It is not expected that you go somewhere exotic, grand, or far-flung in order to write a poem. You can make one anywhere, about anything. It will not be seen as a worse poem for being about your toddler looking at the moon (Ted Hughes), a fork in a woodland path (Robert Frost), a blade of grass (Brian Patten), or a haggis (Robert Burns). It is recognised that something big can be said by writing about something small.
A poem is not thought to be better because you climbed a mountain and trekked through thigh-deep snow for hours in order to write it, nor because you had to get up before dawn or risk your life on the edge of a slippery precipice. It is not thought better because you hefted several kilos of pens and notepads to the location where you wrote it.
It is not necessary to keep upgrading your pen and paper to be any good. Nobody will think any the less of you, nor judge your poems according to whether you write them with a biro or a Parker pen.
Nobody ever asks what kind of poet you are and expects you to define yourself as a landscape poet, or a street poet, or to say you specialise in sonnets or villanelles. It is enough to say that you write poetry.
A poem is not thought to be good because its grammar is exact and perfect, and its spelling exemplary. A good poem breaks as many rules as it keeps and it needn’t be instantly clear and obvious. It is recognised that there are many ways of creating a good poem and that all good poems do not have to conform to a single ideal, but are allowed to be good in their own way.
A poem is not expected to describe exactly, but to distill its subject down to its essence and, by changing it, show it as it is.
It is expected that a poem be edited and polished before it is released. It is not regarded as some sort of cheating if you change the words of the first draft and crop out superfluous phrases.
Finally, nobody ever says: ‘that’s a great poem, you must have a really good pen. Oh, and what sort of notepad do you use?’
I like writing just as much as I like photography, and in fact have been doing it for much longer. I always scribbled, even as a child, and as a child I often wrote poetry. I don’t do that much these days, and I don’t usually share my poetry for a couple of reasons. The first is that it’s often intensely personal and more than I feel willing to share publicly, and the second is that I sometimes cringe at some of the poetry I read online and am a little worried that my own efforts might create the same effect.
(Many years ago we went to the opening of an art exhibition where someone read some of the worst poetry I’ve ever heard. Since then, we refer to this kind of thing as Vogon poetry – the Vogons were characters in The Hitchhiker’s Guide books who liked to torture their captives by reading them their exceptionally bad poetry. Bad poetry is so much worse than any other kind of bad writing!)
I’ve just joined a writer’s group – which is quite challenging for me as it mostly does involve writing poetry – and as the evening progressed I remembered what strong analogies there are between writing and photography. On a simple level, for instance, picking up a pen doesn’t make you a writer any more than picking up a camera makes you a photographer. And we wouldn’t doubt that the ability to write with perfect grammar and spelling says little about how good the writing is, so why do so many people think that technical perfection in photography makes a great image? However, just as our writing will benefit from being able to spell and write grammatically, so will our photos undoubtedly benefit from technical mastery, even if it’s not enough by itself.
Taking a more sophisticated view, documentary-style photography could be compared to a non-fiction book, with each photo a chapter and the whole creating a ‘true’ story. Like writing, the way the story is told depends as much on what’s left out as what’s included and there are many ways to tell the story. There are also many ways to read it, and our own filters often determine how we absorb it. Truth is malleable and not the objective thing that many people would like it to be and documentary isn’t so far removed from fiction, even when based in an external reality.
But how can that be? Picasso is often quoted as saying ‘art is a lie that helps us realise the truth’ and it sometimes seems that fiction can be more ‘true’ than non-fiction. The best fiction is not just a story, but reveals a truth to us about the world, our place in it, and how we react to it. And although the world in a fictitious book has come straight from the mind of the author, the stuff in the author’s mind has come from what they’ve actually seen and experienced (even if some of that experience may have come second-hand). Think of any great novel, and it’s great not because of its story or even, necessarily, its writing, but because of the larger ‘truth’ that it tells us.
Photography is probably the only art that must have something real – in the sense of something you can point to, something tangible – as a starting point. This has given it an uneasy and unique relationship with the notion of truthfulness, and it’s what’s responsible for promoting the outrage some folk feel when they learn that a shot has been significantly Photoshopped. Because photography needs the ‘real’ as a starting point, it’s assumed that the final print should do nothing to deny or hide that reality. And of course, photography has a history of being used to prove or record what’s real – photographic evidence – so it brings that baggage to the party.
But suppose that, like a work of fiction, a photograph that’s fictional – ie, created out of the mind of its author – might be one that’s more truthful than a straight shot could ever be. Last week I went to an exhibition in Nottingham called Inside the Outside. It’s a joint exhibition of ten photographers, most of whose work is far removed from what we might regard as objective reality. But from a personal point of view I think their work is far more powerful, and says far more, than a straight representation ever could do. Look, for example, at Rob Hudson’s work Towards the Sun, of which he says:
It is fictional because it plays with metaphor and allusion. It’s not about a place, so much as it is a reaction to a place. And it’s not even about photographing into the light, save where that, itself, is a metaphor for some form of hope.
You can clearly recognise what was in front of the lens when Hudson took these photos, but you’d find it hard to identify that place from them even if you found yourself in it. As he says, it’s not about that particular place, it’s about his own truth that emerged as he spent time in that place and it’s probably a truth that could only have been shown through this fictional approach.
