Cheating slightly again this week, as this photo was taken while I was away in the New Forest a couple of weeks ago. It’s been an unusually busy week, so I’ve had no chance to get out and about. Among other things, I had a photography job to do for the Newark Town Hall Museum which I was rather dreading – quite rightly, as it turned out. I had to photograph forty-five, mostly glass-fronted, prints and drawings, in a storeroom with a mixture of lighting sources and hardly any space to move or set anything up.
The problem, of course, was reflections in the glass, and it took an hour and a half just to find a set-up that minimised the reflections. I would have much preferred to scan them, as that works brilliantly, but most of them were too big to fit the scanner. In the end, the pictures were hung, one at a time, on a metal grid that divided one part of the room from another, my tripod was wedged into the space between that and a metal shelving unit behind, so tightly that the legs wouldn’t fully expand. I had to drape the metal shelving with a large navy-blue fleece throw to prevent reflections coming from it and there wasn’t room for me to get behind the camera so I had to use the LCD screen to shoot, peering into it from the side.
Every image is going to need serious straightening out in post-processing, but it was impossible to frame accurately in that situation so I just left a wide margin around the edges so that I have some leeway to crop and straighten I can honestly say I never want to have to work in those sorts of conditions again! However, I did get the shots and there’s only the tiniest bit of reflected light showing in one or two of them.
I felt rather fraught when I got home, and was cursing the whole reflection problem, but reflections are normally something I like very much and the kind found in the image above calms me down rather than winds me up – evening light on the little stream just down the road from our holiday barn.
As time goes on I’m building myself a kind of creative manifesto: a set of fundamental principles that work to enhance my creativity. I think these principles are helpful to everyone, not just to me, and the idea came to me the other night – I couldn’t sleep – to bring them together in this space and explore them one by one. This week I’m going to look at the idea of cultivating boredom.
It’s not the first time I’ve mentioned this approach, but my recent trip to the New Forest really brought it home to me – visiting a new and lovely place rarely produces anything with which I’m particularly satisfied. When I stopped and thought about it, my most interesting and original work (at least in my own eyes) has all been done in places that are so familiar to me that I’ve become quite bored with them. Now intuitively this doesn’t seem right. Surely it’s much easier to be inspired by beautiful or unusual places and things? You’d think so, wouldn’t you? And certainly, places like that feel so much more inspiring and exciting. But here’s the thing: you get so blinded by how lovely/interesting/exotic everything is that you’re no longer able to properly see it.
When every view is a ready-made picture postcard, it’s hard to see beyond that, and it actually becomes much more difficult to develop an individual ‘take’ on it. But when you’ve been somewhere more than once, and you’ve seen all the obvious things to see there, you’re likely to become bored and a bit blasé about it no matter how lovely it all is. At this point a little bit of magic can happen.
The ‘monkey mind’ (to borrow a Buddhist phrase) has a short attention span, doesn’t like being bored, and will do what it can to avoid it. In terms of photography that means it will try to get you to go somewhere else that’s more immediately entertaining, or it will make you give up because ‘there’s nothing here’ – however it goes about things, it will do whatever it can to get you to present it with something that contains more novelty and excitement, or at the very least, it will get you to stop subjecting it to what’s in front of it at the moment. Mostly we don’t persevere beyond this point, and so we never see what can happen when we do.
If we don’t give in to our monkey mind’s demands for novelty and stimulation, it metaphorically goes off in a sulk and shuts down. There will then be an interlude where we feel a kind of blankness, or boredom. If we stick with it, at this point another part of our mind kicks in and it’s this part that holds our real creative power. I can vouch for this, and I’ll give you some examples of what happens when you allow the boredom to happen. I’ve often found myself in situations where, for various reasons, I’m pretty much stuck with what’s in front of me, and so I’ve been forced to persevere when I might not otherwise have done so. I’ll give you some examples.
The image at the top of the post, and the one immediately above, are part of a series I took of oily water in ditches. I was out walking in a wet, grey day, in the vast, empty space of the Dee Estuary, feeling flat and bored (of course). When I stopped fighting the boredom and allowed myself to feel it and accept it, I suddenly noticed the wonderful colours in the oil that polluted some of the drainage ditches. I ended up taking many walks after that, specifically to photograph these, and developed a bit of an obsession with the whole thing. Initially I saw small abstract landscapes in the oil pollution, like the one at the beginning of the post; subsequently I concentrated more on simple colour and shape – as in the image above.
