OCA

Studying photography: part two – what worked

St Dunstans Church, City of London

I got rather gloomy after writing the last post.  I’d forgotten how conflicted I was about studying degree level photography, how it felt so constraining, and how I constantly had the sensation of being torn in two different directions – what I wanted to do, and what I felt I had to do.  What really prompted me to write about this at all, however, was that I’ve since realised  that doing these courses also had many positive effects, some of them long-term.  What follows is a summary of the main ones.

A structure to work within – when I started studying I was doing what most people do when they’re new to photography and wildly excited about it: taking random shots of everything and anything that caught my eye without making any kind of sustained progress.  It was good to have interesting assignments that made me think harder about what I was doing and what I wanted to achieve.  I can create my own structure now, but I wouldn’t have known how to at the time or had the discipline to stick with it without some external promptings. The assignments were interesting and challenging and allowed a lot of scope for personal interpretation, and most of the courses were well-written, thoughtfully put together, and stimulating.

Encouragement to work in themes – working in series, or themes, was new to me when I started.  I came to realise quite quickly that it’s much more fulfilling to work this way and it produces a more coherent, thoughtful body of work than the one-shot wonders I’d been producing.  I still take one-off shots of things that catch my eye, and I enjoy that, but what I really love to do is to explore something thoroughly, seeing more and more of its nuances and depths.  Working on projects like this has moved my photography forward in a way that nothing else has, and has made it much more worthwhile and satisfying.  This is one of the best things I got from the experience.

Window, St Dunstans Church, City of London

Background knowledge – I learned a lot about the contemporary and historical photography world, and a little about photographic/art theory.  I don’t think I would done so much of this on my own.  It’s given me a good foundation from which to discuss photography and photographers, and it’s knowledge I take pleasure in having.  It makes viewing exhibitions much more meaningful and enjoyable, too.

A more open mind – I had to look at the work of photographers that I would have otherwise avoided.  While not particularly pleasurable, this was really good for me and made me work to understand what was behind the images and what made them notable.  Over time I came to appreciate photography that I would previously have dismissed.  I learned to spend longer looking and avoid the knee-jerk ‘like/don’t like’ reaction I might have had before.

A supportive community of other students – this was a huge advantage, which I found far more valuable than anything else.  I made a number of good friends, many of whom I’m still in touch with, and a few whom I meet up with face to face.  I knew that I could get considered and thoughtful feedback from peers any time I wanted it, and I received immense support and encouragement from other students, particularly during a time when it was singularly lacking from official OCA sources.

Study visits – latterly, OCA began to hold study visits to significant exhibitions.  These offered more opportunities to meet and talk to other students, and hear tutors talk about the work we were viewing, giving us additional insight into it.  I also went on a residential weekend, which was arranged by the students themselves (in conjunction with OCA), and that was an amazing  and thoroughly enjoyable experience.

It included the opportunity to bring some work and have it critiqued by both a tutor and a group of students.  I was apprehensive about this to begin with, but having a variety of people contribute their thoughts resulted in a more rounded feedback that was less open to the bias one person might show.  It also increased my confidence to have another tutor say some very positive things about my work – I’d accepted by this time that I was never going to do very well within OCA, so this gave me a bit of a boost.  Of course, it could equally well have gone the other way……….

Reflection, St Dunstans Church, City of London

Greater self-awareness – one good thing about identifying what you don’t want is that it points the way to what you do want.  All the angst I went through at times had the effect of throwing some light on what it was I most wanted from photography.  It made me question myself, in a good way.

Increased self-confidence – this may seem unlikely given what I said in my previous post, but it’s a matter of  ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’.  I certainly lost a lot of confidence while I was doing the courses, but ultimately I realised that if I wanted to continue doing photography I couldn’t place too much importance on what any one tutor – or anyone else for that matter – said to me about my work.  I once had the same assignment marked by two different tutors and, although the overall mark was similar, the individual feedback on each image was markedly different.  Assessing any kind of art is unavoidably subjective and I stopped taking any of it very seriously – good or bad.  Of course, I then asked myself if there was a point to doing the course at all and I came to the conclusion that there wasn’t.  By that time, I had structures in place that gave me the other things I’d gained from studying, and if all that was left was course material, assignments and tutor feedback then it wasn’t enough to justify the costs involved in carrying on (both financial and emotional).

Were I to go back to degree study again, I’m sure all the old feelings of inadequacy would resurface – I was always a square peg trying to fit myself into a round hole and that makes it very difficult to hold on to confidence in your work.  But now I’m beginning to feel I’ve found my niche and my voice, and that I’ve made a solid foundation from which to move forward.  In a strange, and often indirect way, studying brought me to this place.

Arch with climbers, St Dunstan Church, City of London

At first, once I’d removed myself from the college I felt a little bit lost for a while, unsure of what I wanted to do or what I was aiming for.  Slowly I returned to the approach I had when I first started, albeit augmented by the positive things I’d taken from my period of study.  When I came across contemplative photography I realised that this is how I naturally work and suddenly I felt as if I’d come home.  College work was supposed to involve a lot of planning and research before you even got the camera out, and although I did go about things this way sometimes, it never felt right and never produced my best work.  At other times, I went back to working in a way that felt natural to me and added in the ‘planning’ and research afterwards to keep everybody happy.