Recently, I was reading an article and interview on Nick Brandt’s latest work, Inherit the Dust, in B&W Photography magazine. It’s an amazing and moving body of work, in which Brandt places life size photographs of threatened African animal species in the spaces that they once moved and lived in but which are now taken over by some of the worst examples of humankind’s impact on the land. For example, one shows a huge and magnificent elephant standing in the middle of what is now a wasteland covered in rubbish.
In the interview Brandt was quite vehement about the life size shots actually having been placed there and not constructed in Photoshop. He refers to this as preserving the ‘fundamental integrity’ of the scene and referring to the Photoshop possibility as ‘faking things’. If these shots were made for the purpose of recording the scene, or if the people in the scene were interacting with the giant shots, then I could understand it, but neither of these is the case. (Actually, in one image there is some interaction from two young children, but in the others people are carrying on as if these giant images weren’t there.)
While I admire the achievement of overcoming the technical difficulties of transporting and erecting these huge images on site, I don’t think I’d have found them any less powerful – or less truthful – had they been composited afterwards digitally. In fact, on first viewing I assumed they had been. To me their truth isn’t dependent on the way they were created, but on whether or not the photographer produces images that get his message across successfully, and Brandt could have done that either way.
Truth is a strange concept – we think of it as having objectivity and being a singular thing, but in fact there can be many truths. Truth and fiction are often referred to as opposites, but the worst kind of documentary or non-fiction can actually lie or obscure truth, and the best kind of fiction can reveal it.
As someone who’s not the best at dealing with rejection, I was drawn to a book I saw in the library called ‘Rejection Proof’ by Jia Jiang. Jiang set out to conquer his fear of rejection by deliberately getting himself rejected once a day for 100 days, usually by making somewhat outrageous requests of complete strangers. His ensuing adventures make for a great read in themselves, but there are other more solid things to take away from it.
The first thing that struck me was that he differentiates between rejection and failure. The minute I read it, I knew exactly what he meant, but I hadn’t articulated the thought to myself before. Whilst failure can be a stepping stone to doing better, rejection tends to stop us in our tracks.
“Rejection means that we wanted someone to believe in us but they didn’t; we wanted them to see what we see and to think how we think – and instead they disagreed and judged our way of looking at the world as inferior. That feels deeply personal to a lot of us. It doesn’t just feel like a rejection of our request, but also of our character, looks, ability, intelligence, personality, culture, or beliefs. Even if the person rejecting our request doesn’t mean for his or her no to feel personal, it’s going to. Rejection is an inherently unequal exchange between the rejector and the rejectee……..”
I know this is a big issue for myself in my life in general, but more specifically in my photographic life. I was stopped in my own tracks for about six months after a particularly damning bit of feedback from a tutor. I could recognise that the comments about my work were mostly quite valid – I cringe a bit when I look at the work now – but what felt devastating at the time was that the criticism was presented extremely unkindly and very judgmentally, and it seemed to me to imply that there was something very wrong with me, not just my photography.
And this is the bottom line. Had our primitive selves been rejected by the group we lived in, we would most likely have been outcast and subsequently died. That’s not the case now, of course, but it takes a long, long time for our biology to catch up with our culture, and our primitive brain’s perception that rejection contains the threat of death is quite enough to strike alarm into anyone.
We can rationalise our way out of this to a certain extent, but what some of us also have to deal with is an upbringing that reinforced the idea that we were worthless, and that our ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and even character, had no value. This packs a huge double whammy of self-doubt. Society will also work to reinforce those doubts if you’re not a white, middle-class male, adding another trickle of poison to thread through the glass.
Somehow, we have to learn to separate failure from rejection. Recently I’ve been sending images off to various places, some in the hope of publication, others as entries in competitions. I’ve had one success, and numerous failures. There was a time when I would have taken the failures to mean that my photos were no good, when the reality of it is that luck and the personal taste of whoever’s making the judgements play a large part in it. Moreover, I would also have taken it that there was something wrong with me and started berating myself for having the temerity to think that I was worthy of the prize. One of the true joys of getting older is that you gain some ability to move past these self-defeating beliefs.
It’s noticeable that women are particularly bad at putting themselves forwards when it comes to photography. Have a look at the winning entries in most photographic competitions and you’ll see that they’re mostly male. Have a look at the books on photography, the articles in photography magazines, and the photography blogs online, and you’ll see that they’re mostly written by men. The impression it leaves is that there either aren’t many women in photography, or they’re not very good, but both of these are far from the truth. For many of us, we’re just very, very bad at putting ourselves out there.
Obviously this applies to some men as well, but I think women are more prone to a lack of self-belief and a fear of blowing their own trumpets, largely because of deeply-ingrained societal attitudes around what it means to be female. So I’m proposing a challenge – whether you’re male or female, show your work in a way that scares you a little. That might just be showing it to a friend or posting it on Facebook or Flickr, if that’s your personal challenge, or it might be submitting your work to a gallery or a competition, or trying for a merit award. Let’s take a risk, accept the possibility of failure, and if it comes, remember not to see it as a rejection of our selves.
Strobe lights at Southwell Folk Festival – this has absolutely nothing to do with the text but it needed a picture
There’s been a lot of talk lately about whether or not photographers – and other creative types – should ever work for nothing. I’ve had a recent experience that has made me think about this a lot, and would like to share it here.
