I discovered some great little online courses recently, run by the University of Tasmania. They’re all centred around art, health and wellness, each on a different aspect of art and design. So far I’ve signed up for The Art of Wellness: Visual Arts and Health; Inspired by Nature: Outdoor Therapeutic Environments; and Creative Expressions: Storywriting, Journalling and Poetry. Each of them has a couple of practical assignments, which I must admit I’ve not been very conscientious about doing.
The Art of Wellness covers photography, sculpture and drawing and I haven’t done any of those yet, although I have good intentions. At the moment I’m working on Inspired by Nature, which has two practical exercises. One of them is to design a community eco-arts intervention, something that leaves me feeling somewhat confused and confounded. I might come back to that. The other, however, is a bit more up my street – wildcrafting.
You may already be familiar with Andy Goldsworthy, who has to be the poster boy for this kind of thing. He makes the most amazing, ephemeral sculptures out of natural materials such as wood, ice, leaves, and so on, and then photographs them. They’re stunningly beautiful and exquisitely crafted. This isn’t the only way to go with this assignment and you can interpret it how you like, but I thought I’d give this approach a go.
It’s amazing how difficult I find it just to go out and play. I went out to the garden, thinking I’d look for inspiration and the first thing I noticed was last year’s dead stems, foliage and other debris crowding the border and threatening to smother the new growth. An hour later, I’d cleared and composted quite a bit of it and thought perhaps I’d just do something quickly, to satisfy myself that at least I’d tried. It felt frivolous and time-wasting and I had to push myself to do it.
Since it’s Valentine’s day this week, making a heart out of the proliferation of red berries on a tree that I don’t know the name of, seemed like a reasonable way to go. A stone bench in the garden, covered in moss and lichen, offered a rather nice background – I thought the greens would contrast nicely with the red of the berries. I made my little heart and duly photographed it, but it looked a little bit lacking. I had the idea to surround it in little pieces of gravel and it looked a lot better. Then I noticed the bright yellow leaves on the hedge and began to play with placing them around the heart. Finally, I finished off by placing more red berries at the tip of each leaf. Andy Goldsworthy eat your heart out!
It really was great fun and I could have spent hours out there, trying out different ideas. I’d love to do more, but my inner adult is trying hard not to allow that, and it brought it home to me how hard I find it just to play, without feeling guilty. In truth, I might not have done it at all if I hadn’t thought that it would provide material for a blog post. That’s a little sad. The other thing I realised is that it’s very tricky positioning little bits of things just so, and my admiration for AG has soared to even greater heights.
If you’re interested in any of the courses, you can find details here. The first one- Art of Wellness – is free, and after that they’re each a very reasonable 20 Australian dollars (about £12 in UK money).
I’ve been going to a writer’s class, just a small group that meets monthly. We try out different techniques, different inspirations, and we can write in any form we choose. Mine is usually poetry, as I like the challenge of trying to distill what I say down to the least number of most effective words – since I’m usually rather a wordy person, it does me good. And I think that poetry and pictures work in similar ways – they say things that can be felt but not always articulated in the usual ways, and they both involve a stripping down to what’s essential. And of course a short poem is quick to write – an advantage that’s not to be sniffed at.
At our last meeting we looked at unusual ways of using language, with examples from ee cummings (one of my favourite poets) and a poem by Rody Gorman (whom I’d never heard of) called Soldier’s Heart. He uses a technique that lumps several words into one long word that somehow expresses more than the individual words would if used separately. It reminded me of those endlessly long German words that are a combination of several shorter ones. I can’t find a link to the poem, so I’ll reproduce a little of it here just to let you see the idea:
[He] was filled with war-goddessbattle-fury
And darkness and sudden violent madness
And flutterloitering and floathovering and fumblerestlessness
And double unsteadyrestlessness and strifemalice for every place
Where he used to be and belovedcharitylove for every place he was not.
Not the easiest to read, but very distinctive.
