Falling into the sky

Reflected sky, Talacre Beach

I’m fascinated by reflections. Yes, it’s yet another cliche and I know that, but hey ho, I like them and I don’t care.  At the moment I’m particularly enjoying taking shots of the sky reflected on the ground. Perhaps it could be classed as a variation on my Fallen series – pieces of fallen sky.

When I was about eight years old I went on a bike ride with my older cousin.  It was a sunny day, but there had been a lot of rain and there were puddles everywhere.  Cycling along a country lane we came to one puddle that was several inches deep and spread right across the road – it was really more like a small pond.  The air was still, and the clouds, sky and trees were perfectly reflected, as sharply and smoothly as if in a polished mirror.  I looked into it and felt like I was falling into the sky.

I couldn’t go through it, I simply couldn’t – I froze, there at the edge. My cousin did everything she could to persuade me, even cycling back and forwards through it herself to show me it was all fine.  But even with ripples, it looked far too real.  I knew I’d fall into the sky if I tried it.  We turned round and went back.

Later, I found out that fear of falling into the sky is a recognised phobia – it’s called casadastraphobia.  People who suffer from it commonly fear that the earth will flip and that they’ll fall into an endless sky.  I can relate.  Nowadays, though, I rather like the idea of falling into the sky and losing myself in it.

These shots were taken at Talacre Beach, at the same time as I shot the lighthouse reflections.

Floating earth, Talacre Beach

Sky puddle, Talacre Beach

Cloud puddle, Talacre Beach

Earth and sky, Talacre Beach

Four seasons in one view

Four seasons in one view

I have only – yikes! – three to six weeks to get my course assessment material together and send it off, and as usual I’m doing everything at the last minute.  One of the mini projects we had to do was to take the same view in all four seasons, using the same framing and showing the different seasons clearly.  I agonised a bit over which view to choose – there was nowhere close enough to where I was living (when I was in Kent) that I felt would give me a clear indication of all four seasons as well as being near enough to nip out whenever the light/weather looked promising.  After a bit of thought, I reckoned the view from my study window might do the job pretty well and would also pander to my tendency to be lazy.  I may have mentioned before that I’m not one of those photographers who trek miles over water-logged moors and up mountains carrying shedloads of equipment.

I’d been taking shots out of this window for ages before that – when I got a bit bored with sitting at my computer I’d wander over to the window and start snapping.  What intrigued me was the variety of shots I could get from a fairly unprepossessing view, and how the light constantly changed.  At the time, I was still trying to decide what counted as a landscape shot, and so I checked with my tutor that this view would be OK – he said yes, and now that my originally narrow idea of landscape has expanded itself into whole new areas, I’m not sure why I ever doubted it.

So far so good, but there have been problems. The main one is that I went into photography because it made me feel free and spontaneous, so setting things up in a very organised and meticulous manner doesn’t really sit well with me.  The sequence of four shots were meant to be framed in exactly the same way and taken from exactly the same viewpoint – in other words, you need to put your tripod in the same dents each time and shoot with the same focal length and so on – and this requires the kind of planning to which I have a strong aversion.  It also requires the use of a tripod.  I’m afraid I eschewed all this for handholding and guessing how I took the previous shots – well, it was a small window and there was only one obvious place to stand.

I was also having massive computer problems at the time, with my ancient computer recognising my external hard-drives (or not) in a very erratic way that meant my shots ended up being stashed all over the place.  My old computer was too slow to enable me to use the Organiser in Elements, and kept crashing if I tried, so the photos weren’t tagged and the window images were mixed in with photos of entirely different things.  I did mean to take some more shots in a much more organised and systematic fashion, but then of course we moved house……..

