Landscape can be anything you want it to be

Barbed wire

My course may be finished, but the work definitely isn’t. I have to get things into some kind of shape for the assessment process and since I work in a very idiosyncratic way when it comes to doing courses, I have a lot of sorting out to do.  It’s always been like this.  When I did my first degree I only went to those lectures and tutorials that I thought were worthwhile; since attending a lecture involved a lengthy jaunt into London, I wasn’t prepared to go if the lecturer was only going to read from his own book – and yes, some of them did that.  I figured I could do that at home, and more efficiently too.  I worked very hard in my own way, but it was my own way, and I was lucky that my subject – philosophy – lent itself to private study.  There are a lot of subjects where you really do have to attend everything or you’ll lose out.

There’s danger in picking and choosing like this – it’s easy to become a little arrogant and think you know more than you do.  On the other hand, I so hate to be bored and made to go over things I’m already familiar with – that turns me off a course completely, and means I’m likely to abandon it altogether because the reason I like learning is that it keeps my brain stimulated.  I like to think I have enough self-awareness to know when I need to do something or not – when I began an Access to Art & Design course, for example, I knew I had to go to pretty much everything because my drawing and painting ability and other hands-on skills weren’t strong.  What I did try to get out of was the (very!) basic IT classes as I’d been teaching IT for several years before that, but it took a lot of argument before they agreed to ‘let me off’ that particular class.  I struggle with courses that are too prescriptive and I don’t like being on the receiving end of condescension or a patronising tone.  But I have to be careful, because it’s all too easy to airily dismiss the need to attend or complete something when actually it might be helpful and useful.  I don’t always know best, even if I think I do.

So this is my dilemma when it comes to going through the small exercise projects in my course and putting my learning log together.  I haven’t done all the exercises, because to do some of them would be so unbelievably tedious that I’d probably abandon the course forthwith.  I’ve made myself do some of these duller exercises to show willing, but the thought of having to write them up as well – and ‘reflect’ on them – is enough to get me reaching for the sloe gin bottle.  Take a couple of the early ones – ‘try taking your photo in both landscape and portrait formats’ and ‘try varying where you put the horizon’.  Do they seriously think I’ve got to the second year of a university course without having tried these things?  I’ve been doing both of these since I first picked up a camera, and every time I shoot I reflect on which shots work best.  To turn what is already an unconscious habit into a deliberate exercise feels awkward and too much of a box-ticking exercise.  For that reason I’ve been quite selective about the projects, mostly doing those ones that seemed useful and only writing up those where I felt I had something I wanted to say about them.

Rusty wireBarbed wire as a landscape subject – why not?

The Landscape course is one of the worst courses on offer through OCA and desperately needs a re-write.  I’d like to see far fewer of these kind of exercises in the course and far more that helped you explore and find your own vision or voice; I’d like to see something that would go a lot deeper than this goes and be concerned more with the art rather than the technology.  However, I realised early on that you have to make what you can of what’s there and that, fortunately, OCA doesn’t take an overly prescriptive approach and is happy for you to interpet the subject widely.  The freeing up point for me was when I decided to stop caring about what tutors thought, or what I thought ‘proper’ landscape photographers would do, and simply do what I wanted to do.  Again, there’s a danger of becoming pig-headed and blinkered if you do this, and that can be a little worrying, but I don’t think I’ve gone too far down that road.  And I might not have learned in the way that I was ‘supposed’ to, and I might not have learned exactly the kind of things ‘they’ thought I should, but I have learned quite a lot that’s meaningful to me, and isn’t that what it’s really about?

These are a few of the things I’ve learned:

  • my sort of landscape tends to be small and intimate and lies in detail rather than the big picture, and that’s OK.
  • while a traditional landscape photographer is usually obsessed with getting maximum depth of field and sharpness, I’m not very interested in that side of things, so please don’t talk to me about hyper-focal focussing distances – I don’t want to know.
  • neither am I the kind of landscape photographer that gets up at dawn and trudges 23 miles cross-country carrying several hundredweight of equipment, and then sits and waits seven hours for the light to be in just the right place.  I am not that person.
  • I’d rather evoke a mood in my photo than have it be representational; reality doesn’t interest me that much, and I’m not shy of doing serious post-processing to get it to look the way I had it in my head, and that’s OK too.
  • I often enjoy the post-processing as much as I enjoy taking the shots; it’s a different sort of enjoyment but it keeps me happy for hours.
  • I’m a flaneur, not a planner.  Some photographers like to plan everything in advance, arrange objects to satisfy their vision, and know exactly what they’re going to do before they go out.  I’m not knocking this as an approach, but it spoils things for me.  I’m more in the tradition of the flaneur – ‘someone who strolls’ and relies on serendipity based on a minimum of planning – and this isn’t really in the tradition of landscape photography, although it’s one way of doing it.  If I wasn’t so self-conscious, I’d be a street photographer for sure.
  • landscape can be many things, including urban buildings and puddles and skies and fallen petals and even barbed wire – realising this was a huge relief
  • I like having tiny people in my landscapes.  This one surprised me, as I thought I preferred my photos without people in them – now I feel there’s something lacking if there aren’t any people in the frame……..but they must be tiny and far away.
  • landscape photography is no longer a clear-cut genre and often overlaps into social documentary and I feel comfortable with this – I’m not a fan of fitting things into genres and think that the most significant works in any medium are often the ones that don’t fit neatly into any particular category.
  • when I let go of my fixed ideas about what I think others expect me to do, and let myself follow my inclinations, I become infinitely more creative and take much more interesting photos.
  • despite having lots of problems with the course (some of which were self-created) and even abandoning it for a year, I’m jolly glad I came back and finished it.

Ivy and barbed wireMore barbed wire – funny how themes emerge without you even trying