And that was the real problem – when you do something with the end in mind, whether that’s a certificate, good marks, approval from peers/tutors, or whatever, there’s a real danger that you lose your way.  Some people are strong-minded enough to avoid this – I’m not always one of them.  To be truly creative you have to spend time in play, and feel free to make mistakes, and this wasn’t a culture where mistakes were well-received.  I became less and less adventurous and played it more and more safe.  And as I did, my marks got lower and lower, which in turn made me lose confidence, and the whole thing went spiralling downwards.  Looking back at some of the work I did for assignments, I can see that while it was perfectly OK, a lot of it didn’t reflect or express who I was.  I’m glad to have left it all behind, and grateful for the benefits I’ve brought with me.

Images are of St Dunstan’s Church in London and form part of an early assignment for the Landscape course.  I’ve pulled out the ones that feel most like ‘me’ – the others in the set never did.

 

 

 

So where do I go from here, I wonder?

Horizon, West Kirby

The results of my assessment are in, and they’re not good. I’m too embarrassed to give the mark here, but let’s just say that, while it’s a clear pass, it’s at the low end of average.  The mark is divided into four sections, and under ‘Demonstration of Creativity’ I’ve been given 10 marks out of 25 – in other words, they see me as a definite creative failure.  Obviously I didn’t do too well in any of the others either, but this was the worst, and the biggest disappointment for me, since I believed that during the last year or two I’d made quite a bit of progress creatively.

A couple of years ago this would have devastated me but the one thing I’ve learnt while doing these courses is to shield myself against what anyone in authority says, good or bad.  Where once a good comment from a tutor would have thrilled me, now I shrug my shoulders and think, well, yes………maybe.   It’s obviously nicer to get good comments than bad ones, but I’ve stopped allowing either of them to impact on me.  Whether I’m as detached as this in truth I’m not sure – squashing one feeling down has the result of squashing them all and this might go some way to explaining why I’ve felt so little consistent enthusiasm for photography for quite a while.  I certainly feel very flat at the moment, and a bit lost as to where I go from here.

If I accept the assessor’s opinion that I’m mediocre in the extreme, then I feel little incentive to carry on doing photography in any serious way.  I like to do things well – and I usually succeed in that – and I’m not really prepared to be that bad at something.  But photography has been my passion and is also my way of earning a living, so to give it up would be a huge loss to me.

When I did an Access to Art & Design course many years ago, I was told after a couple of months that I was likely to fail the drawing section of the course.  Since I’d only started drawing at all about three months before I started, I knew very well that I wasn’t much good.  My immediate reaction at that time was ‘what do I have to do to get better?’.  I was told simply to practice as much as possible, and I did just that, with the result that I ended up passing that part of the course with no problems at all.

That hasn’t been my reaction this time. Firstly, I honestly don’t think I’m that bad.  It’s easy to be self-deluding – anyone who’s watched the selection process in The X-Factor will be well aware how many people there are out there who have no idea how bad they are at something for which they think they have a talent.  It’s possible I fall into this group, but I do have a modicum of self-awareness and I don’t think I’m entirely fooling myself.  A more likely explanation is that I simply don’t fit into the parameters of what OCA considers ‘good’ photography.

A while ago, I talked about an article by Tara Sophia Mohr on the whole business of criticism, and I’ll quote a bit now:

Tara’s view is basically this: feedback/criticism doesn’t tell you about you, it tells you about the person giving the feedback. She says that when we seek out feedback, we shouldn’t see it in terms of our own merit or value, but as useful information that tells us whether we are reaching the people we want to reach in the way that we want to reach them (my emphasis). So if you want to win the camera club competition, feedback from the judges can tell you how to do that. Of course, you may not actually want to produce the sort of work that pleases camera club judges, or higher-level education tutors, or someone who likes ‘greeting card’ photography, or the people who buy for IKEA, and in that case feedback from those people is essentially useless to you and means very little, except whether or not you’re not giving them what they value. If you take on board what they say when you don’t actually want to compete in that field, then you’re going to end up becoming discouraged or untrue to yourself. Of course, if you have ambitions in the area in which they’re expert, then it would be sensible to consider their opinions.

So really, this mark is only important if I want to produce the kind of work that pleases OCA assessors and thereby gets me a good result, and I’m not sure I do.  I was never very bothered about getting a degree-level piece of paper out of this, but saw it as a way of being made to stretch myself and give myself a structure to work to.  I’m not great at self-discipline, so having the imposed discipline of  a deadline – albeit a very flexible one – was useful to me.  I’ve enjoyed the contact with other students and the feeling of belonging to a group of people with similar aspirations.  But you know, that feeling of belonging has been dwindling slowly over the last year or two, as I’ve become more and more disenchanted with institutionalised art education and feel myself less and less accepting of the group mentality.

You may be wondering what was in the feedback? They started by saying my assignment was very well presented – the one thing that means nothing since it has little to do with the work itself and is something that anybody can learn to do well.  They also liked my essay a lot, which is making me wonder if I should be putting down my camera and picking up my pen.  The main criticism of my photography seemed to be that I wasn’t showing ‘evidence of a conceptual progression‘.

Ask yourself, why would someone look at these images?  Are you conveying your interest and is it one that is likely to be shared with an audience?  One of the reasons for contextualising your work is that you will gain awareness of how others will perceive it.  We live in a shared culture, images that signify endlessly similar things to us become quickly meaningless, your audience will be very quick to dismiss work that either is not immediately striking or does not contain references or evidence that thought has taken place in the construction of the image.

