Thoughts

Studying photography: Part 1 – why it didn’t work for me

Autumn leaf

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.

Autumn leaf with baby leaf

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.

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200+ Women Landscape Photographers – a weekly selection from Sarah Merino’s list

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.

Diving deep

Another Place, Anthony Gormley

[Wo]men are only free when they’re doing what the deepest self likes. And there is getting down
to the deepest self! It takes some diving.

D H Lawrence

I’m lucky enough to have spent most of my working life doing things that I like.  This hasn’t made for the greatest career path, nor has it usually brought in much money, but for the most part I’ve enjoyed the work and have loved the variety.  What I realised recently, though, was that I’ve seldom given myself permission to go for what my ‘deepest self’ wants.

As Lawrence says, ‘it takes some diving’ to get down that deep and, once down there, some courage to admit to what that self wants and an openness to believing that it might be possible to have it.  It’s easy to fool yourself that you have indeed dived deep, when in fact you’ve only gone just under the surface and the real truth is waiting for discovery, on the ocean bed of who you really are.

I’ve been interested in art since I was a child, but it was never encouraged and, despite winning a couple of (very) small prizes in local competitions, I didn’t believe that I had any talent.  As I did have talent academically, this was the route I was directed down and it wouldn’t even have occurred to me to think that I could have a career centred around art.  If I’d understood it as a possibility at the time, I might have studied art history, but art itself? – not an option.

But that deep part of me that craved for artistic expression kept trying to come out.  When I was first married it got channelled into interior design, sewing, knitting, and painting bits of furniture; it showed itself in creating displays when I worked in a bookshop; as a hypnotherapist it got expression through working with creative visualisation and metaphor; and I understand now that I trained as a colour and style consultant (I wasn’t cut out for it in any other way) largely because it offered an opportunity to be creative with clothes and colours.

But I wasn’t diving deep enough and these things only partially satisfied what my deep self wanted, which is one reason why I never stuck with anything for long. I was doing my best to give my deepest self what it wanted, but in a modified way that fitted with what I thought I could have and – sometimes – what the people around me thought it was OK for me to have.  I would have said that I was doing what I really wanted to do, and in a sense I was, but I wasn’t going deep enough.  Finally I acknowledged the deep me for long enough to sign up to some drawing and painting classes and got up the courage to ask my tutor if she thought I could get into an Access course for Art and Design.  She said yes, I applied, I got in, and I discovered photography.  That was the beginning of diving deep, and it only took me, oh, about fifty years to get to this stage.  Never too late, of course, but I mourn a little for the lost years.

Even now, I don’t dive deep enough.  Teaching has always been my vocation and when I started to teach photography I thought that finally I was doing what I most wanted to do.  That might have been true for a short while, and it was certainly something I was very happy to do (although that’s true of most of the things I’ve done), but it wasn’t the aspect of photography I most wanted to teach.

Recently I’ve allowed myself to – at last! – give voice to my deepest desires, and that’s to work with contemplative photography.  It suits me – it brings together my interests in art, philosophy and psychology, and my love of teaching.  It also frightens the heck out of me, because it’s not like showing someone the way round a camera, which is nicely cut and dried – press this button, adjust this dial, and this is what you’ll get.  The questions rise up – am I able to do this? how am I going to do this?  where should I start? shouldn’t I just stick to what’s easy?

I was, like many of us, brought up to think not only that I couldn’t have what I most wanted, but to believe that I was wrong for wanting it at all.  A recurring phrase from my childhood – one that horrifies me when I think about it – was ‘those that want don’t get‘.  It’s a Catch-22 recipe for not allowing yourself to even acknowledge what it is that you want and I sincerely hope no-one ever says this to their children anymore.  Over the years, after much self-therapy, I was willing to think that it was OK for me to want what I wanted, but still the habit sticks of only allowing myself to want what I think I can get – to dive just under the surface and fool myself that I’ve gone all the way down.

