House & Garden | Diary of a Somebody

John Pawson

The architect ruminates on photography and memory

John Pawson

Image: Cindy Palmano

January 13 2011
John Pawson

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While we were away, I complained to Catherine, my wife, about her packing 17 outfits for a fortnight of what had been billed as a “chill” holiday – admittedly I was cutting it fine with a single pair of trousers. Her response was that I don’t understand women at all. She also pointed out that, with three cameras, I was hardly travelling light myself.

I would be the first to admit that I am obsessive where photography is concerned. I have already accumulated several hundred thousand digital images on my computer at the office and would love to put together a book of my snapshots sometime. It’s the sense that if you don’t record everything, moments slip away and are lost. The American architect Philip Johnson famously referred to the three “fs” of architecture – “finish, photograph, forget” – but for me, photography is very much about remembering. Sometimes I get back from a trip and find things in an image that I hadn’t seen at the time, which is a little unnerving – a sort of benign version of Blow-Up.

Today I have gone through all 3,000 of the pictures I took in Thailand and Cambodia and started an edit. The process has brought home to me quite how special it all was, but also the qualities that a photograph can’t begin to capture – the smell from falling petals, the incessant sounds of one sort or another, the elusive dawn light. A shot of the mountains in Afghanistan, taken through the plane window on the way home, turned my thoughts to the conflict and the fact that my younger son, Ben, who returns to university today, wants to do a stint with the US Institute of Peace there this summer.

One memory revived without recourse to photographic prompting concerns mosquitos. At the time I seemed to have escaped unscathed, but I’ve now sprouted a couple of bites and am wishing I'd taken the Malarone tablets.

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