Our task was to do something similar, and we were given inspiration in the form of books on mythology and legends. None of these got me going, and I pondered on what would, eventually coming up with the Tarot. I’ve always loved Tarot cards, more for their visual appeal than anything else, although I did go and learn how to read them at one stage in my life. The pictures on them can be regarded as Jungian archetypes and say a lot about the human experience. The one that always got to me is The Tower. The Tower represents a falling away of all the structures in your life, everything you hold true, the familiar, the dear, everything on which your life rests. It feels catastrophic, but has a larger meaning of clearing away the dross, throwing everything up in the air and then allowing it to settle into a new and better pattern. I feel as if I’ve been in the the Tower pattern many times in my life, so it resonates with me. You can see a couple of depictions of The Tower at the top of the post – the first is the Aquatic Tarot, and the second is the well-known Rider-Waite Tarot (both are copyright free). The card pictured next to the poem is from Dancing Tarot, also copyright-free
A whole poem came to me and fell into place, inspired by this card. I’m not sure I can really take credit for it – it just seemed to appear fully-formed.
When the tower crumbleshattered
And felldived around her
And skyboltfire cracked and flamed
She felt a chaosmadfear in her heart
The world was full of fallingfear and shattersounds
And explodebricks crashed around her
Heavenfire flamed through her senses
And her body floatfell to the grasshard ground.
This was a lot of fun to do, although I’m not sure I’d want to make a habit of it! The technique obviously lends itself to rather grand, gothic scenarios, and I wanted to try it on something quite different to see if I could get it to work, so I wrote a short poem about my kittens. One is black and white and looks as if he’s wearing a tuxedo, and the other has wonderfully patterned fur that makes her look a lot like a snow leopard. As they sat waiting for me to feed them, I had the idea that they were dressed up to go out to dinner, and wrote this:
She wears leopardpawfurs, he a dinnerdatetux
Their rattlingrollpurrs are loud for such tinysmallperfects
Dinner is platepalemilk and meats braised in gravygel
Afterwards, tumbletussling padpawsoft play, then counter-curled sleep.
A final thought: if you had to depict the essence of The Tower photographically, how would you do it? At the moment I have no idea, but it’s something interesting to think about. Any ideas?
(Thank you to Fiona, for her writing course Kickstart, and for the prompt that led to this.)
Every so often I go through a spell of not being able to do any photography – something in me just dries up and doesn’t want to know. It’s happened often enough now that I don’t worry (much) any more, as it usually leads (eventually) to a leap forward of some kind. I’m in the midst of one of these dry spells at the moment, and finding it hard to know what to write about because of that.
Sometimes I find I’m quite happy processing or re-processing old images even if I don’t feel like taking new ones, but this time I’ve found I don’t even want to do that. I think it’s because that’s what’s actually the problem – no matter what I do, I’m not liking my processed images. I’d be hard pushed to say exactly what it is that’s wrong, but I do know I’m not achieving the look that I want. And worse, I don’t know what to do to make things better. All I know is that when I see the finished work of other photographers that I admire, it looks so much better than mine. And I don’t mean by this the composition or anything like that, just certain qualities that the image itself possesses. It’s possible that this is due to the camera or lens that they’re using, but I think most of it is down to the processing. Their images just look so much more polished and they have a look about them that mine don’t have..
For most images, I know I want a certain softness married to a degree of clarity, and some photos I’ve seen have a kind of glow about them that I’d like to emulate.. Sometimes I get close to this, but then I look and wonder if they’re actually a bit over-processed. The problem is that the more I look at them, the less objective and discriminating I’m able to be, and then I begin to disappear up my own tutu (as a previous mother-in-law used to say). It’s hellishly frustrating, so I end up not even wanting to try.
I thought perhaps I needed to expand my Photoshop skills so I subscribed to Scott Kelby’s training website. It’s very good, and I did learn quite a few little bits and pieces that I didn’t know, but it still wasn’t giving me what I want. Kelby himself has a certain processing style that’s totally at odds with my own desired result, so although it was very useful to see how he does what he does, and the techniques can obviously be applied in different ways, it didn’t really help me do what I want to do. I’m thinking now that I need to start talking to some photographers whose work has the look that I want and ask them how they go about things.
It always strikes me as odd that the person in the street doesn’t realise how vitally important post-processing is, and how much you can change the outcome by using it. I think until you’ve seen before and after shots of the same image, you don’t realise what a difference it can make. And photography must be one of the only arts where a lot of people expect you to get it spot on without doing anything beyond the first pass. A composer will go on tweaking or even drastically changing his original composition until it sounds right; a writer will do revision after revision until she gets what she wants; an actor wouldn’t expect to be ready for a finished performance after the first rehearsal. The initial RAW file is really a first draft rather than a finished product.