Another grey day, drizzling, and I didn’t have time to go far from the house. After taking some very dull shots of nothing very much and feeling fed up again, something made me look down and I saw some pretty blue flowers lying in the gutter. This was the start of a whole series I called ‘Fallen’. I started with blossom and then extended my range to include anything natural lying on a man-made surface, and even to this day I still take the occasional ‘Fallen’ shot if I see something I can’t resist.
More recently, after taking so many walks round a small local lake that I was thoroughly bored with the whole thing, I started noticing patterns in water, and became quite fascinated with them. This is my obsession at the moment, and I’m not over it yet – it still seems to have plenty of mileage left in it.
While one-off trips to lovely places have given me some nice ‘one-shot wonders’, getting bored has rewarded me with cohesive bodies of work that I feel have far more depth and personal meaning in them. And as a little side note, if I can be said to have developed an individual voice at all, it has almost entirely come through these things that began with boredom.
‘But wait’, I hear you say– ‘are you saying that I shouldn’t go photographing anywhere appealing if I want to get creative?’ No, of course I’m not, and we all want to spend time in those lovely, visually stimulating places. What you’ll find, however, is that if you’re in the habit of being able to discover something interesting in what seem like boring things, you’ll have developed a creative edge that will stand you in good stead when you find yourself somewhere lovely. You’ll probably still have to get all the obvious, picture postcard shots out of the way first, but you’ll have trained yourself to come up with something far more individual eventually. You do have to stay long enough in one place for this to happen, though – taking a couple of quick shots and moving on to the next great thing will rarely produce much that’s worthwhile. And if you can come back again – the more times the better – you’ll see more and more each time.
So how can you apply this idea to your own photography? Here are some suggestions, many of which you probably won’t like the sound of at all but which are guaranteed to get you seeing differently.
Photograph tarmac. Yes, you heard right – start looking at tarmac (or whatever the ground is made of round your way – mud will do). If you really don’t like tarmac, you can choose bricks, or perhaps paintwork or walls, although the latter two are beginning to get dangerously interesting. Because tarmac is so intrinsically boring, you can fast track your creative mind to the surface by concentrating on it. I’m not going to tell you what to look for, because that would defeat the object, but think in terms of things like lines, textures, colours, shapes. Also what else can you see there? – is there a miniature landscape, or a face? Remember times when, as a child, you saw pictures in the clouds – well, you can still do that thing.
Photograph something you find ugly, repellent, or dull. If you don’t trust yourself to pick something you genuinely feel this way about, ask a friend/spouse/child to choose something for you. Now work at finding something interesting about it. This won’t be easy, and don’t expect to fall in love with your subject in the end – just try to come up with a few shots that you find interesting. You might want to ask yourself what it is about this thing that you dislike so much? How does it differ from the things you do like? If nothing else, you’ll learn something about yourself.
Lock yourself and your camera in the bathroom for an hour. I’ve actually used this technique with a group I once ran, and people were very surprised to find that their bathrooms were such interesting places. Compared to tarmac, they’re absolutely fascinating. You have to stay in there well beyond the point at which you think you’ve exhausted all the possibilities – believe me, you won’t have. I was amazed what people managed to come up with.
Walk twenty steps and stop. Leave your house, walk twenty steps in any direction, stop right there and find an interesting image. Remember you can swivel round, crouch down, look up, zoom in, swing your camera around, or anything else you can think of, but you must stay in that spot till you’ve got something you like. Now take another twenty steps and repeat, and another twenty, and so on.
Go to sleep with your camera by your bedside. When you wake up, pick it up and see what you can do. This is quite a good one, because first thing in the morning when you’re still half asleep your mind’s in a naturally more creative state. You also have the advantage of taking your shots from quite a different perspective from usual – the world looks a lot different when you’re lying down in it.
Finally, these are actually a whole lot more fun than they sound! If you can persevere through the initial boredom and frustration, you’re quite likely to find yourself in ‘flow’, really absorbed in what you’re doing, and actually quite excited about it.
There are no uninteresting things, only uninterested people. G K Chesterton
In a similar vein to my oilscapes above, William Miller made a whole series of lovely images from what was actually toxic waste in the Gowanus Canal.
This week’s post sneaked up on me – the bank holiday weekend was leading me to think it was Monday, not Tuesday, and that I had another day left, and I’ve also been trying to get a longer piece written for posting later in the week and had got a bit distracted by that.
So, last minute and not much to say about this one – just that this wonderful fern shadow on a fallen tree trunk caught my eye as we walked past. The bright sunlight was unpromisingly harsh for most shots, but worked beautifully for this one, just proving the point that, whatever the lighting, there’s always something it suits.
