My old cat died last night, just a couple of weeks short of her twentieth birthday. She stopped eating, and for the latter half of the day she lay there glassy-eyed and unmoving and I knew it was time. She was so thin it was hard to see how her body could support life, her fur was dry and matted, and she felt so fragile I thought she might shatter with a touch. Her time had come.
I wanted to hold vigil with her on her last night, so I wrapped her in a blanket and laid her on a cushion beside my bed. At 12:50am she began to twitch wildly, then took her last few ragged breaths as I gently stroked her. I think it was a good death, with a minimum of suffering, in a familiar place, wrapped in all the love I have to give.
The kittens gathered round, unsure what was happening, but somehow knowing to keep a respectful distance. Later, I placed her body on a table in my office and Fingal extended a gentle paw to touch hers. I was lucky enough to have my camera in my hand at the time.
A little while ago, I wrote this poem after Wicca had made a rare visit to me when I was lying sleepless in bed one night. We have a three-storey house and she hadn’t been to the top floor of the house in months.
You came to me tonight,
easing your arthritic body up several steep flights
just to see me,
and allow me to stroke your dulled fur
and murmur your name into deaf ears.
I was having dark thoughts till you came,
but you led me back to a safe place
and my heart unfurled,
and the soft purr of a loved old cat was all I needed
to let me feel what there is of peace in this world.
I have two kittens. My early morning quiet is punctuated by the drumroll of eight tiny paws hurtling up and down stairs, on and off furniture, in and out of rooms. Set free from the confines of their overnight room, all that energy demands release. A thrown-away crumpled ball of paper becomes a delight – prey to be batted around, pounced on, chased. Once, they found the ultimate prize under the sideboard – a dead bumblebee! Pot plants rustle delightfully when playing tag through them, one at each side, and any object on a high surface is guaranteed to make a fascinating noise as it crash lands on the floor, if they can only get up there to knock it off. Curtains are made for climbing on, and for having mock tussles with each other while both cling on with claws hooked into the fabric.
Fingal is a black and white ‘tuxedo’ kitten, with a white bib, paws and underbelly, and a smudged diagonal white mark across his nose. His eyes are as round as the hole in a polo mint and full of kittenish wonder. He’s a floppety sort of cat, constantly falling off things, utterly relaxed, toppling and rolling onto his back at every opportunity, softness personified.
He thinks everyone is his friend, and so far that’s the way it’s worked out. He loves people, and will start up a deep rattling purr like the waves breaking on a pebble beach, at the slightest hint of attention from a human. Sometimes it’s hard to believe such a sound can come from such a small creature. He loves to cuddle, and his greeting to me is to come close to my face and very, very gently touch noses. This makes him – and me – very happy.
Flora is a tabby who looks a lot like a snow leopard – she’s exquisitely beautiful (this photo doesn’t do her justice). Her eyes are almond shaped and full of bright intelligence – while Fingal plays the clown, she is the brains of the outfit. She’s fussy about who touches her. When she first arrived I thought she was nervous, but then I realised she’s not scared of much at all, although she exercises a sensible caution in her interactions.
It took nearly a week before she’d let me stroke her, although she consented to play-fight my finger from the beginning. She did this with grace and gentle politeness, claws immaculately sheathed, never hurting me, just the velvet bat of her pads against my hand. It turns out she prefers men to women – she was all over Geoff the minute she saw him, eyes squinting shut in ecstasy as he rubbed behind her ears. That made me happy as well, if a little jealous. She adores Fingal, too, and tenderly puts an arm round his neck as she uses the other paw to wash his face. There’s no doubt she prefers men, but she’s getting to quite like me anyway, despite my gender. Last night she curled up on my lap and slept, and I’m now permitted to stroke and pet most areas although not, for some reason, her head and face.
They have brought such joy into my life. I still have Wicca, my cat of almost twenty years old, but it was making me terribly sad to see her so frail and old. She’s my first cat love and will always be very special to me, but I needed to bring some life and promise and joy into the house and the kittens have done just that. Wicca is being coddled, with hot water bottles on a comfy chair and everything she needs in one room, and we’re doing our best to make her remaining time as comfortable and happy as possible. I still feel sad to see her so reduced, but the fun and freshness of the kittens counteract that to a large extent, and promise a future where I won’t be left alone in a home empty of animals.