Having said all this, in the midst of a grey winter I’m finding a set of photos I took in late autumn last year quite appealing, simply because they’re so colourful. Some had already been processed and I’ve done some work on the rest. These were taken at Winkworth Arboretum in late autumn last year, and the colours were incredible. You’d think I’d bumped up the saturation, but in some cases I actually had to tone it down because it looked so unreal. It’s energising and refreshing to see a bit of colour at a time of year when things are grey and bleak.
For a look at what a bit of processing can do – with lots of before and after shots – plus an argument for why professional photographers shouldn’t let people have their unedited photos, this article by Caleb Kerr is interesting and enlightening.
It is not expected that you go somewhere exotic, grand, or far-flung in order to write a poem. You can make one anywhere, about anything. It will not be seen as a worse poem for being about your toddler looking at the moon (Ted Hughes), a fork in a woodland path (Robert Frost), a blade of grass (Brian Patten), or a haggis (Robert Burns). It is recognised that something big can be said by writing about something small.
A poem is not thought to be better because you climbed a mountain and trekked through thigh-deep snow for hours in order to write it, nor because you had to get up before dawn or risk your life on the edge of a slippery precipice. It is not thought better because you hefted several kilos of pens and notepads to the location where you wrote it.
It is not necessary to keep upgrading your pen and paper to be any good. Nobody will think any the less of you, nor judge your poems according to whether you write them with a biro or a Parker pen.
Nobody ever asks what kind of poet you are and expects you to define yourself as a landscape poet, or a street poet, or to say you specialise in sonnets or villanelles. It is enough to say that you write poetry.
A poem is not thought to be good because its grammar is exact and perfect, and its spelling exemplary. A good poem breaks as many rules as it keeps and it needn’t be instantly clear and obvious. It is recognised that there are many ways of creating a good poem and that all good poems do not have to conform to a single ideal, but are allowed to be good in their own way.
A poem is not expected to describe exactly, but to distill its subject down to its essence and, by changing it, show it as it is.
It is expected that a poem be edited and polished before it is released. It is not regarded as some sort of cheating if you change the words of the first draft and crop out superfluous phrases.
Finally, nobody ever says: ‘that’s a great poem, you must have a really good pen. Oh, and what sort of notepad do you use?’
December drips and drabs along into the dark time,
grey rain drizzles from an oozing sky,
and the murky light glooms its way to nightfall.
Birds are silent; the world smells only of damp dead leaves.
In houses, in streets, squares of warm yellow – reminders of an absent sun.
I don’t mind the cold of winter, or even the rain as such – it’s the grey gloominess of it all that gets to me. I would welcome snow and ice, sparkling frost, tumultuous skies full of stormy life, pale blue skies with a wintry sun, even rain that comes down in torrents – anything other than this drip and drizzle and monotonous greyness. It’s the one time of year when I regret our temperate climate and long for some ‘real’ weather.
I woke up one December morning – very early, I thought, but it was after 8.00am and the light was so dim and poor that it didn’t seem as if the day had got started yet. My heart sank a bit on seeing how dreich it was (Scots: dreich: – a combination of dull, overcast, drizzly, cold, misty and miserable weather; at least 4 of the above adjectives must apply before the weather is truly dreich) . I’ve been writing bits of poetry lately – usually in the middle of the night, and this certainly felt like the middle of the night – so I wrote a little word picture and got it out of my system. I found this photo that I took a while ago, and it worked quite well with the words. Sometimes you just have to go with things as they are and make something of it, and by doing that you can rise above it. The great thing about writing and photography is that everything is fuel for creating, even the bad and the dull.
Some of you may have seen the film of The Road, an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel of the same name. A man and his son make their way through a grim world inhabited by survivors who are quite likely to kill you, or even eat you in order to ensure their further survival. It’s a sombre film, made more so by the unrelenting rain that teems down on father and son, and the lack of any colour but greys and browns. This alone is enough to make you wonder about your motivation to stay alive in such a world, even without the threats and danger from others, and the whole would have lost much of its power without the absence of colour and that endless soaking dull rain. No wonder the ancients worshipped the sun.