Back from the New Forest, and I certainly do have a lot of pictures of trees. Unfortunately there aren’t many that excite me, or give me that little glow inside that you get when you produce something you really like. It’s proved a point to me – that my work is much, much better when I concentrate on a small, familiar area and keep going back to it. I want to write some more about that, but will save it up for a later, more in-depth, post.
Photography or not, we had a wonderfully relaxing time just walking through the beautiful, lush, green place that is the New Forest. I’d never been ‘properly’ there before, only having driven through it a number of times on the way further west. However when you pass through on the A31, it crosses open areas of moorland and I always used to wonder where the trees were.
I’ve learned since then that when the word ‘forest’ was introduced into the English language it originally meant ‘wild land set aside for hunting’ and there was no requirement for trees to be present, so the Forest includes some areas of heath and moorland, too. There are plenty of trees, though, and one of the things that struck me was the way in which the Forest manages to absorb large numbers of people without losing its essential nature or feeling of wildness – we walked for hours on some days and barely saw another person.
Feeling mostly dissatisfied with the shots I’d taken so far, I experimented with some intentional camera movement and this seemed to capture for me more of the feeling of the place. In the image above I held the camera still for a short moment before moving it, and that gave a little bit of definition to the leaves and a kind of painterly look. I can’t say I’m totally happy with it, but it does bring back for me – quite vividly – the memory of how wonderful it was to walk in the sheltering half-light of the trees, with sudden dazzling shafts of sunlight illuminating the forest floor. If I could have picked even part of the forest up and taken it back home with me, I’d be a very happy bunny indeed. I suppose, in a sense, that’s what photographers do.
I didn’t think I was going to get anything posted for this week – I hurt my back quite badly several days ago, and haven’t been able to get out. I can walk reasonably freely now although it’s still a bit achey, and planned to do a little photo walk in the sunshine and find something for this week’s tree post. Sod’s law meant that I managed to pick the wettest day we’ve had in a long time, so the options were a bit limited.
I really wanted to do something all pretty and soft and spring-like, and experimented with some intentional camera movement. However, it just looked like I’d got the focussing wrong – sometimes these things don’t work out the way you hope. So – I’ve stuck to my recent car theme, and here’s one with the trees reflected in the rainy windscreen and the pink petals of the blossom scattered all over the bonnet like confetti.
I’m unsure if there’ll be a tree post next week or not – I’m going on holiday and may decide to take a blog break for a week. However, I’m going to the New Forest, so I might not be able to resist…….
A strange one this week, and one that I have to admit I’m not sure about – is it too ambiguous, too messy, too unformed? But there’s something about the way the tree branches seem to drape themselves over what could be boulders but are actually seats inside the car that I find interesting, and I keep coming back to it to have another look. Does it have something, or am I fooling myself? That’s always a tricky one to answer.
I may be getting a little hooked on ‘tree in car window’ reflections right now, and have been taking rather a lot of them. The more I look, the more I see, and of course they’re everywhere. It’s the multi-layered, ‘double exposure’ effect that appeals to me, where you see both the reflection of what’s outside the car and also through the window to what’s inside it. I tend to like images that are either very simple and minimalist or very complicated – complicated in the sense of creating ambiguity and mystery and with that idea of different layers in the image. This one definitely falls into the second camp.
I have another, similar, image that’s easier to ‘read’ and had intended to use that one for this week’s post, but sometimes it’s good to be a little controversial. However, just in case you really hate the one above, here’s the other one below.
Lots of bits and pieces this week, plus a few images that I like with but about which I don’t have a great deal to say. To start with the images, they were taken by the road bridge over the River Trent in Newark where, on a sunny day, there’s a reflection in the water of the metal posts that fence the road up above. When the ducks swim through it the reflections get swirled around and this zebra effect is created. This appeals to me greatly, and that’s really all there is to to say………….
We visited Connected 2016 this weekend, an annual photography exhibition which is on at Patchings Art Centre in Notts till May 21st. I would have been going anyway, but when I saw the poster advertising it I realised that a photographer whose work I’ve been following for a while was going to be giving a talk at the Launch Event, so that made it an absolute must. If you haven’t come across Vanda Ralevska, she creates wonderful and very individual images and is currently doing a 366 project on her blog. I find it hard enough doing my rather more modest 52 Trees project, and how she manages to maintain such a high standard on a daily basis, I really don’t know. I got to meet Vanda, who is a very lovely lady, and her talk was excellent – funny, fresh, interesting and hugely enjoyable. There was also a talk by Guy Aubertin, who himself creates beautiful landscape photos. If you’re in the area a visit to the exhibition is well worth it – the standard is high, and the work varied.