It raises a number of thoughts, the first being that they’re assuming a certain sort of audience, probably one like themselves, and this is not the only kind of audience there is.  I guess it’s true that if I knew better where my work fitted in with the kind of work they rate highly, then I’d be able to tell how they would perceive it and modify it accordingly.  But do I want to do this?  The crux of the matter is that I’m not too interested in doing the kind of work they appear to value just so I get the mark, and I’d prefer to hold onto my integrity.  Much – although definitely not all – contemporary photography leaves me cold and seems contrived, over-intellectualised, and lacking in aesthetic satisfaction.  This is not ignorance speaking – I’ve looked at many people’s work and opened myself to finding what I could in it.  It might be my age (I’m getting on a bit), it might be that I’m too rigid in my opinions, it might be that I lack understanding. Whatever, in an era when the idea has become vastly more important than the image, I find myself far more interested in the image than I am in the idea and that puts me firmly at odds with the zeitgeist – never a comfortable place to be.

I’m left with some very mixed thoughts and emotions – an inner battle between confidence in my own ability and the fear that perhaps I really am below-average; the acknowledgement  that the assessors may well be right from within their own context, but perhaps wrong from within mine; the immediate impulse to give it all up in disgust and the equally compelling impulse not to let ‘them’ win; the knowledge that photography has become less and less enjoyable for me since I started doing these courses, but also the understanding that I need to keep learning and to be part of something that will stretch me; the hurt and frustration that’s finally beginning to come through as I write this and the feeling of freedom that, were I to stop studying, I’d no longer have to care what ‘they’ think of my work and could avoid the depressing feedback that accompanies every assessment and tells me that my work is nowhere near good enough.

And finally the big question – why am I doing this, and where do I go from here?

 

Influences

Turquoise wave

I’ve been thinking lately about the whole business of being ‘influenced’ by other artists. Researching other photographers and putting our own work into that context is something that we’re supposed to do for our coursework. I’ve always found that a little bit strange – I mostly just do what I do without thinking about who else has done something similar first. Apart from helping us avoid the reinvention of the wheel, I’m not sure what the benefit to us is supposed to be. (And actually, even if we did reinvent the wheel photographically speaking, we’d almost certainly do it in a different way that had our own stamp on it – so it’s still worth doing.)

It might give us some inspiration, perhaps, or supply us with an idea that we could build on, or twist in some way to create something new.  The danger is, though, that it could also push our own ideas into the background or lead us to feel that we might as well not bother as someone else has done it better first.  It’s for these reasons that photographer Cole Thompson practices what he refers to as ‘photographic celibacy’ – he won’t look at anyone else’s work in case he’s influenced too much by it.  It’s a controversial approach and if you want to read what he has to say about it, you can find it in this interview (the bit about photographic abstinence comes right after the sixth image).

There are obviously situations where you have to relate your work to other photographers – for example, the assignment in which I attempted to produce work in the style of Ernst Haas involved a lot of research into Haas and some analysis of his work, followed by an attempt to see the world through his eyes. What struck me most while I was doing this was that the attempt didn’t involve much effort as I was already photographing ‘in the style of’ Haas before I even knew he existed – it’s what I’m drawn to doing anyway. (I’ll hurriedly add that I’m not claiming to be of the same standard – just that I see the world in a very similar way)

I took the picture at the top of this post years and years ago, before I’d even heard of Haas; compare it with After the Storm, by Ernst Haas, here: http://www.gettyimagesgallery.com/picture-library/image.aspx?id=4102 Not identical by any means, but there’s a similarity of approach.

Naturally, one of the reasons I chose Haas as my subject is that I love his photographs and his vision. While there are plenty of other people whose work I enjoy and who have very different ways of relating to the world, I knew it would be much harder for me to come close to working in their style. It might have been more interesting – it certainly would have been more challenging – and a part of me thinks it would have been very good for my learning to choose someone with a very different voice. However, I doubt I could have pulled it off very successfully because I’d have been working against my own style, and it would have been a lot more difficult for me and perhaps frustrating, too.

Oddly though, it’s just possible that if I had chosen someone very different to me, I could have ended up being more influenced by them than I am by someone whose work fits with what I’m doing anyway. Emulating Haas hasn’t made me change anything that I was already doing, but if I’d had to emulate someone very different, it might have given me cause to change some, at least, of what I usually do – and that would have been a very definite influence. Even if it hadn’t, it might have given me a better understanding of why I like to work in the way that I do, and that might have had a beneficial influence in its own way.

If anyone gives a list of their influences, you can always see elements of the work they do in the people they’re influenced by. My guess is that they’d have done work that was much like this anyway, and that their influences haven’t actually influenced them that much, although they may have encouraged or inspired them to continue on the same path (which I concede is also one kind of influence).  What you never see – well I haven’t, anyway – is someone claiming to be influenced by someone whose work is entirely different to theirs.  If you know of any examples, please post a link in the comments!

Desperately seeking the sea

Marine Lake, West Kirby, WirralThe Marine Lake, West Kirby, Wirral

I had all sorts of plans for yesterday, all of them involving sitting at my computer writing, but it was a glorious day out there and I couldn’t resist it.  The weather forecast said we’d be back to rain from today, so I reckoned there’d be plenty of opportunity to get some work done while that was happening.  I really could feel spring in the air yesterday, despite the continuing chilliness, and it lifted my heart.

I’ve had a yearning to spend some time by the sea lately. I’ve never lived anywhere that’s so close to the sea while at the same time having gone so long without actually seeing it.  It’s out there somewhere, but this is a coastline of very flat beaches and shallow water and estuaries, and when the tide’s out it’s really out – you can’t even see where the water is.  I was going to go out for the day whatever, so I didn’t bother checking the tide tables before I went, and of course all I saw when I got to West Kirby was miles of empty sand.

