I’ve just finished working on the second assignment for my landscape course. The brief was that we had to choose an area of approximately one acre of ‘countryside’ and take a large variety of photos that gave a sense of the place. ‘Countryside’ can be interpreted fairly liberally, so I chose a small garden within a ruined church, right in the centre of The City of London.
I’ve never been a religious person; I find plenty of meaning in life, but it comes to me in other ways. When I was a child my mother used to drag me along to church and I’d sit there longing with all my heart to be outside in the sunshine. It seemed to me even at the age of eight, that if there was indeed a god, he would be better served by getting out and appreciating this fantastic world that he’d made. I imagined him looking down, banging his forehead against a brick wall (or perhaps an unusually solid cloud) and saying (and UK readers can imagine a kind of Richard Wilson voice here): “I don’t believe it! I make this amazing place for you to use any way you want to, and I really hoped you were going to have a good time there, and what do you do? You sit in a dim, man-made environment, singing mournfully and shutting yourselves away from the sun – which I also created and which took a lot of damned hard work, let me tell you – and you moan on about your sins and how you’re not deserving of what I’ve given you. Well, let me be the judge of that – your job is to rejoice in it, for god’s sake! ” You get the picture.
So when I came across this little gem of a place in London, it symbolised something for me. It’s a mediaeval church with a Tower designed by Christopher Wren (who also designed St Paul’s Cathedral). It was bombed heavily during the Blitz of WWII and all that remained of it was the tower, which was still intact, and the walls of the church. It was decided not to rebuild the main church, but to turn the ruins into a garden. It’s now a beautiful, peaceful place with trees and a fountain, and benches where office workers come to eat lunch and sit quietly. To me it represents that feeling I had as a child: the lush green of the plants growing inside the building and the roof open to the light and the sky brings the natural world inside a sacred space, and that just feels right somehow.
Despite the fact that large numbers of people are using it on any weekday lunchtime, the atmosphere is unusually quiet and serene. Most people read or eat packed lunches; there aren’t usually many people talking and although the occasional person is engaged in conversation on their mobile, the sound doesn’t carry – I guess the trees and shrubs soak it up. It has all the good qualities of a church – the peace, the meditative feeling, the beautiful stonework – while essentially being a place of nature.
The following are a selection of photos I took there, some to be used in the assignment, some not. And you’ll find another one here.
Today I’m 55 years old. That’s beginning to sound quite old to me – I’ve already outlived my parents by several years and that’s a strange feeling, I can tell you. Depending on which one I compare with, I’ve already had three or four years longer on this planet than they did.
55 seems like a significant sort of age even if it doesn’t end in a zero – I’m now definitely closer to sixty than I am to fifty and the likely time left to me can sometimes seem alarmingly short. I don’t feel this old, but then most people would say that. I don’t think I look too bad for my age, but then most people would probably say that too. And I think my attitudes, tastes, and outlook on life are all younger than many people of my age, but then they’d all probably say the same thing. The truth is you can never see yourself the way others see you and self-delusion is all too easy. The only thing I know for sure is that I wouldn’t go back to being twenty again even if you did restore my waist to its former glory.
It’s been an interesting life so far. Bad things have happened – a damaging relationship with my mother, parents dying in a road accident, two divorces, one terrible marriage to someone who I now think had sociopathic tendencies, the ensuing loss of most of my confidence and belief in myself, an illness (M.E.) that took ten years of my life, and many other, smaller, things. But that’s just one way of telling the story. I can also tell the story of a father who loved me dearly and with whom I had a close relationship, the time and space my illness gave me to explore and think about my world, the stronger sense of self I ended up with after escaping my second marriage, the most wonderful dog companion I ever had who saw me through a lot of unhappy times, and the lovely, lovely man who’s been in my life for the last eleven years and to whom I’m now married. It’s the same life, just two different ways of seeing it.
I’m a lot wiser – I think – than I used to be, although the extra wisdom has made me realise just how much I don’t know and don’t understand. In many ways I don’t mind ageing and actually find it quite interesting. As a child I used to wonder what I’d look like when I was old and now I’m beginning to see.
I’m quite happy with how it’s gone so far but there is just one thing that bothers me. I used to be someone who had adventures and I don’t any more. Some were big and often ill-advised adventures: leaving Scotland and everything I knew to be with a man I’d only known for a couple of months, going a little wild while studying for my MA and effectively making up for an adolescence I never had, and – more recently – making a decision under stress to sell up and go back to Scotland to live and then being so miserable I was back again within six months, considerably poorer and somewhat wiser.