I’ve been interested for a long time in methods for teaching the creative side of photography, and Sean Kernan’s approach is unusual, to say the least. He uses theatrical exercises to give people the experience of cultivating awareness without analysis, and the exercise in the video below (which has a number of professional dancers taking part) is a lot of fun to watch.
Kernan is also an amazing photographer and well worth checking out. I came to his work through his still life series Secret Books, which were like nothing I’d ever seen before.
The video above reminds me of reading John Daido Loori’s account of going on a workshop in 1980 with Minor White – someone well known for his unorthodox photographic teaching methods. Students were expected to get up at 4.00am and participate in dance and meditation exercises, and were often not allowed to pick up their cameras till after a day or two of this had passed. Loori, at the time, thought this was ridiculous and nearly stormed out; however he was persuaded to stay and came to see the value in White’s approach by the time he finished the workshop. You can read his account of this in The Zen of Creativity: Cultivating Your Artistic Life.
Moving on, I came across an article called Why Typical Preschool Crafts are a Total Waste of Time. The main thrust of the article is that these crafts are both too ‘ready-made’ and thus about as creative as painting by numbers, and more importantly, that they put too much emphasis on the end product rather than the process. By doing this, the article claims, we’re indoctrinating young children in the belief that you must have something to show for any time you spend on creative pursuits. There’s a parallel here in that so much emphasis is put on the images we manage to ‘capture’ and not enough on what the process of photographing does for us in itself. After all, even if you don’t catch a fish, going fishing can still be rewarding.
As someone who can procrastinate with the best of them, I really liked this article’s take on how to use it to your advantage, and found it quite amusing: ‘All procrastinators put off things they have to do. Structured Procrastination is the art of making this bad trait work for you.’
The key idea is that procrastinating does not mean doing absolutely nothing. Procrastinators seldom do absolutely nothing; they do marginally useful things, like gardening or sharpening pencils or making a diagram of how they will reorganize their files when they get around to it. Why does the procrastinator do these things? Because they are a way of not doing something more important. If all the procrastinator had left to do was to sharpen some pencils, no force on earth could get him do it. However, the procrastinator can be motivated to do difficult, timely and important tasks, as long as these tasks are a way of not doing something more important.
I have never kept a photography sketchbook. We were encouraged to do this when I was studying photography, but a blog was thought to be an acceptable alternative. I kept the blog, which has morphed into the one you’re reading now, but I’m wondering if I’ve missed a trick in not keeping a more tangible and less public sketchbook where I could explore ideas and keep a record of them. These examples of photography students’ sketchbooks make me want to join in.
One of the first books I read that introduced me to the idea that photography was about a whole lot more than the camera, was Freeman Patterson’s Photography and the Art of Seeing. I loved this book, still re-read it regularly, and think it should probably be required reading for every photographer. This interview with Patterson is long and dates back a bit, but well worth reading through to the end. Patterson is another person whose photography teaching goes far beyond the usual ‘this is how your camera works’ style of classes. Here he is, talking about the kind of assignments he gives to his students, each one individually designed for that particular student:
…..one person might be given a white sheet and asked to photograph it as a landscape; somebody else might be given the topic ‘outer space’. We don’t care how they deal with it. Someone else might be given a colourful shirt and told to photograph it, but only in water. One of my favourite assignments, and I’ve only given it two or three times, is the Joseph Campbell quote “the privilege of a lifetime is being who you are”. We gave it to a guy this week from near Chicago and it was just one of those intuitive things. We could tell this guy was experiencing a period of real personal liberation, and he really carried that assignment off, it was beautiful to see what he did.
And on that note, I leave you with some more zebra-patterned water:
What it looked like before the ducks swam through:
Newark Library is housed in a modern building largely made up of glass and surrounded by trees. The glass is tinted to stop excess heat and glare, but there are also blinds high up on the glass walls to help give shade from the heat in summer. I often do some shifts there, and I’d noticed that on sunny days the trees outside cast their shadows on these blinds, and I’d just as often felt the urge to photograph them.
I don’t take my camera to work as I don’t want to risk leaving it in the lockers, and I’d been meaning for some time to make a visit there specially to take some shots, but sod’s law had seen to it that my free time and the right weather hadn’t coincided. However it had to happen sooner or later, and this week I finally got the opportunity.