When we first moved here I wondered why they’d built a marine lake at West Kirby – it’s basically a very large, fenced-off piece of sea with a path round it. It seemed perverse to me to make an enclosure for the sea when you could be out in the whole airy expanse of it.  I assumed it must be for safety reasons and that perhaps there were dangerous currents and tides.   Now I totally understand – it’s the only way there is of keeping some water at hand so that people can windsurf or sail, because for most hours of the day that would be impossible otherwise.

The Marine Lake does make for some interesting photo opportunities – it can look almost as if people are walking on water from a distance, as in the picture at the beginning of this post.  It works best when there’s only one or two and it was a busy day for promenaders, and I’ve got some closer shots that show just how many people were having a stroll round it.  Doesn’t look nearly so mysterious from this angle, does it? – who says the camera never lies!

Marine Lake, West Kirby, Wirral

Marine Lake, West Kirby, Wirral

The upside of the tide being out is that I was able – for the first time – to walk out to one of the Hilbre Islands. At low tide these three small islands become accessible to walkers.  I’ve thought about doing this before, but you’re supposed to check when high water is, and then set out at least three hours after it and come back at least three hours before it, with extra time for higher tides and some weather conditons.  All very sensible, but it begins to feel as if it needs a lot of planning and of course that’s not what I did at all.  I couldn’t see the notice board with the tide information on it, although I found it when I got back, and I hadn’t intended to walk out there without knowing what was what, but there were plenty of other people walking to and fro and the sea was nowhere in sight.  I thought I’d just walk a little way.  And then I thought I’d just walk a little bit further.  And then I thought I might as well just go for it, so I did, while keeping a slightly nervous eye out to make sure I wasn’t the only person still left out there.  This is probably how people end up needing to be rescued.

Hilbre Islands, West Kirby, WirralLittle Eye Island, Hilbre Islands, seen faintly in the distance

Walking to Hilbre, West Kirby, WirralWalking towards Little Eye, Hilbre Islands, West Kirby, Wirral

It felt wonderful being out in this huge expanse of sand and sky with the sun – albeit winter-weak – shining dazzlingly over it all.

Beach, West Kirby, Wirral

The smallest of the islands is very small indeed – not much more than a large rock – and there wasn’t a lot to see.  There were quite a few rockpools but not the kind that have much in the way of marine life in them.  I liked the way the sun was shining through the water onto these shells, though.  (And incidentally, the Lensbaby worked surprisingly well here.  I didn’t think it would, but it’s really helped concentrate attention on the central shells.)

Shells

I also liked these sand ripples.

Sand ripples

This is the view looking back from the island towards West Kirby.

View of West Kirby from Little Eye, Hilbre Islands

And finally, on the way back I saw this rather unusual reflection.  It’s actually the houses on the shoreline, but they were still some way off and I still don’t understand why they were reflecting in a puddle this far out.

Reflection, West Kirby

Lensbaby goes to Chester

Clock, Chester

I find myself very lacking in inspiration right now, both in photography and in what to write about – the last one, at least, is unusual for me.  I feel a kind of flatness that I think is a combination of post-assessment deflation and the horrible grey light and brown colours we’re faced with this time of year.  I usually find I hit a low spot with photography around now, so that’s not unexpected, and it’s not so much I can’t think of anything to write about, but more that everything I’d like to write about is far removed from photography and this doesn’t seem like quite the right place.

Next weekend I’m doing some private tuition in London for someone who wants to learn how to use the Lensbaby Composer lens.  For anyone not in the know about this, it’s a kind of bendy lens that gives you a blurred effect with one sharp area in it – you can bend the lens around to move the sharp bit wherever you want to in the image.  That’s the theory anyway – in practice it’s quite hard to get it where you want it, and for anyone who hasn’t come across one of these lenses before, it’s best to bear in mind that ‘sharp’ is a relative term here.

It’s been quite a while since I’ve used mine. Some people reading this will know that I did my first Landscape assignment using this lens, only to be torn apart for it by the tutor I had at the time.  It put me off a bit.  I certainly didn’t feel like chancing it for another assignment, and the whole episode just took the fun out of it for me.  (And it is a fun lens.)  There’s also a bit of me that recognises that some of what my tutor said was undoubtedly right – it is easy to overdo the effect, and it’s easy to rely on it to make something interesting out of something that wouldn’t be, otherwise.  I can see that, and I suppose I was waiting to find some little project that it would be absolutely right for, but that project has never made itself obvious.

Anyway, it was time it had an outing, if only to convince myself that I still remembered how to use it, so when the sun came out yesterday I headed for Chester to give it an airing.  I didn’t get much time in the end – I was late leaving, and then I had to pick up a birthday card for someone, and then there was a gallery I wanted to check out, and then I was hungry so I had to go and get some lunch, and so it was late in the day by the time I managed to get my camera out.  I decided to walk along the City walls, down to the riverside, and see what I could find.

I started with the obvious – the fantastically ornate clock that sits right in the middle of Chester.  Then I went up on to the walls and, looking down from where the clock is, I got this cyclist.  In terms of getting the focus sharp, this was probably my most successful shot of the day.  I need some new glasses and I was really struggling to see whether or not I’d got things in focus – the Lensbaby requires manual focussing at all times, and I’m used to relying on Autofocus.  It was more luck than judgement, but I do like the way the cyclist has come out really clear, with everything around him a soft blur.

