We all have images that have seeped into our psyche and shaped our vision of the world – whether a blurry snapshot taken decades ago by a parent, or a work of art created by an acclaimed photographer.
The curator and editor Zelda Cheatle has taken that simple notion of a pivotal picture that changes the viewer’s world – and transformed it into a book.
In The Photograph that Changed My Life, a host of acclaimed artists select one image that has stayed with them since they first locked eyes on it. These are works that rise about the visual noise – after all, more than 290 billion images were uploaded on social media platforms daily in 2020.
In this extract from Cheatle’s book, four of the photographers share the story behind their chosen image.
Don McCullin HonFRPS
‘Guvnors, Finsbury Park gang, 1958’ by Don McCullin/Magnum Photos (pictured above)
My image of the Finsbury Park gang gave me a future in photography which I would never have considered otherwise. This picture was taken of the boys I went to school with and used to hang out with; everyone wore their Sunday best suits as we hung about in the bombed out buildings in our neighbourhood.
The boys were later involved in a confrontation with another gang from Islington and the policemen, who tried to separate them on that fateful Sunday night in 1958, were stabbed by Ronald Marwood from the other gang.
It may seem self-indulgent to choose my own photo, but it’s really about how one image can change a life; this picture launched my career and gave me a passion – and my life. Looking back, if it weren’t for that one image, my life might have been so different, one of crime and thievery.
Persuaded by my companions at the Berkeley Square animation studio where I worked, I showed this image to the Observer. They published it and asked me to produce more. This launched me on the career that has been my life.
I was totally self-taught and have been guided by studying photographers like Steichen and Stieglitz: romantics, with their brilliant sense of composition and their depth.
If I had to pick an image that obsessed me most at that time and inspired me and influenced me I would choose Bill Brandt’s pictures of the industrial North of England; the dark satanic cities printed equally dark.
Joy Gregory HonFRPS
‘Jean Muir and three unknown models’, 1975, by Deborah Turbeville
I knew early on I wanted to work with photography and had an overwhelming desire to access the darkroom at school – a quiet, solitary and meditative space.
Like many teenagers, I spent most of my time looking at pictures – in my case primarily fashion photography. I had little access to photography books at that time. The first photography book I ever bought was on war photography and included Don McCullin but I definitely didn’t want to be a war photographer.
I decided to look through my notebooks of the time and saw that I was heavily influenced by the work of Deborah Turbeville. It seems to have been the driving force in my photography. I remember clearly the image she took of Jean Muir and the three models.
Looking back at that picture now I can see it threaded through so many of the photographs I’ve taken subsequently. The control of space, light and the experimentation and distressing of photographic materials, and the breaking of rules – all unusual for the time but defining elements of her work.
Nadav Kander HonFRPS
‘The dwarf’, 1985 by Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos
I was about 14, maybe 16, when I saw this. I loved it then as much as I still do. My heart beats faster when I see it. It’s perfect.
It’s full of shadow, dark and uncomfortable, which excites my subconscious and makes me really feel … I guess, human.
This picture entered my body, my flesh and showed me my road that I needed to travel and also showed me conversely, that pictures without this mustard (this difficulty and unease) are not interesting to me, if all they impart is the physical information I see.
‘Senora Luisa Faxas Residence No 1 Miramar, Havana, Cuba’, 1997, by Robert Polidori
About 20 years ago I walked into an art fair in San Francisco and saw a large colour print on the wall by Robert Polidori. I was transfixed.
In the grand living room in the foreground, a doe seemed frozen as she watched a pack of hounds take down a stag. Clearly, she should run. The painting itself was torn and water damaged and hung crookedly from a single nail, precarious.
Books with illegible titles were strewn on an armchair and coffee table, and stacked 15 to 20 copies high on a desk, while in the adjoining library they languished on almost orderly shelves.
In a room further back, in front of a mid-20th century painting of a nude woman, stretched out on a couch like an odalisque, was a trim, well-maintained, and apparently functional bicycle. The tattered elegance, the sense of history of the grand main room, worn down and battered by time and water, and the mysteries of the two smaller, lived-in looking side rooms were compelling.
Furthermore, my grandfather had raised my aunts in Havana in the 1950s and I had never been there but always wanted to go. I never did get to Cuba but it was at that moment that I began collecting seriously. I stepped into that print to explore it all, and I haven’t stepped back out yet.
The Photograph That Changed My Life by Zelda Cheatle, with an introduction by Geoff Dyer, is published by Art Cinema at £19.95. Read an interview with Cheatle in the November/December issue of the RPS Journal.
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