I’m still obsessed with water and trees – can’t get enough of them, and even I thought I’d be getting tired of them by now. Recently, I came across a possible explanation for this, which lies in the idea of fractals. Fractals, put simply, are complex and never-ending patterns that repeat themselves over different scales – if you’d like a beautifully simple, illustrated, one-page explanation of them, go here.
There are two sorts of fractals – the mathematical and the natural kinds The mathematical kind, which are pretty to look at but which I’m certainly not capable of explaining adequately, are created by calculating a simple equation thousands of times and feeding the equation back to itself in a never-ending feedback loop. The natural kind don’t need any understanding of mathematics to appreciate and can be seen all around us – you can find them in the branching patterns of trees, clouds, lightning, snowflakes, canyons, and river confluences, or in spiral forms such as seashells, hurricanes and galaxies. Basically, the building blocks of natural things are fractal patterns and the human body is no exception – our lungs, blood vessels, brains, kidneys, and so on all display fractal patterns, and even the receptor molecules on viruses and bacteria are fractal in design.
Perhaps because of this, we like to look at fractal patterns and find them aesthetically pleasing. Richard Taylor of Oregon University, who is working on developing artificial retinal implants to bring back lost sight, compares the way the camera ‘sees’ with the way the eye sees. The eye only sees clearly what’s directly in front of it, with peripheral vision being much fuzzier, and so we have to move our eyes continually, scanning small areas, in order to ensure that the area of interest to us falls directly on the part of the eye with the sharpest vision – the pin-sized fovea. In short, the natural movement of our eyes is fractal. In contrast to this, a camera captures everything in uniform detail all over the picture plane. If someone was given a retinal implant that was based on how a camera works, they would not only be overwhelmed with visual data, they would also see – in Taylor’s words – ‘a world devoid of stress-reducing beauty’.
Almost certainly because we’re ‘made’ of fractals, it turns out that they have a strongly stress-relieving effect on us and looking at mid-range (don’t ask!) fractals can reduce stress by up to 60%. It’s been known for a while, for example, that people with trees outside their hospital windows heal more quickly than those without, but nobody really knew why. One explanation lies in fractals. A lot of art and architecture also forms fractal patterns, notably Gothic and Baroque architecture and the paintings of Jackson Pollock, De Kooning, Hokusai, and Escher. They’re also found in African designs, Hindu temples and, indeed, all sorts of other places where you might find satisfying and soothing design elements.
So it seems thatmy fascination with water patterns and tree branches almost certainly has a lot to do with their fractal construction and without my being conscious of it, taking these kinds of pictures probably does a lot to de-stress me. Hopefully, they do something to de-stress whoever looks at them as well. Here are a few very recent images displaying the fractal patterns of winter tree branches, both on their own and reflected in water.
If you want to know more about fractals and how they affect us………
I’ve never been good at fitting myself into a category or labelling what I do. Unfortunately this makes life a bit difficult sometimes when people ask – as they often do – ‘what sort of photography do you do, then?’. It’s usually easier to say what kind I don’t do – portraits, weddings, babies, traditional landscape – but that only takes me so far. To some extent I’ve adopted ‘contemplative photography’ or ‘mindful photography’ as my label, but as always, I have trouble fitting myself comfortably into even these particular categories. All I can say is that this fits me better than anything else does.
Some time ago I ran a weekly ‘miksang Monday’ slot, where I posted one photo a week that showed a mindful approach. I hesitated over using the word miksang, for reasons that I’ll go into in a bit, but the nicely alliterative sound of it won out and in the end I went with it. ‘Contemplative’ simply doesn’t trip off the tongue in the way that ‘miksang’ does, and at the time I hadn’t thought of mindful as a term to apply to photography (annoying – mindful Monday would have worked well). But anyway, ‘miksang Monday’ was what I went for even though I knew using the term ‘miksang’ was likely to leave me open to accusations of the image ‘not being Miksang’.
Before I start offering my thoughts on these things, it might help to define ‘contemplative/mindful’ and ‘miksang’ as they apply to photography. As contemplative and mindful photography are very similar, I’ll use the terms interchangeably – ‘mindful’ is a more recent take on what has been known for a while as contemplative photography. The origins of contemplative photography as a concept are not clear, and as it refers primarily to a particular approach to the making of photographs, it’s certainly true that people were practising contemplative photography long before the term had ever been heard of. Two early proponents of it – those who articulated its core ideas, although they may not have referred to it by this name, were Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, author and photographer, and Minor White, a major figure in American photographic education, both practising before and around mid-century. Writings and quotations from many other major figures throughout the history of photography also strongly suggest that many of them were applying the same principles, whether or not they were aware of it..
