The camera has a familiar heft in my hand. Walking down the streets of Vancouver, which is a pretty city, I spot lovers walking side by side, vagabonds furtively glancing this way and that, and it is all I can do to resist capturing them in their most private moments, when they think no one is watching. What is the art of photography, but that of finding the moment that makes us human? Too often we are not human, we are animals who care nothing for the feelings of others. And even that is human, sometimes. No drug dealer ever shot a man, and proceeded to eat him. We are not predators, our prey do not sustain us.
But I prevent myself, because privacy is also something that makes us human. Too many times I have taken pictures that, in their taking, have destroyed the very moment they sought to record. We are not made to live underneath the flash’s glare, for it blinds us. I may have been a paparazzo, once, but it wasn’t interesting, wasn’t human enough for me. My wandering eyes always looked for moments of emotion, and too often celebrities hid behind masks that they had crafted through years of being pursued by my kind.
So now I photograph places. Cities, and their lights and feel, the distinct antiseptic sting of neon and fluorescence. Deserts, that show interminability in a way that nothing else does. Seas, blue and green and sometimes (terrifyingly) a heaving, unnatural black. Now I do not worry about humanity, only what it does to that which surrounds it. And so I walk through Vancouver, past shops and hotels, searching for that one shot that will define my time here.
In four hours, I do not find it. I take the bus and the SkyTrain, I spend half an hour sitting on the waterfront and there is nothing that I find that is singular, that is definitive of this city. Too often this has happened, where I arrive into the airport full of hope and promise, and seven days later I only have five rolls of terrible pictures to show for it. A week in Munich yielded nothing, a fortnight spent in Madagascar only brought with it a case of food poisoning. Sometimes I wonder if I was not made for this, that I could not be this person who took pictures of still landscapes that have no soul.
This is one of those times.
Once it was that only the most patient would become photographers. It was hours of waiting that would yield the perfect picture, of that one moment where every guard your subject had every built up would disappear just for an instant. And in that instant the artist strikes. I have seen joy, ruination, contentment, wrath, all taken by masters of the camera, and only by waiting for it did they come across it.
No longer is this true. Fools who fancy themselves photographers click indiscriminately, without a thought for artistry, for poetry. The digital, the mobile, it has rid the world of something purer, of something that was gained through knowing the moment. I curse them, and I curse the world that has rid itself of ones who curse them.
I wander into a café that is full, but I nonetheless find a seat for myself. An attractive woman still finds herself certain advantages wherever she goes, however old she might be. I cannot stop myself from looking about, listening for other peoples’ stories.
‘Stop me if you’ve heard this one before…’
‘How many people do you know would vote Conservative…’
‘Richard is the most infuriating man I’ve ever met…’
Though my camera is now safely stowed away in my bag, and I know it would cause no little consternation, I cannot help framing everything I see in terms of a photo I want to take. A little voice in my head offers advice, eternally critiquing the image. Wasting even a single picture is sacrilege. ‘No, too much light in the corner. It’s a shame that man isn’t a little taller. What if the woman sat on the other side of the table?’ There is an endless litany of advice, in a voice that I have not heard in the flesh for decades.
But I refuse to let myself wander into such dangerous territory, not when there is food to be eaten, ideas to be had, and the past cannot creep up on me like a soft summer breeze.
Dinner consists of a bowl of pasta with some sort of cream sauce and ham. It is delicious, and I cannot finish it. Vancouver has robbed me of inspiration, and it seems my appetite has gone with it. As I gather up my things and prepare to leave, having paid and left quite a generous tip, I contemplate what I shall do with the rest of my night, and the rest of my trip. I will fly to New York, to meet with the editor of a magazine that would like to use my work, nothing I’ve done recently, but the more famous work that I have left in storage, that no one has actually seen. I know what my answer will be, but they keep asking, in the hopes that one day I’ll give up.
And maybe I will. If things continue the way they have, if I cannot even put together one sub-standard exhibition of some of the most spectacular places in the world, I may have to go back to what I was once best at.
My best friend once told me that what I did was put people under an electron microscope, and studied them day in and day out until they could take it no longer and gave me what I wanted. I have not spoken with her since Christmas three years ago, when she said I was the most hateful woman she had ever met.
I miss Rita.
I hail a cab, and tell him to go to the Fairmont. He is obviously unimpressed, perhaps women tell him to drop them off there all the time, secretly hoping that he might be a millionaire in disguise, waiting for the perfect girl with perfect taste. In any case, Canada is not a country for secret millionaires. I could not imagine Gatsby settling in Toronto, it would not be impressive enough for him.
It is as I am being driven through the city that I see it. The sun is setting, and there is a hint of amber amongst the deep red sky. I can see the skyline as we drive across the bridge and the city’s high-rises have reflected that light onto, and it is spectacular, and it is exactly what I have been waiting for.
Before I can remove my camera from its case, the moment is lost. I cannot even contemplate ordering the driver to drive back, by then the sun will have set, the delicate interplay of faraway glass and light will be gone, and any picture I take will certainly have no soul. For a brief moment Vancouver showed herself to me, but now she is once more hidden beneath a haze of knowing indifference.
My brief start garnered only a raised eyebrow from my driver, who remains stony-faced. If inspiration hit him on the head with a hammer he would not react, I think. I, on the other hand, have lost it, and that loss is worse than never having found it at all.
As the cab reaches the hotel, and I pay the man in exact change, my mind is wavering. Each passing day only makes it more likely I will say yes to the man in New York. And if it means no more of this futility, then I am no longer sure that I should say no.
such an emo i am.