I have written before, in many and various places, how confined I feel living where I do. My home is dark, partly because it just is, and partly because there are so many houses here, efficiently stashed together into terraces to take up minimal space, and between the houses are mean, narrow little streets where the light struggles to make its way in. A small slice of sky is all there is.
Often I long for sky, wide open expanses of it. When I drive to Thanet, where the land is flat and the sky goes on forever, my heart begins to lift and flutter, my breathing slows, and something in me unwinds. And I don’t even like the place that much – it just has a lot of sky.
Where I grew up, in Scotland, we have a lot more space than we do here in south-east England and a lot of it’s pretty empty if you don’t count the sheep. I lived in a highly populated part of it but I spent a lot of time in the mountains and on the moors and coasts, feeling as if it was just me and the sky and endless, wonderful space. I’ve never regretted leaving Scotland, but I do miss that sky.
The sky is this planet’s negative space – mostly empty, isn’t used for much in itself, but absolutely essential to make everything else feel right.
This photo of a couple with an umbrella was taken through a fountain – the abstract, painterly result was an unexpected, and welcome, surprise.
Uncertainty is the name of the game right now. We’ve had seven months of being uncertain whether or not Geoff would be made redundant, and now that he has there’s even more uncertainty. Will he get a job? Where will it be? Will we have to move house? Will it pay as much as he gets now? How will we survive if it doesn’t? Will I be able to supplement our income doing what I love to do? Will I have to get a ‘normal’ job? What happens if he doesn’t find a job? If we move will I find friends as good as the ones I have here? Will I be lonely? Will I miss this place? And on and on.
It’s the middle of the night, and I’ve been lying awake pondering these and other questions. And then it struck me that uncertainty is what makes photography so rewarding and so much fun. When I go out with my camera I have no idea what I’m going to find, or if I’ll come back with any decent shots, and that’s exciting. I set out with an open mind, a large dose of curiosity, and the assumption that I’m going to have a good time finding out. Sometimes I’m disappointed with what I shoot and delete most of it, but I’ve still gained a lot from the process, and I simply allow myself to feel the disappointment for a moment and then move on.
More often, I find something unexpected – a shot that turned out far better than I could have hoped, or something that looks completely different – and better – in the photograph than it did in reality. I come back with treasures. Going out on a photography session is an adventure – I don’t know what will happen and that’s exactly what I like. Imagine if you knew beforehand what shots you’d take, what they’d be of, how they’d turn out. Dull, isn’t it?
I want to approach the rest of my life like this. I want to treat it as an exciting adventure instead of a worrying unknown. I want to approach it with curiosity and an open mind. I want to discard the bad bits without regret and move on to what’s next. I want to get excited over the unexpected. I want to find treasures I didn’t anticipate.
“Faith means living with uncertainty – feeling your way through life, letting your heart guide you like a lantern in the dark.“ Dan Millman
We’re not good at showers, here in the UK. Visit a lot of our bed and breakfast places and you’ll find yourself having to soap up and rinse off under a pathetic trickle of water that emerges from a very small shower-head with an array of tiny pinhead-sized holes. Usually quite a few of these are blocked up with limescale and it’s often more like standing in heavy mist than it is like being showered.
You’ll have gathered from this that I like a good powerful shower, and usually I get one, but last week the tube that runs inside the metal shower hose split, and most of the water wasn’t making it more than an inch or so upwards. But it’s an easy thing to fix so we got a new hose from Wilkinson and Geoff put it on. Two days later the tube in that one split, even worse this time, and for the last few days we’ve been trying to shower under the equivalent of a small leak in the plumbing.
This morning involved a trip to somewhere that sells shower hoses of a quality that lasts longer than a couple of days (never buy one of these from Wilkinsons!), and you’ve no idea how wonderful it was to get a decent shower at last. I stood there, water cascading steamily over me, and thought how the hot shower is one of life’s great, under-appreciated pleasures.