Contemplative, or mindful, photography is largely about learning to see, without preconceptions or judgements, and because this entails a certain meditative letting go and opening up, it has become linked with Buddhist, Zen, and Taoist philosophies, all of which encourage these things as a general approach to life. Miksang is Tibetan for ‘good eye’ and has come to mean a contemplative approach to photography which is loosely based on certain Buddhist ideas. Really, the two are pretty much the same, but Miksang (note the capital ‘M’) was inspired specifically by the teachings on perception and expression of the Tibetan Meditation Master, Chögyam Trungpa. These are now taught by the Miksang Institute, who use the capital ‘M’ to differentiate themselves. ‘Contemplative’ photography is a more generic term that hasn’t – as far as I know – been adopted by any particular organisation and therefore has no-one to ‘police’ it.
I use this term advisedly, because I was a little shocked when I joined a Facebook Miksang photography group. Suddenly, there seemed to be a lot of rules about what did and didn’t come under the title of Miksang, and people were being criticised for posting photos that weren’t deemed to be properly ‘miksang’. It was implied by one or two people that it wasn’t possible to do miksang photography without having been on a training course. This is patently untrue. The sniping and bickering made it a very unpleasant place to hang around, and I unsubscribed from the group.
It seemed to me that instead of the very simple idea of miksang as fresh perception, which is by nature without rules, all sorts of judgements and regulations were being applied to it and that in turn led to a lot of people getting worried and insecure about whether their photos counted as Miksang or not. I didn’t feel that this was in keeping with the original idea of miksang, nor was it something I wanted to be part of. On top of that, many of these rules and assumptions didn’t strike me as being either logical or in the spirit of the contemplative approach. I’d like to take a look at some of these.
The first one is the idea that it can’t be miksang unless it’s in colour, as colour is part of the original perception. However, if black and white isn’t ‘allowed’ then miksang photography would have been impossible until colour photography became commonplace. In fact Thomas Merton (mentioned earlier) always – as far as I’m aware – photographed in black and white. Most of Minor White’s work was also in black and white, and in fact, colour film wasn’t commonly used until the 1950s. I really don’t believe that immediate or fresh perception is something that only came along with the advent of colour film.
But to take this a little further, much is made in miksang photography of the idea of ‘seeing reality as it is’. However, any first year philosophy student is aware that the idea of there being some objective reality that exists independently of us is very problematic. And any psychology student will tell you something similar – ‘reality’ is always filtered and interpreted through our minds and senses and as such is different – sometimes subtly, sometimes radically – for each individual. Someone with colour blindness will see the external world differently to someone without and her photographs will reflect that. That doesn’t mean that she isn’t seeing clearly or experiencing fresh perception. Someone with perfect vision might ‘see’, in his mind’s eye, the scene in front of him in black and white and choose to record it that way. The true meaning of ‘seeing reality as it is’, to me, is to see without judgement or preconceptions
And then there’s the camera. The ‘eye’ of the camera and our own eyes work very differently. Lenses can stretch space or compress it, they can bend vertical lines, change colours, blur or sharpen, make things look bigger, smaller, closer or further away. You see, then you use the camera to record what you see, but it will never record exactly what that is. The best you can hope for is that you have enough knowledge of how the camera works to get it to come somewhere close to what you’re perceiving yourself.
The biggest misunderstanding, to my mind, is that the original act of perception and the resulting photograph are one and the same thing. Contemplative photography is largely about the process of photography rather than the end result – in fact, this is one of its tenets. Unfortunately we have a tendency to mix the two up, which leads to criticisms that an image isn’t miksang. Well, no, it isn’t – the original perception was miksang and the photograph is just the result – a kind of by-product. Hopefully it will reflect what the photographer saw, but it’s quite possible to see freshly but not have the ability to use your camera to express that. Sometimes, it’s true, you can be fairly sure by looking at an image that it hasn’t resulted from a contemplative/mindful/miksang approach, but you can never be certain.
And one area where my own practice veers wildly away from what’s regarded as acceptable in both contemplative/mindful photography, or miksang, is post-processing. In the spirit of going after ‘reality as it is’, anything much beyond straight-out-of-the-camera shots is frowned on. However, my view is that simply by taking a photograph we have already gone beyond ‘reality as it is’, and if you shoot in jpeg format the camera will have done some processing for you anyway before it presents the image to you. I would rather regard post-processing as part of making tangible the original perception – that is, to help get the image to resemble what you saw at the time. I know there will be lots of people who’d disagree with me on this, and I accept that..
