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Saturday, 18 June 2011


Guns in snapshots

“Like the people you shoot and let them know it.”
Robert Capa

Back when sideshows were popular and actually interesting, some of them had shooting galleries where for a few coins you could point an air rifle at a target and if you hit it, instead of a fluffy toy or a kewpie doll, you set off a camera shutter and received a photograph of yourself taken a split second after you squeezed the trigger. For the winners the prize was an innocuous snap but for philosophers of a certain persuasion these artifacts represent a moment when the camera and the gun become symbiotic.

From the very beginning when people were seeking metaphors to explain photography they turned, unsurprisingly when you think about it, to guns. So much of the language of guns fitted naturally into the new medium. You had to aim the camera, get the subject within range and you shot. Various dictionaries attest that the term ‘snapshot’ appeared around the beginning of the 19th century and meant a quick shot from a gun without taking aim. Writing in the Photographic News in May 1860, John Herschel spoke of his vision for photography: “What I have to propose may appear a dream; but it has at least the merit of being possible … taking a photograph, as it were, by a snapshot – of securing a picture in a tenth of a second of time.” Being one of the most respected scientists in Britain, Herschel chose his words carefully; he didn’t want people to think he was a crank, but he might have been aware that five years earlier Thomas Skaife had been arrested for pointing a device at Queen Victoria that looked (to the police anyway) like a derringer but was actually a camera, his pistolgraph.

Go forward to the late 1880s, to the first stirrings of the age of the amateur camera fiend, and the vocabularies for guns and photography have already become indistinguishable. Critics describe the amateurs as prowling the streets, tracking their victims and pouncing on unsuspecting strangers. The amateurs don’t appear too offended by anyone likening them to armed hunters. They boast of lying in wait for their prey, which may have been nothing so much as the dusk’s shadows reaching a particular intensity. Meanwhile the first magazines dedicated to hunting with a gun and camera appear. In their original incarnations the idea was to shoot animals twice, first with the gun then the camera but gradually the idea emerges that putting the rifle away is more thrilling. This doesn’t suggest a budding ecological consciousness so much as an ultimate challenge. It is one thing to shoot a lion with a well aimed rifle, quite another and a lot more dangerous with a camera. It was also technically near impossible until the 1920s. Today such ethically sound people as David Attenborough employ tricks learned from big game hunters, constructing camouflaged hides, using other animals as lures and lying in wait for the target to appear.

In the 1940s and ‘50s it was almost impossible to read about Henri Cartier-Bresson without some reference to his abilities as a hunter. Inevitably he was darting about like a wasp or stalking like a cat, always watching for that rustle in the bushes . He didn’t resile from these allusions, indeed more than any other photographer he seemed to encourage them. “I prowled the streets all day, feeling very strung-up and ready to pounce, determined to "trap" life - to preserve life in the act of living,” he was quoted in 1952. And this: “The creative act lasts but a brief moment, a lightning instant of give-and-take, just long enough for you to level the camera and to trap the fleeting prey in your little box.” These days, photographers usually dismiss analogies between their work and hunting. It is an easy cliché but it also makes them sound vulgar and voyeuristic. Cartier Bresson incidentally spent some of his formative years in Africa and it was an image by Martin Muncaksi of African boys playing in the surf that made him see the potential in the camera.

Speaking of clichés, it is hard discovering which writer first thought up the idea of the perfect murder weapon being a gun disguised as a camera. Doubtlessly they congratulated themselves on their ingenuity for it’s a plot device that could only be taken seriously once and thereafter left to Get Smart or The Avengers to do what they chose with it. Predictable as the idea of the gun hidden in a camera may sound, it has become central to one conspiracy theory regarding the assassination of Robert Kennedy. Sirhan Sirhan, the argument goes, was only an accomplice. The real killer was a Pakistani/Palestinian/man of Middle Eastern appearance, who shot the senator with his camera. If it sounds feasible why hasn’t it been used more often? After all, if the Bulgarian secret service could kill dissident Georgi Markov with a poison dart fired from an umbrella, surely it isn’t too difficult to load bullets into a camera.

The image of the camera as a psychic weapon makes an appearance in Blow Up, the original short story by Julio Cortazar and the film by Antonioni, in The Eyes of Laura Mars with Faye Dunaway and Tommy Lee Jones and Michael Powell’s film Peeping Tom. In each example the images of violent death that people see are their own creations. In their hands the camera is a gun.


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