I have big changes in mind for this blog, although it may take me some time to implement them. The first thing is to change hosts as Hostgator is getting ridiculously expensive for a simple blog that doesn’t make any money. But changing hosts is the easy bit – I hope – as I’ll get someone to do that for me. I also want to expand the scope of what I write about to more than just photography, and that will involve a new name for the blog and a new design, too. I’ve found a theme I like, but it’s pricey and January has been full of unexpected expenses, so I may have to wait a couple of weeks for that. I know that the theme I’m using has problems and I’m not tech savvy enough to know how to solve them. I hope the new one will be a big improvement.
I have two kittens. My early morning quiet is punctuated by the drumroll of eight tiny paws hurtling up and down stairs, on and off furniture, in and out of rooms. Set free from the confines of their overnight room, all that energy demands release. A thrown-away crumpled ball of paper becomes a delight – prey to be batted around, pounced on, chased. Once, they found the ultimate prize under the sideboard – a dead bumblebee! Pot plants rustle delightfully when playing tag through them, one at each side, and any object on a high surface is guaranteed to make a fascinating noise as it crash lands on the floor, if they can only get up there to knock it off. Curtains are made for climbing on, and for having mock tussles with each other while both cling on with claws hooked into the fabric.
Fingal is a black and white ‘tuxedo’ kitten, with a white bib, paws and underbelly, and a smudged diagonal white mark across his nose. His eyes are as round as the hole in a polo mint and full of kittenish wonder. He’s a floppety sort of cat, constantly falling off things, utterly relaxed, toppling and rolling onto his back at every opportunity, softness personified.
He thinks everyone is his friend, and so far that’s the way it’s worked out. He loves people, and will start up a deep rattling purr like the waves breaking on a pebble beach, at the slightest hint of attention from a human. Sometimes it’s hard to believe such a sound can come from such a small creature. He loves to cuddle, and his greeting to me is to come close to my face and very, very gently touch noses. This makes him – and me – very happy.
Flora is a tabby who looks a lot like a snow leopard – she’s exquisitely beautiful (this photo doesn’t do her justice). Her eyes are almond shaped and full of bright intelligence – while Fingal plays the clown, she is the brains of the outfit. She’s fussy about who touches her. When she first arrived I thought she was nervous, but then I realised she’s not scared of much at all, although she exercises a sensible caution in her interactions.
It took nearly a week before she’d let me stroke her, although she consented to play-fight my finger from the beginning. She did this with grace and gentle politeness, claws immaculately sheathed, never hurting me, just the velvet bat of her pads against my hand. It turns out she prefers men to women – she was all over Geoff the minute she saw him, eyes squinting shut in ecstasy as he rubbed behind her ears. That made me happy as well, if a little jealous. She adores Fingal, too, and tenderly puts an arm round his neck as she uses the other paw to wash his face. There’s no doubt she prefers men, but she’s getting to quite like me anyway, despite my gender. Last night she curled up on my lap and slept, and I’m now permitted to stroke and pet most areas although not, for some reason, her head and face.
They have brought such joy into my life. I still have Wicca, my cat of almost twenty years old, but it was making me terribly sad to see her so frail and old. She’s my first cat love and will always be very special to me, but I needed to bring some life and promise and joy into the house and the kittens have done just that. Wicca is being coddled, with hot water bottles on a comfy chair and everything she needs in one room, and we’re doing our best to make her remaining time as comfortable and happy as possible. I still feel sad to see her so reduced, but the fun and freshness of the kittens counteract that to a large extent, and promise a future where I won’t be left alone in a home empty of animals.
Photographing kittens is so difficult! These shots aren’t great, as I had to use an ISO of 1600, and even that wasn’t enough to get a truly fast enough shutter speed that would totally avoid camera or subject movement. Unfortunately my old camera only goes this far up the scale – I was using it because I think there are some focussing issues with the new one. I hope to get some better shots soon – the kittens are changing and growing so fast and I want to capture the cuteness before I find they’ve grown into full-size cats without me noticing. And it seems to me that sometimes it’s good enough for a photo’s to function as memory, and that a shot is worth having if it brings those to mind when you look at it, even if it’s sorely lacking in technical merit.