And I’m not trying to put miksang, or even Miksang, down – far from it. There is much of value there and it’s well worth looking at the various Miksang sites. I also think, like many things, it has become distorted by misunderstandings. However, to come full circle, what I expected to happen with my miksang Monday slot, eventually did. I got emails from a couple of people asking me how a particular image could possibly be miksang, because……..insert one of the reasons above. They were very nice emails, and had more of the air of a general enquiry, but still I thought it best to call a halt, because I don’t fully fit into the miksang box. Mainly because of the post-processing issue, I don’t even fit properly into the contemplative/mindful box, but at least I don’t feel so cramped in there.
Because of all this, sometimes I feel a little fraudulent referring to myself as a mindful or contemplative photographer, even though I think that’s what I am. Now that I’m running classes and workshops on mindful photography, it seemed time that I put on record where I stand and why I might not always conform to accepted ideas on these things..
Some years ago I was on holiday in Somerset, by myself. Each day I went walking in a different place, and on one occasion I ended up in an extensively forested area. I’d been walking for a couple of hours, had stopped to eat my bread and cheese and olives, and realised I wasn’t sure which way I’d come or how to get back. In all the time I’d been walking I hadn’t seen anyone at all, so there wasn’t much chance of being able to ask for help.
I felt the beginnings of panic, but pushed it away and rationalised that there was plenty of daylight left and even if all I did was walk in one direction, then sooner or later I’d come to a road and I’d find my way back (this is the UK, after all, where there isn’t that much wilderness left). I felt a bit calmer, took a few deep breaths, lay back on the grass, and allowed myself to enjoy, for the moment, the warmth of the early spring sun on my face. Then it came to me – the sun had been dazzling me from my left as I walked from the car park, and taking into consideration its rotation as the day went on, I could probably figure out roughly which direction to go in. I could, I did, and it got me home again.
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. you must let it find you.
Palmer tells a similar story to mine in his post, about a time he got lost, and how he began to panic, and how he calmed himself down and suddenly knew what he needed to do. I’ve always been very scared of getting lost – unreasonably so. To quell the panic that surges up I feel the need to do something, try something, anything, to solve the problem, but frantically poring over maps and doing mental calculations just increases the desperate feeling of being hopelessly lost. The best way to solve the problem is to stop, be still, calm down, come into the present, and become aware of where I am at this moment. Only then can I understand how to get to where I want to go.
You can see the parallels with life. We live in a an action oriented culture and when we come to a part of life where we feel lost and directionless, the need to do something can be strong. Taoism has a term – wu wei – which means, literally, non-doing. Paradoxically, in the Taoist state of non-doing you are actually doing quite a lot. However, what you’re doing is allowing yourself to feel a sense of connectedness to others and to your environment, and strengthening your ability to tune in to both inner and outer messages. It relies on being present to the moment. Any action you then take – using action in the sense in which we mean it in the West – becomes spontaneous, effortless, and highly effective. We might call it intuitive, or inspired action. ‘Stand still. Wherever you are is called Here.’ – let the forest find you.
Coming into the present – the Here – not only removes the panic caused by imagined, disastrous futures but focusses attention on what’s around us, what we can see, hear, feel, taste, and smell. Those things we now notice give us the answers we need. We might call this mindfulness.
I hope you can also see the parallels with a contemplative approach to photography. We go out with our cameras and feel lost and directionless – nothing inspires us, there’s nothing to photograph. We try harder. We look and look. Still nothing. We’re frustrated, all this effort tires us, irks us, so we give up, stop, and decide instead to enjoy the walk. Suddenly we notice the patterns on the water, the shapes of the clouds, or the colours in the tree bark. In this coming into the present, the Here, we begin to see again and, amazingly, the photographs find us.
Something that’s always paid off for me is to keep ‘working’ the same area time after time, even when I think there’s nothing new left to photograph. The act of going back and looking, again and again, until I start seeing things I never saw before,has been one of my most rewarding experiences as a photographer.
There’s usually some place nearby that draws me to it. When I lived in Canterbury, it was the cathedral; when I lived on the Wirral, it was the Dee Estuary; here, it’s the cemetery and small lakes that lie behind it. Whatever it is, it has to be close enough to where I live to make constant, even daily, visits easy, and there has to be something about it that makes me happy to go there often.
Many times I don’t even want to take my camera with me – it’s grey, flat light, it’s dull, there can’t be anything worthwhile left that I haven’t already photographed, I say to myself. The trick is to take the camera anyway and not care if I come back with nothing – but I rarely come back with nothing.
The images on this post started with one of those days. I went out for the exercise mostly, took my camera but didn’t think I’d use it. It was a grey day, although quite bright, and there was very little wind. I’m always attracted to water reflections but have done the obvious ones; however, when I looked closely at the patterns made by the interaction between the tree reflections and the ripples created by the many water birds, there were wonderful lines and textures and shapes to be seen and investigated.
