Learning to see

mindfully contemplating miksang

Soft wave ICM

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.

Sunlit wave

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..

River wave

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The creative gift of boredom

'Landscape' created from oilspill in ditch

‘Landscape’ created from oilspill in ditch

“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.

Carrier bag floating in pond

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.

Rope, Rye harbour

And this little arrangement was next to a dead pigeon underneath a park bench:

Feather with red leaf

Taken in a Thai restaurant, while waiting for our meal to arrive:

SONY DSC

Another restaurant, this time a Pizza Express, some red bus motion blur through the window, and a mirror reflection next to it.

Red buses reflected

Even grass can be interesting if you get down low and create a background out of a red-leaved shrub:

Grass

And finally, a dull wet day, a car park, and an autumn tree seen through a rainy windscreen:

Autumn tree through rainy windscreen

More on boredom and creativity:

The science behind how boredom benefits creative thought

How being bored and tired can improve your creativity

 

Throwing away the labels

Sunlit streamThe intimate landscape

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!

Chillenden windmillThe blurred landscape

Trees reflected The reflected landscape

MudscapeThe mud-scape

Sunlight and grassesThe down very low landscape

Path through the wheatfieldThe minimal landscape

Poppy field abstractThe abstract landscape

The cloud scapeThe cloudscape

12 x 12 Challenge 01

Bird with telephone wires

I’ve never been terribly on the ball when it comes to doing photo challenges or entering competitions, or otherwise making the effort to put myself out there.  Last year I got interested in the 52 x 52 photo challenge, but the photos had to be taken during the week of the challenge – no archived ones allowed – and I knew I’d never get my act together enough to get something sorted in a week.  I might have managed it once or twice, but I know myself well enough to know that I would never keep it up.  It was a shame, because the challenges were good – well thought out and interesting, rather than just asking for photos on a theme.

This year, however, it’s a 12 x 12 which means that you get a whole month to come up with something, process it, and upload it to the Flickr group.  Now, that I can do – there’s a much bigger chance of it happening, anyway.  You’re allowed to upload up to five images for each challenge, which I also like as I prefer to work in series rather than one-offs.  The challenge was this:

Take a route you’re familiar with but have never photographed along and photograph someone or something every 100 or so steps.
– Vanessa Winship

I’ve never photographed in the street where I lived, so I thought a simple walk round the block would be the way to go, especially as I’d just written a post on that theme a few days ago.  I’d had a few thoughts about what might work, but mostly I wanted to allow whatever presented itself to become my subject.  I also didn’t want to produce random shots, but a small collection that would hang together in some way.

I’m a little obsessed with skies at the moment – I think looking into the sky has become my substitute for gazing out to sea – so I found myself looking up a lot, and every time I did I saw telephone wires. After a while, the gracefulness of the lines began to speak to me.  Initially I took lots of images where the tops of the telephone poles were included, because I thought these looked interesting due to the complex arrangement of lines where they joined the pole, but somehow these didn’t work so well.  I began experimenting with the framing, and decided in the end that very simple arrangements of lines with the sky behind them had a minimalism that was quite effective.  And of course, I had to do one with a tree.

I’m not sure that any one of these images holds enough interest on its own, but I do feel they work well as a set.  I’ve posted them on Flickr, and if you go to the album page you can see them all at once on the page: https://www.flickr.com/photos/gillywalker/sets/72157651234617419/  This was my final selection of five – I took loads more, and I spent longer narrowing them down than I did taking them.

I didn’t use up much time on this at all – I was out walking for maybe half an hour at most – and it was surprisingly enjoyable.  I’m looking forward to seeing what the second challenge is – with a little voice in the back of my head going ‘please don’t let it be portraits’!

 

Sky with converging telephone lines

Sky with telephone lines

Tree with telephone lines

Dramatic sky with telephone lines

The invisible gorilla experiment, and taking your camera for a walk

Have you heard of the Invisible Gorilla experiment? The video below shows six people passing a basketball around, three of them dressed in white shirts and three in black.  The experiment involves watching the video, and counting the number of throws the white-shirted players make.  At one point, a gorilla will walk through the middle of the players and out the other side – it appears on the screen for nine seconds in total.  Do you think you would see it?

I’d heard of this experiment on selective attention years ago, but never had the opportunity to try it.  I naturally thought – like most people do – that there would be no way that I’d miss something like that.  In practice, though, half the people in the experiment never noticed the gorilla at all.  I did, but I almost missed it, not noticing it till it was leaving, and that’s with knowing beforehand what was going to happen.  Had I not known I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have seen it at all.  It’s a great demonstration of the fact that, to a large extent, we only see what we look for.