Several hours of my day today were spent tracking down all the shots I’d taken and getting them into one place, and then hoping desperately that I’d have four that all went together.  Nobody is more relieved than me that it’s more or less worked.  The seasons all look quite distinctive except perhaps for spring, but that was how spring looked out of that particular window – there wasn’t much to see of it.  (Spring mostly happened on the ground around there, with bulbs poking up through the bare earth.)  A little bit of judicious cropping solved the problem of the slightly erratic framing – there are some small differences in the angles of the shots and they’re certainly not identical, but to the casual eye they look pretty much the same.  It’s some small comfort that the assessors have to get through a large amount of material in a short time – I can only hope they don’t look too closely.  Anyway, I’ve done it now, even if it’s all been a bit haphazard.

Alternative autumn – still avoiding cliches

My last post was about the problems of photographing cliches, and it’s a problem that’s forever popping up when you have to photograph the seasons.  Part of my course assessment submission is to put together a seasonal landscape portfolio of 12 images, 3 for each season.  I spent a lot of time at the beginning of the course thinking about how to do this in a non-obvious way and not coming up with any answers.  In the end, letting go of the attempt, and allowing things to unfold as they would revealed the answer.  As it turned out, things changed over time without any real effort on my part, and in many ways I’m glad it’s taken me so long to complete this course (three years! – some people do whole degrees in that time).   I think my photography has moved on quite significantly during these years and I feel I’ve now found something of a ‘voice’ of my own.  It’s so easy to think that we continue on our way, unchanging and looking back at our own work over a period of time can be quite illuminating.

Take autumn, for instance. I started out doing the obvious shots – pretty autumnal coloured trees and leaves, shot in a traditional way.  The images below are typical – I do like them because they’re pretty, they’re nice to look at, and I’m happy to have taken them, but there’s very little of me in them.  I think anyone could have taken these, and although pleasing to the eye, there isn’t a great deal of depth.  This ‘depth’ thing is problematic – it’s one of those things that you know when you see it, but you can’t explain what it is (like Justice Potter Stewart’s famous words on recognising obscenity).  The last of these three images probably does have some depth and is the one I’m most satisfied with here.

Autumn tree


Autumn light

I very quickly tired of taking these kinds of shots, just as I would tire of looking at them after a short time.  Boredom led me to experiment a bit more.   The following image was taken on a little compact camera while I was sitting in my car in the pouring rain in a Sainsbury’s carpark.  It’s not the obvious place to go to shoot autumn, and when I first took this shot I didn’t even bother processing it as I thought it was no good.  Looking at it now, though, it seems to me that it sums up a typical English autumn rather well – the colours of the leaves indicate the season, the grey light gives it a melancholy feel, and the out-of-focus raindrops on the windscreen add an unexpected abstract element.  I feel this shot has a freshness about it that the others don’t.  It also makes me realise how our tastes and perceptions evolve, and that something we dismiss to begin with looks different to us as we gain in experience.  (I’m just glad I didn’t delete it – I almost did)

Autumn trees at Sainsbury's

It was in the same carpark on the same day that I began to shoot fallen leaves in puddles and, of course, this eventually turned into my ‘Fallen’ series.  The shot I took that day was this one, which isn’t particularly good but has the germ of the idea in it that led to my later project – I think it’s worth showing for that reason.  I was bored and playing around at this point.

Leaves and yellow lines

As time went on, the Fallen images changed from being something I did for want of anything better to do, and became a bit more sophisticated and deliberate.  The following two are typical examples.

Fallen leaves 2

Fallen leaves 1

As I’ve allowed the Fallen series to evolve, more and more of my photography has involved aiming my lens at the ground, as in the images above and below. Like many people I have a fascination with reflections too, and these have become part of quite a few of my latest autumnal images.

I’m not sure what my obsession with the ground is about – I guess that not so many people look down at what’s underneath them, just as few people look upwards either.  In one rather straightforward sense, it’s an attempt to show people what they’re missing but I also have the quote ‘as above, so below’ whirling around in my head – leaves on the ground reflect the presence of the trees above and everything that lies beneath us has come from above us.  I’ve been impressed, too, by a book I read recently called ‘The Holographic Universe‘ which argues that the smallest part of anything in the world contains the whole, and I have some idea of taking that notion into my photography.  This is all very vague as yet, and hopefully will become a bit clearer to me as I go on.  I have a sense of being led in a particular direction, and the feeling  that I should simply trust this and do what comes naturally.  There’s a very clear change in my images over the period of the course and they seem distinctively ‘mine’ now.  I think someone might look at these and know it was me who took them, and that’s a very satisfying thing.