I’ve always given my photographs away freely. My images on Flickr are offered under the Creative Commons licence, which means that anyone can use them for free, provided they attribute them to me with a link back to the source. I only put low resolution images on there, so that they’re really only suitable for web use and wouldn’t make good prints.
I’ve had a number of people contact me over the years to ask if they could use a photo – nice of them, considering the ‘permission’ is already in place – and I’ve always said yes. Sometimes I get a thank you, sometimes I don’t. It always surprises me what people ask for – one woman wanted to use a picture of some rusty corrugated iron on her business card, as she dealt in scrap metal. On a couple of occasions I’ve been offered payment for the higher-res version – once for an image that was to be used in a TV documentary, and the other time for a photo of a chicken that was to be included in a free poster given away with a magazine for nursery nurses.
But these are images that I’ve already taken, and these are also images that are not of any importance to me. Also, I do like to think of my pictures being used and enjoyed, so it gives me pleasure to let people have them. It’s another matter, however, when you’re asked to do a specific photography job, shooting the kind of thing you’d never normally photograph, and to do it for nothing.
I have a colleague who recently got married. We’ve met her and her now husband outside of work a few times, but I don’t regard her as a close friend or even as someone that I’d be likely to keep in touch with should I stop working for the library. A few months ago she asked if I might be interested in taking the photographs at their wedding. It was to be a small affair, and it seemed that they mostly wanted informal, candid shots of guests. In no way am I a wedding photographer, or even much of a people photographer, but the informality of it appealed and I thought it might be an interesting challenge.
No mention was made of money. I knew that they didn’t have a lot to spend, and I was willing to do it extremely cheaply, but it became more and more obvious over the next couple of months that it might be expected for free. I wasn’t happy with this, but it felt too difficult by then to say that I would like to be paid something, however little, especially as she’d already managed to get her flowers and her cake done for nothing by other friends. I resigned myself to the fact that I’d be working for nothing.
About three weeks before the wedding we met for lunch to discuss the photography. At that point it became obvious that I was indeed expected to work for nothing, and that the extent of what was wanted was far greater than I had thought. Instead of just attending the wedding breakfast, I was now wanted at the afternoon ‘do’ as well, and it would be nice, wouldn’t it, if I were to follow them home at the end of the day and take a shot of them outside their house. The number of formal shots increased dramatically, and I was also asked to do a number of family group shots – other families, people I don’t even know – so that they could be given prints afterwards. It went on getting worse, and my cracking point came when it was suggested that I pick up the bride’s mother on my way past and give her a lift to the wedding. Finally, as we parted, the bride-to-be’s parting remark was that ‘it would be fun for me’! I walked home with steam coming out my ears.
Before this meeting, I’d talked at length to Geoff about the situation and we’d come to the conclusion that she simply didn’t appreciate what was involved. She’d told me they’d ‘ply me with food and drink’, obviously not realising that I wouldn’t have any chance to sit down, eat and chat, as I’d be working and so wouldn’t even get to enjoy the wedding as a social event. When we met I explained to her that all the photos would need to be processed, which would be about two days work, and then prepared for print and put onto a memory stick. ‘Yes, that’s fine’, she said, ‘but we might need some help with getting them printed’. Whatever I said, she was either oblivious to what she was asking of me, or she simply took it as her due. I still don’t know which.
I’d got myself into a real mess. I knew it was partly my own fault for not making it clear at the beginning that I would expect some payment, albeit a small one, but I a little incredulous that it was thought that I’d be happy to offer all this for no charge. I thought about whether or not I’d be willing to do this for my closest friends for free, and decided that I would, but I also knew that none of my close friends would ever expect it and would insist on paying me something. I came to the conclusion that I would have to back out. I didn’t reach this decision lightly, and felt very bad about it, but it felt necessary for my own self-respect and to stop the rising tide of resentment that was building inside me. In the event, she took it extremely well and quickly found another friend with an interest in photography to do the job instead. I assume for free.
I’ve learned a lot from this, not least of which is that I must make it clear straightaway, should the situation arise again, that I don’t do this sort of thing for nothing. But I think it also highlights a couple of issues that photographers – and creative people in general – are prone to experiencing. The first is that, because it’s something you’re passionate about, it’s fun for you and it can’t be counted as work. Anyone who has a vocation knows that even when you love what you do – perhaps especially when you love what you do – you put huge amounts of time and effort into doing it well, and that counts as work, by any standard.
Neither is it always fun. Sometimes it is, but sometimes it’s frustrating, challenging, worrying or any number of other things. The fact that overall it’s fulfilling and satisfying does not mean that it’s not also full of difficult moments. This is fine – this is what Aristotle meant when he talked about eudaimonia as a brand of happiness that might actually mean a life filled with difficulty and problems, but also one in which what you do feels absolutely ‘right’ for you. It’s the difference between the hobbyist taking ‘snaps’ and the photographer who’s constantly trying to grow and stretch themselves.
It would, in fact, have been very stressful for me – the pressure to get it right, the fear that you mess up on photographs that can’t be repeated, the struggle with lack of equipment, or equipment that isn’t ideally suited to the job. I haven’t felt particularly well since I had flu last Christmas, and really didn’t want that kind of stress – in the end this was the reason I gave for withdrawing. All of this, however, might have been worthwhile had I felt that it was valued and appreciated.
