I know very little about photography. I’ve always been more of a ‘point-and-click’ kind of girl, too impatient, too slapdash to spend time getting to know my camera. I am not knowledgeable about the history of photography, I don’t know the difference between exposed and unexposed film (if that is even the correct expression), I don’t know who is deemed any good, but I think the work of Corinne Day and Don McCullin is intruiging in equal measure. I use four cameras, depending on which handbag I am using – a Nikon, a very old Canon, a Sony digital and a Polaroid. But my point is, that there is something about not knowing whether a picture is going to come out well, not understanding why it does or doesn’t. So I have a very amateur, shallow appreciation for photography, though I see that there is always something to be said for being patient and methodical, at anything, generally. But among my own favourite photographs, are those which are quite clearly nebulous, pure-luck snaps, taken in a trembling instant which was, just a moment before, inconceivable. Unstaged.
I have been searching for a diversion recently, a new pursuit for the lighter evenings. Throughout the winter there’s been sketching and scrapbooking and blogging and reading – but I want to learn about something entirely alien to me. Learn another language – take up knitting perhaps, or floristry. There are so many enchanting things to do, so many absorbing interests to have, once you start to think about it. So I have made lists, and done nothing.
I was thinking about light. How a certain light can entirely change the atmosphere of a place familiar to you – a room, a street, so that it almost feels foreign, though everything is just the same as it always was. How the afternoon light in Africa in the early months of the year always made me experience a very specific mixture, in equal part, of nostalgia and intoxication.
One afternoon in February 2009, I was sitting on a wooden chair outside La Pieve, a sort of delicatessen in a low, timber building surrounded by acacia trees on the Oserian farm at Kongoni, on the southern shores of Lake Naivasha. My mother and father were inside looking for Carr’s crackers. It was sunny, cool and quiet. But for the askaris at the end of the drive and the dogs sleeping in the dust, all was still, there was only birdsong. The light was what I can only describe as completely, drenchingly golden. I thought I was in Eden. I thought, for as long as I live I will never forget this moment, I will never be happier than I am right at this precise moment in time. It was the single, most significant event in my life, yet nothing had happened. I was just very deeply in love, and that has never happened to me before or since, not with a man or a woman or a place.
When my parents came out onto the verandah, they climbed into the Landcruiser and I hung back and tried to take a photograph but I was unable to freeze the instant on celluloid. I was as enchanted as Dorian Grey on seeing his portrait; I wanted capture forever the emotion that I had had. In one way it was outside me, all around me, but I was also part of it and I felt thin and alive.
Ever since, it has crossed my mind that perhaps I should learn how to take proper photographs but the subject seems to be so vast, I am slightly daunted by it. And I suppose I never wanted to become just another woman who takes trite, rather mediocre pictures and calls herself a photographer. But, probably, it doesn’t matter anyway, even if I do, even if they are.
A few years ago I had a brief, intense affair with a very sweet photographer who had beautiful teeth and was much more in love with me than I was with him. I was longing for someone else, who had a cocaine addiction and treated me badly. But we did have a lot of fun in the few, hot months of that summer, which ended not long after we parted, when I left him and went back to the addict. As photographers do, he subsequently had brief, intense affairs with many of my friends, but in those months that he loved me, my hair was long, and I was his Jane Morris. In loyalty, for the purposes of these notes, we’ll call him J.
I spent a lot of time with J that summer, in the nude, in the studios at Beehive Yard, hanging out with his crowd, who were mostly other photographers, who were also all having brief, intense affairs with eachother, and in the rickety wooden studio at the end of his garden, lying on the slatted floorboards smoking pot and looking up through the window and the leaves outside at the sky. He gave me an old Canon camera and some film and we went swimming in Somerset rivers and strolling on the flat top of Solsbury Hill in the evening and he taught me to develop my pictures in his father’s dark room. I was going through my ‘cool’, dismissive, beatnik phase and was reading a lot of the beat poets of 1950’s New York. I wore stripes and filthy white plimsolls most days and didn’t brush my hair and drank black coffee and smoked outside cafes with all the other loitering, smoking public school kids. But I felt disdainful of them, and was bored by their conversation of trust funds and estate management courses. I wasn’t going to be like them; I was going to be a writer. I wrote several bad poems that summer.
J photographed me one afternoon in the mirror, when I was putting on my make-up. I used to copy Bridget Bardot’s black liquid eye-liner flicks; my Mum called them my ‘Cleopatra eyes’. I had very pale lipsticks and a suntan from always being outdoors with no clothes on. That photograph always reminds me of a poem I read somewhere once, perhaps on a London tube, about women when they get dressed in the morning, and something about bare-arsed breakfasts.
I admit to being impressed, because when I met J’s father, he turned out to be a very famous photojournalist and cameraman and had just returned from filming with Michael Palin in some remote corner of the world. They lived in a terribly bohemian, Bloomsbury-ish house at Larkhall and had a great many children. I think there were eight. His mother had a severe bob haircut and wore brown and was rather aloof. I don’t think she liked me very much. Nevertheless, I went on holiday with them to their cottage in a remote part of the Lake District surrounded by sheep and mist and sat outside in the kitchen garden peeling apples and painting with the little ones. Later, we went there alone, on the train to Penrith, and his best friend was killed on his way there, driving North on the motorway, and we spent five days having strange, bittersweet sex and driving around in his old, rickety Morris Minor and he cried harder than I have ever seen anyone cry. The best friend’s parents, who I had never met, lived in a big, rambling house a few miles away – his mother showed me photographs of her son, who I had never met either, and wept soundlessly. At his memorial service, they sent little paper boats with candles in them across the lake, like lanterns.
During my Masters, I modelled for a painter outside Oxford. He painted an intriguing portrait of me looking at him in the mirror in a shadowy room. Some days the light was too stark, or weak, it was too misty out and then he couldn’t work on that painting so we’d leave it till the next afternoon and hope the light would change. I was unhappy that year, but we would talk every day until it got dark. Then I would drive home in the evening traffic listening to Bob Dylan.
Sometimes I write about clothes and photograph clothes. I think I just love the textures and colours more than anything. I like, most of all, reading blogs like La Mignonette where people are quite honest about recording their interest in clothes in a considered way, documenting their enjoyment of fashion but making choices irrespective of it. I like the photographs too, simple and restrained, and not trying to be anything they are not. They simply say ‘this is me, walking out the door to work’, ‘this is what I’m wearing tonight’, ‘here is my new dress’. They are taken at home, in someone’s apartment, and they are not too perfect – there might be a stray sock on the floor and that’s okay, it’s authentic, a photo-journal of someone’s day to day life. I prefer these posts to those by professional bloggers. They are more intimate, less superficial somehow. They acknowledge a love of clothes, a relationship with a certain few French designers, but they are not gratuitously about the next Celine IT bag one minute, Mary Katrantzou’s collection for Topshop the next. Dead Fleurette is the same. Contemplative. I like that.
This evening I took some shots, in quick succession, in the mirror at my parents’ house, where I am staying. I had just got out of a hot bath and decided to try an outfit I thought I might wear to go to dinner in London on Saturday night, a little black dress with a net underskirt. There was a nice light in the room. I was sitting on the bed, curling my eyelashes. And I liked the reflection, without sounding glib – there was something quite sweet about it. I could be any girl, excited about going to dinner, mid-week, post-bath, looking forward to the weekend.