I read Alexandra Horowitz’s book, On Looking: Eleven walks with expert eyes recently.  It’s a fascinating read.  She recruited a variety of experts in different fields – including her dog (expert in smells) and her toddler (expert on novelty and newness) – and went with them on a walk round the block.  Each of them experienced the block entirely differently, through the filter of whatever their expert area was.  A geologist saw fossils embedded in the stonework of the buildings; a naturalist saw traces left by the city’s wildlife; a typographer noticed font use on lettered signs; a physical therapist noticed how people walked; and so it went on.

On Looking by Alexandra Horowitz

I’m a big fan of going back to the same place time and again to see and photograph whatever there is to see there.  I’d love to have someone point things out to me the way that Horowitz’s experts did, but even without the benefit of having an expert on hand, boredom can be used in a positive way to ensure that you see something different each time if you only open yourself up to looking.

It’s the opening yourself up that’s the difficult part.  It’s easy to dismiss somewhere familiar, or not obviously of interest, and switch off from it altogether, but by cultivating a curious open-mindedness, you’ll begin to see in ways that mean you’ll never find anywhere boring again.  This is the gift you receive if you’re willing to make the effort.  It’s the very opposite of the person who walks down the road, twiddling buttons on their mobile phone, oblivious to what’s around them.

However, it does prompt the question of how to cultivate this open looking, as it’s not so easy to achieve when you’re new to it.  The trick is to use little exercises that guide you in the right direction, and I have a few right here.  Some I’ve used on myself and on others, some I haven’t tried yet.

You can start by looking for a specific thing.  Windows are popular, as are doors, or you could look for a particular colour, but there are many other options.  Here’s a couple that might not occur to you:

Car lights – if you look at the brake lights or headlights of every car you walk past, you’ll see just how different they are from each other.  Some have amazing patterns and colours in them, and if you were to zoom in on them and crop them from the car, composing carefully, you can make wonderful abstracts.  Looked at closely, car lights are incredibly beautiful things!

SONY DSC

Bricks – yes, that’s right.  Start looking at all the brickwork you pass and I guarantee you’ll begin to see extraordinary colours and amazing patterns and textures.  You can extend it to looking at bricks that have paint marks or graffiti or stains on them, or bricks with foliage growing on them, but really, bricks by themselves are surprisingly interesting and varied.

Coloured brickwork

Use your imagination to come up with other things to look for.  Sometimes it’s just a case of allowing things to catch your attention at random, and then waiting for a pattern to emerge, after which you start looking for them deliberately.  This is what launched my Fallen series.  Try looking at things above or below head height – we have a tendency not to do this and we miss huge amounts of interesting things.

But what else could you do with your walk round the block?

Take 50 steps and stop – find a photograph right where you are, without moving from the spot.  You’re allowed to twist, bend down, sit down, reach up, or swivel.  Repeat until you’ve had enough or arrive home again.

Use a random point generator – generate a small number of random points within a small area nearby.  Enter your postcode or place name, choose how many points you want to generate and what distance you want them to radiate from a central point, and click Get Random Points.  When they come up, they’ll show as latitude and longitude, but click on Show on Map to see where they are.  Go to those points and find some interesting photographs.

Change your mental perspective – how would your block look if you were photographing it for a tourist brochure? (if it’s not at all what tourists would come to see, then just think how you’d show it in its best light) Or to highlight deprivation and decay?  Or to document birds and wildlife?  Or to show the activities of dogs and their owners? Or to show the styles of architecture found there?  Perhaps you could create a portrait gallery of residents, or document front gardens.

Choose a word – choose an emotion word, such as ‘joy’, ‘sadness’, ‘hope’, ‘anger’, ‘apathy’, etc, and look for ways of expressing it photographically, using what you see on your walk.

If you like the idea of transforming a familiar walk into a photo project, and would enjoy sharing your experience with others, have a look at this month’s 12 x12 challenge on Flickr.

In the words of the organisers:

12 by 12 is a year-long series of photo-challenges set by renowned photographers. Every month a new challenge is issued and group members are invited to interpret it by submitting their responses on Flickr or Instagram.

The project aims to stretch its members creatively, encouraging experimentation in terms of approach as well as aesthetics. Community is an important aspect of 12 by 12 and the support of the group can be helpful to spur members on throughout the year.

