The Groote Schuur #WDC323 Ward upgrade project recently received a generous donation of beautiful framed and unframed prints from Cape Town-based photographer and writer, Patrick McKenna. We asked him about the inspirations, frustrations and aspirations behind his images.
Q: When did your interest in photography begin?
We’ve rehearsed this question and answer before and as you know, I am rather embarrassed about admitting the truth. But here goes: as a young boy growing up in Zimbabwe during the 1960s and 1970s, there were only two publications that catered for an adolescent boy’s growing interest in the female form: National Geographic and Amateur Photographer. I consulted them religiously at every opportunity and the brilliance of their images shaped the rest of my life – regardless of whether they featured the female form or not. That’s when I started begging my mother for a camera.
Q: How old were you when she answered your prayers?
About 10 years old. She bought back an Instamatic camera from one of her trips to England. I have always been obsessed by the beauty, colour and power of horses and horse racing. Handily, we lived right behind Borrowdale Park racecourse in Harare and I was up at the crack of dawn next day to photograph the gallops. Sadly, my early attempts at photography failed because of my youthful impatience. Rather than wait for the films to be developed in a professional darkroom, I simply closed the curtains in my bedroom, pulled the film out its canister hoping that my pictures would magically appear before my eyes. Of course, I simply destroyed them.
Q: Have you ever had any formal training in photography?
One or two evening course, but that’s it. I think that formal training is vital when it comes to learning the technical aspects of photography. But I am not convinced that you can be taught to see with a photographer’s eye. That takes time and intensive personal study of the world around you. It means following your interests and developing your own styles and themes. It means trying, failing and trying again. Of course, if you have a natural talent, that always helps.
Q: Which photographers do you admire most?
I was hugely moved by the Magnum masters: Henri Cartier-Bresson and his colleagues. Old school black and white US street photographers like Robert Frank and Garry Winogrand also had a major impact on me. As for colour specialists, though, I hate Steve McCurry. Every picture he publishes is an absolute masterpiece and he makes me want to just give up and stop trying to match him. The list of the other big names I admire goes on and on. Robert Doisneau, Eugene Meatyard, Martin Parr, Lee Friedlander, Don McCullin and South Africa’s own virtuoso, Roger Ballen − among so many others. But I would also point out that the world is full of brilliant unknown photographers whose names you will never know. They are all over the internet. They are in galleries, magazines, books and graduation exhibitions. They are everywhere and you can learn from all of them.
Q: Digital or film?
Both. I am very grateful that I started taking pictures before the digital age. There is nothing like trying and failing with an old manual SLR film camera. Or spending several hours and lots of money in a darkroom until you have dodged and shaded the perfect picture in a tray of chemicals. But digital photography is a modern miracle that I celebrate every day. Perversely, the possibilities it opens up are so immense that I sometimes feel paralysed by them.
Q: Where do you draw your inspiration these days?
Absolutely everywhere and anywhere. From a vast open landscape in the Overberg to the sand beneath my feet on Noordhoek Beach, the world is full of patterns, colours, textures, moments and inspiration.
Last year, I held and exhibition in Cape Town called Sea. Land. City. That just about covers all my strongest sources of inspiration – except for horse racing, which remains one of my obsessions.
That said, photographers are also vulnerable to same obstacles that effect writers suffering from writers’ block. You can visit locations that have inspired other photographers for decades and feel absolutely nothing despite your best intentions. I am Zimbabwean to the core. Ironically, however, I find it very difficult to feel photographically inspired in my own country, which is revered for its natural beauty. Perhaps it’s psychological!
Q: What advice do you have for aspiring photographers?
Never stop looking. Look at the masters. Look at Instagram. Look at the National Geographic and Amateur Photographer. Look at Flickr and Pinterest and random images on Google and in magazines and books. Most of all, look at your own universe. See the colours, textures, shapes all around you. Predict the moments. Learn how to capture them. If your technical skills are limited, enrol in a night class. If you lose hope and inspiration, never stop photographing. If you don’t like what you see, just hit delete and try again. That’s the beauty of digital photography. Two more points: you won’t get the images you want unless you are there to take them. And you can never, ever get too close to your subject.
Q: But with all these resources and sources open to aspiring photographers, isn’t there a danger of inspiration overload?
You have certainly got a point. Accessing raw inspiration is not a problem. The challenge comes with distilling all that raw material into a consistent and recognisable style that is unique to you. That is where practice and hard slog is so important. Eventually, all the fluid sources of inspiration and influence will crystallise into the distinctive shots that will define your style. The perfect image will always be elusive and there will always be an element of luck involved in capturing it. But as Gary Player once said: “The harder I practice, the luckier I get.”
Q: What next?
To capture the best image that has ever been captured by anyone, ever. I’ve no idea where it is, what it looks like or when I will see it. But I know it’s out there somewhere and I am going to keep looking for it. Meanwhile, if any of my images help a patient in Groote Schuur along the road to recover, that’s good enough for me.