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.
Well I promised you light and colour, and here it is! I took the Lensbaby out for a walk one sunny day, as you can count on it to come up trumps with colour. I don’t know enough about optics to know why it produces such amazing colours, but it finds wonderful colours even where you don’t think there are any, and where the colours are already good it enhances them beautifully. For once, I managed to get the focussing absolutely right. I’m not using the Lensbaby much these days and when I don’t use it for a while I tend to lose the ability to focus it accurately.
The lens only fits my old camera, and it was good to go back to that for a while. I’ve been having some problems with the new camera – I’m not convinced the Autofocus is working as it should, although some of that may be down to my lack of commitment to getting to know the settings properly. However, while I was on holiday one day, if I held the focus lock down for any length of time the image on the LCD screen started seriously jumping about, and there have been some occasions where it struggles to focus in conditions where it shouldn’t be a problem. It also never seems particularly sharp compared to my previous camera.
Possible faults aside, the position of the video record button is extremely annoying – it sits just under the middle of my right thumb and is easily activated by accident, meaning that I’m constantly producing unwanted videos. Overall, it’s not nearly so nice to use as my old Sony A350, to the point that I’ve seriously considered changing it for something more enjoyable to operate. However, I’m not sure I’ve given it enough of a chance – I just picked it up and expected to use it straight away, without taking the time to go through the various settings and check them all out, and I’m still not at the stage where I can change settings without thinking about it. I do like the fact that it’s a lot lighter than the old camera, and of course its added low light capability is the real reason I wanted it.
It got me thinking, though, that it’s often the case that things I think I want don’t live up to expectations. I upgraded, around the same time I got the new camera, to Elements 14 (from 9) and I don’t like it nearly so much. In fact, I find it very annoying to use in many ways. It does do a few things that the old version didn’t, but overall I much preferred version 9. The only reason I don’t go back to it is that it can’t cope with the RAW files from the new camera as it isn’t supported by Adobe any more.
I also took the free upgrade to Windows 10 (from Windows 7) and I don’t like that very much either. I’m beginning to think I’m rather grumpy and stuck in my ways – I may well be – but it’s always been the case that when I find something I like I just want to stay with it and I’m not bothered about looking for anything ‘better’. Unfortunately, this just isn’t an option in the digital world and, also unfortunately, most times they ‘improve’ something it actually seems to get worse.
I guess that what I want is to be able to get on with what I enjoy most without getting bogged down in relearning something that I already know how to do in the existing version. I don’t particularly like technology for its own sake, only for the way in which it enables me to get the results I want, and I only want to learn what’s necessary for that. To be forced to constantly readjust and relearn is a major time and energy drain that I could happily do without. Ah well, I reckon I should stop ranting and get back to simply appreciating autumn’s stunning colours 🙂
Autumn’s last dance – a brilliant autumn day with a cool breeze that rustled the last of the yellow leaves on this tree. How wonderful that autumn goes out in such a fanfare, giving us these gorgeous colours before the dull greys of winter set in. I’m on the last few weeks of my 52 Trees now and I’m aiming to end on a surge of colour and light.
It’s gone rather quiet on here, lately (is there anybody there??) I often notice that when I feel a little bit removed from my blog and uncertain of how to go forwards, I also lose readers and the comments dry up. I guess people can sense my hesitancy and occasional reluctance to write anything. I’m debating whether or not to start a new weekly project – in some ways it’s been really motivating and has helped to keep me going, but at times it’s felt a bit constraining. I also think I might have written more blog posts on other topics if I wasn’t doing this. I’ve got a little lazy, perhaps, and on many weeks have settled for just the tree post.
I’d like to change the WordPress theme again, too. I’ve never been terribly happy with this one and I know it has a number of glitches that I just haven’t been able to sort out. It’s a free theme, and I’d much rather pay for one and get something better. At the same time, I rather dread trawling through all the themes, getting more and more frustrated as I try to find one that does what I want it to do. An ability to do CSS coding would help a lot, but it’s just one more learning curve for which I feel no enthusiasm.