Some were much smaller and more enjoyable adventures: a night out with three Franciscan monks, who invited me to their study centre the next day, where I found the only other women were nuns and I was wearing a mini skirt; a motorbike trip through France where loads of things went wrong but somehow it was all still good; applying for – and getting – a job teaching IT when I knew a lot less than I – and they – realised about how to work a computer; crawling through a field on a summer’s evening to watch badgers; taking part in a river race where you had to launch yourself into a fast flowing river with only an inflatable mattress and a crash helmet, and then, partway along, jumping thirty feet into the base of a waterfall; a Thelma-and-Louise type holiday in a red sports car with two university friends who were ten years younger and considerably more gorgeous than I was, and who spent the whole time experimenting with intoxicating substances, except for when we were having sound healing and being regressed into past lives in Glastonbury – I felt a bit like the maiden aunt acting as chaperone, but I enjoyed it anyway.
I used to meet strange and interesting people, too. At university – which I went to late in life – there were people of all nationalities and some very eccentric academics with unconventional lives, one of whom lived with three women (not all at once; they took turns). Another, whom I went out with for a year, would only wear red socks and later took up unicycling and playing the didgeridoo. A third used to cook exquisite five course dinners for fifteen members of the philosophy society every week, and was said to be the only person who’d acquired a PhD purely on the strength of his wizardry in the kitchen.
My academic phase was followed by my ‘alternative’ phase, where I got to know people who dressed entirely in shamrock green, claimed to communicate with extra-terrestrial beings, built labyrinths, lived over converging ley lines, read tarot cards, modelled penises out of clay (I couldn’t make this stuff up), cleared ghosts out of houses, and many other weird and wonderful things. Now, I wouldn’t want to be around these people all the time – that would get quite tiring I think – but knowing them made my life richer and a whole lot funnier. (And a quick note to my more conventional friends – I want to reassure you I love you all dearly and wouldn’t swap you for anything– just so you know)
In the last few years there hasn’t been much of this kind of thing at all. My last real adventure was to go to art college, having only been drawing and painting for three months (before that, the last time I picked up a pencil or a brush was when I was thirteen so there was a bit of a steep learning curve). That led to my passion for photography, for which I’ll be ever grateful.
But since then? Zilch, nothing, nada. I’m living like the middle-aged person I undoubtedly am. I’m playing it safe and it needs to change. I used to be much more spontaneous – truly, it did get me into trouble on numerous occasions but I regret the things I haven’t done more than the things I have. I need a change or a challenge. And not the kind of everyday challenge like earning money and finding work, but something completely new and exciting and possibly scary, that will stretch me out of the complacent, contented shape I’ve recently grown into, even if it’s only for a few hours. I don’t know what it’ll be yet, but watch this space……..
Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, chocolate in one hand, martini in the other, body thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and screaming “WooHoo, what a ride!”
It’s my birthday tomorrow, and we’ve got a table booked at our absolutely most favourite restaurant ever (Jojo’s, in Tankerton, if you want to know). The last time we went there I meant to photograph each dish but managed to forget until we’d eaten most of them. As it’s a tapas restaurant and we have lots of dishes, and they come out bit by bit, it’s going some to forget to photograph any of them before we started eating. But, hey, they still look good even when almost finished.
Maybe tomorrow I’ll remember to get my camera out before I start eating!
Geoff found an amazing field of poppies on his way to work one day, and we went out there yesterday to take some photos. A fifteen-foot strip at the edge of the wheat field has been turned over to the poppies and other wildflowers and it makes a heart-lifting display of colour.
What I find so difficult in these situations is thinking of a fresh way of photographing something that’s very definitely a cliche. On OCA*’s forum the words ‘pretty pictures’ are only usually mentioned in a sneering, dismissive way; if a photo doesn’t have an idea or a message behind it, or at the very least look a bit grungy, it’s not thought to be worth the taking. It’s hard not to be affected by this attitude, and to feel that you’re somehow doing something wrong if you just want to celebrate how lovely the world can look.
I think the truth of the matter is that it’s really only the tutors and a very small number of students who are vocal in rejecting something on the grounds of it being simply a beautiful scene, no more, no less. The rest of us – I believe – take pleasure in looking at and photographing a wide variety of images even if what we’re ultimately aiming at is to produce work with some greater meaning and a bit of depth behind it.
