Review: Photographs Not Taken, Edited by Will Steacy

Photographs Not Taken: A Collection of Photographers' Essays, by Will Steacy
Photographs Not Taken: A Collection of Photographers' Essays, by Will Steacy

I’ve passed up dozens of photos over the years. Some of them were missed accidentally (the moment between collecting my jaw off the ground and getting the camera to my eye was one moment too many), but it’s safe to say that I’ve “missed” just as many on purpose. I’ve brought my camera to plenty of social events, for instance, only to fire off a few half-hearted shots and then put the camera away in favor of enjoying the time and the people. Or I’ve felt self-conscious, or would’ve felt heartless, invading someone’s private moment regardless of how good a photo it would’ve made.

In the preface to Photographs Not Taken: A Collection of Photographers’ Essays, editor Will Steacy notes that the collection is about “moments that never became a picture.” The contributors’ lives and work cover several points on the globe, from Johannesburg to New York, London to L.A., and elsewhere. The essays are similarly varied, from Massimo Vitali’s chance encounter between a Japanese businessman and a family of pickpockets, to Mark Power’s experiences in the Gdansk shipyard that was the birthplace of the Solidarity movement.

The lessons drawn by the photographers and passed along in essay form are often very short, and could be read in about the same amount of time it takes a Polaroid to develop, but they lose none of their impact for that. Some photos are passed up for the subjects’ reluctance, some for the photographers’; sometimes, as when Timothy Archibald “shot” for an entire day on a camera with no film, it’s a powerful reminder that we need to pass up our own hangups if we want to make better photos (and better photographers). If one sentence could sum up the collection as a whole, it’s probably this one from Nadav Kander: “[S]ometimes you just get an instinct when to put the camera down and be fully present.”

There are any number of images that you may never be able to show to your friends or put on the walls of your home, or hang in a gallery. This book is a reminder that you’re not unique or alone in that phenomenon. More to the point, it’s a reminder that that’s alright. While I think that a lot of photography is inherently social (whether in the documenting, or in the sharing later on), there’s a time — sometimes the split seconds taken to compose and make the shot, but other times much, much longer — that the most important part of photography comes down to putting down the camera. If we owe it to ourselves and our subjects to be fully present in the moment, the best way to do that sometimes is to put the camera down and be present without a viewfinder, sensor, and lens mediating the experience. It’s allowing those moments and all that inhabits them simply to be, without adding your own demands, expectations, or even the click of a shutter.

Like another book covered previously in this space (Unforgettable: Images That Have Changed Our Lives), Photographs Not Taken contains not a single printed photograph. It’s no less powerful, or even visual, for that fact. Indeed, it draws much of its power from the intersection between image and imagination, allowing the writing to bear witness to the power of visuals that experience burns first into our retinas, then into our minds’ eye. Those images — saints, sinners, soldiers, drunks, or kids, experiencing heartbreak or transcendent joy — end up being every bit as vivid to the photographer as if they’d been committed to film, but in a testimony to the power of the still image (even one evoked less by chemical processes than by words on paper), they end up being every bit as vivid to the reader. It’s appropriate, in a way, that a book about the absence of images should speak so clearly and eloquently to the photographer’s craft.

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