This month’s project, which asks you to ‘take a route you’re familiar with but have never photographed along and photograph someone or something every 100 or so steps‘, runs until 2nd April so if you want to take part you need to get started now!  Even if you don’t want to participate, have a look at the pool of photos on Flickr to see just how varied they are.

The point with these exercises is not so much to end up with some great photos – that’s simply a nice side-effect – but to expand your ability to see what’s around you and interpret it photographically.  Although you’re looking in one particular way, you’ll find that you start seeing the overall potential in what, at first sight, might seem dull and uninteresting.  The image below is of a plastic bag that had blown into our front garden and then been rained on – there’s beauty to be found everywhere.

Plastic bag with raindrops

February blues

Tree reflected in car

Another uninspiring, grey, wet February day, but I just had to go out.  I needed to get out of the house, I needed to take some pictures, and I needed some daylight and fresh air.  To be honest, my mind wasn’t in the right place and I didn’t see much to get me going.  I knew there’d be some coloured reflections in puddles – always a favourite – and there were.  But not much else.  I felt a bit like the statue in the last image, shaking my fist at the greyness of the day.

Colour reflection in puddle

Light, glass and trees

Red puddle

Wet day with statue and lights

Twenty-two shots in ten minutes

Drain

I’ve just held my first photography workshop in this area, in a village called Calverton.  I didn’t do it alone, but with a fellow tutor I’ve met since moving here – I like to teach photography but not photo-processing, and Gill  likes to teach photo-processing but not photography, so we were obviously made to work together.

Our plan for the workshop went seriously awry early in the day. We had billed it as a creative workshop and we wanted to put the emphasis on developing photographic vision rather than the technical side of camera work, following that up by doing a little creative post-processing with the resulting shots.  However it became clear pretty quickly that our students felt they were more in need of help with the technical elements and so I did one of those abrupt about-turns you sometimes have to do when you’re teaching and re-jigged it to suit – in the end, it’s more important to give people what they want than what you (perhaps rather high-handedly) think they should have.  However, I did manage to sneak in one exercise on the ‘seeing’ part of things and that’s what I’m going to talk about here.

I put together a simplified version of a coursework exercise I did early on with OCA.  For my version of it, I made up some cards with various shapes or qualities written on them:

  • squares and rectangles
  • spirals and circles
  • diagonals
  • curves
  • texture
  • colour
  • light

I put the cards face down in a heap in the middle of the table and asked everyone to take two.  If they really didn’t like a card that they’d picked up they were allowed to put it back and take another.  Then they had twenty minutes to go outside and create as many pictures as they could that featured one or more of the qualities on the cards they’d chosen.  I wasn’t at all sure how this would go down, or how people would cope with it, but I was really surprised and pleased with the results.

It wasn’t an easy task, as the immediate area was fairly uninspiring.  It comprised of a small shopping centre with nothing much to recommend it, a car park, and a short stretch of village street.  With only twenty minutes to complete the task, there wasn’t time to wander far or to think much about what to shoot.  Everyone came back with some great shots – in one instance, there was a bit of a problem with camera shake, but the images themselves were good ones and well-seen.  Another student had picked up ‘colour’ and ‘diagonals’ and had decided to concentrate on finding red things that would also fit the ‘diagonal’ brief – ambitious in the time, but she pulled it off.  The final part of the day was for each student to create a photo collage or mosaic out of their shots, and the collection of reds and diagonals worked really well for this.

I’d thought that we might have to give our students some help, but by the time we got outside they’d mostly disappeared and the only person I could see looked quite happy and absorbed in what they were doing.  Since I believe in putting your money where your mouth is, I’d picked up a couple of cards myself, thinking that I might get a chance to give the exercise a go.  I’ve done similar things before, but only over the course of several weeks and I wanted to see how I’d get on finding reasonable shots that fulfilled the brief in ten minutes – all the time that was left by then.

I surprised myself with how much fun I had in that ten minutes, and I got an unexpected number of decent shots.  Some are a lot more interesting than others, of course.  Anyway, here’s what I took in that ten minutes – I’ve left out a very small number of shots that either didn’t work or were just too dull to include.  The following images mostly use diagonals rather than colour as there wasn’t much colour about, and the diagonals range from the obvious to the fairly subtle.  The first image cried out to be converted to black and white, as did the drain at the top of this post and the section of noticeboard below.  The rest worked much better in colour.  In all, I took 22 shots in 10 minutes – in many cases there were several shots of the same thing – and ended up with  a dozen reasonably decent images.  If you’d asked me, I wouldn’t have been sure I could have done that!