Those depths are scary places.  You might find yourself unable to breathe, you don’t know exactly what you’ll find there, it’s dark down there on the ocean bed, and bringing what you find back up to the surface to have a better look at it makes you feel intensely vulnerable.  And there’s the getting down………in real life, I’m rather buoyant and I have to use a lot of energy and strength to swim underwater.  The deeper I try to go, the harder it is – I just bob right back up again.  So true that the physical world often reflects the mental one.

I hope that many of you who read this have had the courage – and encouragement – to dive deep.  For some of us it takes a lifetime, and some of us, sadly, die with our song still in us.  And even diving deep takes us only so far – we still have to act on it.  But that’s a whole other story……..

 

Self-delusion, tall poppies, and other creative nightmares

I don’t read so many new books these days as I used to, because I spend quite a bit of my reading time revisiting books I’ve read before.  Most recently I’ve been re-reading Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit.  It’s a terrific book, rich with good advice and insight and I find something different in it every time.

Twyla Tharp: The Creative HabitEarly in the book Tharp lists her own creative fears.  We all have an assortment of these, and I knew I had them too, but I hadn’t clearly articulated them to myself and it struck me that this might be a worthwhile exercise.   Then I thought that it might also be good to share them, because it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that everyone else is super-confident and it’s only ourselves that are shriveling up inside.  So here goes – I’ll share my fears with you, and if you feel brave enough, maybe you’ll share yours with me in the comments.

Fear number 1: I’m deluding myself. 

This is a big one for me – I think about all those people on X Factor who truly believe they can sing and have talent when in fact people are actually laughing at them because they’re so bad.  Whenever a little fin of pride shimmies around inside, I get this awful thought that perhaps I’m deluding myself, perhaps – horrors! – people are amused that I think I can actually do this (whatever it is).

It’s a bit of a twist on imposter syndrome (feeling like a fraud, and that any day now people will discover that’s just what you are), but imposter syndrome is about feeling you’re fooling others, while mine is more about feeling that I’m fooling myself and that others aren’t fooled in the slightest.  I find that a whole lot scarier.

Oddly, imposter syndrome doesn’t worry me so much – I’m a big fan of the ‘fake it till you make it’ school and there have been plenty of times in my life when I’ve had to wing it and have pulled it off.  I know I pick things up fast and improve fast, so I also know I’ll actually be what I appear to be, given a little time and experience.  We’ve all got to start somewhere.

It’s fear of self-delusion that stops me entering photography competitions or putting my work forward in any way that invites judgement.  Although I have moments of it in all areas of my creative life, the fear is strongest in the areas where there’s least chance of objective feedback.  There are methods of assessing art in a relatively objective way, but it’s fundamentally a subjective thing and so I don’t know how seriously to take criticism or praise.  In the end, it’s up to me to decide whether or not my work has merit and I don’t entirely trust myself.

I think anyone who practises an art in any serious way has to be both supremely confident in their work (or they wouldn’t be able to keep going), and also full of doubts about it (or they might fall into the self-delusion trap).  I’m comforted by this quote from the art critic, Robert Hughes:

‘The greater the artist, the greater the doubt.  Perfect confidence is granted to the less talented as a consolation prize.’

And Bertrand Russell:

‘The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.’

Of course the mere act of doubting doesn’t mean you’re any good, but I guess it does mean that you’re less likely to suffer from self-delusion.  Strange that doubt can be so reassuring.

Fear number 2: tall poppy syndrome. 

Tall poppy

Once I get past the fear of self-delusion, fear of tall poppy syndrome kicks in.  The expression refers to ‘a social phenomenon in which people of genuine merit are resented, attacked, cut down, or criticised because their talents or achievements elevate them above or distinguish them from their peers.’ (Wikipedia)

While looking for quotes for a previous blog post, I came across this poem by Jane Taylor which encapsulates the rather petty sentiments of those who would cut down the tall poppy (or in Taylor’s case, all poppies):

High on a bright and sunny bed
   A scarlet poppy grew
And up it held its staring head,
   And thrust it full in view.
Yet no attention did it win,
   By all these efforts made,
And less unwelcome had it been
   In some retired shade.
Although within its scarlet breast
   No sweet perfume was found,
It seemed to think itself the best
   Of all the flowers round,
From this I may a hint obtain
   And take great care indeed,
Lest I appear as pert and vain
   As does this gaudy weed.