I’ve been back several times for more, but these kind of images aren’t that easy to achieve. Too much wind destroys the reflections, too little light makes it impossible for me (with my rather archaic camera) to get a fast enough shutter speed, and too much sun creates too much flare and dazzle. It’s rather hit and miss even in perfect conditions – the lines and ripples move and change constantly, and getting any kind of focus isn’t easy. The autofocus hunts around like crazy, taking ages to lock onto anything and my few attempts at using manual focus were a complete disaster – even with an adjusted dioptre, it became obvious that I can’t see well enough to know if it’s in or out of focus. I’ve deleted many more images than I’ve kept, but every so often one of them pops up as a keeper and keeps me going.
“Boredom always precedes a period of great creativity.” Robert Pirsig
I’ve found this to be very true: nearly all my best – or at least most absorbing – work has arisen out of boredom. Something happens when I feel apathetic about what’s in front of me. If I go with it and don’t fight it, and just accept the apparent dullness, some little thing will eventually catch my eye. I’ll feel a flicker of excitement, of possibility, and then suddenly I’m away. I’ve rarely known it to fail.
As a birthday treat a while back, we took a day trip to Stamford, which I had heard was one of the loveliest small towns in the UK. True, it was a beautiful place in many ways, all the buildings built from mellow old limestone and the town largely in its unspoiled, elegant Georgian state, but I couldn’t take to it. Something about it felt sterile and unwelcoming and I had to think for a while before it came to me what it was – there were no trees. In fact, there was virtually nothing green in the town centre at all, no plants, no flowers, no hanging baskets or window boxes or anything at all that was green and growing.
The cities, towns and villages I like best have a lot of trees growing in the streets and are broken up by green spaces and gardens full of plants and flowers. One of the things I like about Newark is that it’s very leafy and the main road close to us is lined with beautiful trees. There’s a cemetery full of wonderful old trees close by, and there are trees growing in the churchyard, the castle grounds, down by the river, and in many private gardens. There might not be much actual woodland near at hand, but there are a lot of trees here.
More and more evidence is coming to light that the presence of trees makes a positive difference to human health, both physical and mental. One well-known example is the study showing that hospital patients with a view of trees from the window made speedier and better recoveries than those who looked out on a blank wall. (For a personal account of this, see Brain Pickings for the story of how Eve Ensler’s life was saved – in more ways than one – by trees.) And when large numbers of trees in North America died because of the invasion of the emerald ash borer, there was a significant increase in deaths from cardiovascular and lower respiratory disease. Many more studies have shown that trees reduce stress and improve human health in a multitude of ways.
All of this makes perfect sense to me. For the last few years trees have acted as metaphors and healing symbols for me during the difficult changes we’ve been going through. At one point we were living in Cheshire, in a rented house. Neither of us had work, we had made no friends there, our home didn’t belong to us, and Geoff was applying for jobs all over the country. We had no idea where we might end up, and no support structure where we were. That’s when I began to photograph roots.
And not just roots themselves, but trees rooting themselves in difficult places. A walker’s and cyclist’s path ran along an old railway track, with vertical rock walls where cuttings had been made for the track. Trees clung and grew in the most precarious of places, their roots knotted and tangled on and through the rock. There was this little tree standing tall and seemingly stable, on a small shelf of rock.
If these trees could make a home for themselves and grow wherever they found themselves, then it seemed I could, too. I needed to photograph the putting down of roots – it was a salve for something in me that needed stability.
Around the same time, I came across this broken down pine tree. It’s not a good picture, but I identified with this tree – I felt broken, battered by circumstances, unbalanced, worn and tired, isolated, but still standing, still alive, still growing. Looking at it now brings back vivid memories of those feelings.
More recently I’ve been obsessed with the intricate tracery of tree branches against the sky. I thought at first it was only because it was winter and there wasn’t a great deal else to photograph, but once spring came along and the leaves appeared I didn’t feel the same urge to take tree photos any more. It’s not so obvious what meaning these have for me, but I think it’s something to do with patterns and choices – eg, the branching pattern representing choices in life – and also something to do with reaching out. But there’s also a darkness – a heaviness – about these trees that reflects the darkness inside caused by being yet again in a situation where we don’t know what will happen but we know it’s not looking good. We’re a little more stable this time because we have a house of our own and have put down some metaphorical roots, but we’re having a financial winter that makes it difficult to believe that we’ll flourish once again, and the trees reflect that.
In the shot above, the two birds symbolise to me how we’re feeling right now – side by side on barren branches, hoping we’ll survive to see the spring arrive once again. Many of the trees in other images seem to be reaching upwards towards something better, as in this one where the tree reaches for a brighter, lighter, happier space.