Microchipping

Jet trail

Sainsbury's dog

Kerb

Crossed

The Avenue, Calverton

Noticeboard, Calverton

My own favourite of the day is this one; I looked up and saw this pattern of leaves on a rather ugly plastic roof:

Leaves on a roof

I only shot three images that could qualify for ‘colour’. Two are very conventional but quite pretty shots of the wonderful light shining through some dead leaves in the gutter, and the other was the colourful village noticeboard.  I’ve used a section of the same noticeboard above for ‘diagonal’, and in that instance it worked better as a black and white shot as it focused attention on the diagonal shadow.  Here, the diagonal shadow becomes a lesser part of the image and the colour holds most of the impact.

Noticeboard 2, Calverton

Autumn leaves, Calverton

Autumn leaves 2, Calverton

 

 

The beauty of plastic

Asda bag 1

I don’t like plastic. I especially don’t like plastic when it’s been dumped and is classed as litter.  Even so, you just have to see some beauty in the fluid shapes formed by this torn Asda carrier bag, floating in the Marine Lake at West Kirby.  And if you abstract just one tiny piece of it, it has the look of a graceful and exotic jellyfish.

Asda bag 2

And it’s not the first time I’ve found plastic beautiful. When my friend Eileen visited recently, we got a bit lost looking for Gladstone’s Library in Hawarden, and ended up at the (closed) public library instead.  We wandered round the outside before realising our mistake, and spotted these windows.  They had some kind of plastic coating on the inside that was beginning to peel off in interesting shapes.

Hawarden window

Hawarden window 2

This is what I love about photography. Where once I wouldn’t have given these things a second glance, or would simply have been upset about the dumping of non-degradable waste if I had noticed them, these days I’m able to see something wonderful in them as well.  Seems to me I’d do well to transfer that attitude to the rest of my life.

 

How pictures work

I picked up a fascinating little book in a second-hand shop recently. It’s called Picture This: How Pictures Work and it’s by Molly Bang.  Molly is a writer and illustrator of children’s books, but one day she realised she didn’t have any great understanding of what makes a picture work.  She decided to experiment using simple geometric shapes cut out of craft paper, to see how these could be used to evoke emotion through their arrangement and colour.

She was working with young children at the time and she did an exercise with them where she cut paper in four different colours – red, black, pale purple, and white – into shapes to create an illustration for Litte Red Riding Hood.  She got the children to give her directions about what made the picture more or less scary – the kids weren’t too enthusiastic (they wanted to make pictures that looked real) but as she went on to try this exercise with a range of children of all ages and with adults too, she found that there were fundamental principles of design that gave an emotional charge to certain arrangements of shapes on the page.  In this book she takes us through the process of decision-making that leads to the most effective illustration of the Red Riding Hood story and then pulls out the principles at work behind them.

So, for instance, she starts with trees like these one, made out of triangles (the slight shading to the right of all of these images is a result of the scanning process):

but then changes them to this (Little Red Riding Hood is represented by the red triangle):

Using tall rectangles that disappear off the edge of the page makes us feel that the trees are very tall and overbearing, giving a better sense of being in a threatening space.  Placing some rectangles higher in the frame and making them narrower gives a feeling of depth to the image as the trees appear to recede.  But upright trees are too static and reliable, which is at odds with the tension of the story, so to increase the feeling of tension she introduces some trees that lean and look as if they could fall on Red Riding Hood.  Placing her inside the triangle formed by two trees also makes it look as if she’s trapped, even though we know rationally that she is situated further into the distance than this.  She’s also been made smaller, to increase the sense of her vulnerability.

The book continues in this vein but this should be enough to give you the idea. Although the basic principles are all things we intuitively feel, it’s less usual for us to have a conscious understanding of why we feel as we do.  I can see that having an awareness of these principles could be very useful in photography, perhaps a little less so for spontaneous shots, but definitely so for those that are planned ahead.  It also offers a way of assessing photos we’ve already taken, to understand why they work or don’t work. It’s a very thin and deceptively simple book that actually delivers rather a lot.

The final, finished image, with the wolf in it, looks like this:

The key elements here are the trees as described before, the largeness of the wolf in relation to the smallness of Red Riding Hood, the red eyes, the lolling red tongue, the sharp white pointed teeth, and the lilac background that gives the feeling of it being night, or at least ominously dark.