Well that puts it in its place, doesn’t it!!  All those poppies should just crawl right back into the soil they came from lest they offend anyone by daring to think they’re worth attention!

I’ve never been successful enough to have suffered from tall poppy syndrome, but I’d like to be.  Successful, that is, not a target of it.  But in the lower recesses of my mind I think that if I become too noticeable then people will attack me, criticise me, or otherwise try to bring me down.  I know exactly where this one comes from – if I got noticed as a child (primarily by my mother) it inevitably led to one or more of these, so I kept my head down and made myself invisible, and the habit has stuck.

This is one fear I simply have to ignore.  I know it’s inevitable that the more visible you are, the more likely you are to attract the trolls, but continuing to hide is not a solution. Authentically putting yourself out there is always going to be scary, but it’s so much more worthwhile than becoming what Billy Connolly refers to as a ‘beige person’ – somebody who blends in so well that nothing distinguishes them or makes them interesting.  He should know – he has a purple beard and is absolutely and totally himself at all times.

Fear number 3: people won’t want what I have to offer. 

No Entry, happinessHappiness – No Entry sign – image by byronv2, used under Creative Commons licence, via Flickr

This is quite a biggie, as well, and something I’ve given into till recently.  I tend to offer the kind of services that I think people will want, rather than what truly comes from my heart and soul.   It doesn’t help that a lot of marketing advice tells you to do exactly this: find out what people want, and then give it to them.  And how do you find out? – you ask them.

However, I think that often people don’t know what they want and that perhaps you can offer them something they didn’t know they wanted until you offered it to them. I often find I’m a year or two ahead of the norm – many years ago when I wrote my ebook I had to explain to just about everyone what ebooks were – and what seems suspiciously different now is what everyone’s going to want in due course, so why not go ahead and get in there first?  Besides, by the time it’s the norm I’ll probably have lost interest and be onto something else.

It’s difficult to answer this one.  I’m not sure why I don’t just get on with it.  There are a number of negative thoughts that twist together in small strands to form the thick and sturdy rope of negativity that pulls me back – I’m not sure how to position myself in the market; I’m not sure how to explain or label what I want to do; I find it hard to handle the look of doubt on people’s faces when I explain what I want to do; I have to explain it for them to get it; I don’t know how to explain it for them to get it; I don’t know how to find the people who’ll want it; I’m scared no-one actually will want it; I’m scared of the pain of disappointment.

It’s the last one that has most emotional force.  If you never try anything you won’t be disappointed and you can hold onto the hope that it would all work out if you gave it a try, rather than having to deal with the wrench of disappointment when it doesn’t.  But I’ve been disappointed before.  My life has been full of disappointments and I’ve survived.  I’m still here, I’m still breathing, and I’m still doing things.  And not everything turns out to be disappointing – heavens, sometimes things actually go well.  So why should this fear be so strong?  I don’t know, but it runs through me like the lettering in a stick of seaside rock.  I have to get over it, that’s for sure.

I have lots more fears but none so disempowering as these ones.  I think I’ll hold back on the rest in case you’re already thinking that I’m a bundle of fear-induced neuroses.  (You’d be right, but I’d rather you didn’t think that.)  Are you willing to reveal what scares you when it comes to putting your creative dreams into practice? – let’s share the fears and take their power away.

 

Are you a discoverer or a designer?

 Blossom through bathroom windowBlossom through the bathroom window – one morning’s discovery

You might know that I’ve been doing the 12 x 12 photo challenges for the last couple of months.  I’ve completed two of them, and the third is coming to an end now and, after a bit of thought, I’ve decided not to do this one.  Before I go into why, let me give you a bit of background.  The third challenge goes like this:

Build something with the intention of photographing it. After you have photographed it disassemble whatever it is that you created.
— Dan Winters

Dan adds…“Create whatever type of object that you want. It could be as ambitious as a house or as simple as a house of cards. The photographs will be the evidence of your efforts.”