Photographing kittens is so difficult! These shots aren’t great, as I had to use an ISO of 1600, and even that wasn’t enough to get a truly fast enough shutter speed that would totally avoid camera or subject movement. Unfortunately my old camera only goes this far up the scale – I was using it because I think there are some focussing issues with the new one. I hope to get some better shots soon – the kittens are changing and growing so fast and I want to capture the cuteness before I find they’ve grown into full-size cats without me noticing. And it seems to me that sometimes it’s good enough for a photo’s to function as memory, and that a shot is worth having if it brings those to mind when you look at it, even if it’s sorely lacking in technical merit.
The book – I took the photo after two large glasses of wine, in a hurry, and in low light, and yes, there is camera movement – happens to us all sometimes!
When we first moved to this area we rented a wonderful 17th century cottage – living in it felt like being enveloped in a warm hug. We became good friends with our landlady Maria, who is one of the most delightful and lovely people you could ever hope to meet. She loves her cottage too, so when we left I wanted to give her something very personal as a thank you.
That was about a year and a half ago, and it’s taken me till now to do it. My idea was to photograph small quirky parts of the cottage and make the resulting images into a keepsake book. I took all the shots before we left and then things stagnated for a while, partly because we were very busy settling into our new home and partly because I didn’t know how to make the kind of book I had in mind.
Eventually I went on a small workshop that took me through the steps of making a leather-bound book, but then my ambitions began to soar and I had so many complicated ideas for how Maria’s book should be put together that I confused myself into a standstill. Eventually I got clearer (and simpler) on what I wanted to do, and while still a bit overly ambitious for a first attempt, it began to look do-able.
Unfortunately there was little prospect of seeing Maria for a long time, as she was then sole carer to her two very elderly and infirm parents and rarely had any time to herself. I’m the kind of person who’s far more likely to get things done if there’s at least a loose sort of deadline in place, and knowing I probably wouldn’t see Maria for ages meant that the book was constantly put on the back burner.
Things change, however, and Maria’s mother died a short while ago and with only her father to care for she gained a little bit more time for herself, although I still hadn’t managed to meet up with her. Then last week we had a small impromptu party and I invited Maria, expecting her to say that it would be too difficult for her to come. But then she said yes……
I was thrilled she was coming, but went into instant panic about the book. It meant I really had to get it finished, and in a matter of days, at that. But I did it, and the pictures you see here are the result.
First page – the lace lining is part of a curtain that used to be in the cottage
Let me explain something of how it was put together. The leather cover is lined in lace and the lace came from a small curtain in the bedroom of the cottage. One day when we were out, there was a sudden summer storm and when we got back we found the bedroom window (which we’d left open) had been banging back and forth in the wind, trapping the curtain and tearing it. When we left, I took the torn curtain with me thinking I’d use it in some way for the book. Part of it made the lining, and I used the piece that was left as a kind of stencil.
Because the images aren’t hugely interesting in themselves, being meaningful only if you know the cottage, I felt that some of the pages needed jazzing up a little. I had the idea of spraying gold paint through sections of the curtain lace, and tried to link up the pattern with the photograph – eg, on the opposite page of a photo of the brick kitchen floor, I used a section of curtain that looked a little like a brick pattern.
Sewing the pages in wasn’t easy. I had some thin cord that I wanted to use, but then found I didn’t have a needle with a big enough eye in it to get the cord through it. With a bit of help from Geoff, I did manage to thread it in the end, and then found that I had to make what seemed like enormous holes in the spine to get it through. I was worried about the lace inside tearing, but fortunately it didn’t.
The cover needed decoration too, and some kind of fastening. Eventually I found some outsize decorative wooden buttons on Ebay, and some fancy string-like trimming in a local shop. I had planned to sew the button on, but it would have spoiled the effect of the lace inside as the stitching would have shown on it. In the end, I glued it on with fabric glue after creating some fake stitching to make it look sewn. I also glued the trim to the underside of it, and the trimming then wrapped round the book and was held in place by the edge of the button. Surprisingly, it all worked out very well.
I finished it yesterday, and handed it over, wrapped in Christmas paper, to Maria. She won’t open it till Christmas day, and I really, really hope she likes it – but more than that, I’m just so relieved to have it finished at last. And for those of a worried disposition, she doesn’t read my blog so I think it’s safe to post……
A little bit of research on Google produced this map from 1906, with the cottage marked on it
The Welcome sign on the outside of the cottage, plus a view from outside, looking into the kitchen
The original brick floor in the Victorian kitchen extension. The gold stencil on the left page echoes the brick pattern of the floor.