I’m taking a break now, until early in the new year. I’d like to wish everybody a wonderful Christmas – or whatever your festival or holiday is – and hope that 2017 brings you dreams come true, inner peace, and lots of love, laughter and abundance.
Yay! – the last one! It certainly won’t be the last tree picture you’ll see here, as I’ve got several in the pipeline already, but this week marks the end of the 52 Trees project. I was so hoping to be able to come up with something a little different for the last one, but I thought for a while that it just wasn’t going to happen. However, I’ve just spent a few days in Surrey visiting Geoff, as he now works down there, and we went to Winkworth Arboretum for the day.
I was in paradise. The colours were sensational and it was like being a child in a sweet shop. I’d had a bad night’s sleep and I was very tired and a bit cranky, but I was so overwhelmed with delight at this beautiful place that I forgot everything else. It’s difficult for me to play and experiment when I’m with someone else – I can’t switch off enough – but I had taken my ten-stop neutral density filter with the idea of trying out some intentional camera movement and I have Geoff to thank for insisting that I at least gave it a go.
I only took a few shots with it – although it wasn’t sunny, it was still quite bright and I needed to cut out so much light to get a slow shutter speed that I couldn’t actually see what I was taking through the viewfinder. I tried a few shots and then got a bit cross with it all (you don’t want to be around me when I haven’t slept, believe me) and decided just to go with straight shots for the rest of the time we were there.
I almost deleted this one when I saw it on the back of the camera, but then I had a better look at it onscreen and it suddenly seemed to have potential. There was some blown out sky that detracted a bit so I played with some cropping and came up with this version, which I’m rather pleased with. Seeing it bigger revealed the lovely soft purples and blues in the shadows, which contrast so well with the unbelievably vivid yellows and reds of the leaves. I think it captures the feeling of an autumn day, and the glorious colours that we’ve seen this year. Most of all, it’s very ‘me’ and I’m more than happy to finish with this.
I’ve no idea where I’m going from here. I might start another 52 project, but I have some reservations. It’s relatively easy to keep up and it ensures I write a weekly blog post, but at times it’s felt restrictive and sometimes even a little tedious. I’ve posted the occasional image that I’ve thought was just OK, because I needed something and it was all I had, and I don’t like doing that. I’m playing with ideas at the moment, and I think I’ll just coast for a little and trust that the right thing will make itself known to me if I let things simmer. And if you’ve stuck with me all the way through, thank you! – it’s encouragement from you that has kept me going.
Just one more week to go, and I’m finished 52 trees! I can’t say I’ll be sorry, as I’m getting a little tired of it now. Another Lensbaby shot today – I’m longing for a very fast, prime lens, but in the meantime the Lensbaby is my only option if I want that sort of effect. I don’t normally crop these shots, as you lose a lot of the blurred Lensbaby effect, but in this instance it needed it.
It’s been such a pretty autumn this year, with beautiful soft colours everywhere. The garden is littered with leaves, and I know I should sweep them up, but it looks so lovely, albeit in a slightly disheveled way. I’m spending a few days in Surrey this week, and intend to go to Kew gardens, so I’m hoping there’s still some late season colour there – with luck, I might be able to finish off this series with something lovely.
I like writing just as much as I like photography, and in fact have been doing it for much longer. I always scribbled, even as a child, and as a child I often wrote poetry. I don’t do that much these days, and I don’t usually share my poetry for a couple of reasons. The first is that it’s often intensely personal and more than I feel willing to share publicly, and the second is that I sometimes cringe at some of the poetry I read online and am a little worried that my own efforts might create the same effect.
(Many years ago we went to the opening of an art exhibition where someone read some of the worst poetry I’ve ever heard. Since then, we refer to this kind of thing as Vogon poetry – the Vogons were characters in The Hitchhiker’s Guide books who liked to torture their captives by reading them their exceptionally bad poetry. Bad poetry is so much worse than any other kind of bad writing!)