Life itself is changing rapidly at the moment – I’m going out more, meeting new people, trying new things, making new friends, and finding new opportunities. I’m not sure where it’s all going right now, but I feel as if I’m on the move again and it’s a good feeling. With our life and finances finally having gained some stability, I feel free to explore in a way that I haven’t for years. My blog needs to change to match this, but how? Not sure, but I’ll sit with the uncertainty and sooner or later it will become clear.
I ran my first Street Wisdom session today, and it went very well. We met at the Bandstand in Newark Castle Gardens, and facilitating it meant spending a lot of time sitting on a bench there while the participants were off doing their stuff. I had wondered if I’d get bored, but it was one of those perfect autumn days where the air is fresh and cool and the day is sunny, and the sky is a bright, bright blue, and it was a real joy just to be out in it.
The second part of the session involved the participants going off on a ‘street quest’ by themselves, leaving me about 45 minutes to spend how I liked. I’ve been feeling uninspired again lately, but had brought my camera with me to fill in the time. I think it must have been the sitting doing not very much for so long, but suddenly I was feeling excited about photography again in a way that I’ve felt I’ve lost recently. I spent some time down by the river and in the castle gardens, and I could happily have spent much, much longer.
As I left to go to a cafe to meet up with the others again, I saw this Royal Mail van stopped in traffic and noticed the shadow pattern cast on it by the nearby trees. I liked the combination of the bright red of the van and the dark shadow, and it tied in nicely with my penchant for photographing trees reflected in cars. I’m also on a mission to get more colour into my photography before it inevitably slips back to the blacks and whites of winter. There are only four more posts to go now before I finish this project, and I aim to make them all bright and colourful.
Autumn at Waitrose – this line of trees in Waitrose’s car park in Newark is just beginning to turn in colour, but what colours they are! And I liked the contrast with the blue frames of the windows in the building behind, and the peachy trim. It really is true that there are pictures everywhere, even in the most ordinary of places, just waiting to be noticed.
I did a tiny bit of cropping just to tidy it up, added the usual sharpening etc, and then felt that it needed something to soften it a little. I’ve been watching Scott Kelby’s videos on post-processing lately, so I used a little trick that he suggested – make a second layer, use the Gaussian blur filter on it, then reduce it to 20% transparency. It gives a soft glow without losing too much sharpness.
Street Wisdom – I’m going to be running my first Street Wisdom event in Newark next week, Tuesday 25th October, from 1.30-4.30pm. I’ve got three signups so far, which is enough to run it (and my maximum number is only six anyway), but if you know of anyone who might be interested it would be great if you could point them to the link at the beginning of this paragraph. It will take you to the Eventbrite ticket page (tickets are free, but you do need to book), and has lots of information about the event and what happens on the day. If you’d just like to know a bit more about Street Wisdom in general, have a look at their website: www.streetwisdom.org
Back again, after a wonderful week in North Yorkshire – good weather and spectacular walking. More and more I’m coming to realise that I can’t take decent photos on a first visit somewhere, or when I’m in the company of a non-photographer, so I have very little productive output from the holiday and not many of them involved trees. There were a couple of tree pictures I could have used, but neither of them seemed quite right.
However, since coming home, I’ve been back to Sconce and Devon park and spent some time down by the river photographing reflections and water. It’s water that excites me most when it comes to photography – the only time on holiday when I got carried away was when we were walking next to rivers and streams. Other subject matter – even trees – takes me longer to warm up to. I do wonder sometimes how much mileage there is in water, what there can possibly be that hasn’t been done – or even that I haven’t already done myself – and how I can get something new out of it. I don’t know the answer to these questions.
I’ll go on photographing water because it’s my passion and because it endlessly fascinates me – after all, this is really for me and it’s simply a bonus if other people appreciate the results too. The image above – for once – isn’t a reflection. The sun was sparkling off the river surface and a branch of beautiful, feathery leaves dipped down into it.
Well, not quite – but I am going on holiday so no posts for a week or so. And I missed this week’s tree post because I’ve had a viral chest infection that I think I picked up in London – seems to me the warm, fuggy air and coughing, sneezing people on the tube system must create a veritable breeding paradise for bacterial and viral nasties.
