All photographs start in the same place: in the mind of the photographer. Their paths through reality vary after that initial blossoming of firing neurons.
Find a photograph. It’s almost certain that there’s one within a few feet, or a few clicks from where you are. Perhaps there’s one on this page. Now, open a magazine and look at an advertisement. Look at the textures, the sumptuous and carefully-chosen palette, the precisely-judged texture of the image; it’s beautiful, at least to someone. Of the millions of photographs taken every minute that this planet turns, such a tiny fraction make it as far as that photograph has that it’s really a miracle that that particular image is printed on that page and that you are looking at it now. If we consider the journey of an image from this point backwards, for each shot that has been published in a magazine, or displayed on a website having passed approval by an editor after editing and retouching, after selection by the photographer from a range of similar images shot that day. And they’re the ones remaining on the camera after the cull of lame, overexposed, poorly-composed runts.
But the captures that never passed the bleep of the autofocus button number even greater and the scenes that existed only in the photographer’s mind are endlessly fascinating to me. They are more beautiful and perfect, more personal than even the most lovingly-crafted final products.
A friend of mine, @frak once advocated not carrying a camera while travelling because the captured images expand to become your only memories of the place or occasion and while my extremely poor memory precludes such a strategy, it is true, I think, that the most beautiful photographs are the ones that you never took. The ones that framed themselves spontaneously when your camera was at home. The ones that were beyond your technical ability to capture but especially the moments that impressed upon you such sublime and mysterious beauty that no lens, no filter and no process could ever but diminish it.
I’d love to do a gallery exhibition, empty frames of solid colour with a neatly-written description of each never-forgotten moment but I haven’t the money, the time or the reputation to even imagine doing so. So here it is: an part one of an exhibition of the greatest photographs I never took.
I didn’t take this photo in a tiny local bus from Dhulikhel, Nepal back to Kathmandu because the windows were open only a few inches due to early monsoonal rains and I couldn’t get up from my seat because I’d been wedged in for 7 hours. The bus was overcrowded even by Nepali standards. Not helping the atmosphere was the smoke from the cigarettes of the two young Nepalis who were lovingly nursing viciously sharp kukris, pointedly pre-empting any complaints that might otherwise have been lodged.
The window next to me was leaking and I hadn’t moved a muscle below my waist for four hours. I was settling into that almost masochistic state of mind that I find essential to surviving long and uncomfortable journeys when the bus rounded a corner and the bus lurched to the left so that through the ineffectively-open window on the far side I saw for a heartbeat this scene that I would remember among all the others that have made my heart soar. I love the detail on the rice terraces, like undulating cogs or stacked layers in a vast organic machine, so green that it hurts your eyes. I love the way the curves of the slopes draw your eye past terracotta farm shacks to the utterly magnificent glacial peaks of the Himalayas, burning red and gold from the late, lazy sun. The steam that you see rising from the valley on the right of the picture is the evaporation of copious fresh rainwater in the subtropical heat, rising in a haze over the jungle.
I’m glad I didn’t take this photo. A poorly-exposed shot from seat 6 of the local rattletrap would have diminished one of the peak experiences of my life.