March 22, 2018
When I saw the hand; I knew that was the photograph.
I took this photograph of Mr. and Mrs. Seabourne at their house in Stourbridge in 1973. I met them when I gave a talk at the local photographic society and I asked them if I could take their photograph.
All my photographs were taken on a 5 x 4 wood and brass Gandolfi camera. It was unwieldy, slow to assemble and the image (which appears upside down) had to be framed and focussed on a ground glass screen from within a large black cloth that kept out the ambient light. Yet in this situation the camera came into its own. ‘Taking a photograph’ was changed into making a photograph. The session became an event like a slow motion quadrille – moving the camera, refocusing, setting the lens, inserting the slide carrier containing the film, lifting the slide and waiting … and waiting as the subject begins to freeze … and then you take the photograph. A half a second exposure. You have talked them through it, the click and then the whirr, and you just hope that they can hold it together. Not too tight, natural – no blinking.
I took seven photographs that day. We moved to the sofa for the last two shots and suddenly it became natural. The space fitted them. In the first of the two photographs Mr. Seabourne’s hand hangs down awkwardly in front of his leg and his feet are close together, maybe a sign of tension or discomfort.
But in the three or four minutes between that image and the published photograph, without any instruction or guidance, Mr. Seabourne’s feet have moved and his hand came to rest on his knee. I thought: "Whatever you do, don't take the pipe out of your mouth and don't move your hand." When I saw the hand I knew that was the photograph. Sometimes, when you watch two birds land on a branch there is a moment of apprehension, but then they just settle. In a way that's what happened here.
Everything just came together: no directions, no props, no flash - just a man and his wife on a sofa in their front room. The decisive moment encapsulated in the movement of a hand.
And like the elephant I just happened to be there.
Read more of John's series of posts on The Portraits: Slow Photography and Giraffe, 1973
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