My mind began busying itself with the possibilities, and there were many of them.  I wasn’t short of ideas.  My first thought was something along the lines of Andy Goldsworthy’s work – for those of you not familiar with him, he creates wonderful structures, usually in wild places, made out of natural materials like brightly coloured flowers, icicles, leaves, mud, pinecones, snow, stone, twigs, and thorns.  He photographs them, and then they’re left to decay, melt, be blown apart, or drift away.  His work is transient, and very lovely.

I had plenty of other ideas as well, from building something from coloured ice cubes and watching it melt, to making a drawing with watercolour pencils and then spraying it with water to dissolve it, to building a sandcastle and watching the sea take it away.

After a while, though, I felt a definite lack of enthusiasm when it came to making any of these projects actually happen.  And then I began to think about why that was.  Here it is: I’m a discoverer, not a designer.  I like to stumble on subjects and allow them to present themselves to me. I’m not so good with creating things from scratch, or with planning, except in a very loose sort of way.

Twyla Tharp, in her book The Creative Habit, talks about the blank page, the empty room, the white canvas, and how every artist of any kind is constantly presented with the daunting challenge of making the first mark or its equivalent.  My immediate thought was that photography is possibly the one art where you don’t have to face the blankness unless you choose to. There’s always something there to make a photograph from, and it’s only a question of being open to noticing it.

For me, this has always felt easy.  My brand of creativity lies in building on something that’s already there.  When I cook, I like to have a recipe to give me a kick start, but the end result will be my own take on the original and is often very different.  And I’ve always loved programmes about makeovers, because I delight in the idea of taking something unpromising and doing something wonderful with it.

This is one reason why contemplative photography suits me so well – it simply asks you to be open to what’s there and to see it in a new way.  (I do also like to transform what’s there into something different, which is not really part of contemplative photography – but then I treat the contemplative approach like I treat a recipe: take from it whatever I find useful, and play around with the mix.)

There are numbers of photographers who take the opposite approach and go in for meticulous planning.  People like Gregory Crewdson, for example, who builds the most elaborate sets and lighting to produce haunting, unnerving tableaus that require a whole film set full of people to produce.  And Ori Gerscht – who would have fitted perfectly into this 12 x 12 challenge – who cryo-freezes elaborate flower arrangements, blows them up, and photographs the resulting gorgeous explosions.  These photographers are designers, not discoverers, and I really like their work but I’ve got no desire to emulate how they do it.

Twyla Tharp also talks about what she calls our ‘creative DNA’ – a creative style of our own that’s intrinsic to us and comes easily to us.  We can work in other ways, and it can be good for us to do that, but our work is never going to be as strong and effective as it will be if it’s aligned with our authentic creative instincts.

For me, the planning involved in coming up with an idea and building it from nothing takes away what I most enjoy about photography.  The fun for me lies in discovery and serendipity – it’s like a treasure hunt, where I go out never quite knowing what I’m going to get.  I lost my enjoyment of photography once before, when I was in a learning environment that was taking away the aspects of it that gave me pleasure and forcing me to work in ways that didn’t.  I don’t want to go there again.  Being a designer isn’t for me, and that’s why I’m not doing this month’s challenge.

 

Sometimes less can be more

Portrait of Boris the catBoris

I have very little gear.  My camera – the first and only DSLR I’ve ever owned – is about seven years old now, which in digital photography terms is positively antiquated.  I own one 18-250mm zoom lens, and a Lensbaby (plus bits for it), and those are my only lenses.  I do my processing using Photoshop Elements 9 – several versions old – and I have, but don’t tend to use, Lightroom 3 (I think there are two newer versions).

One reason I own so little equipment compared to most photographers is that money has been very tight for quite a few years now.   I’ve never earned much myself, and Geoff has lost three jobs in the last 3-4 years, and is looking for work at the moment.  We’ve moved house three times, two of them involving major and very expensive relocations, and now that we finally own a home again we’re not sure just how long we’re going to be able to afford to hold onto it, so buying photography gear is way down the list of priorities.