If you were to look at your own images through time, what changes would you see?

Autumn leaves in gutter

Evening warmth

Autumn sky reflected

Autumn puddle

Autumn puddle 2

Autumn reflected

The colours of Moel Famau

Path, Moel Famau

One of the hardest things in photography is to simplify. Every good photograph is a distillation – a removal of anything that dilutes the spirit of the subject, bringing out its essence and its full flavour.  I read somewhere that as you become more skilled as a photographer, you become able to manage more and more complex scenes, focussing attention on what you want people to see and handling distractions with aplomb.  When you have a simple scene it’s relatively easy to select the part you want and exclude the parts you don’t, but the more lines and shapes and colours and textures that are present, the harder it is to stop it looking like a great big muddle.  A lot of my early shots definitely fell into that category – some still do, but you don’t get to see those……..

One situation I always found challenging was to photograph woodland – there’s so much going on. The complexities of overlapping branches and bushes and trees, all those leaves, the contrasts of bright sun and dark shadow, and the innate untidiness of nature left me not knowing what or where to shoot – I couldn’t figure out how to simplify things.  I realise I must have improved somewhat, because I don’t find it so hard any more. Somehow it’s become easier to see broad shapes and swathes of colour and to select the bit I want.

We visited the forest around Moel Famau last week. Moel Famau is the name of one of the peaks in the Clwydian mountains in Wales.  They’re not large mountains by any standard – more like very big hills – but we didn’t go all the way up.  It was one of those days they’d call ‘soft’ if we were in Ireland – slightly misty, a little damp, cool but not cold, bright but with low white cloud.  Not the kind of light I usually favour, but it really worked in terms of bringing out the soft but vibrant pastel colours.  These aren’t my usual colours – I tend to go for strong, bright shades and higher contrast – but I love the way they’ve come out.  I added a teensy bit of Orton effect – very subtly – just to bring out the colours a little more and to emphasis the slightly fairytale feel of the place.

Woodland pastels, Moel Famau

Pastel conifers, Moel Famau

Green bush, Moel Famau

Dew, Moel Famau

Green, Moel Famau

Mud and leaves, Moel Famau

Treeline, Moel Famau

Yellow bush, Moel Famau

Fairytale woods, Moel Famau

Loggerheads Park, Clwyd

Waymarker for Mold

One of the few advantages of neither of us being employed is that we can make the best of any good weather we get up here. We went to Loggerheads Park the other day, which is in the Clwydian mountains in Wales; it’s a stunningly beautiful place that did much to cheer us up.  The leaves are just beginning to turn and the woods were in that lovely state where the trees are still green but there’s autumnal colour on the ground.  It was the first time in ages – I can’t even remember how long – that I got really into the flow and experienced the buzz from photography that I used to feel and have been missing.

I started out with some general shots, but what I most wanted to do was to expand on my Ernst Haas project on the elements, and try to capture something of the essence of fast moving water.  I also wanted to make a start on getting some shots that would represent air.  Most of the shots I took were not quite right in some way or another, but make a good starting point for a way forwards on this.  My biggest problem was composition, as there were many places where I couldn’t get the angle of view I wanted, and it was also quite difficult to see what I was shooting sometimes because of the contrasts of bright sunlight and shadow.

Mossy boulders

Clwydian hills

The beginnings of the water shots.  I quite like this one, but I think the boulder needs to be clearer.  A polarising filter would have helped but I definitely wouldn’t have been able to handhold if I’d used one.

Water and rock

I like the colours here but I don’t think there’s much else to mark it out.