Some of you may know that I’ve recently become a Mortal Muse. One of my Muse-ly duties is to choose a photo from each of the three Mortal Muse Flickr groups once a fortnight. This is a lot harder than you’d think and has involved much chewing of lower lip, releasing of troubled sighs, and eating of chocolate. I should have known this wasn’t the job for someone who suffers from terminal indecision on a regular basis. (And I’m going to have to do it once a fortnight!)
It did make me start thinking about what it was that made me look closer at something and what kind of images were making it onto my shortlist. This is all personal stuff of course, and I’m not claiming my criteria are the right ones, or that anyone should try to fit in with them. Nonetheless, they are mine and I thought it might be interesting to figure out exactly what they are, because I’m not sure I know myself. Here are some thoughts:
I wanted to find something a little different. Clichés are clichés for good reason, and a dandelion head is a beautiful thing even if it has been photographed a million times – and then some more. But the problem with a cliché is that it doesn’t mark you out from the crowd unless you do it more beautifully and more stunningly than anyone else has. And sometimes somebody does. But most of the time I moved quickly past anything there was a lot of.
I saw some wonderful shots of babies and children, and I may yet choose some of these. On the whole, though, these shots are more meaningful to parents and relatives than they are to anyone else, and the same goes for wedding and engagement shots. If I choose something like this, it will be because it goes beyond that meaning and says something universal – or maybe just because it’s really funny (like this shot – which was chosen by another Muse before I got to it).
I’m getting into little idiosyncrasies now, but I hate it when people put large watermarks on their pictures. I can’t look at anything but the watermark and it really puts me off. I know it’s not nice to have your pictures stolen, but if you put them on as low-res shots, nobody can do much with them anyway. And did I say it really puts me off?
And finally lots of photos were really nice – but just nice, really. I felt the need of something more, some undefinable ingredient that stopped me in my tracks.
It's a well-known fact that lots of this stuff makes decision-making much easier
That ruled out loads, but still left me with a lot more to choose from. It’s much harder to say what it was about a picture that made me take a better look than it is to say what made me pass on by. I’ve just tried making a list but that didn’t work at all, because the shots that spoke to me did so because it wasn’t easy to lump them together in any kind of way. They might have a certain mood or atmosphere or gorgeously beautiful light, might be funny or quirky (I do favour things that make me smile), could be unusual takes on usual things or interestingly composed, or they might show a wonderful appreciation of colour. And of course, so much of it depended on what I brought to the picture myself – my own associations and feelings and memories.
When I was choosing from the pool that has a fortnightly theme, I did like it a lot when people interpreted that theme in a way you might not immediately think of. And then sometimes I liked something quite ordinary simply because it was so beautifully done. I think, on the whole, I’m drawn to things that are a little different, but the difference can manifest in all sorts of ways.
The hardest bit came when I did have a shortlist, because sometimes there was something I loved that I couldn’t choose because that person had been featured too recently, or it belonged to another Muse (I can choose these, but it doesn’t seem right somehow), or it was too similar to another Muse’s choice. And then I felt sad for the ones that got away.
It feels strange and a little disquieting to be One Who Decides. I want everyone to feel huge pleasure in their own photography and creativity, even if the result isn’t always something I’d make my personal choice – I’d like everyone to have that gold star feeling. (I know how chuffed I was when one of mine got picked many months ago.) And there are all these pictures I’d like to choose but can’t, because I only get to do this once a fortnight and I can only pick three. I want to leave messages saying, ‘I nearly chose yours!’
All I can say is, thank heavens there are nine of us, with a wide variety of tastes and interests that lead to an interesting mix of styles and subject matter – otherwise I think the responsibility would be just too much!