When someone else isn’t willing to give anything for what you offer, and you accept that, it tells you that neither they nor you value yourself or your work enough. In my colleague’s case, she’s not a very visual person and therefore doesn’t put much value on photography other than as a record of events – it’s unlikely that she’d see much difference between a good snapshot and a professional image. That she didn’t put any value on the time I was putting into it is somewhat to do with her and somewhat to do with me. From her side, there were small things that would have helped – like offering to buy me lunch while we talked about it. Also, her partner was supposed to be putting up some shelves in our kitchen, for which we were paying him, and had they offered to swap this for the photography I’d have gone with that. (In the event, I was texted shortly after backing out and told that he was ‘too busy’ to do the shelves for us.) Even a genuine show of gratitude and appreciation would have gone some way towards being a compensating factor. There are many ways to give back and they don’t all involve money.
However, the other side of it is somewhat to do with me. I’ve always given a bit too readily, because I like to help out and it makes me feel good. This is fine when there’s a bit of give and take and neither side is doing all of one and none of the other – I’ve often been on the receiving end as well as the giving one. However, nobody is going to respect your time and expertise unless you do so yourself – if you do, they sense that and are less likely to overstep the mark. I’m pleased that something in me responded to the feeling that my own value wasn’t being recognised, and was strong enough to make me do something about it. I’m not so pleased that I let it get so far, both giving myself a great deal of angst and then letting other people down at the last minute. I regret that.
I can think of some situations where I’d happily work for no pay – for a charity dear to my heart, for a good and close friend, in a situation where it would move my photographic career forwards – but in the end, it’s my profession and I have to put a value on that, on my time, and on whatever skills and expertise I’ve managed to develop over the years.
I’ve always loved and been fascinated by colour. Ernst Haas famously said ‘colour is joy’, and it always has been for me. For that reason I was never very interested in black and white photography – while I could see its merits, I was so absorbed in seeking out colour that I had little time for it. Lately, however, I’ve been doing a lot of work in black and white, which hasn’t been a conscious decision but something that has simply emerged.
I could say – and have – that this is because winter doesn’t offer much in the way of colour, and so I’ve concentrated my energies on what’s there rather than bemoaning what isn’t. There is some truth to this, and it’s been a welcome change to find subject matter that fascinates me right through the winter months. It used to be that I rarely picked up my camera in those months, waiting for the colours of spring to reappear before I felt inspired again.
However, I think there’s a little more to it than that. In the past I’ve done training in various psychotherapies, including NLP. For anyone not familiar with this, it’s a way of changing how you think (and therefore feel) about something by altering the way you perceive it in your mind/memory. At a simple level, the memory of a distressing experience can be made less impactful by changing the picture of it in your mind from colour to black and white – black and white simply drains a lot of the emotion from it. And depressed people, who have effectively numbed their emotions so much they can’t feel much at all, usually dress in greys and browns and black – it would be very unusual to see a depressed person wearing colourful clothes. Colour and emotion go hand in hand with each other.
For the past few months I’ve been struggling with some old demons that have resurfaced – traumatic memories that I thought had been dealt with but obviously haven’t. I’ve felt low and very numb – the whole range of emotion just hasn’t been available to me as my psyche tries to protect me from those old and painful memories. Interestingly, this has coincided with my sudden turn to black and white. At times, I’ve even found myself actively disliking colour, finding it too brash and intrusive. I have felt uncomfortable with it without knowing why.
I wonder – and I don’t feel able to answer this in any definitive way – whether a photographer’s attraction towards colour or black and white is related to their emotional range? Many avid black and white photographers seem actively antagonistic towards colour. I’ve never really understood this – if you prefer to shoot in black and white, then that’s absolutely fine and there doesn’t seem to me to be any need to denigrate those who choose colour instead. Those photographers who do have an aggressiveness about them that seems out of proportion to the matter in hand and smacks of defensiveness. Take, for example, this quote from Walker Evans:
Color tends to corrupt photography and absolute color corrupts it absolutely. Consider the way color film usually renders blue sky, green foliage, lipstick red, and the kiddies’ playsuit. These are four simple words which must be whispered: color photography is vulgar.
Or this one, from Roland Barthes:
For me, color is an artifice, a cosmetic (like the kind used to paint corpses).
Of course there are lots of perfectly good reasons to choose black and white over colour. If your image has one disconcertingly intense area of colour in it that would dominate the shot, then black and white will deal with that. If there’s very little colour in the image and it adds nothing to it anyway, then black and white will be a better choice. If the main interest of the shot lies in lines, shapes or tones, then black and white will show these up better and direct attention towards them. Removing colour can also make a shot more timeless – think of those crudely coloured fifties photos that can be dated immediately just by the colours.
And it’s also true that black and white can be used to make the image more dramatic – where a colour shot would look unnatural and crude if you were to increase contrast more than a little, a black and white shot can take it, and more. To make it more dramatic is to bring emotion into the shot, which of course goes against what I’ve said above. I’ve also come across this quote, which argues that black and white portraits actually reveal more emotion:
Removing color from a picture helps the viewer to focus on a subject’s emotional state. Black and white portraiture lets the audience see the subject’s face and read his or her eyes without distraction. – PhotographyVox
Not sure if I agree or not on that one.