Cyclist, Chester

Of course, once I got home I remembered that I should have adjusted the dioptre in my viewfinder to fit my deteriorating eyesight.  This is something you only have to do once, or at least until your eyesight gets worse or you get new glasses or something, and I simply forgot about it.  This morning I did the adjustment and found that it was quite far out, which accounts for why most of my shots are nothing like as sharp as I’d like them to be – well that’s what I’m saying anyway 🙂  Here are some of the more successful ones.

Chester City walls, clockAnother view of the clock, this time from on top of the walls

City walls, ChesterUp on top of Chester’s City Walls

Dog walker, ChesterA dog walker by the riverside, seen looking down from the Walls

Lamppost ChesterAnother view from the Walls

Riverside, ChesterAnd another one…..

Red boat, River Dee, ChesterThe River Dee, from ground level this time

Railings, River Dee, ChesterEvery set of steps leading down to the river has these wonderful curvy railings each side

Water abstract, River Dee, ChesterPlaying now……not sure if the Lensbaby helps or hinders when it comes to this sort of thing, but the colours were too good to resist

Christine, The Groves, ChesterChristine

The last image has a story. I saw this woman standing by one of the benches, lifting her face up to enjoy the sun, and just had to get a shot of her.  Being my usual self-conscious and rather wussy self when it comes to photographing people, I sneaked it rather hastily – it did help that she had her eyes shut.  I moved on, and was further along the riverside fiddling with my lens when someone came up to me and commented on it being a great day for photography.  Of course it was her.  It was sheer coincidence – she hadn’t seen me – and we had a good fifteen minutes of conversation during which we found that we had rather a lot in common.  Her name is Christine, and next week we’re planning to meet for coffee!  Strange how these things happen.

Returning to the Lensbaby, I’ve been doing some thinking about the kind of photography that suits it best.  I think I like it best for people photography, whether that’s portraits or street stuff.  It really focusses attention on the person/people and the surrounding blur is an effective foil.  It’s not the easiest lens to use for street photography, everything having to be done manually and all, but I like the effect a lot.  Where I don’t think it works so well is with abstract photography.  Most of the time, there’s enough ambiguity about what you’re seeing to make the added blur a bit excessive, but I’m sure there are some exceptions to this.

I do love it for macro, although I didn’t do any the other day, because it brings out the most wonderful colours in things.  I also have the zone plate/pinhole attachment for it and I meant to try out the zone plate, but I never got round to that.  I’ve tried it once or twice before and find it very difficult to know what it’s good for.  I bought the attachment for its pinhole capabilities but I’m rather ashamed to say I’ve never used it because it necessarily involves the dreaded tripod.  The zone plate was a new one on me and I hadn’t heard of it before.  Most people haven’t, so if you want to see what it does, follow this link and click Zone Plate on the Optic drop down menu towards the top right – http://lensbaby.co.uk/gallery-photos My Sunday student doesn’t have this attachment, so maybe we’ll spend some time playing with it……..

Less like an ending than just another starting point

Landscape, Port LympneLandscape, Port Lympne

It’s done, it’s packaged up, and from tomorrow I’ll have my life back again – the assessment is in the post and I can get rid of the mess that’s taken over in my study. All that remains is to look back over the course and reflect on what I’ve learned along the way. Here’s what I’ve discovered.

Landscape can be interpreted in any number of ways
One of the most challenging things for me on this course was to find a way through it that didn’t require me to fit into the mould of classic landscape photographer. I don’t tend to enjoy photographing large vistas, and pinpoint sharpness is not my obsession – moreover, despite the course content, the classic approach is not really what the college is looking for.

I did a lot of reading around the subject of landscape, and looked at a lot of non-traditional landscape work, finally realising that it could be interpeted in any number of ways, many of them far from obvious. One book I looked at – Shifting Horizons: Women’s Landscape Photography Now by Wells, Newton & Fehily – had a portfolio in it of elastic bands found in various streets and then used to create photograms. That’s landscape? – it seems so. I figured I could certainly do what I wanted to do and still stay a lot closer to most people’s idea of what landscape covers. That was a huge relief, and I’ve pretty much followed my own instincts and passions.

I need to start doing my own printing
My existing printer isn’t up to the job of doing decent photographic prints, and so I get my prints done through online printing services. I’ve always known there would come a time when I’d feel the need to start printing myself, but I didn’t realise it would happen right in the middle of getting my final assessment prints done.

Until now I’ve used Photobox and despite having an uncalibrated screen, their prints matched up pretty well with how they look on my own computer……..until now. The batch I just got back from them were appalling by any standards. Most of them were so soft that they were totally unusable, and the rest had strong colour casts. A friend had also just received a batch of prints from them and hers were very badly done too, with a lurid yellow-orange cast to them. I think this is where Photobox and I part company for ever.

I ended up having to have them redone by a more professional printing lab, and that then involved learning how to do things like add ICC profiles and so on. Because my screen isn’t calibrated I had to guess at colours and brightness levels and it was all a major stress – I had to have some prints done more than once before I got them right. I know now that I must get a decent printer and a calibrator for my monitor and start doing my own – a learning curve, yes, but in the long run it will be much easier. I’ve put it off for too long.

I’ve gained the impetus to continue with my own projects
One of the reasons I like to do these courses is that they give me a structure to work to and force me to persevere with small projects. As I’ve worked through this course I’ve found that, more and more, I’m coming up with little projects of my own without the motivation having to come from an external source. The last time I finished a course I had a gap of a few months before I started the next one, and I found that I drifted a bit and lost focus (no pun intended). This time I feel as if I have the momentum to keep going. There are a number of things I’d like to explore and even without the course structure in place, I think I’ll be working on some of these. Writing this blog has helped a lot to keep me motivated.

