Morning in Gràcia. After four substantial visits here, I still haven’t managed to get the pulse on this once-Medieval village, long since swallowed by the swell of Barcelona. As usual, most shops are shut; it’s a bit of a lottery to figure what’s open when. The mornings are generally quiet. One gets the impression that only those who don’t sleep much are out and about—some of the elderly, owners of dogs, and parents of small children—meandering aimlessly in streets of shuttered shops punctuated by the odd bustling cafe. Truthfully, this place only seems to come alive after 4 o’clock in the afternoon.
Photos captured on such a morning could tell so many stories. Daido Moriyama, who is well-known for his urban photography of Japan, admits that he doesn’t do much processing on his images, and doesn’t quite care which order the photos appear in his books. He believes that the act of “reading” a photo book is a somewhat random process—it’s normal to pick up a photo book and flip through it at random—so he quite likes that element of chance. Oddly enough, this is what Rilke said of reading poetry.
But this outlook assumes that each photo is self-contained, that the “before” and “after” are all successfully captured and predicted in a single moment caught on camera, that it doesn’t matter what appears to happen when. Is there a kind of higher virtue in trying to capture a story within a single photograph, or could we create a richer narrative when photographs are tucked in sequence, laid out in space (and therefore time) on a pages of a book or a slideshow?
It has been almost 10 years since I curated Olivier’s photos which he took around Tokyo’s Yamanote train line, the result of which a visual haiku with a photographic narrative: Ghosts of Tokyo. Back then, we were deeply inspired by Chris Marker’s La Jetée—that there is this strange, rarely explored territory between a sequence of still photographs and a video. Where is the story, in such an uncharted place?
The people who know this grey area well are photographic journalists, documentary reportage photographers, or those who have worked on stories in magazines. In his book, “The Photographer's Story”, Michael Freeman extensively demonstrates how to create a story with photo stills. He also postulated that it was likely Henri Cartier-Bresson who “saw a picture story as running second best to a single great image” and unwittingly set this as unspoken bar highly prized by photographers.
Perhaps Tony Ray-Jones, celebrated for his work on the English idea of leisure, had the simplest interpretation of all: “The photo story naturally suggests the task be accomplished with more facility. Each has its place. Perhaps we should leave it up to the photographer to choose his weapons of attack. Some ideas are more suited to the individual picture and some to the sequence. Both are extremely challenging. The single picture for me, should have initial impact to catch the attention of the spectator, then it should draw him into it, with its subtleties and should delight, mystify or shock him with its maybe suggestive qualities…it has to sustain his attention. With a sequence, one is playing for or with time. In this respect it is more like the film. It is difficult to change people’s attitudes and make them think with one picture. But with a sequence, time is on one’s side. Again, we have to get the observer's attention and sustain it, in order that our message communicates.”
Morning in Gràcia, and you would notice all the Catalan flags hanging off the balconies, occasionally caught and teased by the wind. Tucked at the back of my mind is a deep worry about the future of this place† which I love, and perhaps this shows up in what my camera insists on capturing this particular morning.
In recent user research I conducted, my interview subjects no longer see a “photo” as something valuable or special. Obviously, this is hardly a surprise: we are surrounded by pictures; our phones, tablets and computers holding uncountable photos that we’d never have enough time to sort through. Our friends and family inundate us with photos on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and the like. Yet, all of my interviewees would gladly print and frame—whether physically or digitally—a photo of a special occasion, a special place, with a special person. To me, this means that we are not entirely ready to succumb to a world where images are a merely a stream of our existence: there are moments that we want to pull out and highlight, put a frame around, so that we can hold these closer to our hearts.
But here, in your pocket or your handbag, there is likely to be a smartphone—and therefore a camera. A camera is just a tool like any other, it is merely an extension of your eye. There are many more times where we would just want to keep a record of what we ate, a cool street graffiti we chanced upon, a pretty flower, or even a selfie—but from hereon, there is only a small leap to making the choice of telling a story with what you see.