My research on narrative has generated many disparate leads so I’ve decided to document my research on individual photographers and narrative series before trying to summarise my overall thoughts in a later post.
Published in 2005, For Every Minute You Are Angry You lose Sixty Seconds of Happiness by Julian Germain *(1) is a collection of 42 colour plates of a single subject, namely Charlie Snelling, an elderly gentleman living alone in a small house in Portsmouth. Both the original Steidl MACK and the later MACK editions are both out of print and second hand copies are expensive so I carried out my review using a combination of the photographs on Julian Germain’s web site, the MACK books site and by searching for images on-line. I believe that I have seen at least 30 of the pictures but, unfortunately, this form of review is restricted by not seeing the published sequence. Given that the relationship between adjacent images is one of the fundamentals of narrative photography this is a shame.
Germain first met Charlie by chance in 1992 and for the next eight years, until Charlie’s death in 2000, he visited him on a regular basis and, on some visits, just had tea but on others built up an intimate record of a man and his relationship with his environment. Charlie had lost Betty his wife some years earlier but he maintained a close link with her through his treasured collection of photographic memories. This is not a sad book, far from it, Charlie is alone but not lonely, he is surrounded by the things he loves, the photographs of his life with Betty, his colourfully decorated house and his small garden and greenhouse. Germain says that he just got on with life taking pleasure from these things.* (2)
In terms of narrative Germain has presented this series using the photographic equivalent of flashbacks. His own technically perfect, simple but elegantly composed, colour plates are punctuated with photographs of the pages of Charlie’s photo albums so, in parallel, we see the layers of Charlie’s current life and his previous life when Betty was still alive. Flashback is more commonly seen in photography when it is used to show comparisons of the same things at different times, a street scene compared after 50 years but it is unusual to see it applied as it is here.
Germain treats his two sources of pictures with equal respect both in the book and at the first exhibition of the collection held at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, 2005 *(3) where he displays pages from the albums as floor to ceiling prints. Germain places great value on amateur photographs, When writing about the War Memorial Exhibition in 2008 he said “it is arguable that the most important photographs are those taken by amateurs, the ones we take ourselves to record significant moments in our lives.” *(4). His own work is sophisticated, medium format photography and through it we learn about Charlie’s current life but it is arguably the amateur photos that fill in the detail and explain the later images. Germain is clearly comfortable to present his own work in this way and to allow some of his images to play a supporting role in double page spreads.
There is a commonality between the two sets of pictures that probably enables them to become a single collection. If we put aside the technical differences and look at the pictures we see two collections of very honest, straight forward pictures, no tricks, no eye-catching post production, no odd angles or irrelevant changes in technique or processing. The other common ground is that both photographers cared for their subject, Germain became Charlie’s friend and says that he never saw him as a project. This empathy shines through and underlines how we take our best photographs when we understand and value the subject.
In effect there are three story lines running through For Every Minute:
- The narrative of Charlie’s current life. His house, what he eats, how he makes a cup of tea, the Reliant Robin he drives, his walks in the woods or on the beach. Told by Germain’s photographs.
- The narrative of Charlie and Bettys’ life together. Often covering the same subjects but adding days out and holidays and many pictures of Betty. Told by the albums.
- The third narrative is the interrelationship between the first two story lines so we see Charlie with is camera alongside a photo he presumably took of Betty, the greenhouse and deck chair in Betty’s day and now, after she has gone.
It is the third story line that holds the most poignant moments. I found the pictures of Betty on holiday and in their garden moving because they document the space she has left in Charlie’s life but the most emotional images are where Charlie is looking at those photos. This is a book that connects directly with the viewer because it explores a common theme, a human condition that we have all experienced or foresee that we will experience. The story line is presented in a sophisticated manner but it is a story we know already and this normality, this sense of the common place is its strength. Germain tells us that we don’t need to look for dramatic subject matter and that if we deal with the ordinary and everyday we will have the opportunity to say something meaningful, * (2) this book does exactly that.
(1) Germain, Julian (2005) For Every Minute You Are Angry You lose Sixty Seconds of Happiness. Gottingen: Steidl MACK (Reviewed o line via a combination of Julian Germain’s web site – http://www.juliangermain.com/projects/foreveryminute.php and the MACK web site – http://www.mackbooks.co.uk/books/16-For-every-minute-you-are-angry-you-lose-sixty-seconds-of-happiness.html
(2) Malone, Theresa. (2013) Julian Germain’s best photograph: Charlie in his kitchen stirring the gravy: ‘I didn’t see Charlie as a project – sometimes I wouldn’t even take photos, just have a cup of tea and a Mr Kipling cake’ – Guardian – http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2013/oct/02/julian-germain-best-photograph
(3) Germain, Julian. Official Website http://www.juliangermain.com
(4) Germain, Julian. (2008) War Memorial – http://juliangermain.blogspot.co.uk/2008/09/war-memorial.html