The Civil War photographer Mathew Brady had to travel with a mobile darkroom in a wagon. The wet plate process with which he worked produced amazing negatives and an irreplaceable record of that bloody conflict. But the process was so slow, so fragile, and the cameras so large, that actual combat pictures were impossible. It is fascinating to read about the lengths that early wildlife, documentary, and expedition photographers Martin and Osa Johnson went to in order to bring back never-before-seen images and films from the South Seas, Africa, Borneo, and elsewhere. That Frank Hurley’s sublime images of Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated 1915 Antarctic expedition were even made, let alone survived, is nearly unbelievable. John Noel ‘s footage and photographs from the 1924 Everest attempt where Mallory and Irving lost their lives took a nearly inhuman effort to shoot and then develop in a high-altitude field darkroom. Taking photos with early cameras in what are still the most unforgiving, deadly, and difficult mountains, jungles, and ice fields of the world is scarcely believable. But the images exist to prove it was done and the more you learn about these feats of bravery, endurance, technical skill, and artistic genius the more you realize that as photographers and explorers we truly rest on the shoulders of giants.
MONTERREY — Most photographers have favorite subjects and preferred themes. Some are obvious and others less so. One person shoots flowers and selfies. Another also photographs flowers and themselves but, as with any art, the subject is not always just the subject. Robert Mapplethorpe’s beautiful black and white studies of calla lilies and tulips are far from ordinary photos of pretty flowers and Graciela Iturbide’s self-portraits are far more than another reflexive selfie.
Regardless of whether you are a seasoned professional, an avid amateur, or you just got your first camera last week, an excellent way to become a better photographer is to take photo-walks. Walking, of and by itself: exploring a new city, a faraway island, a familiar old trail or a nearby neighborhood is one of life’s great pleasures with or without a camera. But this story is about photo walks and one walk in particular I took with my friend, the inimitable Sebastian John, one hot day over a year ago in Mumbai, India. It was my last long walk in that city I called home for two years and similar to the first long walk I took by myself in Mumbai during the monsoon not long after we arrived. It was not quite as long as that watery hike, because Sebastian and I took our foray into Mumbai’s mad streets in the sweltering days just before the monsoon broke. The heat in that time of year is very nearly hallucinatory. The temperature, combined with the crowds, humidity, smoke and noise, can only be completely appreciated by someone who has been there. Neither a thousand words nor a thousand photos can describe the reality of the streets of Mumbai.
“All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you: the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was. If you can get so that you can give that to people, then you are a writer.”
Ernest Hemingway was talking about writing but I find the idea to be equally true of photography (or any form of art or craft). There are artists who seem to appear, sui generis, from nowhere, without precedent or antecedent though in the end this is a false narrative. There are, indeed, great and original talents, but everyone is influenced by something.