I thought it would be interesting to look on Amazon to see what existing book covers are like, and to see if they use similar means to get an effective illustration.  I found the books fell roughly into two camps – the modern versions, mainly designed for very young children, had played down the scariness of the story, sometimes to a ridiculous extent.  The wolf in the illustration below looks more like a big friendly dog than anything Red Riding Hood would want to run from:

Of course, this book is aimed at really young children who could end up having nightmares if things got too frightening.  There are lots of variations available on the basic story, some of them telling it from the wolf’s perspective, some turning it into something funny, and some that are adult stories based on the original.  You’d expect the covers to be quite different for each of  these, and they are.  Despite the fact that we consider fairy tales to be for young children, the original stories were often grisly and frightening.  It’s been argued – by Bruno Bettelheim for one – that fairy stories help the child make sense of the world and cope with its own fears and baffling emotions, and that they have to deal with frightening and confusing scenarios to do this.  Modern versions frequently take a Disney-esque approach that changes them into something they were never meant to be and removes a lot of their power.

However, some of the covers, even though still aimed at children, stay more true to the original intent of the fairy tale, and go for a scary, threatening feeling even where some ‘cuteness’ is still in evidence.  In these covers we can see quite a number of the features of Molly Bang’s geometric shape image.  This one has the trees disappearing off the top edge of the frame, some trees that lean, and the wolf hiding behind the trees, but I think it loses effectiveness because the wolf is quite small relative to the girl and actually not very noticeable.

Here’s another cover that contains a lot of the elements in Molly Bang’s image, but the wolf looks a tad too friendly to be really threatening, and Red Riding Hood doesn’t look particularly alarmed or concerned either.  It looks more like a happy game of hide and seek than a scary story.

In both the above images, however, Red Riding Hood is facing the viewer. If we were to see her from the back, it would give a much greater feeling of threat – as if we’re sneaking up behind her, like the wolf is.  Molly Bang uses a red triangle to denote Red Riding Hood so we don’t know for sure which way round she is, but for some reason I assumed we were seeing her from the back.  Despite trawling through pages of book thumbnails, I could only find one cover that shows her from behind and it belongs to a book that tells the story from the wolf’s point of view.  The wolf in this version is a decent sort, but imagine this cover if he had a hungry and predatory expression on his face.

Of the traditional versions of the story, I managed to find a couple that take a side-on view. This is one of them, and the change of viewpoint plus the fact that the wolf is made significantly bigger, delivers geater impact in terms of scariness than the ones where Red Riding Hood faces us.  However, the colours are very gentle and pretty, and the trees rather manicured and orderly, and this works to tone down the frightening aspects of the story.

The next one omits the setting of the woods, but is probably one of the scariest images on offer. Many of the wolf’s features – open jaws, sharp white teeth – are similar to those used in Molly Bang’s image.  The dominance of the colour red also imparts a feeling of danger, with its associations of blood, and the positioning of the wolf above the girl also helps.

One of the covers I like best, and find most effective, takes quite a different approach. In the following cover, all we have is an area of scribbled red, with a tiny Red Riding Hood running towards the corner edge of the image.  I tend to like simplicity, so perhaps that’s why this appeals so much, but that scribble of red says a lot about danger to me, hanging over Red Riding Hood like a threatening storm cloud, with her tiny figure running for safety.

Finally, this image forms the cover of an adult take on the original fairy story. Again we have the tall trees disappearing off the top of the frame, with some leaning in threateningly towards Red Riding Hood.  No wolf in this one, but look at the spiky branches sticking out from the trees – don’t they remind you of sharp teeth?

I got a lot more swept up in these comparisons than I thought I would, and it struck me what a good way it is of figuring out what works and what doesn’t in an image, and why.  You could take any book of which there are a number of versions or editions and do something similar.  I think there’s a lot to be learned from this that could be incorporated into our photographs.  It was fascinating to see the same elements occurring again and again, but also to find covers like the red scribble one above that are quite different in concept.  I wonder how minimalist you could get with this – what’s the least amount of information needed to get the emotion and, to a lesser extent the storyline, across?

 

To the lighthouse – photographing cliches

Talacre Lighthouse

There’s a wonderful beach at Talacre, in North Wales. Unfortunately it’s somewhat spoiled by the tacky caravan sites that line its edges for miles, but it’s big and beautiful enough to survive this.  At this time of year, there aren’t many holidaymakers and most people are there to walk and enjoy the open expanses.  One of the most photographed landmarks on this stretch of coast is the old lighthouse and the kind of shots you see are pretty similar to the one above (of course, many are lots better than this one, but all quite similar – interesting sky/sunset/sunrise, open stretch of beach, romantic lighthouse, etc).  I’ve been pondering the problem of photographing cliches for the past few years and have a few thoughts that I’d like to share with you here.

