(UPSTREET UK, Issue 20, March 2007)
In an Image-Saturated World the Greatest Photos May Just Be Made of Words
words: Myles Quin
unphotography: Michael David Murphy
Three years ago Michael David Murphy was in Harar, a Muslim town in the east of Ethiopia. For a photographer it was a rich subject, full of light, colour, exoticism. But something held him back. A sense of intrusion, the misgivings of the outsider, a need to experience fully rather than via a viewfinder - sentiments familiar to every photographer - stilled his trigger finger. And something more beautiful emerged. "I realized I needed a writing project to fill the blanks the camera couldn't capture," he says. The project is Unphotographable.
Unphotographable is that rare thing: art that's moving and funny and thoughtful and accessible. It stirs admiration and envy in equal measure: so smart, so simple, so why didn't I think of it? And this art isn't hidden away in a gallery, but on the internet, open to everyone. Genius. Put simply, Unphotographable is the photographs that Murphy did not take, written up in direct, unshowy prose. Perfect photos... that never got taken. Perfect photos... made out of words.
But why would we read about photos he messed up? "I love photography and writing," he says, "but they both fail... They fail to convey pure experience; they're both abstractions. I'm intrigued by how poetry fails to deliver pictures and how pictures fail to deliver poems." Which is where unphotos come in: a no man's land, a mongrel and, just maybe, a pure experience. Unphotographable.com has been live for two years and now includes 80 entries. Last year it had over 900,000 page reads. Which is a lot. Murphy has never promoted it and is genuinely surprised by its success. He talks of it "finding its audience ("people who are interested in expression and art, photography and writing, and the intersection of all those things"), but where did these people come from? As a former text-writer at eBay, he's well aware of the golden rule, No One Reads On The Internet, but he breaks it, and somehow prevails. "Consumption of art takes time; a bit of effort and concentration," he says. "The site gives people a breath of air - perhaps when they least expect it. It's an oasis: a spot where things slow down in the middle of all this web madness."
Which is true. But it wouldn't count for much if the unphotos didn't work. So, what makes a great one? "To really work they have to have some kind of mystery; make you stop and think and question... It's about what can be done in the pause, what can be done with what's not said, what can be done with what's not shown. The mystery of photography is what intrigues me; not necessarily everything that's there in the frame, but what's unspoken, how things are connecting, the backstories. I guess in many ways I'm interested in the stories of pictures."
This storytelling of the photographic is very poetic. Perhaps Unphotographable is just a way of foisting poems on us - under cover, without us even suspecting? "I honestly don't consider them as poems, he counters. "I think about them as text with white space as much as I think about a black-and-white photograph with a white border. It's weird. I think about them on a wall."
It's worth noting too, that the rise of the unphoto hasn't dulled Murphy's enthusiasm for the real thing. As well as writing about photos he didn't take, he writes about photos other people took - on his fascinating street photography site 2point8... which is also where he shows the excellent photos he took himself.
In Unphotographable, Murphy's great skill is in coaxing his two disciplines together and playing in the areas where they overlap, bolstering the "failures" of one with the successes of the other. Hence, as with street photography, it's essential that we believe these things actually happened; if they're made up, the magic dies. But they're photographic, real, and much more powerful for that. Similarly, the nuances of the written word raise these moments beyond the rigid gaze of the camera - rather than have a photographic certainty imposed upon us, we picture them, crop them, sharpen or blur them. And so they become our own experience. "In many ways they're perfect failures," concludes Murphy. "It's like, 'Hey, I wasn't there, didn't get it. But here's what I have, and let's take that... and make it sing."