I went to the Cult of Beauty exhibition at the V&A in London recently. The Aesthetic Movement was concerned only with beauty and they aimed to make everything around them a delight to the eye. They painted, of course, but they also designed furniture and rooms and clothes and clocks and books – everything around them was made lovely. It was a refreshing change to see something like this after overdosing on art that is often pretentious, frequently gives no visual satisfaction, and usually dwells on ugliness and angst.
I wouldn’t want all art to be of the kind the Aesthetes created – it would get boring if this was all there was. There was nothing to discuss or ruminate over after seeing the exhibition; no new ideas, nothing to make you think. But there must be a place in life somewhere for ‘art for art’s sake’ and making things of beauty and offering them to the world is surely a worthy enough thing. There’s plenty of misery in the world, but a field of poppies can still make you feel it’s good to be alive.
I once read an account of a holocaust survivor, who came into possession of a tomato at one point during his incarceration. Despite being desperately hungry, he didn’t eat the tomato immediately because he was overwhelmed by its rich, orange-red colour. In the world of grey in which he was living, his soul was as hungry for colour as his body was for food, and he spent some time simply looking at it and drinking in its colour. We need beauty that badly.
*Open College of the Arts, where I’m studying a distance learning course.
Kat Sloma is blogging on thresholds today – http://www.kateyeview.com/ – and it’s an appropriate topic for me right now. Our lives are about to change and the change may be a big one or a small one – we hope to find out later today when Geoff gets news about his redundancy (or otherwise). For the last few months we’ve felt as if we’re both in limbo and in flux, and when you’re in the midst of change and uncertainty life can seem like a scary sort of place.
In this kind of situation the best we can do is to hold on to a belief that whatever the changes are they will ultimately be for the best, and to hope that the life change we’re approaching is going to be like moving through the photo above – passing the threshold into a sunlit, lush, and lovely new place.
Which would you choose?
In reality, it’s probably going to be more like the photo above – two or more thresholds and choices to make. But both of those thresholds look enticing, both would lead to adventures of different kinds, and both of them lead us out of the uncertain darkness into sunlight.
This uncertainty we’ve been living with for so long has made it hard to remember that this could be the start of something good. I’ve always loved entrances and half-open doors, fantasising about what might lie behind them. The reality might be banal or even unpleasant, but the excitement of discovery remains, and sometimes what you find is even better than you hoped for.
Getting down and dirty in a London photography workshop. The people who take the best pictures are usually the ones who're prepared to do whatever it takes!
It’s not the easiest of times right now. The Walker household income needs to be considerably bigger (we’re running at a loss each month) and I’m not contributing much at all to it – cue feelings of guilt, worry, and shame. I should be pushing forward with expanding my photography classes but I find myself strangely reluctant to do it. And the other day I began to wonder if trying to make money out of teaching photography is a good idea.
I love to teach. I like the interaction with people I haven’t met before, many of them interesting and fun. I like the look on their faces when they suddenly understand something they’ve struggled with up to now. I like the thank you emails I often get afterwards. I enjoy the process of constructing a course and the creativity needed to come up with interesting ways of getting something across that’s basically very dull. I love to learn new information, distil it, simplify it, and pass it on to others. I like to help. I like all of this.
What I don’t like is that, towards the end of last year I was doing so much teaching that I didn’t have time to think about my own photography and wasn’t taking many photos at all. I’ll admit that I’m a bit of a perfectionist and I do make work for myself that isn’t strictly necessary. I research everyone’s cameras before I do a class, because trying to figure out how eight different cameras do the same thing is both time-consuming and sometimes quite alarmingly worrying. I regularly tweak or re-write handouts because I think of a better way of doing them. I spend time looking for new materials that will better illustrate what I want to teach. And then there’s the printing out of booklets and handouts for everyone and the organising of folders and materials. And the admin, let’s not forget the admin. All this takes time, energy and effort but if I’m going to do it at all then I want to do it well.
I also don’t like the fact that I’m struggling to earn an income that will do more than feed the cats. It’s true that money’s never been much of a motivating factor for me, but the less you have of it the more important it becomes, and at the moment I’m pretty well stony broke.