The beam above this wall light in an upstairs corridor is covered with 1950s newspaper, announcing Queen Elizabeth the second’s coronation
Close-up of the stencilling, created with gold paint sprayed through part of the lace curtain
The stairs to the attic master bedroom were all of uneven heights and sizes and twisted round in a curve. The door at the bottom warned you to Mind the Stairs.
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.
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……….
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.
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.
This week I’ve been inspired by Kim Manley Ort’s post, A Visual CV, to have a go myself. There are ten questions, to be answered visually, without words.
I’ve found it surprisingly difficult. The same image could have answered several different questions, and some of them don’t quite capture what I wanted to show. With others I felt I’d like to use more than one image to say what I want to say, and then there were all the ones I wanted to use but couldn’t. But I may be over-thinking it – probably the best way is to make quick decisions and let intuition decide. Taken as a whole, I think these probably represent me quite well.
If you feel like having a go yourself, leave a link to your own post in the comments.
In the last month, our Airbnb bookings have really taken off. We’re in the middle, right now, of more than a fortnight’s worth of back to back bookings and that, plus my casual job in the local libraries, has taken up so much of my time and attention that this week’s blog post is only just scraping into what is still, technically, this week.
I’ve never done so much bed changing, house cleaning, and laundry. I’ve never waited for so many people to turn up at the door, rarely arriving anywhere close to the time that they say they will. I’ve never set so many breakfast tables or bought so much bread and toilet paper. But it’s been good – everyone who’s stayed so far has been lovely, it’s been interesting to meet and talk to so many people, and it’s producing a goodly amount of much needed income. The guest before the current ones also presented us with a freshly-caught trout, which was great but led to some consternation about which of us was going to gut it.
Out of all the people who’ve booked, there’s only been one awkward customer and he hasn’t even arrived yet. He’s booked in next week for five days, made the booking several days ago, and has been bombarding me with messages ever since. First off he wanted to know exactly how far we were from his place of work. This seemed to me like something he could have worked out for himself, but I duly found the website for his workplace, got the postcode, entered both postcodes into Google maps, hit Directions, got the info, and sent it back to him. Then he wanted to know if he could have a discount for a longish stay, so we took a bit off the usual fee. To do this, I had to send him a Special Offer, and he then wanted to know every step of the process – answer: I don’t know because no-one’s ever sent me one – and could he pay with this card or that card, and what did he have to click on, etc, etc – answer: click Accept and try following the instructions.
After he did this and booked, the next message I got asked how he could cancel and what the terms and conditions were. Not that he wanted to cancel, he pointed out, but he wanted to know. I didn’t say that perhaps it would have been a good idea to check this out before he booked. I suggested he clicked on the clearly marked link on our listing, where it says Cancellation: Moderate, which would take him straight to what he wanted to know.
Then it was: could he cook his lunch and dinner in our kitchen? – he’d bring his own implements. Answer: No – because it clearly states in our listing that it’s light use of the kitchen only and not for serious cooking. I suggested various takeaways close by. OK, he said, could he put a week’s worth of frozen meals in our freezer? I gave him a yes on this one, because although our freezer is very small it’s fairly empty at the moment and I was getting tired of saying no.
After that it was: could he drop off his luggage early in the morning before he went to work, and if he couldn’t do that, could he bring it the night before and leave it here. Answer: No – because I’d already made it a condition of taking the booking that he couldn’t check in till after 5.30pm as we had other guests staying, I was going to be out for most of the day, and Geoff will be out the whole day into the evening. First thing in the morning I’ll be tending to our departing guests, running Geoff to the station, stripping the bed and getting the room and the house ready, and trying to get out the door and have the long and leisurely lunch with a friend that I had planned long before I knew he was coming. I also had the feeling he wouldn’t turn up when he said he would (hardly anyone does) and would probably keep me talking and be hard to get out the door.
Every day brings a new request, and he hasn’t even arrived yet. I’m rather dreading his stay. I’ve turned it into a game now – we try to guess what the next request is going to be, becoming more and more outlandish as we rather hysterically try to out-think him. Today I’m holding my breath because, so far, he hasn’t been in touch.
