objective about your work can you begin to make good photographs.

Some months ago, the wife of a friend asked me if I had a photograph that might make a good gift for her husband’s 64th birthday. In the late 1960s, as young and irresponsible men, we had travelled together in Europe.

Early morning, French Pyrenees, 1969

I went back through my negatives and found this photograph I had taken 40 years ago; it prompted me to think about the layers of meaning a simple photograph can contain. To the ordinary viewer this is just a picture of two men talking on a street corner in the early morning sunlight. Evocative enough in it’s own way, the astute viewer might guess that it is is somewhere in Europe; perhaps even deduce that it is somewhere in France. The picture is evocative enough in it’s own way; but to three people, it has layers of experience and memory that the ordinary viewer cannot possible access. This was the picture I decided would make the perfect birthday gift and I wrote this, a festschrift, as the Germans call it, to go on the back of the frame:

In the early spring of 1969, journalist, Tony Hewett and I persuaded Bruce Best that his soul would be spiritually enhanced by exposure to the sublimely soaring architecture of Antonio Gaudi. To be perfectly honest, his inclusion in this pilgrimage had a lot to do with the fact that he was the only one of our friends who owned a car. Tempting him with the suggestion that this would be a Tour de France Gastronomique, he took little convincing and soon we were ambling in his old Austin A 40 Estate, through the last of the spring snows of the French Hautes-Pyrénées. Barcelona bound.

With night coming on, we stopped at a plain but comfortable little hotel, in a tiny mountain village. The proprietor apologised that he was not prepared for guests so early in the season and all he could manage by way of food was some trout. The memory of that meal lingers as though it were yesterday. The freshest trout, grilled with almonds and served with a butter sauce, potatoes, salad, crusty bread and a flinty, dry, white wine. The stream, in which the trout had so recently resided, roared past just below where we ate.

After dinner we decided to walk off our meal with a promenade down the single street of the village. The night air was chill and hearing the rumble of conversation from a small, dimly-lit bar we went in to warm ourselves by the fire. Bruce suggested a Chartreuse as “un digestif” and soon we were deep into a comparative tasting of both the green and yellow liqueurs of those good Carthusian monks. Our indecisiveness over which was the better required several repeat rounds. At closing time, we tumbled back into the street and under a freezing, clear, starry sky stumbled back to the hotel.

We were woken the next morning by the sound of animated discussion beneath our window. Badly hungover, the hard light made us flinch. Below us, two men, one with the inevitable smouldering Gauloise glued to his bottom lip, the other in a classic beret, were chatting amiably in the slanting early-morning sunlight. I dived for my Nikon to capture this quintessentially French scene.

That my dear friend was looking over my shoulder when I made this photograph, means a lot to me. At a high point in our lives, this is where we were exactly 40 years ago. I hope it awakens many memories of that crazy, youthful expedition…to Barcelona and back…

Happy 64th birthday, Bruce…with love…

Rob, Hobart, Tasmania 2009.

As you can see this picture carries with it special memories for Tony, Bruce and me. They are inaccessible to anyone else…except perhaps in some small way, when the picture is accompanied by the text. It brings to mind photo editor Wilson Hicks’ dictum: “The basic unit of photojournalism, is one picture, with words“.


Filed under art, Australian, Autobiography, Photographer, Photography, Photojournalism, Rob Walls, travel

11 responses to “In the eye of the beholder…

  1. So Rob, you write as well as you take pics.
    Perhaps I was there in another life?
    Heady days, beautifully penned….the pic…..before I read the text….well it feels cool, a crisp morning, the beginning of a perfect day perhaps?
    The road is interesting…..its an interesting pic.

    After reading….mmm…yeah, I see it could just be a relatively bland pic to some, but a deep and meaningful one to you and your mates….bet you smiled when you saw this.

  2. I’ve always enjoyed writing, Dave. Once had two pages of pictures accepted for publication by the National Times , a very good Fairfax weekly, now extinct. It was a rather tongue-in-cheek photo essay on body builders).The editor Max Suich, asked me to write an extended caption to accompany them. I went away, started writing and had so much fun, the caption blew out into nearly 1,000 words. When I picked up the paper, I found Max had run the words only and a single postage stamp sized photo! I was proud of the fact that my words had been considered stronger than the pictures, but as a photographer it was a bit like shooting yourself in the foot.

    Actually, when I spotted these guys, I made the mistake of calling out, “Hey, look at this!”. Ended up having to jostle for the window space with Tony, as he grabbed his camera to get a shot. Duelling Nikons. There, another layer of experience you reminded me of not conveyed in the picture.

    You are right, the morning was cool and crisp and golden, like a fine Tasmanian autumn morning.

  3. Nice reply Rob…and thanks. Got me chuckling.

  4. Irene Walls

    Yum i can taste the trout, love the story with the atmospheric shot.

  5. Great story, and it made the picture great. Thanks for sharing – and making me feel better for almost always feeling like my photos need text to be complete.

  6. it is a gorgeous photo, Rob, and I don’t need to know anything about it to like it. It’s perfect without words.


    • Thanks Len, Irene, Dave and Roel…that seems to be three votes for with words…and one for without. But I think I’ve illustrated my point, about how a picture can contain many levels of meaning depending on your relationship to the original photograph.

      For a picture to be truly successful, the key for the professional photographer is to be able to separate yourself from the underlying emotion that accompanies the actual taking/making of the picture. For many photographers this is counter-intuitive. My personal photography (as opposed to commissioned work) is always emotion driven.

      Of course the ideal situation is when commissioned work can also bring into play emotional commitment as well. Fortunately, I think I’ve managed to arrive at a left-brain/right brain balance that works for me…

  7. Hey Rob…Lovely picture…beautiful caption!

    • Thank you Dave…with the rose-coloured spectacles that are standard issue for youthful nostalgia, it was not hard to write. Actually, that crazy trip has a bucket-load of anecdote. I must find the negatives of the Camargue cowboys and tell the mad story behind those shots. Fear and loathing on the Barcelona trail. Stay tuned…

  8. Pingback: In the eye of the beholder (part 2) « This photographer's life

  9. Pingback: Who’d be a wedding photographer? « This photographer's life

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