Rock with leaves

This is getting much closer to what I want.  Unfortunately I think the composition could be a lot better, but I do like the soft effect of the moving water with a slow shutter speed.

Soft water

The composition is better in this one, but I feel the contrast is a bit strong and I don’t like those linear shadows on the right-hand side.


I’d have been very pleased with this one had I just got that top wave a bit more into the frame.  Otherwise, it’s close to what I was trying to achieve.

Ripples in sunlight

This one is probably my most successful shot of the day, and I’m really happy with how the sunlight has picked out the central wave.

Sunlit river

I’m also quite happy with this one, which will start me off on the ‘air’ section of the elements project.

Clwydian sky

Creativity – sometimes it’s obvious

Ceiling detail

I often find that books I read on subjects other than photography are more helpful to me than books that are directly about it. One I go back to frequently is ‘Impro’ by Keith Johnstone, which is about theatrical improvisation. I have little or no interest in theatrical improvisation itself, but what fascinates me about the content is how easily it can be applied to any aspect of life, including photography.

One of the most interesting sections is on spontaneity and originality. As artists, we all aspire to be original but so much of the time our work is lacking in it. Johnstone’s view is that the more we strive to be original, the more likely we are to fail, and that’s usually because it leads us to constantly censor how we respond. When he teaches students to come up with successful improvisations, he asks them to do or say the very first thing that comes into their heads. When they do this the improvisation works but when they hesitate slightly and substitute something they think is more acceptable or more interesting or more original, it kills the whole thing. We all know how it feels to see someone try too hard – it’s never effective.

The worst possible thing improvisers can do, according to Johnstone, is to make a deliberate effort to be original. This always falls flat anyway, and usually they think they’re being original when in fact their ‘originality’ is the same as everyone else’s – a bit like punks rebelling against authority and the pressure to conform, but all doing it in the same way so that it becomes just a different way of conforming. ‘I gave up asking London audiences to suggest where scenes should take place’, says Johnstone, ‘Some idiot would always shout out either “Leicester Square public lavatories” or “outside Buckingham Palace”. People trying to be original always arrive at the same boring old answers‘.

Ceiling detail 2

Thinking too much before you shoot is a certain way to produce photographer’s block. For a while, due to some tactlessly delivered criticism from a tutor, I kept hearing the word ‘trite’ in my head every time I went to take a shot. No doubt most – perhaps all – of the resulting images would have been trite, but to censor myself like this meant I froze so much I couldn’t take anything at all. And maybe, just maybe, had I let myself take without judgement what presented itself to me then there may have appeared the germ of a good idea in there. And even if it hadn’t, if I’d continued to shoot for long enough then the odds would have got higher that something would appear – creativity can often be a numbers game. The first shots anyone takes are frequently trite and obvious, but if they do what’s obvious and get it out of the way, they make space for something more interesting to develop.

Johnstone emphasises that there are two points to consider here. The first is that we must let go of that hesitation, that self-censorship, and allow the first impulse to emerge even if we think it’s too obvious or too dull. The second is that when we do this, what starts out as objectively obvious and dull can actually become original and intriguing to others in no time at all. It still feels obvious to the person doing it, but they’ve moved away from the obviousness that comes from conformity, to the uniquely obvious that comes from deep within them.  ‘An artist who is inspired is being obvious’, says Johnstone, ‘He’s not making any decisions, he’s not weighing one idea against another. He’s accepting his first thoughts.’ Johnstone goes on to say: ‘No two people are exactly alike, and the more obvious an improvisor is, the more himself he appears’.

When we’re inspired, we’re being truly ourselves. This sounds easy but is one of the hardest things to achieve and most of us never manage it. I think that’s why great artists often appear a little crazy or eccentric or just very different to the rest of us, who’re too busy trying to appear sane to other people to allow our real thoughts and feelings to emerge. Being ourselves means ignoring the influence of what we think is acceptable, or clever, or on trend, and allowing our own uniqueness to emerge. Since we’ve been trained since babyhood not to let this happen, it’s pretty difficult for most of us to reverse the process.  It can also make us feel extremely vulnerable, and that’s scary.