My tree photographs before all of this happened were quite different. They were much lighter, less serious, more concerned with greenness and flourishing, and they often involved spring blossom and dappled sunlight. I was in a more optimistic place at that time. Trees were simply something to enjoy, to breathe under, to dream beneath. I’d go for walks in the wood, and lie on my back on a wooden bench set right in its centre, looking up through the branches to the sky and letting my mind drift away, “annihilating all that’s made, to a green thought in a green shade”, to quote Marvell.
The photographs we take are all self-portraits of a sort. One on its own may not say a lot, but looking at our images – perhaps of the same subject matter – over a period of time and linking it to what was going on in our lives at that point, can be an enlightening exercise.
Very soon I’ll be posting one tree photograph a week for a year, and it will be called 52 Trees. Although I still have a few Miksang Monday posts lined up, it will take the place of these eventually although I’ll be posting it on a Wednesday instead. The plan is to take a new photograph each week, but I know myself well enough to know that this might not always happen. If it doesn’t, then I’ll pull out something from my archives for that week instead. But really, I want to spend some time over the next year exploring trees photographically and seeing where it takes me.
This is a very personal selection which won’t reflect everyone’s tastes. Everyone on the 200+ list is worth looking at and many of the photographers not featured here are masters of their craft. I had to sift through them somehow, however, so I dismissed most of the more traditional approaches to photography because they don’t interest me greatly, although I did include a small number that I felt really stood out. I also left out all the nature photographers because, although I love watching wildlife, I don’t particularly enjoy photographs of it. On the whole, I was looking for something different and something with a very individual voice – images with which I felt I’d like to spend some time. Over the next weeks I’ll link to a small number of photographers each time and hope you’ll enjoy following the links and having a look round.
Ruth Fairbrother – Ruth’s images have a very light, soft quality about them. There are quite a number of more traditional images here, but mixed in with many that move towards the abstract. I particularly liked the Sylvania Trees and Hebridean Abstract galleries.
Caroline Fraser – I’ve been a fan of Caroline’s photography for quite a while now. The gallery that made me fall in love with it is called Light on Water, but I love all her work – she has a very distinctive and unusual style.
Charlotte Gibb – A mix of intimate landscape shots and grander views. Many of them are characterised by a misty, diffused light that creates a glow that seems to emanate from the landscape itself.
“Conventional photos get most of their meaning from whatever objects are in them. Here is a child, here a sky, there a wall, a tree. The photographer hasn’t really dealt with the content and the experience is brief. What you see is what you get, and usually it’s not much.”
Sean Kearnan, Looking into the Light
It’s a strange fact of life that, as your photography improves in terms of its artistic worth, you’re likely to get fewer and fewer likes on Flickr or Facebook or whatever social media platform you use. This is because the visually uneducated eye (ie, the average viewer) responds most strongly to the content of the image, and the more spectacular, awe-inspiring, cute or funny that content is, the easier it is to have a clearly defined and immediate reaction to it.
But, to paraphrase Sean Kernan, all you see is all that you get and it’s mostly surface glitter. It’s human nature to stop and look at anything that’s beautiful, striking, or unusual, and the majority of these photos are simply making a record of those things. The best of them show large amounts of technical skill, which is to be respected, and which certainly adds to the experience. There’s definitely a place for this kind of photography – it’s very accessible and gives a great deal of pleasure to many folk.
One of the problems it gives rise to, though, is that people erroneously think that they must have spectacular subject matter to make a spectacular photograph. They bemoan the fact that they live in an ordinary area that houses ordinary things and they go on exotic photography holidays in order to be exposed to the stuff of ‘great’ photos.
Take a look through the small ads in the back of any photography magazine and you’ll see photography workshop destinations like Iceland or Namibia or Provence. You won’t see Bradford or Milton Keynes or Grimsby or Paisley, and yet all of these places are perfectly capable of yielding huge amounts of inspirational material for photographs, as is almost any place you care to mention – even your own backyard.
In fact, if you want to learn to be a better photographer, then you’re far better off in one of these ‘ordinary’ places than you would be in Iceland (for example). At the beginning of my photography career I was lucky enough to spend time in Iceland, a spectacular place if ever there was one. I like a lot of the photos I took there, and they’d certainly do very well in a tourist brochure, but they’re not at all what I would take now because I’ve grown as a photographer since then. If I were to revisit I’m not sure what my photos would be like, but I know they’d be very different and I know that that’s because of all the images of ordinary things that I’ve produced in the years since then.
It’s very difficult to ‘see’ properly when you’re blinded by the awe-inspiringly beautiful. The place to learn to see is the boring place, the ordinary one, the one that makes you feel a bit fed up and has you wishing you lived somewhere different. If you can’t make an interesting photo in one of these places, you’ll never get beyond the tourist shots when you go somewhere more appealing. You’ll continue to rely on the subject matter of your images to give impact, at the expense of a deeper level of seeing and understanding.
