Philip Larkin

The Photographic Journal

A Portland photographer and writer creates "a storehouse of meanings and mysteries" from his observations of the daily life around him

Essay and Photographs


The images of Portland included in my latest book of photographs were excerpted from a larger ongoing project—from what is basically a photographic journal, a personalized and idiosyncratic survey of the world around me, an archive that serves in its own special way as a species of memoir. My hope was, as always, to document—to capture and to preserve for myself and others a transient moment of aesthetic pleasure, a strong sense of the subject, a resonating mix of common and individual experience. A storehouse of meanings and mysteries, it is an archive that shares in many ways the characteristics of a written work.


                 Stars & Stripes, 2014

Joan Didion—the novelist, essayist, and screenwriter—wrote a piece many years ago on the subject of keeping a journal. Wandering aimlessly through a set of her cryptic notes from years before, she found herself periodically perplexed by various entries. She found herself wondering why she had chosen to write this or that particular thing down—just as I, wandering aimlessly through my photographic archive, find myself periodically wondering why I decided to take this or that photograph. The keepers of notebooks are, Didion says, “anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.” So too are many photographers. “The impulse to preserve lies at the bottom of all art,” wrote the poet Philip Larkin. It certainly lies at the heart of the documentary impulse.


                        Umbrella Man, 2013

“The point of keeping a notebook has never been…to have an accurate factual record.” Didion writes. This is where our paths diverge as “journalists.” The photographic urge as opposed to the calligraphic is born of what Didion calls an “instinct for reality”—an instinct she sometimes honors, but as a card-carrying Romantic usually disparages. “I always had trouble distinguishing between what happened and what merely might have happened, but I remain unconvinced that the distinction, for my purposes, matters,” she said. For the photographer’s purposes the distinction matters a great deal. For Didion it is the unfettered imagination vs. a cretinous literalism—a gross and self-aggrandizing simplification. Good old everyday rise-and-shine “reality” is the fundamental subject of photography. It may seem mundane, but it is essentially miraculous. If nothing else, it possesses what James Agee once called “the cruel radiance of what is.”