Photographic Accidents: The Underexposed

Isaac Castella McDonald 22 January 2020

‘Life is a message scribbled in the dark’ – Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov.

Image Credit: Bored Panda

Photobomb, n. A photograph that has been spoiled by the presence of an unintended subject in the camera’s field of view as the picture was taken.

This photo appeared on the internet 2 years ago, with the happy couple appealing to the online community to help them photoshop the man in the background out of their special moment.

We tend to apologise for walking through other people’s photos, but I sometimes consider doing it intentionally. Someone accidentally walking through a curated ‘moment’, striking the figure of a blurred alien, unseats the semblance of control the photographer and the group posing are operating under. The rude intrusion of the chaos of the world is perfect, as it is a real image of our existence in a world we ultimately can’t dictate. The shirtless man with the tinny may not know it, but he is representative of the posing couple’s existence in a world in which moments are impossible to predict or schematise. Photos often try to do this, they attempt to cement a photographer’s vision of the world onto a physical or digital object which can be referred back to. In fact photos are often looked back on as proof that that moment happened.

But photos, especially photos that are in some way accidental, also have the ability to capture the hilarious conflict between a desired group shot: arms around one another, smiles out, shoulders back, maybe even holding up the Tower of Pisa, and the unforeseen and undesired intruder. Really the photobomber is just as uncontrolled and spontaneous as the fact that the tower of Pisa is leaning, or that there is a bird on a nearby lamppost, but the background has been accepted by the group, and so it takes a more obvious invasion to capture this conflict clearly.

This chaos can be seen in photos in other ways too.
Look at this photo I took many years ago:

Living Room, Iffley, Oxford, Winter 2017

Initially I dismissed this photo as a mistake. Technically it is badly underexposed, meaning that a well-lit room has been darkened to a point of light amidst complete black. But looking closely I realised that this accident was a happy one,

This photo makes strange a familiar setting. The silhouette of a person emerges from the darkness. The thermostat on the wall is enlarged by it’s warped shadow. This was a mistake, but the result is powerful. The interruption of the camera settings I did not correctly adjust, and the bleeding of the chemicals on the photo paper change an image I was trying to show into what could be seen as a portrayal of domestic isolation. The sillhouette’s head seems to be turned towards us but we cannot ever meet their eyes. We can only see the thermostat, perhaps a mug, a shelf, and the suggestion of a laptop.

Here is another photo I took that same year:

Burgess Field, Summertown, Oxford, Summer 2017

Here again the photo is underexposed. It was twilight when I took this photo. I wanted to capture my two friends in the hammock that have been reduced to a line of indistinct blobs and perhaps a face. But again this photo represents a moment I did not see. It has the quality of an abstract painting. The shapes thrown by the fire form the arm and face of a friend whose back faces the darkness that swamps him.

If I had tried to take these photos on an iPhone I would have been able to see my mistake and rectify it with another three or four shots in an instant. But the film medium here showed one way in which it is different to the digital form: it can take photos that are entirely unexpected. This is a way of seeing past our curation of moments, and accepting chaos. The gesture of pushing the shutter is one of acceptance, of accepting that you don’t know exactly how the photo is going to come out. The shutter is pressed and chemicals are released onto the photo paper, like a fossil made in the fragment of a second rather than in thousands of years.

Randomness is something artists have explored many times before, but it strikes me that it is closer to the heart of photography than almost any other art form. Photography can receive a moment of the chaos of the world with the push of a shutter. Perhaps the photographer is instrumental only in that he leads the camera to its place, crossing cracks in the pavement to push the shutter and collect another fossil, or perhaps a shell.

This final image is the lynchpin of the other two. I blu-tacced all three side by side on my teenage wall, collecting the caption from Nabokov’s Pale Fire. Underexposure brings three figures going different ways on travelators into silhouetted conformity. They were going different ways on the Paris Metro that day, and here is proof. The beginning of a message is visible, a scratched ‘WA’. I always wonder what it said. Perhaps WAR? Perhaps WAIT? Perhaps WATCH? Whatever it said I will never know, but its ambiguity is a photobomb of sorts, as unsatisfying as the fact the central figure isn’t quite equidistant from the other two. But this makes the photo perfect, in its small place as a vision of the world we can’t control.