I’m as guilty as anyone of wanting to go somewhere lovely to do some photography. I get it, I really do. But I know that any ability I have to see beyond surfaces has come about from being bored by what I’m looking at. Boredom is your friend when it comes to photography, and if you let it, it will open your eyes. If you bore your left hemisphere for long enough, it switches off and allows the right one to take charge, and it’s the right one that will find the spectacular in the ordinary. The left hemisphere is easy to bore, the right one doesn’t understand the concept.
‘When you pay attention to boredom, it gets unbelievably interesting.’ Jon Kabat-Zinn
‘Boredom always precedes a period of great creativity.’ Robert M Pirsig
Once you start to look at the ordinary with new eyes, it becomes quite extraordinary. Just about everyone remembers or knows of the scene in American Beauty of a plastic bag being randomly blown around in the wind. It’s like watching a hypnotic and very beautiful dance. If you’d like to be reminded, here it is:
Why is this scene so memorable? – I think it’s because most of us would never have noticed and would have walked straight on by, because, surely, some rubbish blowing around on the pavement is boring. But boredom is usually a failure of curiosity and attention – pay enough attention, cultivate curiosity, and you’ll never be bored.
Despite knowing this, I still get bored sometimes when I go out to photograph, and some of those times never lead to anything more than that. But when I allow myself to open up to the possibilities, something good almost always emerges. The photograph at the top of the post is of oil spilled in a ditch and eventually led to a whole series of images created from a polluted ditch in an uninspiring place. I’ll leave you with a few more photos of ‘boring’ things in ‘boring’ places – I’ve tried to choose images from some of the most unpromising places I’ve ever been. I doubt any of them would get a ‘wow!’ on Flickr, but they do demonstrate that you can make a decent picture out of almost anything.
My version of the beauty of the plastic bag – part of a torn plastic carrier bag floating in a murky boating pond. A little bit of cropping and processing turned it into something resembling a delicate sea creature.
A whole class of photography students walked right by this red puddle. I was left behind, jumping up and down and yelling ‘look!’ It still fills me with questions – what made it so red? why was this paving slab missing? why didn’t anyone else notice it? I could have done something better than this with it given time, but I had to catch up…….
A dull day in Rye harbour, but these pieces of rope, built up over years and years of boats being tied to a mooring post, caught my eye. The images work on their own, but they work even better as a set.
And this little arrangement was next to a dead pigeon underneath a park bench:
Taken in a Thai restaurant, while waiting for our meal to arrive:
Another restaurant, this time a Pizza Express, some red bus motion blur through the window, and a mirror reflection next to it.
Even grass can be interesting if you get down low and create a background out of a red-leaved shrub:
And finally, a dull wet day, a car park, and an autumn tree seen through a rainy windscreen:
This week I’ve been inspired by Kim Manley Ort’s post, A Visual CV, to have a go myself. There are ten questions, to be answered visually, without words.
I’ve found it surprisingly difficult. The same image could have answered several different questions, and some of them don’t quite capture what I wanted to show. With others I felt I’d like to use more than one image to say what I want to say, and then there were all the ones I wanted to use but couldn’t. But I may be over-thinking it – probably the best way is to make quick decisions and let intuition decide. Taken as a whole, I think these probably represent me quite well.
If you feel like having a go yourself, leave a link to your own post in the comments.
Blossom through the bathroom window – one morning’s discovery
You might know that I’ve been doing the 12 x 12 photo challenges for the last couple of months. I’ve completed two of them, and the third is coming to an end now and, after a bit of thought, I’ve decided not to do this one. Before I go into why, let me give you a bit of background. The third challenge goes like this:
Build something with the intention of photographing it. After you have photographed it disassemble whatever it is that you created.
— Dan Winters
Dan adds…“Create whatever type of object that you want. It could be as ambitious as a house or as simple as a house of cards. The photographs will be the evidence of your efforts.”
My mind began busying itself with the possibilities, and there were many of them. I wasn’t short of ideas. My first thought was something along the lines of Andy Goldsworthy’s work – for those of you not familiar with him, he creates wonderful structures, usually in wild places, made out of natural materials like brightly coloured flowers, icicles, leaves, mud, pinecones, snow, stone, twigs, and thorns. He photographs them, and then they’re left to decay, melt, be blown apart, or drift away. His work is transient, and very lovely.
I had plenty of other ideas as well, from building something from coloured ice cubes and watching it melt, to making a drawing with watercolour pencils and then spraying it with water to dissolve it, to building a sandcastle and watching the sea take it away.