I’m not sure that academic photography is for me
More and more, I’m feeling as if I’m in the wrong place. On a study visit yesterday I got a bit fed up with the endless discussions of photographic theory and history, and the emphasis on the conceptual idea. ‘If I’d wanted to study philosophy’, I found myself thinking, ‘then I’d have done a degree in that. But wait………I already did!’.

I took up photography as a way of getting out of my head, where I spend far too much time as it is. I wanted something that would allow me to be more spontaneous, intuitive, and creative. I had the rather naive idea that a fine arts degree would be more focussed on these things than, say, a philosophy degree – how wrong can you be? There’s a real danger, when it’s studied in this way, that you end up doing more thinking about it and reading about it than you spend actually taking photographs. And that’s not the point for me. It’s not that I’m not interested in the theory and so on – I find a lot of it very intellectually stimulating – but it’s not where I want my focus to be. I need to do more and think less.

I expect I’ll go on to do another course, but it will be a decision born of a lack of alternatives. There just isn’t anything out there that satisfies my needs course-wise. All the other photography courses I’ve seen are either technically based rather than art based, or are too low-level. I want something that challenges me and stretches me over a longish period of time, and at the moment this is all there is.

One of my options could be to change from being registered for a degree to studying the courses as leisure interest, which would give me more freedom to use the courses for my own ends. I’ve got a few reservations about this. I wonder if the tutors give as much attention or thought to their feedback if they know you’re not aiming for the full Monty? And I wouldn’t be allowed to have my work assessed if I’m not formally studying (the way I’m feeling at the moment that seems like quite an advantage, but if I’m going to do the work then it would be nice to get some recognition for it).

And last – but very definitely not least – I have protected fee status right now, which means that I’m spared the enormous hike in price that the courses have been subject to recently. The saving is huge, and I don’t think I’d be eligible for it unless I was studying as part of a degree. I need to check this out, but this will probably be the deciding factor that keeps me enrolled on the degree path.

To sum up
There was a whole year when I didn’t think I’d continue with this course, but I’m glad I did. It’s turned out to be a really valuable learning experience, though perhaps not in the manner in which it was intended. I feel that I’ve come much closer to finding my own voice and developing my own style and that my photography has moved on considerably since I started it. I’m relieved to have it over and done with but, to quote Chuck Palahniuk, ‘The feeling is less like an ending than just another starting point.‘  What’s next, I wonder?

 

Learning log blues

Swimming for the sky

Reaching for the sky – reflection in fish pond, Cambridge Botanical Gardens

I have very mixed emotions about the whole concept of educating people in art, and they’re escaping like worms from a can as I try to get my course assessment material together.  My biggest bone of contention is the learning log.  This, they’re quick to tell us, is for our own development and we should create it in a way that works for us.  So far, so good, but then they give us a 14-page A4 booklet telling us how to do it properly.  Mixed messages or what?

The logbook is part of the assessment, and as such, it gets a mark. If they were telling the truth about it being purely for our own benefit, they might want to see it, but they wouldn’t mark it.  Because as we all know, if you mark something you must have certain criteria that have to met in order to be able to give that thing an appropriate mark.  So that means there are certain things they expect to see in it, and certain ways in which you’re supposed to write about things, and if doing it that way doesn’t suit you, then you’ll get marked down.  Mmmm…..it’s for us, is it?

There are three questions, they say, that we should ask ourselves:

  • am I being honest with myself?
  • is this a useful process for me?
  • is this helping my own process of learning?

If the answers to these questions are ‘yes’, then ‘your learning log is right for you’, it says.  I think these are good questions, and I can answer each of them with a clear ‘yes’.  But I’m worried, because then it goes on to tell us about things we ‘must’ include in our logbook.

Of course you know where this is going. I’ve used this blog to explore my thoughts on my course and photography in general.  I think I’ve done a fair bit of reflecting on the course and on various aspects of photography, and that’s good – but there are an awful lot of things I haven’t done.  Or – let me be more specific – there are a lot of things I’ve done but haven’t written about.

I’m a voracious reader and not just of photography books. I read a lot of these, but I read a lot of other non-fiction as well and also try to relate what I learn there back to my photography studies.  But I haven’t written all of this down, mainly because I read so many books that I don’t have the time or the inclination to document them all.  I see lots of exhibitions, too, but I don’t write about many of them.  I don’t want to write about something because I’m supposed to, but only if I feel I have something interesting to say about it.  So I haven’t documented most of the books I’ve read, websites I’ve looked at, exhibitions I’ve gone to, or discussions I’ve had.

Another thing I haven’t done is to record my experiences with the exercises in the course materials. This is a very old-fashioned course that desperately needs to be re-written (I think it is being re-written at the moment) and it’s bad enough having to work my way through exercises like ‘try taking your shots in both landscape and portrait orientation’ or ‘take a photo with as many shades of green in it as possible’, without having to write all this up as well.  I hope I’m not suffering from hubris, but most of the exercises cover things I did ages ago when I was first learning to use a camera.  The remaining ones relate to film, which I don’t use.  The exercises are tired and old-fashioned, and I don’t feel they’ve contributed much to any learning I’ve done.

