Zelda Cheatle asks photographers concerning the photograph that changed their life

Reading Time: 3 minutes

© Brett Walker, Chose by Jack Davison.

The photography expert and curator’s new book collects 51 personal and pivotal encounters with pictures of meaning

“Name any collector, and they’re going to be able to tell you about the moment they first laid eyes on a picture that was important to them, ” says Zelda Cheatle. “And that was the beginning. ” Cheatle, a photography expert, curator and consultant, is discussing her new book, The Photograph That Changed My Life, published by Art Cinema . With an introduction by Geoff Dyer, the book is just a collection of life-changing images, selected by a prestigious list of photographers, including Alec Soth , Alex Prager, Don McCullin , Eileen Perrier, Jack Davison , Nadav Kander , Nan Goldin , Sue Davies, Takashi Arai and many more.

The idea for the compilation arose following a conversation with photographer David George, about his “epiphany”. In 1980, George attended the Art College in Middlesbrough to study painting. As part of his studies, the class learned how to work with a camera, expose film and use a darkroom.

He became fascinated with the practice, and befriended a tutor, Don Cox, who let him use the darkroom at his home any time he wanted. “I took him at his word and every evening after college, and every weekend, I was at his house, there in his darkroom, asking endless questions and using all his paper and chemicals with cavalier abandon, ” George recalls in the book. But the image that changed his life didn’t come from college or the darkroom, but a book he happened upon in the tutor’s library. “There was a black-and-white plate simply titled Pepper No 30, 1930 by Edward Weston, ” that he recalls in his text. “I was dumbstruck. It was jaw-droppingly wonderful and I believed it was the most beautiful thing I had ever observed in my life. ” Indeed, the fleshy pepper, deliciously contorting in the light, very nearly resembles a nude. This is a sight to behold.

Portrait (1985) © Armet Francis. Chosen by Eileen Perrier.

Untitled portrait from ‘The Face of Madness and the Origin of Psychiatric Photography’.
© Hugh Welch Diamond, courtesy Royal Society of Medicine. Chosen by Alec Soth.

The Guvnors, Finsbury Park, Islington, London, Great Britain, 1958 © Don McCullin. Plumped for by Don McCullin.

A Maquette for a Multiple Monument for the Wristwatch Dug Up from Ueno-machi, Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum (2014). © Takashi Arai. Chosen by Takashi Arai.

Of the 51 photographers in the book, each approached the brief differently, says Cheatle. “Some people really bared their souls, and went right back to the beginning. The others took it in a very different way – using family pictures or their own images, which also fits well. ” She adds: “But the ones that I find the best are when someone has talked about how something has really shaped how they’re now. ”

Alongside George’s image and story, we hear from David Bailey . Known for his dynamic fashion editorials and celebrity portraits, he chooses William Henry Fox Talbot’s The Haystack – an image taken in the village of Lacock around 1844. “I was so intrigued, why, with all the landscape and buildings around his estate, Fox Talbot chose this haystack, ” he writes. “What a choice, to photograph a humble haystack. ” Jack Davison selects Brett Walker’s Portrait of a Man , 2018 . “Brett Walker gave [Davison] such an enormous boost in his career, ” says Cheatle. “It’s a very nice way to sort of pay his respects. ” 

Untitled (mid-1970s). © Neša Paripović. Chosen by Alex Prager.

Senora Luisa Faxas Residence No . 1 Miramar, Havana, Cuba (1997). © Robert Polidori. Chosen by Nion McEvoy.

Image number 2 from The Spirit Leaves the Body sequence (1968) © Duane Michals. Chosen by Arthur Tress.

Elsewhere, Awoiska van der Molen connects with Nude, Belgravia, 1951 by Bill Brandt . “The Brandt nude made me think, not merely about the perspective it was extracted from and the very new way of looking at and appreciating the feminine form, but also the role of the maker, ” she writes. Brandt’s bold use of contrast is also appreciated by Sandra Lousada: “When I look at A Snicket in Halifax (1937) again, I find that it thrills me as much as it ever did. ”

The book is filled with stories, dedications and musings across generations – from 89-year-old Duane Michals to 27-year-old Megan Winstone. These entries are just as much about the life-changing image because they are about a moment in time that considerably impacted or altered the artists’ course of life. There is certainly something rather powerful about that. And we are invited in.

When asked about her significant images, Cheatle is reluctant to answer: “I decided that I shouldn’t talk about it because it’s not about me, it’s about everybody else. ” This can be true, but the curator’s work is inevitably reflected through the book – through the curation, the edit and, of course, the personal connections she’s had with most of the featured photographers.  

Izabela Radwanska Zhang

Starting out as an intern back in 2016, Izabela Radwanska Zhang is now the Editorial Director of British Journal of Photography in publications and online. Her words have appeared in Disegno and Press Association. Prior to this, she completed a MA in Magazine Journalism at City University, London, and most recently, a Postgrad Certificate in Graphic Design at London College of Communication.

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