After a while, though, I felt a definite lack of enthusiasm when it came to making any of these projects actually happen. And then I began to think about why that was. Here it is: I’m a discoverer, not a designer. I like to stumble on subjects and allow them to present themselves to me. I’m not so good with creating things from scratch, or with planning, except in a very loose sort of way.
Twyla Tharp, in her book The Creative Habit, talks about the blank page, the empty room, the white canvas, and how every artist of any kind is constantly presented with the daunting challenge of making the first mark or its equivalent. My immediate thought was that photography is possibly the one art where you don’t have to face the blankness unless you choose to. There’s always something there to make a photograph from, and it’s only a question of being open to noticing it.
For me, this has always felt easy. My brand of creativity lies in building on something that’s already there. When I cook, I like to have a recipe to give me a kick start, but the end result will be my own take on the original and is often very different. And I’ve always loved programmes about makeovers, because I delight in the idea of taking something unpromising and doing something wonderful with it.
This is one reason why contemplative photography suits me so well – it simply asks you to be open to what’s there and to see it in a new way. (I do also like to transform what’s there into something different, which is not really part of contemplative photography – but then I treat the contemplative approach like I treat a recipe: take from it whatever I find useful, and play around with the mix.)
There are numbers of photographers who take the opposite approach and go in for meticulous planning. People like Gregory Crewdson, for example, who builds the most elaborate sets and lighting to produce haunting, unnerving tableaus that require a whole film set full of people to produce. And Ori Gerscht – who would have fitted perfectly into this 12 x 12 challenge – who cryo-freezes elaborate flower arrangements, blows them up, and photographs the resulting gorgeous explosions. These photographers are designers, not discoverers, and I really like their work but I’ve got no desire to emulate how they do it.
Twyla Tharp also talks about what she calls our ‘creative DNA’ – a creative style of our own that’s intrinsic to us and comes easily to us. We can work in other ways, and it can be good for us to do that, but our work is never going to be as strong and effective as it will be if it’s aligned with our authentic creative instincts.
For me, the planning involved in coming up with an idea and building it from nothing takes away what I most enjoy about photography. The fun for me lies in discovery and serendipity – it’s like a treasure hunt, where I go out never quite knowing what I’m going to get. I lost my enjoyment of photography once before, when I was in a learning environment that was taking away the aspects of it that gave me pleasure and forcing me to work in ways that didn’t. I don’t want to go there again. Being a designer isn’t for me, and that’s why I’m not doing this month’s challenge.
I’ve been following Joel Meyerowitz’s blog, Once More Around the Sun, for a little while now. He and his wife are spending time living in Europe, at present in Italy, and Meyerowitz is posting one shot a day along with his thoughts about the image and what made him press the shutter.
One of the things I most like about the blog is that the pictures, while always having something of interest about them, aren’t polished and professional, as you might expect. Meyerowitz uses the blog more as a kind of visual diary where he keeps rough notes, rather than somewhere to post finished pieces. I find it rather reassuring to see work from a photographer of his calibre that shows these spontaneous shots rather the technically perfect finished images that we’re more used to seeing.
I’ve long admired Meyerowitz as a photographer, but hadn’t realised till recently how good a writer he is too. In today’s post he talks about coming across a particular scene, ‘gasping’ when he saw it:
……..when I gasp I know I am in the right place, or the right moment. I trust that gasp to be something from my source speaking without words. Words come later, but in the moment there is only the intake of breath that means, Now!
I can relate to this totally. Often I’ll suddenly notice something with a kind of flash of excitement, a gasping if you like, and I know I’m on to something good. Contemplative photography instruction refers to this as the ‘flash of perception’. I understood what this meant when I first came across the phrase, because it’s something I’ve always been aware of myself, but I’ve also wondered if it’s a meaningful way of putting it for people who haven’t yet recognised this as part of their experience.
In The Practice of Contemplative Photography, Andy Karr and Michael Wood identify the qualities of the flash of perception. They say the perception arises suddenly, out of the blue, that it has a shocking quality due to this suddenness, and also because of this it feels disorienting. They go on to say the perception has great clarity and richness, and the experience is joyful, relaxed and liberating. I’d whole-heartedly recommend Karr and Wood’s book if you want to know more about contemplative photography, but I do sometimes think that greater explanation leads to greater confusion and that this is a very simple thing that’s more easily summed up by something as straightforward as a gasp.
As Meyeorwitz says, it’s something wordless coming from somewhere deep inside – the place deep inside that ‘knows’ and doesn’t have to explain why; the part of ourselves where intellect doesn’t get a look in and where words often just confuse the issue. The resulting image may be meaningful to other people or it may not be. It doesn’t matter. What it shows is the way that person saw something, in that moment – the gasp of recognition.
