Captured: the power of the picture
In my work, I rely more and more on carefully curated images to tell complex stories. It is true, words are sometimes needed to give context and grounding, but my reflex is increasingly visual. Image search engines are my beloved friends; a clear thought finds new life in a carefully chosen picture.
Driving back from the West with a dear friend who curates photographs for a living, I asked her to explain the curious power of images.
‘A photograph can be understood intuitively’ she said. ‘It is open to all’.
We considered, as we drove through wild and beautiful Mayo, how some art seems as if it’s created behind a wall. Inaccessible.
Maybe this is what is meant by highbrow; coded to keep people out.
Joyce needs to be studied. Bizet needs to be explained. Even Dali gets better through exposure to his life’s work. But photos go most of the way just by being themselves. They capture the world as our own eyes might see it, had they been there.
Case in point: Tim Hartson’s leaping horse.
I have seen that picture, of a somewhat panicked horse on the shore, several times in the last months. At one stage – perhaps I was misled, perhaps I misled myself – I thought it came from a Horse Meet in north county Dublin. I had filled in the context all by myself.
The camera was behind the action – and captured a moment full of power, athleticism, and perhaps some fear.
The horse was unaccountably lifting himself high, all legs in the air. His minder was clearly experienced – she remained steady. Holding the reigns. Waiting for the stallion’s return to Earth.
I have since read that the picture was taken by Hartson four years ago, in California. An inexperienced photographer, he had observed horses being led to the shore and saw they were nervous. He enquired, and discovered they had arrived directly from Colorado. Animals of a landlocked state, many had never experienced the ocean before.
The lady featured in the picture had gently coaxed her horse to water. Slowly, hesitantly, the animal advanced. Until a rapid wave startled him.
Then, up he went.
The photo, shared rather naively on social media without a dominant watermark, quickly travelled the world.
It had a beauty which crossed borders. It told a story – spoke to something universal; even if its context was unclear.
Whether the drama played out on the beach at Bettystown or a lagoon in Morrow Bay, California, its essential narrative is there for immediate consumption.
Learning that the horse had never seen the sea before simply adds a layer of beauty.
Pictures are powerful, but not always omnipotent. Because sometimes a full story requires more than a thousand words.
Note: this essay is part of a remarkably infrequent series of essays on photographs, the next being from 2020 and found here
© Brian McIntyre. 2014