-It’s all been done before (but not by you). Of course it’s all been done before – there really isn’t anything new under the sun and no matter how original you think you are, somebody somewhere will be doing something similar.  This is especially true if you’re photographing something that’s hugely popular, whether because it’s a well-known landmark or just a popular subject, like flowers.  But the point is, you haven’t done it yet and you probably need to if only to get it out of your system.  Even if your image is no different or better than a million others, it was you who took it and you who have the experience and memory of being there.  It may not mean much to anyone else, but it has meaning for you and that really is enough to justify it (not that you should have to). And more importantly, if we weren’t allowed to do anything that’s been done before, we wouldn’t be able to do anything much at all.

-It’s been done before but you might be able to bring something new to the party. Two people can take the same shot, but it will be different – you’ll never take exactly the same shot as someone else even if you try.  There are instances where you might come close – one of these happened when I took a shot of an old window in Italy, and then came across someone online who’d taken the – almost – identical shot.  We used pretty much identical composition and framing, but her shot had more leaves on the vine surrounding the window and my shot had more interesting lighting.  The same, but not the same.  As it turned out – we’re now friends – we think and see very similarly.  But this is quite unusual – most of the time, if you put six photographers in front of the same scene, you’ll get six very different images.  The extent of these differences tends to reflect the extent of the group’s creativity, so in a group of beginners there’s likely to be more homogeneity than in a group of experienced photographers. But I’ve taught enough beginners to have seen that even people starting out will produce very different interpretations of the same subject matter.  You do have something to bring to the party.

– You usually need to do the cliched shots before you can hope for anything better. Only a tiny number of us can jump straight to being inventive and creative, and I expect even these people reject a lot of their early attempts.  Just as a writer wouldn’t expect to get a finished piece of work down at first go, and would write a rough draft that gets more and more refined with each edit, our first shots are likely to be ordinary and uninteresting.  Keep going, though, keep shooting, and eventually you’ll leave the obvious behind.  What happens is that you run out of ideas quite quickly and then you have to let something else take over.  The ‘something else’ is what’s going to give you what you want – boredom often leads to creativity.

– When it comes to cliches for subjects, there are basically two ways of tackling things. Once you’ve got the obvious shots out of the way, the first – and what usually feels like the easiest – is to look for something unusual or interesting or different.  The photos that follow are like this.  The strange cyberman-like figure on the lighthouse balcony was an obvious choice.  It leads to an image that’s interesting because it shows something unusual, rather than because of any particular cleverness on the photographer’s part.  It’s the content that makes this work.

Metallic man, Talacre Lighthouse

The next few are similar.  A number of roses had been carefully placed around the concrete base of the lighthouse, and there was a rose at each side of the door – one red, one yellow – flanking a small glittery candle.  Some kind of ritual or ceremony?  I don’t know, but it was intriguing.  Again, any interest these images have is because of the unusual juxtaposition of roses and lighthouse and doesn’t have a lot to do with the photographer.

Yellow roses, Talacre Lighthouse

Yellow rose, Talacre Lighthouse

Looking back down the lighthouse steps towards the beach produces a reasonably interesting shot because of its unusual angle and the contrast of the seaweed covered rocks with the sand surrounding it, but it’s without depth or emotion.  There’s not much I can get excited about in this shot.

Steps, Talacre Lighthouse

This one, I feel, is slightly better and has more of me in it.  I liked the way both the lighthouse and the post act as signs and echo each other.

Signpost, Talacre beach

– The second approach is less easy. You let yourself be guided by what draws you and what inspires you, regardless of whether it’s a new idea or not.  The hope is that something a little different will come out of it, but if it doesn’t you at least have the compensation of having had a great time taking the shots.  What immediately grabbed me when we walked onto the beach were the reflections in the seawater pools.  What I really liked was the ambiguity of the crystal clear lighthouse reflections mixed with the sand ripples and pebbles in the pool.  These are the shots that make me happy regardless of what anyone else thinks about them.  These are the shots that I got so excited about I couldn’t be pulled away. I don’t think they’re all that original – puddle reflections are a cliche in themselves – but it seems to me that they have something of ‘me’ in them that the other shots don’t, and that’s a result.

Reflection 1, Talacre Lighthouse

Reflection 3, Talacre Lighthouse

Reflection 2, Talacre Lighthouse