As the newspaper industry cuts back on budgets and talent here there and everywhere, I’m grateful for the due attention still paid to photography by the Guardian. Saturday last was no exception. Eamonn McCabe’s portrait of the Irish novelist and short story writer, William Trevor, is a triumph. Worthy of its prominent position in Saturday’s Review, it is a fine example of portrait photography and a relief to me that those responsible at the Guardian took the opportunity to commission and publish this wonderful photograph.
After staring for several minutes at the image, I turned to my friend and asked him to take a look. “What?” came the response. And then, after a second glance; “it’s just a picture of an old guy”.
So after my initial, emotional response to the photo, I tried to figure out what had hooked me in. Why, to me, it is not just a picture of an old guy, but an exceptional one.
The watery film on Trevor’s eyes might have been caused by bright daylight or excessive flash-use by the photographer – perhaps that what my friend saw. I however, saw emotional depth. The left eye is partially obscured by a drooping eyelid, conveying vulnerability. As do the sharply defined wrinkles that crinkle through his skin. I write this, with the photograph still beside me, and feel a little uncomfortable about dissecting anyone’s appearance in such a way. But I’d like to understand why I am still moved by the portrait when my friend remains unstirred.
The image combines direct eye contact between subject, photographer, and therefore audience; with a curious expression (Trevor’s not smiling but there’s a lift to the corners of his mouth that suggests he may be humouring the photographer). Smart attire, includes a trilby so impeccably placed and appropriate that the romantic in me believes it’s taken up position there for the last fourty-something mornings.
This is a beautifully humane portrait. Trevor looks vulnerable but not weak; wise but not superior; comfortable but not arrogant. I am happily convinced that there is so much more to Trevor than can ever be made explicit in one photograph (or indeed one article). This is the least and indeed the most that we should expect from a portrait photograph. We need at once to learn, and feel like there is more to learn. Though we may be given an insight into the subject’s character; to conclude that there is nothing more to discover about the subject is to be misled. As a rule, I think curiosity is a healthy response to photography.
So, I read on, ultimately undeterred by my friend’s deflated response. Hooked in by this outstanding photograph and an intriguing lead quote ‘I would use anything at all in order to tell a story, anything at all to make a story work’. I wonder whether the photographer, Eamonn McCabe abides by the same rules as this particular subject. Regardless; long may he and other photographers be given the freedom to produce such work.