Travelling Along the Distance of Familiarity


Humans carry an indelible penchant for travel. We began travelling far back when civilisation did not exist. Our reason then had to do with fulfilling out dietary needs. As time progressed we settled down and ceased foraging, but this did not stop us from travelling. We continued to travel out of curiosity, out of a need to conquer, to barter, and to learn. With the invention of the camera, travelers turned photographers could visually document the sights that they witnessed. Photographs became sought-after records, and perhaps held more significance than oral and written testimonies.

Photographs also became a gateway for those who didn’t have the means to travel, to learn about cultures different from their own. Today, we cannot imagine travel without photography and photography without travel. Perhaps it has got to do with our initial experiences with photographs and/or the camera. No family trip is ever complete without pictures that attest to it. Even the photographs that we are exposed to in magazines or academic books are mostly all travel pictures. This early infusion perhaps led to the development of an ingrained sensibility that places travel and photography on the same pedestal. It is what most individuals starting their career in photography aspire for. It is almost as if distance provides the right impetus for photographing, making it true and worthwhile. However, it is this very distance that also overshadows our immediate environment. There’s nothing preventing us from photographing the places we inhabit or the ones that are close to us, and yet we seldom do. Instead, the camera is set aside for grander, even foreign excursions. It’s as if familiarity cancels out the need for visual documentation because at our very core we believe that these moments or subjects will always be around to photograph. What we forget though is that familiarity, as is the case with everything else, breeds in an environment that is constantly evolving.

Francis Meadow Sutcliffe was a photographer who spent most of his life documenting the seaside town of Whitby in England. In 1876, after a failed attempt as a portrait photographer in the south of London, he returned to Whitby, a place that was home since his family moved there in 1870. Here, he set up a makeshift studio where he again dealt with portraiture, a line of work that would provide him with a steady income for more than four decades.

While he enjoyed making portraits, sometimes working for more than twelve hours a day during the summer tourist season, Sutcliffe was convinced that his photography sensibilities were destined for more creative pursuits. Whenever he had the opportunity he would walk around the coast photographing what he saw.

Natives, 1895. Photograph by Francis Meadow Sutcliffe courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum

He used the cumbersome wet collodion process that involved sensitising and developing the plates on the spot. It meant that his subjects had to remain still till the exposure was made. Even in these posed portraits, the magnetism lay in the fact of how comfortable and forthcoming the subjects in his pictures were. Even as they gazed into the camera, it was not a look of suspicion or contempt but one of familiarity and friendship. They weren’t posing but being as they were. And that was exactly what Sutcliffe sought—to photograph life in Whitby as it transpired around him. Nothing was trivial in front of his camera. He had a way of weaning out the extraordinary from the ordinary moments.

Sutcliffe was handsomely recognised for his work. He was the recipient of several awards and even received several opportunities to move out of Whitby and join the portrait studios in London. He chose, however, to remain in Whitby. There were moments though where he felt he was tethered against his own wish to the town, a result of being grossly inundated by work in his studio. But he later recognised this as an asset, as it forced him to concentrate on how he could photograph the same scenes and people in a constantly evolving environment. “By waiting and watching for accidental effects of fog, sunshine or cloud, it is generally possible to get an original rendering of any place. If we only get what anyone can get at any time, our labour is wasted; a mere record of facts should never satisfy us,” he had said.

Michael Hiley, who wrote the introduction to the book titled Frank Meadow Sutcliffe (Sutcliffe was also called Frank), had said, “The simple fact that he was very happy to live his life in Whitby, a town of which he never tired, and recommended that other photographers concentrate their attention and sharpen their perception by severely limiting their subject matter.” Sutcliffe himself had said, “Choose one subject, anything will do—your own house, or the house opposite or the next house— and in place of a tripod, drive a stake into the ground, nail a board on top of this, and make a screw hold in the board for the screw of your camera. Photograph your subject at every hour of the day, on fine days, and at intervals on dull days, photograph it after it has been rained on for weeks, and after it has been sun-dried for months.”

Never one to abide by the rules of the photographic conventions of his time, Sutcliffe devoted his life to exclusively photographing a single locality. “It is not the biggest, noisiest subjects which make the most pleasing photographs,” he had said.

This article originally appeared in the February 2021 issue of Better Photography.