So I’m a bit worried right now, because the learning log counts for a substantial proportion of the marks and I think mine is likely to be frowned upon.  Doing this course hasn’t been easy for me – there was the demoralising tutor criticism at the beginning, and the subsequent loss of confidence that led to me taking a year off and not planning to come back.  I’ve also had to find a way of doing the landscape assignments that fits my particular style, which isn’t that of a traditional landscape photographer.  I’m proud of myself for having finished the course, when I thought at one point I was done with studying photography for ever, and I feel my personal style has developed and deepened in the process.  But because I see these courses as being for me rather than as a way of getting a bit of paper that qualifies me, I’ve gone about it very much my own way.

The first question they want us to ask ourselves is ‘am I being honest with myself?’ Well, yes, I am and I’m doing my best to be honest, too, to the people who’ll decide if I pass or not.  I’m probably going to suffer for that, but I’m past the point in life where I’m willing to play the education game any more.  I’ve already done that and got the certificate to prove it – I don’t need another one.  If I fail or get a low mark, and if part of that is because I’ve made the course fit me rather than fit myself to the course, then I guess I’ll just have to live with that.  But I know myself, and I know I’ll find it hard to deal with, and so I worry.

 

St Martin in the Fields

St Martin in the Fields, Trafalgar Square

St Martin in the Fields Church steeple, behind Trafalgar Square fountain

I had a welcome teaching break in London last weekend, and I managed to fit in a day with my friend Jill.  We met up in the area around Trafalgar Square, and thought we’d go and have a look in St Martin in the Fields Church, which is very nearby and rather nice inside – or so I’m told, anyway.  I never did get to see it, as when we got there we saw a queue of people all holding tickets made out of red card, and then we spotted a notice saying there was to be a memorial service for Eric Sykes.  Jill suggested we stick around to see if anyone famous turned up, and what do you know, they did!  We spotted June Whitfield, Robert Powell, Richard Stilgoe (you may not know him – he used to do a lot of work with Esther Rantzen many years ago), a very well-known comedy actor whose name we couldn’t remember, Kevin Wateley (from Morse), and best of all, Michael Palin, on whom I have a bit of a big girl’s crush.

We got quite excited and there we were, two middle-aged women, squealing like teenagers every time we saw someone we recognised.  It got me to wondering why it is that even when you hate the whole celebrity cult thing, it’s still really exciting to see someone in real life that you know from film or TV.  And that got me to wondering if it was a bit similar to how you feel when you see a painting or a photograph that you’ve only ever seen in reproduction before.  With these, of course, there’s the fact that you can finally see them in their original size, and with texture present (in the case of paintings), but I think there’s a little bit more to it than that.

I think there’s something in the fact that you don’t totally believe these things exist, in their own right, somewhere out there in the world, and then you finally see something that, say, Turner himself was in contact with and that you could reach out and touch for yourself – if that was allowed.  So when you see an actor in real life, there’s a feeling of ‘wow, they really exist!’ and I could almost have reached out and touched Michael Palin’s sleeve – if that was the sort of thing that respectable middle-aged women were allowed to do.  Whatever the reason, it added a little spark to our day, which was shaping up very nicely already.

All of this aside, outside the church there is a lovely sculpture of a baby boy emerging out of a large lump of stone. The baby is half in, half out of the stone and it reminded me of those rocks you can break in half to reveal an ammonite or other fossil inside.  It was if the stone had been broken in half and revealed this perfect little baby hidden in its interior, still attached by its umbilical cord to the earth from which it’s emerging.  It wasn’t easy to photograph, as the top of the stone was high enough to stop me getting above it, but I did my best.  And with a bit of delving around on the web, I found out that it was created by someone called Mike Chapman, whose website is here. Oddly enough, the website for the church doesn’t even give it a mention.

Stone baby, St Martin in the Fields, Trafalgar Square

Stone baby, St Martin in the Fields, Trafalgar Square

Dark Beauty

Gold, Thurstaston Beach

Sometimes you can spend a long time grasping for a truth that you sense, but find impossible to put into words. I’ve tried many times before to write something sensible about beauty in art but have never managed to say quite what I wanted to say, mostly because I wasn’t clear on it myself.  I’ve been reading Thomas Moore’s Dark Nights of the Soul recently, a book I can recommend if you ever find yourself in your own particular dark night, and it’s clarified something for me that makes me feel I can now express some of my thoughts a little better.

I’ve felt for a long time that a large proportion of contemporary art is focussed on what I think of as the ‘nasties’ – the downright ugly, the negative, the anguished, the cruel – and all of this seems to go hand in hand with a view of life that’s cynical and pessimistic and without hope.  But when you argue against this and in favour of something more uplifting, you lay yourself open to accusations of sentimentality and an unrealistic Pollyanna-ish view of the world, as if it’s a wonderfully happy place – which it patently isn’t.  As ever, the truth lies somewhere between, but many folk like to assume that if you reject one of these views then you have to be in favour of the other.

I’m not drawn towards what I heard described recently as the ‘miserable bastard’ school of photography (a term I shall be using with great delight in the future), but I also dislike the kind of pretty-pretty, isn’t-everything-wonderful school either – the kind that’s full of frolicking children, dreamy sunflare , pretty girls drifting about in long white dresses, and ‘lifestyle’ interior shots.  And I realise, now, that one of the things that’s significant here is the difference between pretty and beautiful.  Pretty satisfies briefly but quickly becomes tiresome and dull – it’s the junk food of art.  Beauty satisfies for a long time, offering more each time you see it, and has great depth.  Beauty doesn’t have to be the obvious sort of beauty, but can be found in things the unperceptive might dismiss as ugly or unimportant.  It’s the difference between the smoothly polished and idealised celebrity actress and the elderly woman whose whole life is mapped onto her face – just look at this wonderful portrait of Jane Goodall to see what I mean.