I’ve done a little bit of digging around online, and can’t find anything much about this. My go-to place for this kind of thing is the online book Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche, by John Suler, which is full of fascinating stuff but he doesn’t specifically discuss colour and black and white anywhere that I can see. However, under the topic of Selective Colour he has this to say (‘selective colour’ is the practice of keeping one small part of an image coloured with the rest in black and white):
Why does the color stand out? Well, because it’s color. That seems obvious. But behind the obvious we find some interesting ideas. We live in a world of color. It feels more intuitively real in an image than the somewhat intellectualized and abstract quality of monochrome photos. Recognizing colors played an important role in the evolutionary survival of our species; we naturally rivet to it because we use color to identify what something is. We also associate colors with emotion, and emotions are the forces that connect humans to each other, so we can’t help but connect to the colorful element in an otherwise black and white image. – Selective Color, John Suler
It’s interesting that he links colour to emotions and emotions to a feeling of connectedness – emotionally numb people usually have a feeling of disconnection and isolation from the world and other people.
My conclusion is that, for the majority, the black and white/colour decision is one that’s made according to how effective it makes the image. Those folk happily switch from one format to the other accordingly. And there are some people who simply like black and white a lot, for no particular reason. But these people don’t usually make a big deal of it, and based on my own experience I do wonder whether the more emphatic black and white photographers are somehow threatened by colour because of its emotional component, and to shoot in black and white reflects their practice of keeping emotions at one remove. I might be widely off the the mark here, but I think it’s an interesting question. I’m not for a moment suggesting that all dogmatically black and white photographers are suffering from depression – more that they may be more uncomfortable than most with emotions. Depression is only one of many ways of numbing emotions, and I’ve concentrated on it here partly because there’s a great deal of literature linking it with lack of colour, and partly because I think it may be a component in my own turn away from it. But is this particular to me, or can it be more generally applied? What do you think?
The Colour Thief – a children’s book about a father’s depression. From the back cover: ‘My Dad’s life was full of colour. But one day Dad was full up with sadness, all the way to the top. He said that all the colours had gone.’
Interestingly, where a tiny hint of colour has crept into my own photography, it tends to be blue, as in the two shots below – another colour associated with low mood.
Some years ago I was on holiday in Somerset, by myself. Each day I went walking in a different place, and on one occasion I ended up in an extensively forested area. I’d been walking for a couple of hours, had stopped to eat my bread and cheese and olives, and realised I wasn’t sure which way I’d come or how to get back. In all the time I’d been walking I hadn’t seen anyone at all, so there wasn’t much chance of being able to ask for help.
I felt the beginnings of panic, but pushed it away and rationalised that there was plenty of daylight left and even if all I did was walk in one direction, then sooner or later I’d come to a road and I’d find my way back (this is the UK, after all, where there isn’t that much wilderness left). I felt a bit calmer, took a few deep breaths, lay back on the grass, and allowed myself to enjoy, for the moment, the warmth of the early spring sun on my face. Then it came to me – the sun had been dazzling me from my left as I walked from the car park, and taking into consideration its rotation as the day went on, I could probably figure out roughly which direction to go in. I could, I did, and it got me home again.
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. you must let it find you.
Palmer tells a similar story to mine in his post, about a time he got lost, and how he began to panic, and how he calmed himself down and suddenly knew what he needed to do. I’ve always been very scared of getting lost – unreasonably so. To quell the panic that surges up I feel the need to do something, try something, anything, to solve the problem, but frantically poring over maps and doing mental calculations just increases the desperate feeling of being hopelessly lost. The best way to solve the problem is to stop, be still, calm down, come into the present, and become aware of where I am at this moment. Only then can I understand how to get to where I want to go.
You can see the parallels with life. We live in a an action oriented culture and when we come to a part of life where we feel lost and directionless, the need to do something can be strong. Taoism has a term – wu wei – which means, literally, non-doing. Paradoxically, in the Taoist state of non-doing you are actually doing quite a lot. However, what you’re doing is allowing yourself to feel a sense of connectedness to others and to your environment, and strengthening your ability to tune in to both inner and outer messages. It relies on being present to the moment. Any action you then take – using action in the sense in which we mean it in the West – becomes spontaneous, effortless, and highly effective. We might call it intuitive, or inspired action. ‘Stand still. Wherever you are is called Here.’ – let the forest find you.
Coming into the present – the Here – not only removes the panic caused by imagined, disastrous futures but focusses attention on what’s around us, what we can see, hear, feel, taste, and smell. Those things we now notice give us the answers we need. We might call this mindfulness.
I hope you can also see the parallels with a contemplative approach to photography. We go out with our cameras and feel lost and directionless – nothing inspires us, there’s nothing to photograph. We try harder. We look and look. Still nothing. We’re frustrated, all this effort tires us, irks us, so we give up, stop, and decide instead to enjoy the walk. Suddenly we notice the patterns on the water, the shapes of the clouds, or the colours in the tree bark. In this coming into the present, the Here, we begin to see again and, amazingly, the photographs find us.
In the West, when we break a cup or a plate we throw it away – in Japan, you might practise a technique called kintsugi. Kintsugi is a method of mending ceramics using a paste made with gold, silver or platinum. The idea is to incorporate the history of the breakage and its repair into the object, resulting in something more beautiful and meaningful than the original – you can see some pictures here. I love this idea and this week has brought some blog posts and articles to me that all link into it as a theme.
First off, I came across this post on Improvised Life, about Yoko Ono’s book Acorn. Here’s a little extract from the book:
Mend an object.
When you go through the process of mending, you mend something inside your soul as well.