But would I buy more equipment if money wasn’t an issue?  I would buy a new camera, but for one reason and only one reason. My personal photography style is spontaneous and serendipitous and I like to handhold when I take the shot.  I loathe tripods, and using them makes me feel frustrated and constrained.  Because of that, I need a camera that has the highest possible ISO settings with good control of noise.  My own camera only goes to 1600 ISO, and 800 is the limit if I don’t want digital noise problems to render the images almost unusable – compare that to recently manufactured DSLRs where an upper figure of 25,000+ ISO is quite common and noise is well-controlled throughout most of the range.

A camera with better ISO would allow me to handhold in lots of situations where it’s impossible with my existing one.  It’s the one thing that would make a huge difference to my enjoyment of photography and my ability to produce better shots.  So, yes, I’d buy a new camera although if it wasn’t for the ISO factor I wouldn’t feel any great need to improve on what I’ve got.

But as for the rest, I’m not too bothered.  There are things it would be nice to have – a macro lens, for example – but I can do pretty much all I want to do with the equipment I’ve got.  My lens has a huge range and produces good quality images, and I can do macro with the Lensbaby plus attachment.  I’d probably upgrade my software given the chance but, again, it does the job.  And I’ve found in the past that when I do buy a new piece of equipment or software, it often sits there for a long time before I do much with it.  The anticipation of buying something new often turns out to be more exciting than the reality of having it, in my experience.

I do find it somewhat embarrassing when I’m teaching and my students have far better cameras than I have, which is very often the case.  I begin to see myself through their eyes with their expectation that, because I’m ‘teacher’, I’m going to have something super-duper, fancier and more impressive than their own.  They talk to me about Photoshop, and I have to admit that I only use Elements.  I can see them looking bemused.

I’m aware, though, that I know my way around what I do have inside out and back to front.  I know exactly what my camera does, how it behaves in different situations, and I can operate it without giving it any conscious thought.  My camera and I are good friends and have been together a long time. I also know that, because of what I’ve learned over the years, I produce consistently better images than the beginners with the fancy cameras.  Still, I can’t help feeling I’ve disappointed them a little with my lack of impressive equipment.

And I would dearly like a new camera.  The shot of Boris the cat at the beginning of this post was taken indoors in light that was OK but on the dim side.  I took quite a lot of shots but this was the only one that came out sharp – I just couldn’t get a fast enough shutter speed to avoid either his movement or mine.  You can see that the image below is soft because he was moving his head, and that’s such a shame because he has a great expression here and it would have been a terrific shot.

Boris the cat 2

But putting aside my need for a camera upgrade, my innate preference is to have minimal gear.  Having less makes me use and value what I have to the fullest, and take the time to fully explore what it does.  It minimises decision making – after all, if you only have one lens you don’t have to decide which one to use.  It reduces bulk and weight – if you only have one lens, you only have to carry one lens.  If you only have one camera bag, then that’s the one you take.  It simplifies things, and I like simplicity.   Too many choices can be counter-productive.

Although I talk a lot about vision being more important than gear, and although I’m saying that minimal gear is fine for me, I wouldn’t want you to think I’m against acquiring equipment in general.  I know some people thrive on lots of choice, and others take great delight in the gadgets themselves, and enjoy them for their technical sophistication and design, and that’s great.  I’m not knocking that at all – I’m just not one of them.  For me, the gear has always been a means to an end, and as long it does what I need it to do, I don’t have any desire to acquire more or to have the latest model.

However, having said that, there’s a little voice in the back of my head asking me if perhaps I protest too much, and that perhaps I’m trying to make a virtue out of a necessity.  I think there may be a little bit of that going on and it’s true that if I did have more money to spend, I’d undoubtedly buy more stuff.  I wouldn’t mind the opportunity to find out!  But honestly? – I don’t think it would make me enjoy photography any better if I had more or newer gear.  I find satisfaction in having just enough to do what I want, but without excess.  I may be a minimalist photographer by dint of necessity, but I do believe I’m also one by nature.  Which is probably just as well……..