While all this has been going on, I’ve been offered more and more library work. I’m very grateful for the work – it’s pleasant, not terribly badly paid, and the people are nice. It’s just that I wouldn’t choose to do it if I didn’t have to. Integrating the Airbnb commitments with the library commitments can sometimes be a major exercise in logistical planning. Geoff is fantastic at doing lots of the practical stuff, like hoovering, but he doesn’t have the knack of making things look nice and dressing the room properly, so it has to me that does these things. One or other of us also has to be in to receive them, which can be difficult when they turn up much earlier or several hours later than they say they will.
Anyway, this a very long and rambling excuse as to why I haven’t written anything this week, till now. And I don’t have much to say this time. Nor have I managed to get out and do any photography. However, the skies as seen from my study window have been nothing short of spectacular, so I’m going to leave you with those. I hope you enjoy.
I’ve struggled to write anything this week, because I simply can’t write in the way I usually do. If I’m to write anything at all, then it has to be about what’s going on for me right now, and that means a much more personal post than normal. The truth is, I’ve been feeling very, very low, to the extent of having prolonged crying sessions most days that do very little to make me feel any better. There are lots of things to feel stressed about, it’s true, but things have been worse before this and I’ve held it together far better.
Today I suddenly realised what’s wrong with me – I need to fill the well. I feel overwhelmed and at the end of my rope with nothing left in me to give, am totally drained and exhausted and, because of it, swing back and forth between numbness and over-emotional outbursts. Normally I don’t get to this state because when I see myself headed there I make sure to do things that help restore my self to me – things that fill the well.
The problem has been that most of those things are no longer available, or at least not easily available. The first of these I’ve written at length about before – there’s nowhere round here (or nowhere I’ve discovered, anyway) where I can be alone in a wild and natural place. I’m miles and miles from the sea, and there are no woods that haven’t been turned into Center Parc-style commodities. Nature has always been my solace, but it has to be fairly empty of people and full of silence and peace for it to work.
My garden is a consolation, and sitting in the sun always helps, but it hasn’t been warm enough lately to be able to do that. On top of that, we took on an allotment late last year which we never got round to doing anything with, and instead of being able to enjoy gardening in our own garden, I’ve felt the pressure to get it sorted out quickly so that we can get on with the allotment. This week I decided, reluctantly, that we have to let it go. Geoff likes the idea of it but not the reality of what’s involved, and I simply can’t manage a very large garden of our own plus a large allotment. It’s really too much.
Usually the well fills up regularly through the joy I get from having pets. However, one of my cats died last year and my remaining cat is eighteen years old, and going slowly downhill – she’s unlikely to last more than another few months, I think. It’s my turn to give to her and I’m glad to be able to do that, but there’s little coming back now to sustain me, and all the sadness of seeing her slow decline. I’m longing for a kitten, or a dog, or preferably both, but it would upset her and I can’t do that to her. It will have to wait.
Much of my well-filling comes through having time alone, but even this hasn’t been an option. With Geoff unemployed, he’s at home 24/7 and I hardly ever get the house to myself, with that blissful feeling of peace and the knowledge that I can do whatever I like for the day without having to consider anyone else.
And finally, what has proved to be the last straw is the loss of my reading time. I wake up early, usually about 6.00ish, and I like to spend an hour or two absorbed and lost in a book before starting my day. I love to read and this is the only time of day that I do it. I love the bedroom in the early morning, with the sun streaming in and the crystal in the window creating rainbows on the wall. I love the quiet at that time of day, the only sound being birdsong coming through the open window, and it’s often when I get my best ideas.
Of course, Geoff no longer has to get up early and is there with me now. Although it’s companionable to drink tea together and chat, it’s not what I most need and I long for my hour of solitude. I feel so ungrateful as I write this, because I couldn’t ask for anyone better to share my life with. I know I’m lucky – but the need to be alone for a while goes deep and demands to be satisfied.
The loss of that quiet early morning time has led to me breaking down twice in the past. The first time was after my parents were killed in an accident many years ago and I had to stay in their house for a while afterwards, with my brother and my grandmother. I was never able to get any time alone, and I needed it to grieve and to just be me, without all the sudden responsibility that had been thrust on me. One day it all got too much and I ran out of the house, walking the ten miles back to my own home where I could find the personal space that I needed.