We recently had our second wedding anniversary and, as is our custom (although obviously not a very long-established one), we booked a table for lunch at the restaurant where we held our reception. So there we were, all dressed up and ready to go, and out the front door and heading for the car…….or so I thought. We don’t have a driveway so the car can sometimes be parked a bit of a distance away. Still, some way down the road I began to think that this was much further than usual and I said to Geoff, ‘Where is the car?’ ‘Opposite the house’, he replied. ‘So why are we walking this way?’, I asked. ‘You’ll see’, he said, with a small smile and a glint of something in his eye.
I kept going with the questions but obviously wasn’t going to get an answer. Eventually we ended up at the main road and crossed it, then he stopped. I looked at him. ‘We’re waiting for a car’, he said. I started mentally flipping through the options of who might be giving us a lift – there weren’t many and none seemed likely. I looked at him again. ‘Just watch the road. You’ll know which car it is when you see it’, he said.
And suddenly, there it was. A 1958 Chevrolet Bel Air looking very out of place among the usual Friday lunchtime traffic. And what a car! I don’t get at all excited about cars usually, but I do love old ones – they have so much character and quality about them. And this was a beauty – roughly the same age as me, but in considerably better nick, inside and out. It was driven by Geoff’s friend Stuart, who provides classic cars for weddings when he’s not being a driving instructor – a group of them had been out drinking a week or so before and Geoff had hatched this plan to surprise me.
As you can see, he was mightily pleased with himself, and I do think he had every reason to be – even if we did have to come home on the bus!
Check out the fluffy dice hanging from the rear-view mirror!
Stuart – our chauffeur for the day
And if you want proof that using a wide-angle lens makes things further away look smaller than they really are, here it is. Sorry, Stuart – if I’d had longer I’d have stretched you to normal height in Photoshop.
My ebook is nearly ready to go, and I’ve been giving the sales page a lot of thought recently. I want to write it in a way that’s true to myself but might still entice somebody (maybe even more than one somebody) to actually buy it. I really hate these hugely-long, yellow-highlighted, online sales letters full of sensational promises that no product could ever fulfil, but in the back of my mind a little voice has been saying ‘but that’s what you have to do if you want to sell your book’.
So I was absolutely delighted this morning to get a subscription reminder notice from Philosophy Now magazine, in which the first paragraph goes like this:
Your subscription to Philosophy Now ran out with Issue 83, and ever since then we’ve been inconsolable. “What”, we ask ourselves rhetorically, “is the point of continuing? Issue 85 is really good, but the achievement seems hollow, futile, if you aren’t going to read it…” Bring meaning back to our lives: if you send us a cheque for £15.50 we’ll send you the next six issues and I’ll be able to wean my colleagues off their anti-depressants….
…..Rick Lewis, Editor
I only let the subscription lapse because I’m very, very broke at the moment, but this letter means that I’ll be renewing the moment I have some spare cash. It not only made my day – I laughed out loud when I read it – it taught me a few things too about how connecting with people gets far better results than an in-your-face sales letter ever could.
Those of you who know anything about Spike Milligan might also know that before he died, and with his typical brand of humour, he asked that his gravestone bear the inscription “I told you I was ill”. He now lies buried in the graveyard of Winchelsea Church, and he almost got his way with the inscription, but it’s in Irish Gaelic instead of English. The Chichester Diocese got a bit uppity about having the English version on the stone, and after two years of wrangling they finally said the equivalent of ‘oh, alright then, but only if you do it in Irish’. (Milligan held an Irish passport)
A couple of weekends ago we went to Winchelsea to see it. The excuse – and it was purely an excuse for a day out – was that Geoff had completed a cryptic crossword that was themed around the quote and he thought it would be fun to be photographed beside the headstone holding the completed crossword.
When we got there we couldn’t find it and it turned out that, in a trick of fate and timing that I’m sure would have pleased Spike enormously, the gravestone had been removed just a few days beforehand. His wife had just died and it had been taken away to have her name engraved on the stone, so all that was left to us was a mound of unmarked earth – but we took the photo anyway and we managed to buy a postcard of how it ought to have looked.