Last year I did a lot of work for a friend who runs a photographic tour company in London. I devised a workshop, wrote a 24-page booklet to give to students who came on it, helped recruit new tutors and talked through the structure and format of the workshop with them, wrote another 12-page booklet for a different course and re-typed and reformatted a booklet that was written by someone else but needed to look better when printed out. I gave photographic advice, brainstormed ways of moving forward, spent time answering emails from students asking for advice, devised another course – which never ran – and taught a large number of workshops. What did I earn for all of this? Just over £1600. Not only is it nowhere near enough in terms of the hours I contributed, I then had to watch new tutors coming in and earning money using my course and my materials. I’m not usually a grudging sort of person, but I feel that stinging just a bit. I love to help out, my friend was extremely appreciative and I don’t regret doing all this as it’s been good experience, but there comes a time when you have to start looking after your own interests.
I thought the answer would be to expand my own workshops in my local area and it’s clear that there’s a much better return for effort if I do this. However, to earn anything like the amount I need I’d have to do huge amounts of marketing and promotion and I’m really not very good at that and, even worse, I don’t enjoy it at all. For me, the advantage of working with my London friend was that she would take care of the promotion side of things and I could get on with what I do best.
So I find myself procrastinating. There are many other workshops and courses I could put together, and I have more ideas than you can shake a stick at, but I have a deep feeling of reluctance inside to get moving on these. At the beginning of this year, after a spell when I was often working both days of each weekend in London, I contracted one virus after another. I’d no sooner get over one bout of flu or cold than I’d go down with the next. And when spring came and the threat of viruses diminished, I developed problems with my back and my knees. Illness, for me, is often a message that I’m not living my life in a way that’s good for me and this endless run of ill-health seems to be telling me that I’m off-track somewhere.
I’ve had a lot of time to think, and realised that when I do large amounts of teaching it takes my attention away from what I really want to do – work on my own personal photographic projects, study towards a photography degree, and write about photography. I do love to teach, but not at the expense of everything else. So recently I’ve been wondering if I should do something entirely different to earn money – a part-time job (assuming I can find one) that I don’t bring home with me and that leaves me time to play, to experiment, and to think. I’m wondering if trying to make your passion into a living is maybe a bad idea and that it’s better to separate the two. I’ve always thought you should follow your heart and your passion and earn money doing what you love to do, but did I get that wrong? Or is it that I simply need to find a new way of doing things?
While in London last weekend, I took this shot of a reflection in the Gherkin – or Swiss Re building as it should be called. I tried it in black and white as well; I don’t like it quite so much, but then I’ll nearly always go for colour first.
Photography has traditionally been a very male-dominated world, despite the fact that nowadays there are at least as many women who’re serious about taking photographs as there are men. It’s probably due to its association with technology – I suspect that the reason my beginners workshops usually have significantly more women than men in them is because of the title: Digital Photography for the Technically Challenged.
Anyway, you’ll be relieved to know that this is not going to be a polemic on gender politics. It’s just that one of the manifestations of the male bias in photography is that when it comes to photographic equipment and accessories, they’re designed with men in mind. For instance, if you want to buy a camera bag or strap, you can have any colour of black you like – or you might just find brown, khaki, or navy if you’re really lucky. Good, plain masculine colours.
Now I’ve always believed that even utilitarian things should be pleasurable to look at and add something to the aesthetics of the world and, really, I’d just like to get a pretty strap for my camera, or a brightly coloured camera bag – I don’t want girly pink, just something bright and cheerful. So I’ve been searching the web to see what’s available and this is what I’ve come up with. Unfortunately, nearly all these suppliers are in the US, although they’ll ship to the UK.
A quick search on Etsy brought up loads of fun, pretty, camera straps at fairly reasonable prices – just be aware that some of them are camera strap covers rather than actual straps. Sassystrap have a particularly good selection of proper straps and do some fantastic designs; here’s just a sample:
This one's called Yellow Daisy and is a little more feminine
If you want to go really girly, you can get one with ruffles on it
Phatstraps do a good variety of straps, some of which are rugged enough not to embarrass the most macho man, while also being far more interesting than black webbing. As this is for the girls, I’m not going to show the more masculine ones here, but I like these two:
And finally, if you’re a voluptuous sort of woman you’re probably aware that, worn across the body, normal camera straps are less than comfortable. Someone has finally come up with a solution, although sadly only in black and at an extortionate price – it’s a specially designed camera strap made to fit a woman’s shape. UK readers can find it at Picstop, but just do a Google search for Black Rapid RS-W1 Women’s Camera Strap and you’ll be able to find a stockist wherever you are.