Think of a ‘crack’ in your own life or the world. Ask for it to be healed as you mend the object.
Our tendency when we ‘break’ is to look for a return to how we were before, which can never happen as we’re irredeemably changed by these things. Instead of seeing ourselves as damaged, how much better to celebrate our breakages by mending them with the gold of wisdom and experience, so that our cracks add something valuable to us.
But quite apart from the parallels with mending your life, kintsugi is very much in line with the current trend for upcycling and turning old and broken things into useful and beautiful ones. It also overlaps considerably with another Japanese concept, wabisabi, which sees value and beauty in the old and the decayed, sadness and impermanence. Unlike our throwaway here-today-gone-tomorrow culture, it places value on the history of a simple piece, and evidence of wear and tear and the patina of time are valued far more than shiny new-ness.
Many photographers are naturally drawn to these things, loving to photograph the rich colours of rust, crumbling facades, dying flowers, or worn stone steps. Nina Katchadourian has taken this one step further. She mends broken spider’s webs with red thread, and split mushrooms with bicycle tire repair kits. The spiders don’t like it much, removing the repairs overnight and leaving a pile of red thread on the ground underneath by morning. The mushrooms are less able to comment, and to me the multi-coloured circular patches give them a whimsical air of fairy-tale toadstools that I rather like. (Incidentally, Katchadourian creates some of the most playful art I’ve ever come across – you might like it, you might hate it, but she obviously has a lot of fun making it.)
Not quite meeting the criteria for kintsugi, but containing something of the essence of it, Bing Wright used broken mirror glass to reflect sunsets, then photographed the results. These photos are so gorgeous I felt like smashing up some mirrors and going out to do the same, but this really isn’t in the spirit of kintsugi. Kintsugi arose out of necessity – as in our own not-so-distant past, Japanese folk had to reuse and recycle as it was outside most people’s means to throw away and buy new.
While photographing broken things doesn’t make them usable again, as kintsugi would, it can recognise and make something good out of brokenness. Some years ago I broke a glass bowl I was very fond of, and at first was upset. But then I looked at the pieces and thought how lovely they were in their own right. I placed transparent coloured sweet wrappers between the pieces of glass, shone a bright light on it, and took these photos. If I’d known about kintsugi then, I might have made my bowl whole again afterwards.
If you want to try Kintsugi yourself, you can buy a kintsugi mending kit from Humade.
We both like to watch and join in with University Challenge (for non-UK readers, this is a TV quiz show where the contestants are teams from UK universities). There’s a question they ask sometimes where you’re shown a series of paintings and asked to identify the artist of each one. The paintings they show are rarely the well-known ones, and are often quite obscure, but if you’ve looked at much art it’s surprisingly easy to get the answer right.
Every famous artist has a personal style that makes it possible to recognise work they’ve done that you’ve never seen before, probably down to some mixture of colour, texture, brushstrokes, line, form, and other factors. Subject matter can be a clue as well, of course, but they often deliberately show you something with subject matter that’s atypical of the artist.
It’s a mysterious thing, this personal voice, and when I began with photography I often longed to develop one. What I learned was that you can’t do it by trying, but only by photographing time and again those things that fascinate you. Think about handwriting – there isn’t much personal style to be found in children’s handwriting, but as we get older our handwriting becomes more and more distinctive and recognisably ours. And we don’t have to try – style is a by-product of maturity, whether in life or in our artistic work.
Just as copying someone else’s handwriting would feel forced and unnatural, trying to develop a style by imitating someone else’s is never going to work. Neither is basing it on attempts to be different:
“There’s nothing wrong with seeking to do things in a unique form, but seek to be different for the sake of being different and you won’t have images that express your vision, you’ll have photographs that are merely different. You can get that in a million ways that have nothing to do with good photography. You can be different without ever saying anything. You yourself are unique – you have ways of seeing your world that are unlike those of anyone else – so find ways of more faithfully expressing that and your style will emerge.”
Your own style comes from being the unique person that you are, and learning how to express that through whatever medium you choose as yours. There is a sting in the tail, however:
“One cannot express something compelling, interesting or inspiring without first having something compelling, interesting or inspiring to express. And so, in pursuit of expressive work, one also becomes motivated to seek those things that are worth expressing: meaningful experiences, complex thoughts, powerful emotions, and useful or interesting knowledge.”
In other words, taking more interesting photos is not a matter of standing in front of more interesting stuff, but in becoming a more interesting (or perhaps, more interested?) person. And developing personal style is inextricably linked with having the courage to be the person you are. That might mean taking photos that will rarely get a ‘like’ on Facebook or Flickr, being prepared for other people not to understand what you’re doing or saying, shrugging off criticism that genuinely doesn’t feel relevant, having friends and family ask you why you no longer take those lovely flower shots, and generally being prepared to be unpopular if it goes that way – not easy in this age of social media popularity contests.
This is a worst case scenario, of course. The chances are much higher that there will be at least a small tribe of people who’ll love what you’re doing and will be happy to say so. But the point is that it’s not easy to express your real self in a world that’s trying to make you conform from the moment you’re born to the day you die, and it’s that real self that holds the key to your personal style.
And there’s another element to personal style that’s often misunderstood:
“…..vision also is not something you find in complete form and have from that point onward – it’s something that evolves and changes with you, reflecting your sensibilities, thoughts, skills and maturity at a point in time.”
