Photographic intensity (before I owned a camera)

I knew about intensity before I knew about photography. When I was a student in Norwich I would go for long walks at night. One of the first things university does is fuck up your sleep schedule. I wouldn’t start to feel tired until 1am some nights, so I would go for walks.

In my first and third years I lived very near campus. UEA campus is on the edge of Norwich, and you don’t need to go far to end up nowhere at all. Fields, marsh, punctuated by new builds and cut with roads. You don’t need to go far at all and you’re alone. That’s where I’d walk. I would listen to the most atmospheric music I could find to magnify the experience. It’s only now that I can name what I was looking for as intensity.

There was a cluster of new builds, I guess a small town, I don’t know it’s name. I never visited it at daytime, it was only real to me at night when it was totally deserted. I would head there once, twice a week, on my own. I didn’t own a camera and the camera on my crappy smart phone was so primitive I never even thought to use it.

The best nights where misty, winter nights. There was a park in the middle of the little fake town, and going through the middle of it was a path studded with streetlights. I would walk up and down this and there was a feeling of excitement edged with a nameless anxiety — the lights caught the moisture in the air and the light blossomed. It’s a gut feeling, a root feeling, primal excitement, a sense of cosmic mystery triggered just by streetlights illuminating fog.

I own a camera now, a treat I bought myself during the first lockdown. I’ve never really tried to photograph people, not yet at least. My subjects are landscapes and buildings and houses and streets, preferably at night and devoid of people (they’re distracting and untidy). It was only recording ep. 2 of this podcast that I connected what I was trying to do with my student night walks, that search for the feeling of intensity.

When caught up in that feeling — rain falling through the beam of a streetlight or the moon surrounded by an ice-crystal halo — I am more real because I am less obvious to myself. I’m a focal point of intense feeling, thoughtless, delighting in sheer experience. This is the tragedy of the photograph, the failure to communicate that feeling, which is really a synecdoche for the inevitable failure of all communication. Intensity cannot be communicated, it can only be experienced.

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