The case for a new genre.
The “Other Than Photography” forum discussion has been superb. So many great ideas and influences. Songs, paintings, music and books.
I put forward the practice of walking as an inspiration for my photography.
I knew that plenty of artists and thinkers also found inspiration in walking. Nietzsche used his time walking to explore his ideas. The final section of Thus Spoke Zarathustra was composed on his regular walks from the French village of Eze to the nearby Eze Bord-de-mer. This walk is now known as Chemin de Nietzsche and is so popular as an inspirational trek, that it has a TripAdvisor entry. I walked the route myself a few years ago and can see why it was such an productive influence on the philosopher.
Charlotte Bronte drew inspiration for Wuthering Heights from her moorland walks. The forum introduced me to the poet Mary Oliver, who credited her walking as the inspiration for her profoundly moving poetry.
Aristotle, William Wordsworth, Charles Dickens, Henry David Thoreau, Soren Kierkegaard and Ludwig Van Beethoven were all renowned walkers. So, given my own feelings about walking, I considered what role walking played in photography.
Henri Cartier-Bresson, William Eggleston, Saul Leiter, Vivian Maier and Martin Parr all practiced street photography. But their working methods were to get into the street and walk, searching for that scene or moment. I have just watched a video by the London street photographer Sean Tucker. He talks of visiting parts of London and walking the streets, looking for light, shade and that inspiring moment.
There are plenty of ways of moving around, but none seem to be as productive for photographers as walking. I can’t think of anyone who finds their muse in cycling. So what is happening here, what is the power of walking?
Certainly, in the Christian tradition, walking is almost synonymous with living. The psalmist is comforted that “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me”. This passage is generally acknowledged as referring to a spiritual journey through a difficult time, rather than a dangerous physical feature. Thus walking and living take on an equivalence in texts from many centuries ago.
Pilgrimage, a physical journey undertaken for spiritual reasons, is a fundamental part of both Christian and Muslim tradition. Maybe early artists found that engaging in pilgrimage was beneficial to their practice and the idea of walking for inspiration became embedded in artist habits. It certainly seems to be the case that: walking is beneficial to the creative process, and that artists have known this for a long time. When 20th century photographers picked up their newly developed compact cameras, they were finally able to join an interdisciplinary river that had flowed for many, many years.
Photographic genres are essential arbitrary. Is a tiger photographed in a zoo, still a wildlife photograph? Is a cityscape acceptable as a landscape when no land is visible? What is the maximum number of people that can appear in a portrait?
So why should we not study photography that is inspired by walking?
We could consider how the photographer finds their inspiration. Walking photography is at most only roughly planned. A location may be considered fruitful, but it will not be cordoned off and controlled as on a film set, or the location for a photographer like Gregory Crewdson. The walking photographer will see what the location offers up and work with these components. These may be a magnificent landscape, a building at home in it’s setting, a distinctive group of people or an arresting palette of colours. This photography draws from and stylises the world. The photograph is recognisably from the place in which it was taken but also an abstraction of it. It is a fraction of a moment in time that cannot be painted and probably not be captured with a large format camera. It is a product of the photographer’s agility and connection with the environment in which they are working.
In considering how a picture comes into being, we should consider how such a basic human function as walking, nourishes the creativity of the individual. That seems like a fascinating investigation.