To a very few, this comes more easily. People like Mozart and Van Gogh weren’t trying to be original, they were just being themselves. Mozart had some success in material terms, while Van Gogh struggled in poverty, but both of them were doing what seemed ‘obvious’ to them. Van Gogh probably had one of the most original visions in art history, but he wasn’t trying to be original – he simply did what presented itself to him without self-censoring. And he didn’t realise his unique vision overnight – much of his early work is quite dull and poorly executed.

Mozart wasn’t trying to be original either – he said:

‘Why my productions take from my hand that particular form and style that makes them Mozartish, and different from the works of other composers, is probably owing to the same cause that renders my nose so large or so aquiline, or in short, makes it Mozart’s, and different from other people. For I really do not study or aim at any originality.’

If we allow our fear of being dull and unoriginal, or our awareness of other people’s opinions, or our own self-censorship to stop us doing what might seem ordinary and obvious, then we could be smothering our creativity at its very source. We need to give ourselves permission to be boringly obvious, in order to cultivate the ability to be obvious in our own unique way.

Ceiling reflection black and white

Photographers call it ‘working a scene’ –

keep going, move past the obvious shots, and you will eventually come up with something more interesting

Getting my mojo back: the OCA residential weekend

OCA group photo, Amano SamarpanPhoto by courtesy of Amano Samarpan

Yes, that’s me, front row, second from the right

I’m not long back from a residential study weekend run and organised by OCA* students.  I’m not even going to attempt to cover every part of the weekend, partly because there’s so much to say and think about, and partly because I know that not everyone who reads this is part of OCA and I don’t want to bore you with insider stuff.  So I’m going to pull out a couple of highlights that got me thinking hard about photography.

I’m still buzzing with it all. Anyone who’s been reading along with me will have noticed the gradual diminution of blog entries over the last few months, and the complete lack of photographs in the last few, and you’ll have heard me bemoan the fact that I’d lost my photographic mojo and couldn’t locate it again.  Readers, I was depressed – more depressed than I even realised myself.  I’ve been having some treatment for that (alternative-style, not the drug kind) and was feeling a lot brighter before I went on the weekend but still not inclined to get out there and get shooting.  This weekend has changed it all about for me – yesterday I went out with my camera for the first time in months, and I’m full of ideas and enthusiasm and motivation again.  I’ve got myself back – yeeha!  (And a huge thank you to Penny and Eileen who organised and ran the whole thing with flair and friendly efficiency.)

Our first external speaker was Mishka Henner. I’d looked at his website before we went, and to be truthful didn’t really get a lot from his work, but how that changed when he started talking about it – it was fascinating and I ended up loving what he did.  It also made me aware of my own prejudices in one respect – Mishka uses photographs to make art, but they’re other people’s photographs and not his own.  Something in me wants to reject this as photography – as art, yes, but as photography, no.  I had to ask myself what it means to say we’re photographers.  For me, this involves actually using a camera but is my thinking too rigid in this respect?  For several of his projects Mishka uses photos taken from Google Earth.  Now, OK, he didn’t shoot them, but in terms of his projects he chose the frame, cropped it, enhanced it in Photoshop, and presented it as art.  That’s probably more effort than the Google people put into that particular frame, and these are all parts of the photographic process.  I must admit that I’m still inclined to feel he’s an artist who uses photography rather than a photographer as such, but old prejudices die hard and I dare say I’ll get over it.  It’s not really so different from Marcel Duchamp appropriating a urinal and presenting it as art (but then I wouldn’t have called him a ceramicist!).