Part Two – Camera Bags – coming soon
I was going to look at camera bags as well, but now I’m thinking that would be better left for another post. For the moment, is there anyone out there in the UK who’d like to design and sew some fun camera straps? I’m convinced there’s a gap in the market.
I was in the City of London at the weekend teaching a beginner’s photography workshop. Just as we got to the main road, a posse of bikers turned up, parked their large shiny motorbikes, got off, and mounted a row of Boris’s bicycles. (For non-UK readers, Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, set up a scheme that enables anyone to pick up and borrow a bicycle for a small fee from the many banks of them distributed all over London)
We were on the other side of the road and a central railing prevented us from crossing for some way each side, so I climbed up onto a large block of stone and managed to get this photo.
I have no idea what they were doing – they were in high good spirits, waving at traffic going by, cars were honking their horns at them, and passing photographers were risking their lives in the road taking pictures. It looked like a publicity stunt, but there didn’t seem to be any publicity going on. Whatever it was, it added a bit of fun to our day.
Danny Gregory, in his book The Creative Licence, says that if you want know how successful you are creatively, don’t look at how much money you earn, or what people say about your work. Instead, ask yourself these four questions:
Did you express yourself?
Did you have fun?
Did you learn something?
Did you see?
He’s talking about drawing, but it applies equally well to photography. Sometimes we forget that art is not just about the finished product – in fact, you’re still engaged in making art even if it all goes wrong and there is no finished product. While it’s good to see a result for your efforts, the process of doing it is at least equally important – it’s the act of creation that counts. If we only engaged in art in order to produce a product, then art would turn into a job. And while it might be a very enjoyable job, it probably wouldn’t satisfy that thing in you that got you interested in the first place.
Did you express yourself?
Does your photograph express what you felt when you took it? Does it bring out similar emotions in the viewer as it did in you when you took it? Does it show the scene/event in the way that you saw it? Does it say what you want it to say? If it does, then reward yourself with chocolate – you’ve done well.
The photograph at the top is far from perfect, but for me it expresses the feeling I wanted to capture of walking home through town on a wet winter’s night.
We went kite flying, had a lot of fun, and I got this!
Did you have fun?
This is the question that most often gets neglected. Remind yourself why you took up photography – I’ll bet it was because you enjoyed it, it was a lot of fun. The trouble is, once you get serious about doing something the fun often starts leaking out of it. It doesn’t have to, but we get all adult about it and start beating ourselves up when it doesn’t work out the way we’d hoped. Watch a young child in the act of creating – they don’t worry about the end product, they just have fun doing it. And if a child didn’t have fun painting or drawing or making something out of matchsticks, then s/he wouldn’t do it. Remember that; fun is important
And yes, I know there are times when it’s not fun but you have to persevere anyway because you’re not a child anymore and the end result is worth the angst. Nobody’s saying it’s going to be fun all the time – just make sure it’s fun at least some of the time. OK?
Did you learn something?
If you didn’t manage to express yourself effectively, and you didn’t even have fun doing it, then maybe at least you learned something. Maybe you made what looked like a mistake but actually resulted in a cool new effect. Maybe you just made a lot of mistakes – but now you know what not to do next time, don’t you? Don’t be too quick to delete your mistakes either; I’ve had bad shooting days where I haven’t liked anything I’ve taken, but when I’ve revisited later I can see that there are some fine shots there that I didn’t notice because of my negative mood.
Before I took up photography, I never would have looked closely enough to notice the reflection in this orb.
Did you see?
Did you begin to see things in a new way? Photography is a fantastic pursuit for getting you to look at things differently and to see interesting things where once you thought it was all terribly boring. If you saw something in a different way, even if you didn’t manage to capture it in your camera, then you’ve gained something very valuable from the experience. If all that photography ever did for you was to make you really see the world, it would be worth it for that alone.
Sometimes it happens that we can say a big ‘yes’ to all of these questions: those are the best of days. Sometimes we can only say ‘yes’ to two or three of them – that’s good too. Even if we only say ‘yes’ to one of them, we can count that as a success. So stop criticising the photographs you end up with, and start asking yourself these questions instead – they’re a better measure of true success.
Can you think of any other questions it would be good to ask yourself?