I’ve just joined a writer’s group – which is quite challenging for me as it mostly does involve writing poetry – and as the evening progressed I remembered what strong analogies there are between writing and photography. On a simple level, for instance, picking up a pen doesn’t make you a writer any more than picking up a camera makes you a photographer. And we wouldn’t doubt that the ability to write with perfect grammar and spelling says little about how good the writing is, so why do so many people think that technical perfection in photography makes a great image? However, just as our writing will benefit from being able to spell and write grammatically, so will our photos undoubtedly benefit from technical mastery, even if it’s not enough by itself.
Taking a more sophisticated view, documentary-style photography could be compared to a non-fiction book, with each photo a chapter and the whole creating a ‘true’ story. Like writing, the way the story is told depends as much on what’s left out as what’s included and there are many ways to tell the story. There are also many ways to read it, and our own filters often determine how we absorb it. Truth is malleable and not the objective thing that many people would like it to be and documentary isn’t so far removed from fiction, even when based in an external reality.
But how can that be? Picasso is often quoted as saying ‘art is a lie that helps us realise the truth’ and it sometimes seems that fiction can be more ‘true’ than non-fiction. The best fiction is not just a story, but reveals a truth to us about the world, our place in it, and how we react to it. And although the world in a fictitious book has come straight from the mind of the author, the stuff in the author’s mind has come from what they’ve actually seen and experienced (even if some of that experience may have come second-hand). Think of any great novel, and it’s great not because of its story or even, necessarily, its writing, but because of the larger ‘truth’ that it tells us.
Photography is probably the only art that must have something real – in the sense of something you can point to, something tangible – as a starting point. This has given it an uneasy and unique relationship with the notion of truthfulness, and it’s what’s responsible for promoting the outrage some folk feel when they learn that a shot has been significantly Photoshopped. Because photography needs the ‘real’ as a starting point, it’s assumed that the final print should do nothing to deny or hide that reality. And of course, photography has a history of being used to prove or record what’s real – photographic evidence – so it brings that baggage to the party.
But suppose that, like a work of fiction, a photograph that’s fictional – ie, created out of the mind of its author – might be one that’s more truthful than a straight shot could ever be. Last week I went to an exhibition in Nottingham called Inside the Outside. It’s a joint exhibition of ten photographers, most of whose work is far removed from what we might regard as objective reality. But from a personal point of view I think their work is far more powerful, and says far more, than a straight representation ever could do. Look, for example, at Rob Hudson’s work Towards the Sun, of which he says:
It is fictional because it plays with metaphor and allusion. It’s not about a place, so much as it is a reaction to a place. And it’s not even about photographing into the light, save where that, itself, is a metaphor for some form of hope.
You can clearly recognise what was in front of the lens when Hudson took these photos, but you’d find it hard to identify that place from them even if you found yourself in it. As he says, it’s not about that particular place, it’s about his own truth that emerged as he spent time in that place and it’s probably a truth that could only have been shown through this fictional approach.
Recently, I was reading an article and interview on Nick Brandt’s latest work, Inherit the Dust, in B&W Photography magazine. It’s an amazing and moving body of work, in which Brandt places life size photographs of threatened African animal species in the spaces that they once moved and lived in but which are now taken over by some of the worst examples of humankind’s impact on the land. For example, one shows a huge and magnificent elephant standing in the middle of what is now a wasteland covered in rubbish.
In the interview Brandt was quite vehement about the life size shots actually having been placed there and not constructed in Photoshop. He refers to this as preserving the ‘fundamental integrity’ of the scene and referring to the Photoshop possibility as ‘faking things’. If these shots were made for the purpose of recording the scene, or if the people in the scene were interacting with the giant shots, then I could understand it, but neither of these is the case. (Actually, in one image there is some interaction from two young children, but in the others people are carrying on as if these giant images weren’t there.)
While I admire the achievement of overcoming the technical difficulties of transporting and erecting these huge images on site, I don’t think I’d have found them any less powerful – or less truthful – had they been composited afterwards digitally. In fact, on first viewing I assumed they had been. To me their truth isn’t dependent on the way they were created, but on whether or not the photographer produces images that get his message across successfully, and Brandt could have done that either way.
Truth is a strange concept – we think of it as having objectivity and being a singular thing, but in fact there can be many truths. Truth and fiction are often referred to as opposites, but the worst kind of documentary or non-fiction can actually lie or obscure truth, and the best kind of fiction can reveal it.