One of the things I really liked about his work was that, although it was strongly conceptual, it was also very aesthetically pleasing. The images were visually satisfying even when you removed the conceptual element from them.  This isn’t necessary, of course, but it keeps me happy.  For one of his projects he would use a number of portraits taken by a particular, well-known photographer – such as Diane Arbus, Rineke Dijsktra, or Lewis Hines – and super-impose them on each other.  He selected portraits that were taken face-on and lined them up using the irises of the eyes.  The results are astonishing.  He shows the process in video form, each layer (set at 3% transparency) going on top of the others, until a final face takes shape; the faces emerge out of the blackness, slowly becoming more defined.  I find it hard to say why these are so compelling, but they certainly are, with the eyes staying strong and clear and the rest of the face acquiring a softly smudged state of ethereality.

Dutch Tulip Fields, 2012, Mishka HennerMishka Henner, Near Julianadorp, 2012

It’s not my intention to give any kind of comprehensive overview of Mishka’s work, and I intend to come back to some of it in due course, but I must just mention his Dutch tulip fields.   These are views of the tulip fields, taken from the air, and transformed into dramatic abstract shapes, reminiscent of modern paintings.  It struck me that here is a very different view of spring.  When I was putting together my first assignment on the Landscape course, which was to portray spring, this might have given me some food for thought – although I’m not sure my budget would have run to aerial photography.  I don’t know whether he took these shots himself, or if they’ve been taken from Google Earth again, but either way, they’re stunning.  However, as someone pointed out, OCA students wouldn’t get away with submitting photos for our assignments that we hadn’t taken ourselves.  It seems there’s one rule for students and another for when you’ve gained some sort of a reputation – fair enough, I guess, although I wonder if that’s the case in all degree courses.

One of the other sessions I found really interesting was from tutor Jesse Alexander. He took us through the process of development of his MA submission, from its early beginnings to the finished work.  Interesting in itself, and again I loved the fact that his images are visually stunning as well as having conceptual meaning.  His project is called Threshold Zone and is all about underground landscapes, the transition from light to dark, and the myth and meaning surrounding journeys into the underworld.  However, it’s not the images I want to discuss but the fact that he told us that he found these places pretty scary and had to face up to these fears while carrying out the project.  In a similar vein, another of the other students on the workshop showed us pictures of pollarded trees during the critique session, and said that even though she hates to see trees like this, and finds it almost painful to look at them, she feels compelled to take shots of them.  I don’t think I have any instances of this in my own work, but I wonder how many photographers are drawn towards subjects they find painful, distressing, frightening, and so on.  In a way, Jesse’s underground shots could also represent for him a journey into the underworld of his own psyche – it’s an interesting parallel.  By photographing these things, are we looking for a way of coming to terms with them, or perhaps simply expressing a reflection of some inner process of our own?

I’m leaving it here for the moment. I have loads more to say, and a huge number of things to think about, and a lot of that will no doubt find its way into this space in due course.  As you’ll have gathered by now, it was a terrific experience and has turned things around for me in so many ways.  This is due in no small way to the other students on the course.  It was a real joy to have such a diverse and interesting group of people to talk to, knowing that you wouldn’t bore them by rambling on about photography too much.  And it was just great to finally meet people whom I’ve mostly only known as avatars and user-names on forums.  It’s a strange experience – you feel as if you know someone already, but it also feels like you’re meeting a stranger.  People are very much as you imagined them, but also in some ways very different.  Weird.  I can only hope that we continue to have weekends like this.  Well done Penny, Eileen, tutors Peter and Jesse, and OCA for their support for the venture, as well as our two guest speakers Mishka Henner and Peter Rudge from duckrabbit. (and more of duckrabbit later).


*Open College of the Arts

A rose by any other name……

Overgrown bench

A while ago I had an idea for a project with a working title of ‘nature taking over’. It was prompted by some random shots I’d taken of man-made things being engulfed in plants and leaves. I’ve always liked the idea that, were humankind to vacate the planet, it wouldn’t take too long before plant and animal life began to reclaim it for themselves. And I like the idea, too, that no matter how clever we think we are, we aren’t separate from nature and don’t have dominion over it and it will always, always, have the last word.  If I’d completed the project, I was going to call it ‘I saw some grass growing through the pavement today’ – a line from a Jethro Tull song called ‘Jack in the Green’:

It’s no fun being Jack-In-The-Green —
no place to dance, no time for song.
He wears the colours of the summer soldier —
carries the green flag all the winter long.