I also got some strange looks from people wondering what I was doing. As I’m sure lots of you know, this is an occupational hazard when you’re into photography, particularly the kind of photography where you’re using your own vision and awareness to see things that other people miss. I’ve got used to the embarrassment factor now, and mostly feel sad that people miss so many of these visual pleasures. I always did notice things that others didn’t, but photography took that ability and expanded it tenfold. This has been one of its greatest gifts to me, and I can’t imagine life without it now.
I couldn’t decide which of several shots to post, so I thought I’d include a couple of other favourites as well.
Last week I mentioned that I wanted to try a new technique, called ‘in the round’ where the photographer takes a series of pictures while moving 360 degrees round her subject and then combines them in post-processing to give an impressionist effect. You can see an example of how it’s supposed to look here!
The image above is the result of my having a very casual and not very serious go at it (it’s just a detail of the whole as it was the only part that I felt was at all successful; you can see the whole image at the end of the post). The result isn’t great and has lots wrong with it, but it’s good enough to let me see that it’s possible to produce something I’d actually be pleased with. I got a lot of things wrong and I learned a lot from that, so here’s the benefit of my experience.
First off, you need more than nine shots, which is all I used. Most photographers using this technique will use around 20-30 shots and I can see why. The more shots you have to layer, the more the central subject stands out and the extra bits that you don’t want to emphasise disappear.
The next thing is that it’s important to line each shot up, as you take it, in exactly the same way, or at least as close as you can get. When I saw each photo being layered over the previous one, I realised that my distance from the bandstand as I walked around it had obviously varied quite a bit, which increased or decreased the size of the bandstand in the frame and made it harder to align. You need to keep the position of the subject in the frame constant, as well – I think a tripod might be the thing here.
I’m also a hopeless case when it comes to getting things straight. I do try, because it would obviously be far better to get this right in-camera, but no matter how I try my verticals and horizontals are never straight and I have to straighten everything up afterwards – I’ve learned to add some space round the edge of the image to allow for this. Obviously it’s important to do the straightening before you start layering each image over the others.
I am still a bit confused about how best to carry out the layering process. The basic idea is that you start with the first image, then add each subsequent one as a Photoshop layer on top – think of piling several transparencies on top of one another. If you were to leave the opacity of each layer at 100%, all you’d see would be the top one, so the transparency of each layer has to be increased to let the layers underneath show through. The article I read suggested that the opacity of the first layer be set at 50%, then the next at 25%, then 12%, and so on. However, even with only nine layers, by halving the opacity each time the final ones were down to less than 1%. I’m not sure this can be right. I need to both experiment and do a bit more research on how best to do it.
It’s fun to have tried this, although I didn’t get much out of taking the photographs themselves. You end up with a batch of very ordinary images that aren’t very exciting to take and all the excitement comes purely from the post-processing. Fortunately I really enjoy this part too, so I’m intrigued enough to give this technique at least a few more tries.
If you want to see the entire image, rather than the cropped section, here it is below. You can see that the van has appeared three times and is quite obtrusive, and there are a lot more benches round the bandstand than exist in reality. Although I’ve seen this successfully done with quite busy backgrounds, I feel that the simpler the background, the better the result is likely to be.
The originator of the ‘in the round’ technique is Pep Ventosa, and you can see on his website how it looks when it’s done really well.
Not a very big tree this week, but it counts, I think. I liked the way the shadow of the picket fence leads you to the tree, and how the electrical cable on the right somehow works to balance the whole thing out.
Life feels very full at the moment – I haven’t been out much with my camera, and what pictures I have been taking all seem to be of water reflections (which I’m rather obsessed with right now). However, it looks like the busyness is beginning to slow down a little, so I’m hopeful that this week will see me with a little time to play.
And play is what I need right now. I have all sorts of things I’d like to try photographically, including a technique usually referred to as ‘in the round’. It involves taking a series of pictures while moving 360 degrees round the subject, then combining these afterwards to give a very painterly, impressionist effect. If you want to see some examples, or read a bit more about it, there’s a great article on Stephen D’Agostino’s site. I’m pretty sure it’s a lot harder than it looks, but if I have any success with it I’ll be putting the results on here.
I’d also like to do more with Intentional Camera Movement, experiment with pinhole, and spend some time with my Lensbaby, among other things. It won’t all happen, of course, but perhaps some of it will. Finally there’s some spring colour around, and that wonderful haze of green that appears just before the trees come fully into leaf. It’s all so much more inspiring than the grey days we’ve had for so long, and I’m longing to get out there.