The second time was when I was teaching IT at a college outreach centre. My habit was to get to where I worked before 8.00am, let myself into the building, make a cup of tea, do my photocopying for the day, and take some quiet time to myself before a demanding day full of teaching. Then we got a new manager, who also turned up at this time, and wouldn’t leave me alone. She spent most of the time complaining to me about all the things that she wasn’t happy about. The rest of the time she’d ask me to do some little job (‘since I was there’), which meant that my teaching prep didn’t get fully done and I had to spend my lunch break on it. I’d held down this full-time teaching job for a year without problem, but when I lost this morning time I burnt out within a few months, went on sick leave for six weeks, and ended up resigning.
It’s clear that I have to reclaim my early mornings and also find some new ways of filling the well, or somehow manage to reinstate some of the old ones. I’m not sure how I’m going to do that right now, but I’m looking for ways. Awareness of the problem is a good start.
This is my story at the moment, but filling the well is important for all of us in everything we do. Creativity demands time and space to ponder and dream, along with the stimulation of new places and experiences. If we don’t fill the well, it drains dry eventually and leaves us feeling blocked, flat, and uninspired at best, burnt out and depressed at worst. Whatever it is we give out in life, we need to fill up again so that we have something still to give, and the greater the number of ways we can fill our well, the better. What fills your well will be different to what fills mine, but whatever it is you need to do to top yours up, you owe it to yourself to do it.
Have you heard of Street Wisdom? It’s a non-profit venture that shows people how to use the streets around them to get intuitive answers to questions about their lives.
‘It’s a simple idea, based on the proposition that the environment and people around us are full of wisdom we largely overlook or ignore. Street Wisdom allows us to tune into the rich stimulus and learn. As our strap line says – answers are everywhere – you just have to ask.’
I’ve been intrigued by this since I first saw it, as it seems to me to have a lot in common with contemplative photography. The aims are somewhat different, but there’s a big overlap and the process is really very similar. So when I saw a London-based ‘train the trainer’ event on Street Wisdom’s site, I felt compelled to sign up for it, even if it did seem a bit premature to be training to run events when I hadn’t even been on one and didn’t really know what’s involved.
The format goes like this: the first hour is for ‘tuning up’ and getting you into the right space in your head to absorb what the street has to tell you. The second hour involves going off on your own on a wander round the streets, with a question in your mind that you’d like answered, and an openness to letting the answer come to you through what you see, hear and feel as you walk. The third hour is spent sharing experiences with the rest of the group.
You come prepared with a question to ask. It can be anything, but the more specific it is the better. You want to avoid anything too simple or prosaic, like ‘what shall I cook for dinner?’ and anything too deep and non-specific, such as ‘what’s the meaning of life?’. You aim for something somewhere in the middle for which you’d really like an answer.
I’ve been working recently on a change of direction, as some of you know. I want to move away from ‘how to work the camera’ courses and towards a contemplative, more creative approach that doesn’t depend on a knowledge of technology to allow you to participate meaningfully in photography. One thing that has bothered me about this is the question of finding the people I could offer this to. I know they’re out there, but I’m not sure how to attract them. This was my question, then: ‘how do I find my ideal clients?’.
We were a very large group so we were divided up into four smaller groups, each led by one of the Street Wisdom team. I’d been curious about the tune-up part of the day, and despite being incredibly simple it was amazingly effective. We were sent off on a series of roughly ten-minute walks, on our own, with a simple instruction to follow each time. These were: ‘Look for what attracts you‘, ‘Slow…..right……down‘, ‘Listen to the story‘, and ‘Find the beauty in everything‘.
I found the ‘slow right down’ instruction particularly effective. This isn’t usually something I have any problem with, and I’m used to doing it for photography purposes, but I hadn’t tried doing it in a busy, bustling space like Covent Garden. I was already moving pretty slowly by this time, but I slowed even more, eventually just sitting for a while and looking. It created a calm space within me, unaffected by the hustle and hurry going on all around. When you let go of trying to get somewhere or achieve anything, you’re able to stay in the moment, which is a very calming place to be.
Once we’d got ourselves all tuned up and in the zone, it was time to go out on an extended walkwith our question in mind. I wandered off towards some quieter streets as I was feeling a little tired by then. The temptation is to think too much and to actively look for answers, rather than just letting them come to you. Initially I had a sense of forcing it slightly, probably because I was worried I wouldn’t ‘get’ anything, so I had to let that worry go and simply walk and look and listen, letting it come to me rather than hunting it down. This is where the value of the tuning up exercises kicks in – they put you into a relaxed mental state that helps prevent your rational mind getting too much of a look in.