Moore has a lot to say about what he calls ‘dark beauty’. This is a beauty that’s found in pain – a kind of sublime suffering.  Every life has both pain and joy in it, and that’s why an image of an elderly face, or any face that’s allowed to be ‘real’, gives us so much more than the air-brushed perfection we see everywhere.  Both the sorrow and the joy are there to see.  Moore argues that beauty and suffering are inextricably linked together, and that much of what we regard as great art has this pairing.

This is how I have experienced it. When I feel low, I often listen to Bach’s Mass in B Minor – most particularly the first and the last sections.  To me it holds immense beauty while at the same time being totally heartbreaking – listening to it, I have sometimes howled with pain while at the same time feeling hugely comforted by its beauty.  It offers me something that’s bigger than me and my problems – the kind of feeling I get when I look up at the stars in the night sky and realise how small I am in the total scheme of things. It manages to match my pain and recognise it, while also lifting me above it.  More than that, it also satisfies when I feel good, and at those times I find great joy in it.

Turning to photography, I saw this same mix of emotion in Joel Meyerowitz’s images of Ground Zero – interestingly, Meyerowitz himself referred to the ‘awful beauty’ of the scene. The devastation is shown in all its fullness, and with all its implications, but a kind of sublime beauty permeates these pictures.  In many of the images there is beautiful light coming from a directional source.  In one image, the light comes from above and although its source is actually an out-of-shot spotlight used to facilitate work on the site, it has the look of something much more metaphysical.  The wrecked but still-standing walls almost resemble cathedral ruins and in the background there are lights on in the surrounding office buildings – life goes on; there is hope.  Many of the images are of workers – rebuilding, clearing and restoring.  One worker, in a statement that’s almost poetic, was heard to say ‘we are gardeners in the garden of the dead’.  Meyerowitz’s work clearly shows the pain and devastation of a terrible event, but also allows us hope for the future and the possibility of transcending this awful thing.  In other hands this might only have been a depiction of horror and brutality – in Meyerowitz’s hands it offers layers of conflicting emotion that deeply satisfy and don’t offer pat or easy answers.

One of the most touching art installations I’ve come across formed part of the Folkestone Biennial several years ago.  Loudspeakers were fixed to the wooden benches that look out from high on the cliffs, over the English Channel, and a recording was triggered as you sat down.  The recording consisted of readings of letters written by soldiers during WW2 who died in France, on the coast you can just make out in the distance across the water.  The beauty of the scene, the love and pain expressed in the letters, and the poignancy of knowing the men who wrote them had died, and in what conditions, all combined to create a mixture of beauty and pain that left a memorable impression.

For me, this is what’s missing in a lot of contemporary art. Only the bad is shown, in as ugly a way as possible, with no room for an understanding of the complex layers of emotion and story that surround it, or a more nuanced interpretation.  The best art – in my view – says ‘this is the human condition, and it has many aspects to it’ and it connects us rather than isolates us. But of course, to welcome art like this you have to recognise these feelings in yourself.  If you’ve grown a hardened shell of cynical dismissiveness, then it can be threatening to encounter something that might crack you wide open, and it’s a lot safer to stick with the coolly intellectual and to sneer at or dismiss as sentimentalists those who think differently.  What troubles me sometimes is that the most feted of contemporary art seems to have at its centre only the aim of shocking and disgusting its audience, at the expense of looking for a deeper truth.

I would never want to be prescriptive about what consitutes good art, and I’m glad that there’s a whole smorgasbord of art out there, of all types, to suit everyone.  But for myself, I’m looking for art that does more than diminish me and leave me feeling troubled.  I’m looking for something that fully acknowledges life’s pain, while also celebrating the beauty and the wonder that can be found on the other side of it.  I was accused once, by a tutor, of having ‘old-fashioned values’, which only made me wonder why anyone would believe that values should be something that are a matter of what happens to be on-trend at the time.  The human condition is timeless, and I don’t think the values that support us as human beings are subject to much in the way of change.

 

Autumn portfolio

When I started this course, my first assignment was a bit of a disaster. It ended up being marked by two different tutors, and although they disagreed on individual images, they both came to much the same conclusion overall – it really wasn’t very good.  Now that I’ve revisited it after a considerable amount of time has gone by, I can see that they were right so I decided to redo the whole thing.

Fortunately we’re allowed to do this for assessment purposes and are not stuck with our original mistakes. The assignment was to depict a season, any season we wanted to, and I chose early summer first time round.  This time I’ve gone for autumn, as I think I have the biggest variety of decent shots to choose from.  As always, the hardest thing is to pick twelve images that hang together well.  What’s really frustrating is that sometimes you have to leave out some of your best shots in the service of creating a portfolio that looks as if all twelve images belong and sit well together.  It’s probably taken me longer to do this than it did to take the original shots – it’s surprisingly difficult.  I’ve also had to tweak one or two of the images to make the colours and tones match up better with the rest.

I’ve finally come up with what I think will be my final selection, although some minor tweaking may yet take place.  My linking theme is woodland, and also the lighting – I wanted to catch that warm, low-raking light that says autumn so clearly.  They’re in order, unless I change my mind again – my idea was to give the feeling of walking into, through, and back out of autumnal woodland on a late and sunny afternoon.

Autumn 1

Autumn 2

Autumn 3

Autumn 4

Autumn 5

Autumn 6

Autumn 7

Autumn 8

Autumn 9

Autumn 10

Autumn 11

Autumn 12