 

 

The sound of colour: music, photography and Kandinsky

Wet pavement with lights

Wet pavement with lightsThe two photos Andy used for his CD ‘Reflections’

A little while ago, a musician called Andy wrote to me asking if he could use some of my photos as art for the cover of a CD he was producing.  The CD is called Reflections, and the photos he asked for were the two shown above. Naturally I said yes, and we exchanged a few emails which ended in the suggestion that we might aim for some sort of collaboration between us – probably involving me responding photographically to his music.

This is quite a challenge for me and has got me doing a bit of research for ideas on how to go about it. It’s hard to find much about photography and music – if you Google it, you end up with articles about how to photograph bands or rather literal depictions of musical instruments – images of the music-making, rather than inspired by the music.  However, after a bit of searching I did find this article  from nonsensesociety.com, which featured an online community project that encouraged artists of all kinds to post a piece of music plus the personal art that it inspired.

The results are fascinating.  There’s a lot to read and listen to, so I’ve only skimmed for the most part but I noticed a few things as I went through the post.  One of these was that a large number of people used music with words, and I wonder how much of their interpretation is about the words rather than the music?  It’s hard not to be influenced by lyrics and I got to wondering if their art would have been at all similar had they only had the music to go on, especially as much of the resulting art showed quite a literal take on the lyrics.  Interpreting the words is fine, of course, but to me this is a whole different ballgame to being inspired by the music and more on a par with using poetry as a creative source.

For me, the more interesting entries were ones where the music had been used to evoke a mood and the resulting artwork didn’t bear an obvious relation to it, such as Timothy Brearton’s painting inspired by Massive Attack’s Danny the Dog.  Brearton says ‘the music was the “field” from which the ideas took form.  There was something about music which freed me, and opened me up for the moment to manifest.’

I’ve never found this to be the case for myself.  I don’t like to have music playing when I’m doing something else that needs a certain sort of concentration, such as the kind that writing demands – I want silence above all else.  This is a bit discouraging in terms of any plans to use music as a creative tool, but I haven’t tried it with photography and that may be very different.  To me, writing and music have more in common than photography and music – writing has sounds and rhythms and patterns which have the potential to clash with music. Drafting sentences in my head involves trying out different rhythms and sound patterns, which I ‘hear’ in my mind; music playing at the same time interferes with that.

However, photography is all about pictures and doesn’t rely on sound at all, so music is likely to be much more compatible with taking photos – I hope I’m right about this.  In some ways I feel as if I’ve bitten off a little bit more than I can chew.  I don’t want to do the obvious thing and interpret the titles of Andy’s recordings (they’re all instrumental) in a literal way.  I’d like to find a way of working more directly with the music itself, but I’m at a bit of a loss as to how that might work for me.

Many artists over the years have used musical references in their work.  Whistler, for instance, titled his paintings as harmonies, arrangements, symphonies, and nocturnes – all musical forms.  I don’t think, though, that Whistler used any particular music as a starting point for his paintings, and the titles are simply metaphors.

Kandinsky is more interesting.  He supposedly had synaesthesia, a condition that involves experiencing sense impressions with more than one sense at a time – for example, a colour triggers the person seeing it to simultaneously experience a sound or a taste or a smell.  You might hear colour, taste words, or see music, and it’s supposed to arise from some kind of cross-wiring in the brain that’s found in about one in two thousand people.  Kandinsky claimed to hear colours as sounds and see sounds as colours, and regarded his paintings as visible music (although not any particular piece of music).

Composizione  VI 1913 KandinskyComposizione VI, 1913, Kandinsky

It’s hard for me to imagine what synaesthesia must be like.  It’s true that we use metaphor that suggests synaesthesia – we feel blue, we experience a sharp taste or a sweet voice, and it’s easy to understand what someone means when they say the sound of a trumpet is scarlet.  But we don’t actually see scarlet when we hear the sound, which is what sets us apart from the synaesthetes.

While I’d love to be able to do something similar to what Kandinsky did, I’m not a synaesthete so this is probably beyond my capabilities.  Perhaps the best way forward is to let the music evoke a feeling and look around me to see if that feeling is represented by something I see – a kind of matching up of emotional response to the thing I hear with the thing I see.  One of photography’s limitations is that it relies on something that actually exists to form the basis of the image.  Do I have to find the right place, the right environment, to get this to work?  Or should I be able to find something in any environment that would do the job?  I don’t know yet – I’ll report back when I do.