The first thing that struck me as having significance was this bridge. It connects two buildings, one old and one new, and my reaction was that this is what I’m trying to do – find a passageway that will take me from the old to the new. I’m also trying to move from a traditional (old) idea of how to teach photography to a new one. The new approach is very different and may take a little getting used to for participants, just like the bridge. The bridge was oddly twisted – almost like a strand of DNA. DNA is about life and the form it takes – was this telling me that my new direction is ‘in my genes’? what I’m meant to do? A new form of life? I feel there’s quite a lot to unpack in this symbol of connection, but it needs time to percolate in my mind before the full meaning becomes clear to me. What I do know is that it was an important symbol for me that stopped me in my tracks.
I’d noticed that I was looking up a lot and shortly after this became aware of several planes crossing the sky, prompting the thought that I should be aiming to fly high. I’ve always played it small in my life – one of my biggest issues – because it simply wasn’t safe to be visible as a child. If I was noticed, I was criticised, told off, put down, and the instinct to hide is still strong. The signs were telling me that it was time to let this go, aim higher and make myself visible.
The next sign reinforced this message. High up, a small tree was perched at the edge of a roof garden. It seemed to be thrusting towards the sky, climbing as high as it could. It was obviously out of its normal environment, and there was something a bit precarious about it, but I admired it for its courage to grow wherever it was placed and to reach for its full potential. Although it looked quite vulnerable, I realised that as long as it was well-rooted it was quite safe up there. The message doesn’t need spelling out!
There was also this tree, which stood there defiantly being itself. Despite only having the barest beginnings of new leaves, it looked totally confident in itself, willing to show its true, unadorned nature to the world.
Next were a row of telephone boxes – communicate, tell everybody about it.
Then this – DUMP, which I took to mean ‘dump the rubbish’ and get on with what I really want to do.
This was followed by ‘Building on your design’ – suggesting to me that I should build on what I’ve already established, and also that I could build on the design of the Street Wisdom event. There were a number of things they did that I could use as a foundation for my own work and adapt for my own purposes.
And finally, ‘Kickstart your day the rockstar way’. This really made me smile, and also reminded me that eating breakfast is a good idea – something I frequently don’t do.
We reconvened after this, and discussed our experiences in the group. Everybody had gained something valuable from it, and as it was a training event there was a lot to discuss around the business of how to do it ourselves. The thing that most surprised me was how very relaxed I felt. I’m not comfortable in busy, noisy environments and tend to be quite badly affected by the general hustle, bustle and impatience all around me. I like the stimulation of cities, but I find them hard to handle. At this point, though, I was chilled!
Even without the series of signs and messages, I’d have got a lot from this. Realising how it was possible to stay in a calm and quiet space even in the midst of crowds and noise was a revelation to me. As someone pointed out, this is meditation, although of a different kind to what we expect. As a kind of practical urban version of it, it avoids the sometimes off-putting connotations that go along with the word and more people are likely to be open to its benefits.
We were urged to run an event of our own in the next two weeks so as to consolidate our learning, even if we only do it with a couple of friends. I definitely intend to do this, although I’m not sure at the moment who I’m going to ask as most of my local friends are tied up right now with various life and family crises. So if you happen to be in the Newark/Lincoln area and you want to try this, please do get in touch.
I loved the day, the organisers were lovely people – thank you, Jim – and I thoroughly enjoyed meeting the other participants. Street Wisdom is a terrific concept, all the better for the fact that it’s offered free of charge. I urge you to give it a go – have a look on the website to see what’s happening in your area. And watch this space……….
Our second living room, or snug, with its woodburner stove
I’m behind with my blog posts this week, partly due to a nasty cold but also because I’ve been sorting out a new venture. You may have heard of Airbnb – it’s a site where you can list your spare room for holiday rent, as in a kind of informal bed and breakfast. You can offer anything from a sofa bed with nothing else provided to full professional bed and breakfast, and set your own prices for it. People book through the website, you get some spare cash, they get something individual and characterful and/or reasonably priced, and hopefully everybody’s happy.
We have a lovely sunny front room that wasn’t really being used so we’ve turned it into a bedroom, and if someone stays they get this, plus light use of the kitchen, share of the bathroom, and use of our second living room or snug, and the garden when the weather’s nice. It’s taken me ages to put the listing together as there’s rather a lot of information to write up, plus a profile to create and photos to take and upload.
