I absolutely love taking photographs. I feel a bit naked and slightly panicky if I go somewhere without a camera, in the same way that I feel profoundly uncomfortable if I go out and find I’ve left my notebook behind. (This is why I have unfeasibly big handbags, the kind of thing that would make Lady Bracknell have kittens.) But I can’t, hard as I try, learn how to master the art of photography.
I really have tried. I have asked kind and brilliant friends. The amazing Fay Vincent told me some gloriously clever things. Generous people write long essays on Photography for Beginners on the internet. And yet none of it goes in.
I can’t even understand the Rule of Thirds. This is possibly the most basic rule of photography. It’s the visual equivalent of the simple declarative sentence. I know the simple declarative sentence like I know how to breathe. I’ve been learning it since I wrote my first novel at the age of fourteen. It is my comrade in arms and my old friend.
I sometimes say, slightly fancifully, that Churchill won the war with simple declarative sentences. This of course is not quite true. But he did rally a desperate nation with them, and gave battered, bewildered Britons the gift of hope.
‘We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.’
There is nothing more simple or more declarative than that.
There is not a single word that you have to look up in the dictionary. This is language a child of eight could use with confidence and delight. Yet those lines thump into the heart with the power and accuracy of an arrow shot from an archer’s bow.
But I can’t get the Rule of Thirds. What third? Where? And how?
The moment the language of photography gets at all technical, which it does very quickly, my brain becomes befuddled and mildly resentful. It’s like string theory to me. I have a friend who does string theory, and for him, it’s like reading Enid Blyton. It’s so obvious and wonderful and true. He’s a musician as well, and he thinks of physics like music. To him, the universe vibrates with music, as if the vast spaces of the cosmos are playing Mozart sonatas. Imagine that. I hardly can.
So, I’ve decided to stop torturing myself. The language of light and composition is not a language I shall ever speak, just as I shall never speak Mandarin. I shall go on snapping, in my amateurish way, for sheer pleasure. I look and squint and try to find something interesting. I hunt for beauty as a truffle hound hunts for truffles. Sometimes, I find it. Sometimes, I get lucky. There is no skill in my pictures, but there is an awful lot of love. And that gets me far enough.
But I do take my hat off to those people who do it properly. It is a great art, and a science too. Behind the charming ease of the finished product is years of knowledge and learning and practice. When I see a great photograph now, I don’t take it for granted. I know what it takes to achieve that kind of consistent greatness. I have scratched around the edges, and I see the devotion and the conviction and the hard work that is required. Someone has done something marvellous, and respect is due.