That was the only disappointment of the day, and there were lots of compensations. Before we started looking for the grave, we had some lunch in a beautiful little beer garden belonging to the pub in Winchelsea, and I found this bench quietly being taken over by nature.
Winchelsea Church had the most amazing stained glass windows. The photographs don’t do them justice – the colours were softer, lighter and more pastel than stained glass usually is, but I had trouble getting that to show in the images.
And we found the grave of someone called Seddon Wildeblood, which sounds like something out of an eighteenth century romantic novel. Wonderful!
Then we went to Winchelsea Beach, which is a huge expanse of sand, sea and pebbles, stretching for miles and only broken up by the wooden groynes that criss-cross it.
There was a powerful wind that seemed ideal for a bit of kite flying. Unfortunately it was so strong that, after a while, the lines of the kite got tangled up into a tight, Gordian knot that was impossible to undo with the wind whipping everything around, including my hair over my face. In the end we bundled it all up and threw it in the back of the car, to be slowly unpicked later at home.
I played around with some abstract water and sand photos too.
Then we finished up with tea and cakes in Rye, and staying true to my inability to remember to photograph things before I eat them, I ate them and forgot to photograph them – but I will tell you it was one of the nicest slices of coffee and walnut cake I’ve ever had.
I love books; I’ve always loved books, with a passion. I read all the time and can easily get through a book in a day (and do other things as well). But as much as I love the content of books, what I like equally much is their physicality – I love the weight of them in my hand, the lovely squared-off heft of them. I love the way they smell: every book smells different and each one is enticing in its own way. I love the feel of the pages, whether they’re tissue-thin or thick as card; matt, or smooth and glossy. I love shiny new books, for their perfect edges and untouched quality, and I love old, tattered books, for their faded covers and soft, much-handled, pages. (Kindle, eat your heart out)
So perhaps it’s not surprising that I’ve had a yearning to make my own books for some time now. Eventually I’d like to combine my photography projects with hand-made books so that I could create beautiful, individual works of art with each element enhancing the other.
That’s for the future, and you’ve got to start somewhere. I haven’t made it to a book-binding class yet but I have made my first ever book. I know it’s not perfect, and it doesn’t have any of my photos in it, but I made it and I’m proud of it.
The backstory is this: it was Geoff’s 50th birthday in March and I wanted to do something special for him. I didn’t have much money so it had to be something that was meaningful but didn’t cost much. So I came up with the idea of making a small book called ’50 Things I Love About You’ – one for every year of his life. I themed it around rabbits because he adores rabbits. I had a lot of fun putting it together, although it was more time-consuming and challenging than I thought it would be.
I made the pages out of cream luggage labels from Paperchase, and each page was decorated with pieces of rabbit confetti (found on ebay), painstakingly glued on, one by one. I managed to find a phone charm in the shape of a rabbit, and then I found a key with a little tag with ‘My heart’ on it on a card-making site. The other components were things I either had lying around the house or found in a card-making supply shop. And on every page, I wrote one, two or three things that I love about him. (The first 30 or so were easy; the next ten were more difficult; and by the time I got into the 40s I was having to think very hard indeed – and wishing he was a lot younger.)
It didn’t work out quite as I had hoped. The luggage labels seemed like a good idea at the time, but they had metal eyelets in the holes and when they were piled up together they became much thicker at one end than I’d anticipated, and that required a complete rethink about how I was going to hold everything together. There were other problems too, but I got it to work well enough in the end.
That all happened back in March so why am I bringing it up now? Well today I got delivery of the most gorgeous book called ‘Book + Art: handcrafting artist’s books’. It’s full of stunning and inspiring artist’s books, plus just enough of the practical how-to stuff on binding to be useful without being boring. (Rather appropriately,I bought it using an Amazon voucher I was given for my own birthday.) I’ve only flipped through it so far, but it’s fired me up already and I’ve realised this is something I so want to do. Combining my love of photography and my love of books just has to be the way to go.