As you can imagine, I didn’t get out much this week, but early one morning on my way to let the rabbits out of their hutch, I noticed that the yew hedge was spangled with dew-dropped spider’s webs. I couldn’t resist, so there I was in my dressing gown trying to get a few shots in before it all melted away in the September sun.
As someone who’s not the best at dealing with rejection, I was drawn to a book I saw in the library called ‘Rejection Proof’ by Jia Jiang. Jiang set out to conquer his fear of rejection by deliberately getting himself rejected once a day for 100 days, usually by making somewhat outrageous requests of complete strangers. His ensuing adventures make for a great read in themselves, but there are other more solid things to take away from it.
The first thing that struck me was that he differentiates between rejection and failure. The minute I read it, I knew exactly what he meant, but I hadn’t articulated the thought to myself before. Whilst failure can be a stepping stone to doing better, rejection tends to stop us in our tracks.
“Rejection means that we wanted someone to believe in us but they didn’t; we wanted them to see what we see and to think how we think – and instead they disagreed and judged our way of looking at the world as inferior. That feels deeply personal to a lot of us. It doesn’t just feel like a rejection of our request, but also of our character, looks, ability, intelligence, personality, culture, or beliefs. Even if the person rejecting our request doesn’t mean for his or her no to feel personal, it’s going to. Rejection is an inherently unequal exchange between the rejector and the rejectee……..”
I know this is a big issue for myself in my life in general, but more specifically in my photographic life. I was stopped in my own tracks for about six months after a particularly damning bit of feedback from a tutor. I could recognise that the comments about my work were mostly quite valid – I cringe a bit when I look at the work now – but what felt devastating at the time was that the criticism was presented extremely unkindly and very judgmentally, and it seemed to me to imply that there was something very wrong with me, not just my photography.
And this is the bottom line. Had our primitive selves been rejected by the group we lived in, we would most likely have been outcast and subsequently died. That’s not the case now, of course, but it takes a long, long time for our biology to catch up with our culture, and our primitive brain’s perception that rejection contains the threat of death is quite enough to strike alarm into anyone.
We can rationalise our way out of this to a certain extent, but what some of us also have to deal with is an upbringing that reinforced the idea that we were worthless, and that our ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and even character, had no value. This packs a huge double whammy of self-doubt. Society will also work to reinforce those doubts if you’re not a white, middle-class male, adding another trickle of poison to thread through the glass.
Somehow, we have to learn to separate failure from rejection. Recently I’ve been sending images off to various places, some in the hope of publication, others as entries in competitions. I’ve had one success, and numerous failures. There was a time when I would have taken the failures to mean that my photos were no good, when the reality of it is that luck and the personal taste of whoever’s making the judgements play a large part in it. Moreover, I would also have taken it that there was something wrong with me and started berating myself for having the temerity to think that I was worthy of the prize. One of the true joys of getting older is that you gain some ability to move past these self-defeating beliefs.
It’s noticeable that women are particularly bad at putting themselves forwards when it comes to photography. Have a look at the winning entries in most photographic competitions and you’ll see that they’re mostly male. Have a look at the books on photography, the articles in photography magazines, and the photography blogs online, and you’ll see that they’re mostly written by men. The impression it leaves is that there either aren’t many women in photography, or they’re not very good, but both of these are far from the truth. For many of us, we’re just very, very bad at putting ourselves out there.
Obviously this applies to some men as well, but I think women are more prone to a lack of self-belief and a fear of blowing their own trumpets, largely because of deeply-ingrained societal attitudes around what it means to be female. So I’m proposing a challenge – whether you’re male or female, show your work in a way that scares you a little. That might just be showing it to a friend or posting it on Facebook or Flickr, if that’s your personal challenge, or it might be submitting your work to a gallery or a competition, or trying for a merit award. Let’s take a risk, accept the possibility of failure, and if it comes, remember not to see it as a rejection of our selves.
‘The nights are drawing in’ was always a phrase I hated to hear. Having grown up in a chilly part of the UK, cold weather doesn’t bother me and in fact I find very hot days a bit hard to handle, but the extended darkness of winter has always been something I’ve dreaded. We’re at that part of the year now when it’s still warm, but getting dark earlier and earlier. The skies are beautiful as they fade into the night, but feel tinged with the sadness of autumn.