Inklings of Oxford: Photography Blog 1 by Jim Veneman
Inklings Week continues with a post by photographer, Jim Veneman!
These words served as my welcome to Oxford. Hal, Harry Lee Poe according to the cover of the book, only moments after my arrival, was ready to set out. My bags not yet unpacked, and cameras still nestled away, he was fully ready to begin.
Although one might think that some sort of GPS device would be in his hand, or at least a strategically marked map tucked into his pocket, neither was present. Our guide for this adventure would be Hal’s experience, his scores of trips to this completely unique spot on our globe. There were times that it truly seemed that the marvelous magnificence of Oxford was somehow a part of his genetic code. In fact, on numerous occasions as we made our way from one location to another, groups of tourists asked Hal for directions. His explanations, always packed with colorful detail, were so much fun to hear.
Only minutes after Hal’s invitation to begin, I found myself standing in the living room of Walter Hooper. A day or two before leaving on this trip I had re-viewed video material in which he was featured, and now there he was, there I was, it was time to begin. This would be one of the few times on this project that the intended subject was an actual person. Most every other time I pushed my camera’s shutter button, the intended composition included some incomparable aspect of an Oxford structure, a favorite place frequented by the Inklings, or a scene so beautiful it seemed more likely to be imagined.
Prior to this project, my subjects have always involved people and the stories around them. Near the top of the photojournalist’s goals while on assignment will always be to capture the illusive, yet vital, storytelling moment. Often this all-important piece of the visual puzzle is found in the tiniest of detail. An upturned eyebrow, a slight gesture, a subtle change in the light across a subject’s face, or the unexpected collision of activity can become the element that will capture the attention of the viewer and usher them into the realm of the text, the story.
In this instance, the subject matter was as vital as before, it simply took on a new and challenging form. Not long at all into this endeavor I realized that my partner, one who possessed quite a knack for the visual, provided excellent counsel all along the way. Given my lack of knowledge of the various settings and their specific significance, I’m afraid my questions were relentless. I was completely captivated by the stories of where we were, and I am absolutely convinced there is no better storyteller than Hal.
A great example of the way we worked happened the day we visited the Divinity School. I was busy trying to capture interior images, the ceiling, its windows, the fabulous detail, the grandeur of this place, when Hal called me over to a window. Now, to see through this beautiful, but very old glass, one had to be committed. First, I had to step up onto a very small ledge, a little above knee height, in order to inch my way over to the exact position where I was to look. To prevent falling backwards, my left hand gripped tightly a nearby arch, then I leaned as far out as I could to peer through this particular part of the window. As I caught a glimpse of the intended scene, Hal very quietly whispered, "Never before have I seen this perspective."
As the photograph appears inside the book, it carries the caption, "The round Radcliffe Camera and the spire of St. Mary’s across the fellows’ garden of Exeter College where Tolkien, Dyson, and Coghill were undergraduates." This photograph captured through Hal’s counsel also appears on the cover.
Scene after scene, the partnership captured far more than I could have alone.
James Ray Veneman serves as assistant professor and director of visual communication at Union University. He covered the efforts in Iraq, spending time in Baghdad and on board an aircraft carrier in the eastern Mediterranean from which the book, A Greater Freedom, was produced. Other assignments include the days immediately following the World Trade Center attack and meetings in Cuba with Fidel Castro.
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