Walking with Purpose: Niall McDiarmid – by Dorothy Brown
Rear Curtain is dedicated to deepening the conversation about photography as a medium for storytelling, as art, and as a vehicle for the expression of individual voices. In addition to publishing the work of new and established visual storytellers, we host the annual Artist Round Table (ART), and small group sessions called Image Discussion for Emerging Artists (IDEA). We encourage the close study of the work of artists of all kinds, but particularly photographers, so that we can learn to talk about images in a meaningful way.
In this series, contributors will introduce images, artists, or projects that they find worthy of study. We hope these essays will provide language and concepts that will help readers grow in their appreciation of good photography.
Crossing Paths by Niall McDiarmid, is an understated collection of portraits of everyday people. It is the culmination of a three-year exploration that began in his own neighborhood, and eventually took him up, down, and across Britain. Just as the project grew on McDiarmid, the book grows on the reader until the cumulative impact of these honest gazes cannot be denied. This is a strong document that bears close study. From start to finish, McDiarmid’s journey provides lessons in patience, perseverance, curiosity, integrity, and a commitment to excellence.
Let’s break it down.
The Project. It began on a quiet Sunday in 2011, when Niall McDiarmid decided to go for a walk and take his camera along. “I have been a commercial and editorial photographer for 20 years working in London for various magazines, book publishers and businesses,” he says. “However, I have always shot a lot of work that was unrelated to any commissions?—?personal work I guess you might call it.” On this particular day he shot some portraits of people who caught his eye for one reason or another. He found the experience so satisfying that he did it again the next weekend. He began to expand the boundaries by taking longer train trips to towns and cities farther away, and pretty soon he knew this was a project.
It took hold of him in an organic way. He didn’t set out to find something new, something clever, something that would draw people to him. He just discovered that he liked exploring new places, meeting the people who call that place home, and the challenge of creating a record of them in that place at that moment in time. He followed his curiosity for three years, across the length and breadth of Britain, making more than 800 portraits. Along the way he tested theories, shot down some stereotypes, and surprised himself.
The Portraits. They are, quite simply, remarkable. The flat light of typically overcast days adds a soft quality. McDiarmid uses a medium format film camera that lends richness to the color. Those details add to the aesthetic of the overall project, but the impact of the portraits goes way beyond technique. McDiarmid clearly has a way with people. In most cases his subjects are looking directly into the lens, but not in a smile-for-the-camera kind of way. There is life in their eyes that is natural and unselfconscious. Their poses seem true to their personalities, and those personalities come through. McDiarmid’s mastery is very subtle. As viewers, we feel like there is nothing between us and these people. We can imagine their stories. But somehow, without in any way calling attention to himself, McDiarmid is also present. No one else could have made these portraits.
How did he accomplish this? These are folks he doesn’t know, has just met, and will spend only a few minutes with. How, in such a brief encounter, can he gain the trust so evident in these images? “I was a very shy teenager and it took me well into my 30s before I realized that I enjoyed and was good at making instant connections with people I met in the supermarket, on the train, on the street etc. Maybe it’s a Gaelic, Scottish thing. We like to chat, banter, craic?—?call it what you will.” McDiarmid’s portraits are beautiful and compelling and they invite us to linger. They are not made by a photographer crying “Look at me! Look at what I can do!” They come from a place of curiosity about the people he meets. They seem to ask, “What’s your story? Tell us about yourself.” These images could only be made by someone who is genuinely and generously interested in the people he meets.
McDiarmid’s artistic voice also finds expression through his deep understanding of color. He matches subject to background in ways that lend strength to each portrait. This was a discovery that became a theme of the project. “When I started the recent batch of portraits back in 2011, I didn’t have the intention of using colours as a base for the work. However after a few weeks, I realized that it was something I had an eye for. I began to see the way peoples’ clothing often matched or clashed with the colours that I found on high street shops or hourding and I tried where I could to combine these.”
He started to appreciate how people were expressing themselves through the clothes they chose to wear, and he began to develop some theories. He noticed the bright colors and the eclectic personal style that seemed to celebrate individuality over conformity to the dictates of the fashion industry. Could that be a reflection of a social or economic reality? “I also have a sense that fashion has moved through a more colourful period that possibly coincides with a downturn in the economy. Likewise in the 90s and early 2000s where most economies were growing, there was a move to more muted colour in fashion. But then again, that might just be happenstance.”
Those are a lot of big ideas to have swirling around in your head as you arrive at an unfamiliar place. But they are in the background of McDiarmid’s process. Mostly he is taking a walk, meeting new people, making a connection, and shooting two or maybe three frames for a portrait. He doesn’t make a production of it. The people in the moment?—?that’s the most important thing. “As regards moving people to different backgrounds?—?that is tricky and you generally have to go with something that is close at hand. A bit of serendipity, chance, luck, call it what you will, certainly helps.” As does having a quick eye and a strong artistic voice.
The Presentation. After three years of traveling to 120 towns and cities from Inverness to Exeter, McDiarmid had made over 800 portraits. He had been sharing them individually on social media sites, but it seemed clear that they had more impact as a collection. “I just stopped one day and said, maybe it’s time to stop, maybe it’s time to take a break, maybe it would be nice to produce a book specifically for the people who had followed and supported the pictures over the past three years. So I took a break from shooting, and got the book designer Dan Mogford to put it together.”
A photography book is a very particular animal. So many decisions affect how the viewer will experience the work, from the size of the book and the quality of the paper stock to key choices about selection, sequencing, and layout. For all the bright colors in the images, Crossing Paths is a quiet book. The layout is clean and consistent. Usually there is one image per two-page spread, with only the location printed on the page opposite the picture. Occasionally there are two images on facing pages, and they fit together visually. There is very little text and, frankly, it doesn’t add much. In some ways it feels like an afterthought, and doesn’t say much about the people in the photographs. The images speak for themselves.
“Crossing Paths is my first book, so I was keen to keep it small, A5 sized. I wanted it to be easy to pick up, easy to flick through.” The size is unusual for a book of photography, but it works beautifully. It is possible to pick it up frequently and see something new each time. The people do appear to be specifically British, and so the book serves as an elegant?—?and important?—?document of a certain place at a certain moment in time.
The Takeaway. Studying Niall McDiarmid’s book and gaining his insights underscore some key concepts. Spending time with Crossing Paths with both an appreciative and an analytical eye, we can grow as students of photography and as aspiring artists. We learn:
- The importance of personal work.
- The value of the long-term project.
- Our best work comes from being true to our own artistic voice.
- Social media has a place in building interest in our work, and forming relationships with our audience.
- A book, when it is thoughtfully put together, can be the most impactful way to showcase a body of work.
“Crossing Paths” is such a perfect title for this work. The expression implies a brief encounter, a chance meeting. But when all the portraits are gathered together as a collection, the result is a book with a powerful and hopeful message. We gain so much when we take the time to see each other as individuals. Young and old, people from all walks of life, every one of them has a story.
You can see it in their eyes.
Dorothy Brown is an alumni of ART (Artist Round Table) and a member of the Rear Curtain editorial staff. She lives in Albany, California. Her photographs and stories have appeared locally in Albany Patch and Berkeleyside, as well as on Rear Curtain. She is currently working on a long-term project about Zydeco music in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can find out more about Dorothy’s work here.