A Developing Passion

A Book Review of ‘The Photograph That Changed My Life’ by Zelda Cheatle

When you don't have resources, you have to be creative. In my teenage years I took black and white photographs and developed the negatives myself. But I had no spare cash for a black changing bag so I improvised by blacking out the area below the top mattress of a pair of bunk beds with as many blankets as I could find, assiduously tucked in, and then waited for nightfall. There was always risk in the act of popping off one of the metal rings on a cartridge of exposed 35mm film and sliding the celluloid strip into the white loading reel. Once in the developing tank, the risks were still present as the necessary fluids did their magic enticing the silver halides out of their dark slumber. From those nascent steps, an appreciation of the art of photography naturally emerged even though celluloid of the moving kind was soon to utterly consume me. Its vision was persistent.

This is a book review and somewhat out of my wheelhouse. If I reviewed books as well as films (as I do as ‘Camus’ at cineoutsider.com), I'm not sure I could squeeze in breathing in the time I'd have left over. But every now and again a book comes along that weaves such a magical spell that I have to share it. In 1974, in the October edition of Esquire magazine, a photograph of Mohammed Ali’s right fist was printed at its actual size.

A quarter inch shy of six inches tall from the top of the thumb to the base of the pinkie, it’s a very impressive digital display but the real genius is in the implied invitation to compare it with your own fist by placing it in the shadow of that of Ali’s. Zelda Cheatle’s The Photograph That Changed My Life has a very similar effect. The premise is simple (the title could not be clearer). One hundred artists from a wide spectrum of artistic disciplines have chosen that one photograph that has profoundly affected them. Each has a page to write about their relationship with the photograph and this can be a few sentences or a few paragraphs. On the facing odd-numbered page from their words is the relevant photograph. Now, even if I can simply state “That’s it,” that’s just the start of it. Each artist's contribution is not the honed and crafted words of an actual writer but instead raw, passionate statements some of which have as much evocative power as their chosen images. In reading all one hundred in one sitting, you are compelled to search your memory for a defining photograph in your own experience and the thrill is delicious when you finally snag that image that may have changed the course of your life. To be honest, the course of my life had already started changing but this photograph sealed the deal… My first glimpse of who was to become the most important person in my life.

The eclectic range of photographs is a small but potent, private education in the art by itself. Unlike ‘the greatest films ever made’, the result of hundreds of critics’ top ten lists harvested globally by Sight and Sound every decade, this collection of photographs is not ‘the greats’ but some of the most personally affecting. Of the one hundred, only two names were known to me (this exposes the depth of my ignorance but please remember, forgiveness is a higher trait); Jocelyn Pook, composer of Kubrick’s last hurrah, Eyes Wide Shut and if Richard Gere is the Richard Gere then we all know who he is. My knowledge of the still photographic art is general and while I know the names of some of those regarded as being in the exalted pantheon, I have learned quite a bit about the lesser known photographers. Photography has exploded with the advent of the smart phone and that’s not necessarily good for the artform. As Cheatle reminds us in her Foreword, three years ago, 290 billion photos were uploaded to social media. If you think that’s a surprising statistic, do you know how long it would take you, 24/7, no breaks, to watch a day’s worth of YouTube uploads? The figures vary by website and the date the statistics were recorded but the lowest and the highest number I could find round out at just over 30 and 80 years respectively. 24/7. It is also definitely not a shock to know that 89% of the chosen photographs are black and white ones.

On page 61 is Robert Frank’s ‘Untitled (Children with sparklers in Province Town)’ 1958. Mick Lindberg says of his choice that it captures “the essence of joy.” I submit my own version, my son, our beloved springer/collie cross Rose and one of my favourite places on Earth, the wide, endless beaches on the coast of Portmeirion in North Wales, also known as ‘the Village’ the location of Patrick McGoohan’s incarceration in the classic television series, The Prisoner.

If you read and truly take in the pictures of this gem of a volume, you will enrich your appreciation of the craft, and on that journey enlighten your own mind and your life too. Better still, get a copy for a loved one, to allow them to see the world through different eyes. This is a shared, artistic-led communication, both sublime and inspiring.

Sunday May 29th, 2022

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