Photography by Adrian Harris

thinking through seeing

Menu Close

Thinking Photography

My photography MA show (1994) was hopelessly ambitious. I wanted to critique key aspects of Western culture using Jacques Derrida’s philosophy of deconstruction. Yes, seriously! It was an audio-visual show that was pretty much incomprehensible to anyone who hadn’t read my fulsome explanation. As you might expect, most people wandered in, watched in mild bewilderment for moment or two, then left. On the up side, I passed with a Merit and learnt a lot about how far you can push thinking with photography!

The Diver

There’s an approach to photography that very deliberately constructs the image. Victor Burgin, an ‘80’s photographer and writer, edited a book on this approach called Thinking Photography (1982). Burgin was hugely influential on my BA training at the Polytechnic of Central London and, in turn, on my MA work. Burgin’s images can be powerful; Fiction Film, 1991, for example. But they can be over analytical and even anti-aesthetic. Victor Burgin claimed that “There’s no point in making any more images”. He suggested that “There are already enough photographs in the world… What we need to do is re-read the images we already have.” That’s exactly what I was doing in my MA show, as these are photographs of tv adverts.

The Boy on the Beach

My MA show was perhaps an example of taking the construction of photographic meaning too far: Over-thinking photography. Not long after finishing my Masters, I put my camera away. I’d got so bogged down in theory and analysis of the image that I couldn’t create anymore. Years later, I bought a compact digital camera and rediscovered my passion. I had to forget a lot of photographic theory to be able to take pictures again, but I can see the influence of Burgin’s approach in some of my work today. It’s now very subtle and emerges from a tacit awareness of visual meaning that’s more embodied than conscious.

Confessions and Memorials

Our need for relationship is perhaps our most essential quality and without it we cannot survive. That powerful need can sometimes be expressed in curious ways; the need to confess, for example. We don’t all have access to Catholic confession, so what do you do if you have a secret you can’t hold anymore?

“I am stealing …”

Whoever scribbled this graffiti had a need to confess and chose a means that is both highly visible – it was on the wall in a public building – and utterly anonymous. The relationship between the person confessing and the public who might read it is an odd one. If the confession isn’t seen by other people it’s pointless, but the person behind it remains invisible. It’s a controlled, ersatz kind of relationship, like viewing someone through a one-way mirror. Technically this is a poor photograph, but there’s something compelling about it. The image provokes my imagination and all kind of unanswerable questions come up. Was this confession enough to ease their anxiety? Did they keep on stealing? Did they get caught?


This is a much more honest sharing, this time of grief and celebration. To some degree it’s another anonymous expression, but many local people will know who painted this and share the sentiment. This memorial graffiti, though to my eyes much more beautiful than a gravestone, is transient. Even if no-one paints over it, it’ll fade and peel in time. Maybe that’s part of what make it special. Like the life it celebrates, it’ll fade away. Meanwhile I like to think of it as a community memorial to a much loved Dad.

Seeing with a Beginner’s Eye

Most photographs today create versions of the Romantic picturesque or rehash the Modernism of the late 20th century. Mine are no different, because it’s really hard to see photographically outside those frames. It’s partly about how our minds work: We see what we’re looking for. The Zen master Shunryu Suzuki advocated adopting a beginner’s mind in our mediation practice: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s there are few.” Can I learn to see with a beginner’s eye?

Those who consistently manage to create images outside the classic frames are the true greats of photography. I’m thinking of artists like Trent Parke (b. 1971), Duane Michals (b. 1933) and Diane Arbus (1923 – 1971).

When I see a beautiful photo, I’ll feel good and probably think something like “Oh, that’s lovely!’ When I see a great photo, my eyes widen and my visual vocabulary expands. I may never see things quite the same again because my world has got bigger.

I fairly often take a photo I think looks good. It fits one of those conventional artistic frames I mentioned. This is a fair example.


It’s a classic still life and I’m aiming – at most – for a ‘That’s nice’ response.

The Silver Fish

This is an attempt to do something different and it breaks some of the standard rules. A dead fish isn’t an obvious subject for a photo and the depth of focus is quite narrow. But I find this image more interesting than the one above it. Maybe that’s just me! What do you think?