Your personal style shouldn’t be something that, once ‘discovered’ (like a sort of Holy Grail), never changes. As you change, so will it, and if you don’t change you’ll become stale and so will it. The people with the most distinctive personal styles are usually those who frequently change what they do, re-inventing themselves constantly. In the music world, David Bowie, Tom Waits, and Madonna spring to mind. But yet another thing – constant experimentation and exploration will inevitably result in work that is less sure of itself.
“In our culture there is little understanding of the growth process of an artist – which is often conducted in a very public arena. For the very public artists, for film makers and novelists in particular, there is little room for the work made during necessary periods of creative flux. Concert musicians report the same dilemma – a style matures idiosyncratically and spasmodically, moving not from beauty straight to beauty but from beauty though something different to more beauty. Few reviewers value the ‘something different’ stage.
Julia Cameron, Walking in This World
You might not be at a stage in your photographic career where you’re being reviewed, but it’s often the case that the people around you will not want you to change. They like what you’ve been doing, they want you to keep on doing it. They don’t want to be challenged in their appreciation of your work. They don’t have the fine artistic eye that you have developed. It’s relatively easy to dismiss this kind of thing when you don’t care much about the people involved – much harder when it’s people whose good opinion matters to you – friends, loved ones.
The difficulties of becoming aware of your deep self, and making yourself vulnerable by putting that self on show, explains why so many people produce accomplished but bland work that lacks any kind of personal voice. It feels a lot safer to stick with the tried and true, the stuff that’s been done before – the stuff that reflects someone else, not you. There is good news, however. If you work at photographing what fascinates you, without regard for what the world thinks, then your personal style will ultimately reveal itself. Like a shy puppy, it will slowly creep out from behind the sofa. It may get scared and dive back in again a time or two, but eventually it will roll on its back at your feet and let you tickle its tummy. It has no choice.
In the spirit of taking risks, the images in this post are all experiments and explorations that I’ve made in the recent past, with trees as subject. The first three and the last one were created in-camera, the remaining two are heavily processed. Some of these work, some maybe not, and some I might not normally have chosen to share. However, all of them fascinated me at the time.
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.
It’s been two years now since I stopped studying with Open College of the Arts, and I miss it a lot less than I feared I might. Anyone who’s known me for any length of time will know of my very mixed feelings towards higher level arts education, and I thought it might be timely to take a balanced look at the whole thing, now that I’ve been away from it for a while. Here’s my attempt to explain what I feel I lost and gained from the process – I’m aware that it’s a very personal take on it.
To talk about the best and the worst of it in one go threatened to make this an unreadably long blog post, so I’ve divided it into two parts. In this part, I want to explain why studying photography at higher education level didn’t work for me. In part two, I want to add some balance by talking about the very real benefits that also came out of it. First of all, the negatives:
The emphasis was too academic – despite the fact that this is a hands-on pursuit, I felt I was spending far too much time theorising about photography and discussing other photographers’ work. Being a philosophy graduate, I enjoy a bit of theory and I like that kind of discussion, but it wasn’t what made me take up photography. Quite the reverse – I wanted, for a change, to get out of my head and into my body. I wanted to do something rather than talk about it. Naively, I hadn’t understood that the act of taking photos would be turned into something quite so academic.
It was too concerned with the post-modern and the conceptual – the bias (certainly with the tutor I had for most of the time, and the course assessors) was towards post-modernist approaches to photography. I find post-modernism empty and cynical. My understanding of it is that it rejects everything and proposes nothing positive – its concerns are with tearing things down, without building something new up in its place. I’m not a cynical person and I simply couldn’t fit myself into this model – and actually, I didn’t want to. (For those of you not sure what post-modernism is exactly………..well, it’s not easy to explain and I’m not sure I’ve entirely got a handle on it myself yet. I do know enough to know that it’s not an approach that sits well with me.)
For me, much of the photography I was encouraged to look at, learn about, and aspire to, struck me as over-intellectualised and/or lacking in aesthetic satisfaction. I often felt like the little boy in The Emperor’s New Clothes, but was told (by one particular tutor) that my opinions arose out of ignorance and a closed mind. Perhaps there’s some truth there, but I felt that there wasn’t any room for me to voice my doubts, and I couldn’t help having those doubts.
The emphasis on the conceptual meant that ideas were regarded as more important than images – for me, photography is a visual art and I want it to provide some kind of visual satisfaction. This needn’t be pleasurable or pretty, but I believe there should be something there in the image that makes you want to look at it, that makes it interesting in itself even without knowing anything of the idea behind it. That attitude put me out of sync with many of the people I interacted with but no amount of wishing I felt differently was ever going to change something I felt so strongly about.
There was nowhere where students could go to talk among themselves – ie, the online equivalent of the student common room. There is a forum on Flickr which is student run, but it’s closely monitored by OCA and some tutors actively participate in it. This has its advantages, of course, but it’s a big disadvantage when at least one of the tutors in question had a tendency to steamroller over anyone who expressed an opinion not in line with his own. There was some discussion, around the time that I left, about whether students should be ‘allowed’ a space of their own, and this may have happened by now – I don’t know. As it was, open exchange of views and mutual support for many students was limited to occasional face to face contact, or behind the scenes emails, unless they felt confident enough to take the rough with the smooth on the forums – I know for a fact that many didn’t. For myself, well I did participate in the forums for a long while, but eventually I became tired of always feeling on the defensive.
