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I was in Ireland one weekend last October, for the wedding of my friends John and Graínne. Decided to take a couple of extra days off work and actually see a little bit of the country this time - the only time I was in Ireland before was a single weekend in Dublin, years ago. Sunday evening I went to Glendalough, a lake in the Wicklow mountains south of Dublin. Went for a walk around the lake and met two Irish guys whose idea of a fun evening out was jumping off a (smallish, maybe eight or ten metre) cliff into the freezing cold water. They asked if I wanted to join them, I said no thanks. (Of course I could have done it if I wanted to. But as a guest in their country, I thought it only polite not to jeopardise any nationalistic ideas my hosts might have had about soft Englishmen)

Anyway. I didn't think jumping into a freezing cold lake was such a great idea. What I did think would be a good idea was taking a picture of other people jumping into a freezing cold lake. Pale bodies poised in flight over black water. But by the time I'd got my camera out they'd already jumped - and I suspect my technique wouldn't have been up to the job of capturing that image as I was seeing it in my mind's eye anyway. So I'm left with a vivid image in my head of a could-have-been-great picture, and no outward tangible evidence of it.

I wonder if all photographers carry around an Inner Portfolio of great pictures they never actually took. I know I do, and this one is just the latest addition to it:

Therein, I think, lies a large part of the difference between somebody like me - a decent amateur photographer - and a professional. I do have the ability to visualise compelling images, sometimes, but a good professional would presumably (a) do it more often, (b) always have a camera with them and ready when they see something, (c) have good enough technique to actually be reasonably confident of producing something that looks like what they're seeing in their mind's eye, and (d) be extremely careful not to let their film have nasty accidents post-exposure.

And it could be dangerous, this having great un-photographed images nagging at you inside your head - that way could lie Painting, or at least attempting to learn to. No thanks. Photography is more than hard enough to try to learn in one lifetime.

And actually, as I visualise this not-taken photograph of the guys jumping into the lake, it occurs to me that I've never seen any serious attempt by anybody to paint something like that. Whereas that kind of frozen moment is the subject of probably millions of photographs, from famous classics by Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson, to pictures in the sports pages of every newspaper every weekend. I haven't really thought about this before, but maybe photography actually is a fundamentally different way of seeing from painting.

text © 2002 to 2003 Alan Little