Joel Meyerowitz is a New York street photographer, perhaps best known for his images of Ground Zero. If you’d like to know more about him, here are a few links:
I had several ventures fall through early this year, and one of them was some work for a nationwide photo tuition company. Although initially disappointed, I feel now that it would have been a backwards step for me, as I’m actively trying to move away from the usual ways of teaching photography. The company runs ‘how to use your camera’ courses, plus other courses that are divided into genres like ‘landscape’, ‘portrait’, ‘nature’, ‘lighting’, etc. They’re all very technically based, and the landscape course – to give one example – shows quite fixed ideas about how landscape should be done.
I guess this is what people want, or perhaps they simply don’t know that’s there’s any other way to go about things. I’ve always resisted being categorised photographically, and one of my least favourite questions when I talk to new people is ‘what kind of photographer are you?’. It’s difficult for me to place my work squarely in any one genre so I usually resort to saying I’m a fine art photographer, which leaves them not much the wiser and me feeling somehow inadequate. When this question was put to me by the woman who talked to me about working for her company, I knew we were on different wavelengths.
I was reminded of this problem on reading an editorial in Black and White Photography magazine. Elizabeth Roberts (who edits the magazine) has an architect husband who’s involved in teaching, and who announced one morning that he ‘hated nouns’. On pursuing this further Roberts heard that when he asked his students to design a restaurant, for example, they came up with dull pre-conceived ideas and designs. However, if he asked them to design a space, part of which people might eat in, they were that much more likely to be imaginative and original. Roberts then suggests that the nouns we use in photography, like still-life, landscape, and so on, immediately conjure up a picture for us consisting of our pre-conceived ideas about what these things are.
Let’s take landscape as an example – we usually have an image in our heads of somewhere beautiful or awe-inspiring, with lots of colour and drama, sharp as possible all the way through, some foreground interest, leading lines drawing our eye into the picture, and that rosy golden light you get at dawn or dusk. Mention landscape, and the majority of us think of something we might see on a typical calendar. There’s nothing wrong with this but it’s a very limiting idea of what landscape is, or could be, and not likely to lead to work that stands out in any way.
I thought a lot about this a few years back when I was studying a landscape course. Traditional landscape photography didn’t inspire me – not because of anything lacking in the images (although having seen so many of these now, it takes something exceptional to excite me) but because it’s not a way that I like to work. I like to use a lot of softness and blur in my photos, I like abstracts, I don’t like using a tripod, I’m less into ‘big’ views than I am into close-ups, and I’m unlikely to get up at 4:00am and hike miles over moorland to catch the dawn light. None of this fits with the traditional concept of landscape photography.
I had to navigate my own way through the course, which thankfully turned out to be a lot less prescriptive than the course materials suggested. I looked at a lot of contemporary landscape photography, including a book called Shifting Horizons, on women’s landscape photography. A lot of what I saw left me, shall we say, under-whelmed, but it did open up my eyes to new and interesting approaches. One of the projects in the book was carried out by a woman who collected elastic bands from the pavements she passed along when doing the school run, which she then arranged on photographic paper to make photograms. I have to admit I still have problems thinking of this as landscape photography, but it did have the effect of stretching my mind in a positive way.
Language and words, when used poetically and with imagination, can expand our minds and emotions rather than contract them. However, when used to pin labels on things and sort them into categories, it’s easy for it to limit our thinking and end up trapping us in boxes formed of expectations and preconceptions.
But what if we threw away the rulebook – and the label – and asked ‘what if…..’ What if……landscapes could be blurred and soft? What if……they could be small and intimate? What if……..they were made of multiple exposures? What if…..they could be abstract? Or taken from above? Or urban scenes? Or things lying on the ground? Or telephone wires and sky? As Roberts goes on to say, not every picture taken with ‘what if..’ in mind is going to turn out original or exciting, but the attempt at something not bounded by preconceptions ‘might be the beginning of something – an opening up of ideas and ways of approach.’
I’ve used landscape as an example, but this is equally true of any other kind of photography. The moment we try to fit things into a category and label them, we begin to close down our ideas. The most interesting books, music, films, and photographs are usually the ones that it’s not easy to label – they transcend labels. Those bays in the library labelled ‘family sagas’, ‘crime’ or ‘thriller’ tell the reader that the books on the shelves will hold no surprises, that they can rely on a certain formula to be used in each of them.
Sometimes we want the sweet familiarity of a formulaic approach, just as it feels good now and again to eat junk food for a day – there’s something reassuring and comforting about it. But too much of it gets cloying and doing a bit of home cooking and changing some of the recipe ingredients, or perhaps throwing the recipe away altogether, is a lot more satisfying and exciting.
I still don’t know what kind of photographer I am – one who likes to cook, maybe? Here are a few of my attempts to change the recipe!