I rarely felt that I understood what was wanted – the course assessors seemed to be looking for something that eluded me. It was made clear that I wasn’t producing the goods, but I was lost in terms of understanding what those might be and no-one seemed able to tell me. It pressed a lot of buttons for me – growing up, my mother would make it obvious that I’d seriously displeased her, but she’d make me play guessing games to try and figure out what I’d done, refusing to tell me. It took me right back to those frustrated, helpless, angry feelings of trying to please, and failing, that I had as a child.
I understand that some things can be intangible and hard to identify, and that it’s easier to know that something isn’t right than it is to identify whatever positive thing it’s lacking. I accept that, and maybe it just wasn’t possible to make this easier for me. However, what it encouraged in me was my need to please others at the expense of pleasing my self, and that’s a part of me that can get out of hand all too quickly. When I found myself worrying about other people’s reactions even as I was pressing the shutter, and when I stopped doing the kind of photography I enjoyed because it didn’t seem ‘acceptable’, then I knew I had to think seriously about whether this was right for me.
It badly damaged my confidence – I had a tutor who was known for his ascerbic dismissal of students work and opinions. He was active on the main forums where students interacted with each other, and although he was very knowledgeable and in many ways helpful, his attitude was – and these are his words – ‘me tutor, you student, I tell you’. I had had run-ins with him – as had many students – during discussions on the forums, but he had always seemed happy with my work and came across as much more amiable in private than he did in public.
That was, until I produced some work that he really didn’t like at all. I’m not disagreeing here with his criticisms of it – I’m aware that it wasn’t very good – but his sudden tearing apart of everything I’d done without giving me anything positive to hold onto was a tremendous shock. I quote here the words with which he concluded his feedback: “Well, reading all that back, it is a pretty good hatchet job on your assignment”. At the time, it felt like a hatchet job on my heart and soul. I didn’t pick up a camera for several months after that, and it took years before I regained any real confidence in my own work. I changed tutors, of course, and the next tutor was helpful and encouraging, but I lost something the day I read that feedback and it took a long, long time to get it back again. I almost didn’t.
The conclusion I came to, in the end, was that the College and I were simply a bad fit. Colleges are obliged to teach what’s current and to position themselves within the zeitgeist, and most of all to keep the funding bodies happy, and the fact that that didn’t happen to align with my own values and attitudes isn’t their fault. I was in the wrong place. I wish, though, that what talent I had could have been nurtured and encouraged, and that I could have been helped to find a path that suited me rather than feeling I had to walk down theirs. This is what I want from education, and it’s what I had hoped for.
I was also very unfortunate to find myself in the firing line of an unusually arrogant and opinionated tutor. I would like to point out that he did have many redeeming qualities – he worked hard, gave much more extensive feedback than many other tutors did, he was very knowledgeable about photography and art, and he did his best to be helpful and truly believed that he was. Again, however, we were a very bad fit – I tend towards being over-sensitive and he had all the sensitivity of a brick. I don’t feel I gained anything worthwhile from the contact I had with him over several years, and for a time I was very damaged by it. I’ve since met some great tutors with whom I feel I might have done much better.
I was never bothered about gaining a degree from my studies, as many of the other students were. I already have that, and what I wanted was something that would stretch me and motivate me and help me grow in a natural direction for me. It turned out that a degree course wasn’t the thing to do that. The problem with photography education – as I see it – is that it’s either focussed entirely on technical issues and compositional rules, or it’s heavily academic. At the time, I couldn’t find any alternatives. A better pathway for me, more in line with my beliefs and attitudes, might have been a contemplative photography course, but I wasn’t aware these existed till relatively recently.
Despite all of the above, I’m honestly not sorry to have done these courses, although I’m very pleased I’m not doing them any more – a sense of lightness and freedom has come back into my photography practice that I lost while I was involved with studying. However, it wasn’t all bad – in part two I’ll redress the balance and explain what I did get from the experience and how it continues to benefit me.
The two leaf images are from a lighting assignment completed in my early days studying with OCA.
This is a very personal selection which won’t reflect everyone’s tastes. Everyone on the 200+ list is worth looking at and many of the photographers not featured here are masters of their craft. I had to sift through them somehow, however, so I dismissed most of the more traditional approaches to photography because they don’t interest me greatly, although I did include a small number that I felt really stood out. I also left out all the nature photographers because, although I love watching wildlife, I don’t particularly enjoy photographs of it. On the whole, I was looking for something different and something with a very individual voice – images with which I felt I’d like to spend some time. Over the next weeks I’ll link to a small number of photographers each time and hope you’ll enjoy following the links and having a look round.
Linda Bembridge – Bembridge covers a wide range of styles, from the more traditional to the experimental, and although I’ve just said above that I’m not keen on wildlife photography, I do really like her Falkland penguins! There’s a lot of abstract work here, as well as more representational images.
Susan Brown – again, quite a mixture here ranging from representational to long exposure images. Brown has done a whole series on salt water pools, which I liked a lot, and in the Landscape gallery there are some images of beech trees in the fog that I found breathtakingly delicate and lovely. Her Other gallery contains quite a bit of street photography – I particularly enjoyed the skateboarders.
Kathleen Clemons – Kathleen is known primarily as a flower photographer, although her range is not limited to that. She’s also a Lensbaby aficionado, which makes her a little unusual. Her flower images are exquisite.