“This is a picture I did not take of the most optimistic homeless man in America, spare changing at the Fox News-sponsored ‘Tea Party’ in Atlanta on April 15, rattling his empty cup as hundreds passed-by and grimaced at the sight of him approaching, trying to avoid meeting his smiling face, clenching their car keys and homemade signs about Taxes, about how the government is taking too much of their money, while a man stands in front of them with an empty cup and full smile, saying ‘there’s no good crowd or bad crowd — we’re all one, baby’ while they hustle past as fast as they can, to catch a glimpse of their hero Sean Hannity, to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with hands over their hearts while singing God Bless America.” – Michael David Murphy
Since 2004, writer and photographer Michael David Murphy has recorded non-fictional descriptions of everyday life as part of his online side-project, Unphotographable. There are no images on this website, at least not in the traditional sense, but strong, moving visuals are conveyed nonetheless. These are photographs taken with pen and paper, pictures typed onto a keyboard with a frank, journalistic sensibility. The sentences in each entry are tight and economical; they are sad and hilarious and gut wrenching and turbulent (even occasionally macabre), but always full of humanity. Unphotographable presents a new photojournalism.
To Murphy, the ongoing project is “a catalogue of exceptional mistakes,” a gleaming mosaic of moments missed and mechanical failures, of times when words seemed more fitting than a camera – or when his camera simply wasn’t on hand. It’s a startling, but somehow very natural reaction to traditional documentary photography, where words alone can depict the flickering glow of a motel’s half-dead neon sign, or the squint of a woman who holds a bible to her face, shielding the brightness of the sun. It’s a simple concept and therein lies its genius. As one reviewer asked “why didn’t I think of it?”
I spoke to Murphy recently about his word and camera-based photography. He is a man infatuated by the possibility of representing new things, “whatever I’ve never seen before, heard before, tasted before [or] considered before.”
Laura Bannister: At what age were you first drawn to photography?
Michael David Murphy: Like many kids who grew-up in the 70s and 80s, I learned who I was – in relationship to my family – by looking at carousels of Kodachrome slides during holiday visits with my grandparents. I started taking my own pictures in high school, and abandoned it soon after because of expense; I couldn’t afford the film/develop/print habit.
Laura: Tell me about the first camera you remember owning. What kind of images did you shoot in the early days?
Michael: My Pentax K1000 was a typical student’s camera – all manual, and even if its fidelity wasn’t the best, I appreciated its metallic precision; the sound film made while passing through its sprockets was almost as alluring as whichever image may have wound up on the emulsion.
Laura: Do you prefer shooting film or digital?
Michael: When I got back into photography, it was thanks to the affordability of digital, and I’ve since worked backward into film. Film makes analog sense to me, it engages the very thing that I think is most interesting about the medium, the suspense of not knowing what you may have photographed, what you may have missed, and exactly what kind of light you trapped in that dark box.
Laura: I think a lot of people are drawn to film because of that sense of surprise – it goes against the grain of most other technologies, where immediacy is key. What is your current camera/s of choice?
Michael: Mamiya 7II and Contax T3.
Laura: Unphotographable revolves around missed moments. What was the very first of these that prompted you to initiate the project?
Michael: I was in Harar [in] Ethiopia, a walled city, and it was the most different place I’d been in my life. Having a lens mediate my experience of the place didn’t seem quite right. I enjoyed myself and felt comfortable there the minute I put my camera down.
Laura: One of the explanations you give on your site for creating some of your ‘Unphotographables’ is that you simply don’t have a camera on hand. Are you always armed with pen and paper?
Michael: I often write [Unphotographables] down as soon as they happen; others I write later, after reflection. Some need time to develop and fix.
Laura: I’ve read in a previous interview that you envision your Unphotographable entries not as poems or free verse, but as images hung on a wall. Does that mean you perceive images and text as equally ‘true’ representations of reality, completely interchangeable?
Michael: Each has strengths. As our culture becomes more saturated by photography and the world becomes more visually literate, I find myself moving back to words, and to Unphotographable as a way to deliver a unique experience for the viewer/reader that lasts longer than one might look at a picture. That’s the thing that fascinates me most right now – when people encounter Unphotographable they tend to look longer, because the text demands a certain kind of interaction that’s different (and often longer) than what it takes to ‘read’ a photograph. Text demands your time, and reading is an intimate, deep commitment. The Internet is teaching us all that the next picture is a mouse-click away, and ironically Unphotographable can slow that impulse down.
Laura: I’m interested to know if there is ever a decision to write about a potential photo when you could easily have photographed it. Do you ever willingly choose the text over image as a form of representation?
Michael: Just because I missed taking what may have been a great picture, doesn’t mean the greatness [of that photo] could be translated into text. Not every missed photograph makes a great Unphotographable. Sometimes the crucial context of a potential picture can’t be contained in 125th of a second. Sometimes the action of a picture lasts longer, too. ‘Unphotographables’ don’t stop time in the way photographs can. Text unfolds over time, which gives me the chance to put the best words in the best order, as Coleridge says, and avoid the un-focusable blur.
Laura: Your project’s site has garnered quite a significant following. Why do you think other people are so intrigued by these observations?
Michael: They’re non-fiction, which is the essential hook, I think. If I was dreaming them up, they’d be worthless. Their documentary appeal seems crucial. And it’s very important to me that their language contains a kinetic-ism that mirrors the way we look at and interpret actual photographs. I want the text to have an immediacy that delivers an experience as close as possible to seeing.
The images used throughout are from a collaboration with Brighton design firm, The Entente.