This has been my only photography this week and it only took about five minutes to shoot the photos, and half an hour or so to process them. However, I spent several hours before all of that cleaning and tidying so that it all looked good enough to photograph. It’s not that we’re particularly dirty or messy, just that we’re not immaculate or minimalist and the house gets cleaned on a room rotation basis so it’s seldom all freshly done at once. (It has made me slightly apprehensive about the amount of work involved every time someone stays………)
This is a different kind of photography, of a utilitarian nature, and I didn’t spend much time on it, thinking that as long as the rooms look appealing and the photos are sharp enough, its other photographic merits aren’t that important. Photography is one of the strangest of the visual arts, in that it has this other very practical use of recording what’s there so that people who’re not there can see it.
It’s this muddling of art with documentation that I believe leads to people getting very upset when they find out a photograph has been manipulated in some way – there’s an expectation that photographs tell the truth. They don’t, of course, even when used like this – you’d know it was the same rooms if you came in and saw them, but they look subtly different when photographed and I feel oddly as if I’m looking at someone else’s home when I view them. It was Garry Winogrand who said he photographed things to see what they look like photographed, and that alone is enough to make photography interesting because things do look different photographed.
But getting back to practical matters, if you know anyone who’d like a welcoming, comfortable place to stay in Newark on Trent, for a very reasonable £35 a night (£45 for two), you know where to send them!
*For last year’s words belong to last year’s language, and next year’s words await another voice.
I’ve lost my way, I really have, but I’m finding it again, and discovering that it isn’t the same way after all, but a new one. The path I’ve been on till now was never wrong or badly chosen – it was taking me where I thought I wanted to go and it ended up teaching me a lot about what I really did and didn’t want. Now I’ve changed my mind about where I want to go and how I want to get there. The path I’ve been on has become a little rocky and uneven lately and I’ve nearly turned an ankle on it more than once. Sometimes I’ve even sat down on one of its rocks and not felt much like moving again. I’ve noticed another path, a lush green grassy one, that’s been running alongside this one but is now beginning to veer off in another direction. That’s the one I’m choosing. I’m just picking my way over the rough and boggy ground that lies between me and it right now, and when I get there I’ll get going again. No doubt there will be obstacles on this one in places, too, but I like the look of where it’s headed.
For those who’re not into metaphor, let me talk to you about what’s been happening. You may have noticed that I haven’t been here for quite some time – this is the longest I’ve ever gone without writing a blog post since I started this blog. I’ve been doing much thinking and pondering. A lot has happened and I don’t know where to start or how to tell it, so I’m going to take the easy way out and bullet point it – in no particular order. Some things are events and some things are feelings, thoughts, or things I’ve learned about myself (which I suppose are a kind of event in themselves):
• We’ve bought a house and hope to move into it in February
• I’ve decided not to continue studying photography in any formal kind of way, although I still want to learn and grow
• I want to expand on the photography classes I usually teach and do something a little different and more creative with them, which will involve finding out where the market for that lies
• This blog has become stale and tired and I want to make some big changes
• I yearn to write about a lot of other things as well as photography
• I’ve been asked to write another blog for a local magazine which will involve a lot of work for no pay but I’m going to do it anyway because it will be interesting
• I’ve realised how much I dislike writing articles about the technical aspects of photography, and although it’s my only paid work at the moment, something needs to change here
• I want to learn to make books
• I have little motivation to write, do photography, or anything else unless I can share what I do with other people and have some kind of interaction with them
Let me start with the first big change. We’ve bought a house – it’s an old Victorian townhouse with three floors (four if you count the cellar) and four big bedrooms and two reception rooms. For the first time ever, we’ll have space to spread out and expand. Space has been an issue for us since I first moved in with Geoff and we had to combine the contents of two small houses into one small house. We’ve got rid of a lot of things, cleared the clutter, done all that. The fact remains that we still have a lot of stuff that’s related to our interests and activities, which in turn add to our quality of life, and we’d both like to follow up on even more interests that will involve even more stuff.
I think this is important. There are things I’ve given up doing due to lack of space – I used to paint but I needed space to leave work in progress in situ, and space to store materials. It wasn’t the only reason I stopped, but it was a contributing factor. There are other interests I’d like to take up, but the problem of having to find room to store equipment and materials has always been enough to put them on hold – I’ve got an awful lot of things squashed into a small space as it is. Fortunately, neither photography nor writing take up huge amounts of room and that’s one reason why these have become central in my life. With this new house both of us will have more freedom and space to explore new things.