And, oh yes, in case you’re itching to know: did he like it? Well, I did have to pass the tissues so I think the answer’s ‘yes’.
I’m so happy to have discovered the Introvert’s Corner section on the Psychology Today website; it makes me feel a lot less like an oddball than I usually do. I once filled in a questionnaire on introversion and I was practically off the scale on some of the parameters. My introvert traits often perplex and puzzle the extravert people in my life, who mostly don’t understand that I’m just wired differently. For every three extraverts in the world, there’s just one introvert, so we’re seriously outnumbered and usually more than a little bit misunderstood.
In case you’re an extravert yourself, let me just clear up a few misconceptions. We’re not people haters – we often love people but only in small doses and in ones, twos or threes rather than large numbers. We prefer peace and quiet, because loudness simply overwhelms our more delicate nervous systems and we can’t think straight. And we love to talk, but only about things that really interest us and when we feel we’ve got something to say – you can’t shut us up when that happens. We’re not shy people (well we can be, but it doesn’t go with the territory) and we’re often very friendly and sociable (just not 24/7).
The big, big difference between us and extraverts is that even when we have the kind of people contact we enjoy, our energy is drained by it, but extraverts actually gain energy from being around others. For that reason we need to spend much more time alone to recharge our batteries.
Parties are not our idea of fun
Because of all this, our idea of fun is a lot different from an extravert’s notion of the same thing. We loathe parties. We understand that extravert people have a lot of fun that way, but we just don’t. We’d rather have root canal work than have to go a party (especially as you don’t have to make small talk when your mouth’s full of dental instruments). Parties are noisy, you can’t have any sort of in-depth conversation at them (which is the kind we like), and even worse, you have to try and look as if you’re having a good time even when you’re very definitely not. On top of that, we find parties and most social things involving large groups of people, well…… quite boring, really. We tend to have a low tolerance for small talk, and we’d much rather be doing something other than standing around, struggling to have banal conversations over wincingly loud music. And when we say doing something, that could just be thinking – we usually have a lot going on in our heads.
So what does this have to do with photography?
I’ve found that being a photographer helps a lot when it comes to finding a way of surviving these things. A camera – particularly the serious DSLR kind – makes me look as if I have a purpose and gives me something to do. It means I can talk as little or as much as I want to, wander around or sit on the edges if I like, and when it’s all over I can present the host with some nice images of their ‘do’, which usually goes down very well. And not least, it gives me something absorbing and interesting to do that doesn’t make me look rude. Result!
Once I got over the initial stages of learning how to take photos – when I used to feel that people were looking at me and my DSLR and imagining I actually knew what I was doing, when I was all too aware that I didn’t – the camera became a great tool both to hide behind and to make connections with. I attract attention because of it, but it gives me a role to play and I find that reassuring. It gives people something to ask you about, and a reason to speak to you. (I may not be big on small talk but a little bit of it does make the world a nicer place.)
It’s probably not the same for all introverts. Most introverts hate being the centre of attention or indeed attracting attention to themselves in any way whatsoever. For myself, I don’t mind as long as I have a role to play. I’m happy and comfortable being a photographer, or a tutor, or a hander-round of canapés, but without being able to wear the role like a protective cloak I quickly feel exposed and lost in large gatherings. That kind of social interaction is deeply unsatisfying to me and it takes huge amounts of energy for me to try to fit in, but if I don’t make the effort I look and feel like a spare part. Having a role to play takes that kind of pressure off.
For me, at least, photography hasn’t just given me the creative outlet I always yearned for, it’s also stopped me feeling like quite such a party pooper (although I’d still much rather not go!)
I was having a bad day; I felt tense, antsy, mildly depressed. So I went for a walk in the woods, followed a small track away from the main pathways, and discovered this plaque high up in the trees: Love. Just what I needed. Thank you to whoever put it there.
Love, with little hands, comes and touches you with a thousand memories, and asks you beautiful, unanswerable questions …