Jack, do you never sleep —
does the green still run deep in your heart?
Or will these changing times,
motorways, powerlines,
keep us apart?
Well, I don’t think so —
I saw some grass growing through the pavements today.

The project was originally intended for one of my course assignments, but it just didn’t come together the way I’d hoped it would. The images didn’t sit together well or look part of a coherent set, and it was getting late in the season to take more so I did something different for my coursework. But I haven’t completely abandoned the idea and may go back to it – I find myself looking for these kinds of shots without really intending to.

A while ago I did a similar series of pictures but with a different slant, centred around the derelict house next door to us.  Oddly enough, nature encroaching on this nice old house didn’t make me feel the same way – instead of an inner sense of satisfaction in its reclamation of the house, I felt a sadness that the house had been so neglected.  Nothing we do is ever truly original so I wasn’t surprised when I came across a project on Flickr, by Julia M Cameron (no, not that Julia M Cameron – her namesake) that deals with the same kind of themes and, interestingly, some of the images in her project have as part of their title: ‘Neglect – nature taking over’.  It got me wondering about the way you could take the same image, and by titling it differently express two very different viewpoints.  The images in my ‘nature taking over’ and ‘derelict house’ are similar in many ways but express two different perspectives and motivations. And there’s yet another title involved – I called my house project ‘Abandoned’, which introduces different connotations again.  I’m wondering how much influence the title of a work or series should have, or how much the viewer should be left to make up her own mind.

I don’t like the post-modern habit of calling everything ‘untitled’. I like things to have a title, even if just to make identification easy. However, if you were to look at my images with the idea of ‘neglect’ in your mind, would you experience them differently than if you looked at them with the notion of nature triumphing? Would a rose by any other name really smell as sweet? Or should the photographic technique used be enough on its own to identify the photographer’s intention? I have no answers, I’m afraid – just posing the question.


Telegraph pole

Landscape can be anything you want it to be

Barbed wire

My course may be finished, but the work definitely isn’t. I have to get things into some kind of shape for the assessment process and since I work in a very idiosyncratic way when it comes to doing courses, I have a lot of sorting out to do.  It’s always been like this.  When I did my first degree I only went to those lectures and tutorials that I thought were worthwhile; since attending a lecture involved a lengthy jaunt into London, I wasn’t prepared to go if the lecturer was only going to read from his own book – and yes, some of them did that.  I figured I could do that at home, and more efficiently too.  I worked very hard in my own way, but it was my own way, and I was lucky that my subject – philosophy – lent itself to private study.  There are a lot of subjects where you really do have to attend everything or you’ll lose out.

There’s danger in picking and choosing like this – it’s easy to become a little arrogant and think you know more than you do.  On the other hand, I so hate to be bored and made to go over things I’m already familiar with – that turns me off a course completely, and means I’m likely to abandon it altogether because the reason I like learning is that it keeps my brain stimulated.  I like to think I have enough self-awareness to know when I need to do something or not – when I began an Access to Art & Design course, for example, I knew I had to go to pretty much everything because my drawing and painting ability and other hands-on skills weren’t strong.  What I did try to get out of was the (very!) basic IT classes as I’d been teaching IT for several years before that, but it took a lot of argument before they agreed to ‘let me off’ that particular class.  I struggle with courses that are too prescriptive and I don’t like being on the receiving end of condescension or a patronising tone.  But I have to be careful, because it’s all too easy to airily dismiss the need to attend or complete something when actually it might be helpful and useful.  I don’t always know best, even if I think I do.

