Benny Borell has a photographic studio in Solleftea in Sweden. Solleftea also has a huge, eye watering liquor store and an elegant cafe with good coffee and overpriced open sandwiches. Benny Borell is a professional photographer and I enjoyed meeting him. I wish I could forward this note to him to tell him so but he has no computer. That says a lot, these days, about a professional commercial photographer.
Benny’s studio is full of cameras with bellows and beautifully crafted Hasselblads carved out of solid pieces of aluminium. He has a darkroom that smells of chemicals and an anti-room where enlargers of complex shapes and designs are stored. Above the darkroom is a framing workshop with the same pile of strewn about mouldings that can be seen in any framing studio anywhere you look.
On the front of Benny’s work brochure is a black and white photograph of people dancing in front of a well dressed fiddle and accordion band. The photograph could have been taken any time in the late 1940’s or the 1950’s but it has Benny Borell’s name at the side of it crediting him as the maker. Benny would have been a very young photographer indeed to have made the photograph at the time it seems to depict but he has, underneath the picture, a quote from Edward Weston which encourages you to think about the photograph’s honesty.
The quote, roughly translated from the Swedish, reads, “Only if you strive may the camera be forced to lie.”
Amongst the work of Edward Weston, a wonderful American photographer, is a series of images which I have always thought of as erotic vegetables. Beautifully rendered images of peppers with languid curves and shadows which immediately take your mind to the human body. He was working at a time when there was surprise in finding sexuality in flowers painted by his friend Georgia O’Keeffe.
There isn’t any lying in those pictures, just looking closely, but about a decade before Robert Frank took off on his road trip which became ‘The Americans’ photo series, Edward Weston took a similar trip with the aim of making photographs which would sit with Walt Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass’.
Weston’s wife, who accompanied him on the trip, complained to him that he was too fond of seeking out the unusual, visually stimulating and extreme parts of American life and that his pictures didn’t show what they claimed to, the ordinary experience of Americans, at all.
I think that, if they ever existed, the days of working hard, striving, to force the camera to lie are long since past.
Photographers have always, like Edward Weston, chosen which bit of the truth to tell, which bit of reality to show, which part of an event or a scene to frame, which moment to expose an image. These things define the narrative of an image and establishes its truth. Added to this sort of choice it is now easier than ever to alter reality in a digital file and represent your experience in your own chosen way. This is the photographer as artist showing the world not as it is but as he or she feels it to be.
Is there anything wrong with being comfortable with the fact that cameras lie? Absolutely not. Most photographers are no more documentary makers than most poets are journalists.
The problem is that many of us believe photographs to be recordings of the real world and, at a time when it is no longer required to have to strive too hard to force a camera to tell a lie, it is important to strive to make the camera tell the truth when the truth needs to be told.
I enjoy the idea of Benny Borell seeing the world through ground glass and chemicals and keeping far, far away from computers. I like it that he might be interested enough in whatever meaning photography has wrapped up in it to add riddles into his commercial brochure.
There seems to be a little more chance of somehow making honest photographic images with cameras, lenses and film than with digital files. That may be an entirely romantic notion but I’m looking at some of the lovely instruments I have in my room tucked in beside the screens and thinking about the work and ingenuity that went into making photographs with them. I have some unpredictable, out of date film to load into them so thank you Benny Borell for the interesting little thought journey that our short meeting inaugurated.