I went out the other day intent on taking photographs. I had no agenda to pursue, no ‘event’ to cover, nothing in particular that I ‘wanted’ to photograph. It was a weekday, so there was a bonus of not being ‘at work’ when most other people were. I had my camera bag packed and batteries charged.
I drove to South Mole, a rocky headland constructed as a breakwater to protect the harbour in Fremantle, and one of my favourite places to take a few pictures. Even if nothing interesting is happening in the harbour, there is always the sea, the sky, the horizon and the often changing weather. But some days you realise, quite early on, that things are just not going to go the way you had hoped. As I drove up to the entrance of the Mole, the steel and mesh gate that is always open was padlocked, and a sign attached. The port authority apologised for any inconvenience, it said, but the Mole was to be closed for two weeks for repair work.
Damn and double damn. I didn’t need to take any photos there, but I hadn’t made any contingency plans. I turned the car around and headed back towards town. I drove along the cappuccino strip, past all people sitting in the sun, drinking a coffee on their way to work, and I started to envy them. They at least had something to do; some purpose. My day was disappearing fast and I was starting to panic just a little. I drove around the back streets of South Fremantle looking for inspiration. Further south, the abandoned power station was bright in the morning sun, and I and drove along the access road. It was once a graceful building, rectangular and low, with rows of small-paned windows stretching three stories from ground to roof. From the inside these windows give the main hall the feeling of a post-apocalyptic Gothic cathedral, which is why the place is now popular with the graffiti artists. I climbed out of the car, dragged myself up a dirt bank and stood next to the chain link and barbed wire fence, and looked at the junk and graffiti. I have spent so much time there over the years I know it intimately, and couldn’t imagine anything else that I needed to photograph. I turned the car around and headed further south to a coffee shop by the beach. Usually quiet, on this morning—when everyone else was supposed to be at work–the carpark was half full and about a dozen pushbikes were bundled together by a tree. Half-a dozen young mothers with one or two three and four years olds each crowded the outside tables. Not even a coffee for me it seemed.
I drove back onto the main road, wandered past the vacant block where an old abattoir and meat packing factory used to be. The acres that the factory covered had been sprayed with a green concoction designed to keep down the dust. I’d photographed its destruction, but now there was nothing left. I continued past market gardens, housing estates, small scale industry and factory units. I drove on and only realised I was heading for home when I found myself turning into my own street.
What was the problem? Why hadn’t I found anything to photograph? I had the day to myself, the weather was perfect, but nothing seemed to work. It occurred to me later, while I sipped coffee and stared at my back garden: the problem was habit. I had stopped looking—really looking—at things. I saw everything, to be sure, but I knew what it was and what it looked like before I really saw it. It had been glanced, named categorised and filed without me actually looking at what was before me, today, now.
Most days when I head out to take photographs all is well. Some days, however, nothing works. It is on these days when the brain turns to auto-pilot and habit takes over. But what usually happens on those days is that the habit isn’t noticed. Everything goes along as normal. If the gate on South Mole had been unlocked I would have walked out to the lighthouse, taken some photos of the container terminal, perhaps a ship coming into or leaving the port, some clouds on the horizon. I would have gone home, uploaded the images to Lightroom, looked at them and thought, ‘Wasn’t much to photograph today’. The habitual nature of what we do is blamed on other things—light, not much happening, too many people. This probably happens more than we realise but it is usually overlooked unless another factor intervenes. On this day it was a locked gate.
It wouldn’t be such a big deal if taking photographs was not so important. I can’t explain why these images—digital or film—have such a hold on me and why I spend hours looking for them and looking at other similar images that other photographers have made. I can’t explain why I get up before sunrise and stalk through empty streets with a camera, why I wander through vacant and sometimes dangerous places, around old factories and alleys strewn with the detritus of our capitalistic consumer society. I have trouble articulating the pleasure that comes from making a record of the slow and inevitable decay of the structures, of the entropy of things returning to their original state.
But just because I can’t explain it does not make it less significant. And so when the photographic opportunities don’t eventuate there is real and genuine sense of loss. Every photograph missed is an opportunity that will never present itself again in quite the same way.
Text & Images © Stuart Peel 2012