So this is my dilemma when it comes to going through the small exercise projects in my course and putting my learning log together.  I haven’t done all the exercises, because to do some of them would be so unbelievably tedious that I’d probably abandon the course forthwith.  I’ve made myself do some of these duller exercises to show willing, but the thought of having to write them up as well – and ‘reflect’ on them – is enough to get me reaching for the sloe gin bottle.  Take a couple of the early ones – ‘try taking your photo in both landscape and portrait formats’ and ‘try varying where you put the horizon’.  Do they seriously think I’ve got to the second year of a university course without having tried these things?  I’ve been doing both of these since I first picked up a camera, and every time I shoot I reflect on which shots work best.  To turn what is already an unconscious habit into a deliberate exercise feels awkward and too much of a box-ticking exercise.  For that reason I’ve been quite selective about the projects, mostly doing those ones that seemed useful and only writing up those where I felt I had something I wanted to say about them.

Rusty wireBarbed wire as a landscape subject – why not?

The Landscape course is one of the worst courses on offer through OCA and desperately needs a re-write.  I’d like to see far fewer of these kind of exercises in the course and far more that helped you explore and find your own vision or voice; I’d like to see something that would go a lot deeper than this goes and be concerned more with the art rather than the technology.  However, I realised early on that you have to make what you can of what’s there and that, fortunately, OCA doesn’t take an overly prescriptive approach and is happy for you to interpet the subject widely.  The freeing up point for me was when I decided to stop caring about what tutors thought, or what I thought ‘proper’ landscape photographers would do, and simply do what I wanted to do.  Again, there’s a danger of becoming pig-headed and blinkered if you do this, and that can be a little worrying, but I don’t think I’ve gone too far down that road.  And I might not have learned in the way that I was ‘supposed’ to, and I might not have learned exactly the kind of things ‘they’ thought I should, but I have learned quite a lot that’s meaningful to me, and isn’t that what it’s really about?

These are a few of the things I’ve learned:

  • my sort of landscape tends to be small and intimate and lies in detail rather than the big picture, and that’s OK.
  • while a traditional landscape photographer is usually obsessed with getting maximum depth of field and sharpness, I’m not very interested in that side of things, so please don’t talk to me about hyper-focal focussing distances – I don’t want to know.
  • neither am I the kind of landscape photographer that gets up at dawn and trudges 23 miles cross-country carrying several hundredweight of equipment, and then sits and waits seven hours for the light to be in just the right place.  I am not that person.
  • I’d rather evoke a mood in my photo than have it be representational; reality doesn’t interest me that much, and I’m not shy of doing serious post-processing to get it to look the way I had it in my head, and that’s OK too.
  • I often enjoy the post-processing as much as I enjoy taking the shots; it’s a different sort of enjoyment but it keeps me happy for hours.
  • I’m a flaneur, not a planner.  Some photographers like to plan everything in advance, arrange objects to satisfy their vision, and know exactly what they’re going to do before they go out.  I’m not knocking this as an approach, but it spoils things for me.  I’m more in the tradition of the flaneur – ‘someone who strolls’ and relies on serendipity based on a minimum of planning – and this isn’t really in the tradition of landscape photography, although it’s one way of doing it.  If I wasn’t so self-conscious, I’d be a street photographer for sure.
  • landscape can be many things, including urban buildings and puddles and skies and fallen petals and even barbed wire – realising this was a huge relief
  • I like having tiny people in my landscapes.  This one surprised me, as I thought I preferred my photos without people in them – now I feel there’s something lacking if there aren’t any people in the frame……..but they must be tiny and far away.
  • landscape photography is no longer a clear-cut genre and often overlaps into social documentary and I feel comfortable with this – I’m not a fan of fitting things into genres and think that the most significant works in any medium are often the ones that don’t fit neatly into any particular category.
  • when I let go of my fixed ideas about what I think others expect me to do, and let myself follow my inclinations, I become infinitely more creative and take much more interesting photos.
  • despite having lots of problems with the course (some of which were self-created) and even abandoning it for a year, I’m jolly glad I came back and finished it.

Ivy and barbed wireMore barbed wire – funny how themes emerge without you even trying