On Photography and Evolution

This weekend I visited Down House which was the home of Charles Darwin between 1842 and 1882 and is now owned by English Heritage.

Darwin was one of the most influential scientists whose theory of evolution, supported with compelling scientific evidence built up over years of painstaking research, pretty much debunked any notion of the existence of a divine being having a hand in our creation. Of course the more hard core of the Church of England‘s clergy still dismissed Darwin’s ideas whilst even the more liberal clergymen took his ideas on board but still tried to put up a last defence against natural selection as being “an instrument of God’s design”.

So what has all this got to do with photography?

Some of the more famous portraits of Darwin were taken by the British portrait photographer Julia Margeret Cameron who happened to have an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London in 2015/16 which I was lucky enough to attend.

Cameron’s work was considered to be pioneering and innovative by some and dismissed as  being amateurish and incompetent by others. Cameron experimented with her images by deliberately making them out of focus and purposely smudging and scratching the delicate plates to see what effects she could obtain. As I’ve shown above in my homage to both Cameron and Darwin these are all effects that can now be achieved instantly with the application of the appropriate filters, in this case using Analog Efex Pro 2.

Whilst I had an idea of how I wanted the above photograph to look whilst I was framing it (as well as trying to ensure there were no 21st century visitors in shot) I was also aware of the difference in approach I was taking in contrast to Cameron in her day. She was using a plate camera where every image had to be carefully processed using sometimes dangerous chemicals in a process that would have taken several hours. Now I could both take and process several tens if not hundreds of images in the time she would have taken to just make one. One of the criticisms aimed at digital photography (and photographers) is that it makes us all lazy. We can fire off tens or hundreds of shots in the hope that just one will prove worthy of keeping. Even in the days of film photography, when I started out, the purchase and processing of a roll of 36 exposure film did not have a an inconsequential cost and therefore taught me to take a bit of care over every shot.

All of this occurred to me when taking the shots which resulted in the above image and for once I actually slowed down a little to think about what it was I was trying to achieve and frame the shot carefully using the right aperture to get the desired depth of field etc.

The above image was taken using the Fujifilm X100T which although a modern state-of -the-art digital camera has a nice set of manual dials and levers that almost encourage you to slow down and hark back to the days of film cameras when controls like this were all you had. I was reminded of the conversation between the actor Keira Knightley and photographer Patrick Dermarchelier in Interview magazine a while ago where Ms Knightley pointed out that with photographers who have only ever worked in digital, the relationship between the photographer and the subject didn’t exist anymore and that they were to busy looking at a screen rather than concentrating on their subject.

It strikes me that although photography may have evolved to a stage that was almost undreamt of even 20 years ago let alone in the time of Darwin and Cameron we should all slow down a little and think more about the individual shot rather than the plethora of potential images we could create. In so doing we might regain some of the intimacy which I think has been lost between the photographer and the subject whether it be an inanimate object we are photographing or someone as famous as Charles Darwin or even Keira Knightley.

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