Even more importantly, we expect to gain the kind of stability that we haven’t had for over two years now. While I’ve done it all quite willingly, I do feel as if I’ve spent the last couple of years following Geoff round the country from job to job and trying to give him the kind of support he’s needed, often at the expense of fulfilling my own needs. Lately I’ve felt that I no longer know what I want or who I am. I’ve lost my identity to some extent because I feel I’ve been living Geoff’s life – or more accurately, our life as a couple – more than I have my own. I’ve lost track of what I want as a separate person – to have, achieve, give, be. With the knowledge that we’ll now be staying in the same place for an extended period of time, I’ve had room to think about all these things for the first time in ages.
One thing I’ve given a huge amount of thought to is whether or not to continue studying photography formally. In many ways this dilemma has been solved by circumstances, because I simply can’t afford to pay for another course with OCA. Oddly enough, I find this doesn’t bother me nearly as much as I thought it would. In terms of academic photography, or photography that situates itself in the conceptual art world, I think I’ve gone as far as I’m likely to go. I could say a lot more about this, and I probably will at some point, but I know that world is not for me although I’ll always have an interest in it.
This doesn’t mean I’m in any sense giving up – just searching for a different direction to move in. Looking back over my life, I see that a constant driving force for me has been to create beautiful things or in some other way add beauty to the world. (Sounds embarrassingly pretentious put like that, but it could be something as small as planting flowers or re-arranging the furniture). It’s not fashionable, this feeling, but it’s real and it’s important to me. I want to continue to take photographs and to do something with them that satisfies this urge in me. I want to find a way to avoid the saccharine pretty-prettiness this often leads to, and create something with more depth and more feeling that still celebrates the dark beauty of our world. I don’t know how I’ll do this, or even if I can, but I want to try.
Which leads to my next thing: I want to learn how to make books. Books have been a passion all my life. Not just reading them, although this is vital, but also the tangible aspects of books. I love the way they look, the feel of them in my hand, the weight, the varying textures of the covers and pages, the smell of a new book, the history of an old one. I love them whether they’re blank inside like a journal, or full of the promise of their contents. I do have a Kindle, and it’s great for when I travel, but there just isn’t anything to compare with holding a real book. Combining my passion for books with my passion for photography seems like the way to go.
I’d like to make two kinds of books: artist’s books that contain my own work and are likely to be one-off pieces, and blank books for people to buy and fill with their own creativity and thoughts. So far I haven’t been successful at finding any kind of instructional course locally, but I do have a project in hand that will force me to get started on my own, with the aid of Youtube videos. It’s going to be a little book of photographs and other bits and pieces for my landlady, Maria, who has now become a friend. After we leave, she’ll sell this house. I know she dearly loved this little cottage when she lived in it – as do we – and I want to make a memento of it for her. I’ll write more about this in due course.
I can’t write about everything I bulleted above without this post reaching (even more) epic proportions, but there is one last thing that I need to say. I feel my blog has become tired and stale and I want to make changes. Photography has been – and is – a huge part of my life but there are other things I long to write about. I’m going to do things differently, and I know I’ll lose some of you because of it and that makes me sad, but perhaps I’ll gain others. At the moment I’m not quite sure how this will all pan out, but I think I’ll probably give the blog a different name to reflect the different content. I will still be writing about photography and it will play a big part, but I’d like the blog to reflect the whole of my life and not just one part of it. There are times when photography blends into the background of my life and at these times I find it very hard to write anything. There are other times when I’m enthused about or fascinated by other things and I’d like to feel free to write about those too. It’s going against everything they tell you about blogs – to concentrate on one small niche, to make it clear what people will find there, etc – but sometimes you have to ignore the advice and do what you feel the need to do. To quote Walt Whitman, ‘I contain multitudes’ – and I’d like to write about them.
I’m going now, but I hope to be back very soon. Please forgive me for this very long and rather self-indulgent post, but since I haven’t been around for a while I wanted to explain. And although these may sound a lot like new year resolutions, it’s just coincidence that the changes are happening now. I’ve always thought that if things need changing, then you don’t need to wait till there’s a new year to do it.
Finally, and very importantly, I want to wish everyone who’s made it this far the happiest of times in 2014 – last year was a difficult year for so many people and I hope that 2014 will bring a smoother ride for all of us.
As you slide down the banister of life, may the splinters never point in the wrong direction!