Any thoughts on this would be very welcome – how would you go about it?

Some links I found along the way:

Creative Harmony: Art + the music that inspired it: http://nonsensesociety.com/2013/01/creative-harmony/ – the main article I talk about in this post.  There’s a lot to read and listen to, here.

25 Sonic Postcards inspired by Instagram: http://disquiet.com/2011/12/28/instagrambient-25-sonic-postcards/  – Personally these don’t do much for me, but they might be of interest to someone.  25 Instagram photos were used to inspire ‘soundscapes’ – I find some of them positively annoying, but maybe I’m missing something……….

Kandinsky’s Color Theory: http://lettersfrommunich.wikispaces.com/Kandinsky%27s+Color+Theory – this post has a chart showing Kandinsky’s colour theory, ie, what each colour sounds like or feels like to him.  If you have a while to spare, you can use it to try and interpret the painting above.

The man who heard his paintbox hiss: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/3653012/The-man-who-heard-his-paintbox-hiss.html – more about Kandinsky.

The Influence of Music on Painting and Animation: http://ncca.bournemouth.ac.uk/gallery/files/innovations/2007/Gilbert_Jennifer_392/Innovations_JenniferGilbert.pdf – a 38-page essay which looks in detail at synaesthesia, the artists Kandinsky and Fischinger, and Disney’s Fantasia.  It’s written in an academic style, so a little dry, but still very readable.  I only skimmed…….

 

 

 

Throwing away the labels

Sunlit streamThe intimate landscape

I had several ventures fall through early this year, and one of them was some work for a nationwide photo tuition company.  Although initially disappointed, I feel now that it would have been a backwards step for me, as I’m actively trying to move away from the usual ways of teaching photography.  The company runs ‘how to use your camera’ courses, plus other courses that are divided into genres like ‘landscape’, ‘portrait’, ‘nature’, ‘lighting’, etc. They’re all very technically based, and the landscape course – to give one example – shows quite fixed ideas about how landscape should be done.

I guess this is what people want, or perhaps they simply don’t know that’s there’s any other way to go about things.  I’ve always resisted being categorised photographically, and one of my least favourite questions when I talk to new people is ‘what kind of photographer are you?’.   It’s difficult for me to place my work squarely in any one genre so I usually resort to saying I’m a fine art photographer, which leaves them not much the wiser and me feeling somehow inadequate.  When this question was put to me by the woman who talked to me about working for her company, I knew we were on different wavelengths.

I was reminded of this problem on reading an editorial in Black and White Photography magazine.  Elizabeth Roberts (who edits the magazine) has an architect husband who’s involved in teaching, and who announced one morning that he ‘hated nouns’.  On pursuing this further Roberts heard that when he asked his students to design a restaurant, for example, they came up with dull pre-conceived ideas and designs.  However, if he asked them to design a space, part of which people might eat in, they were that much more likely to be imaginative and original.  Roberts then suggests that the nouns we use in photography, like still-life, landscape, and so on, immediately conjure up a picture for us consisting of our pre-conceived ideas about what these things are.

Let’s take landscape as an example – we usually have an image in our heads of somewhere beautiful or awe-inspiring, with lots of colour and drama, sharp as possible all the way through, some foreground interest, leading lines drawing our eye into the picture, and that rosy golden light you get at dawn or dusk.  Mention landscape, and the majority of us think of something we might see on a typical calendar.  There’s nothing wrong with this but it’s a very limiting idea of what landscape is, or could be, and not likely to lead to work that stands out in any way.

I thought a lot about this a few years back when I was studying a landscape course.  Traditional landscape photography didn’t inspire me – not because of anything lacking in the images (although having seen so many of these now, it takes something exceptional to excite me) but because it’s not a way that I like to work.  I like to use a lot of softness and blur in my photos, I like abstracts, I don’t like using a tripod, I’m less into ‘big’ views than I am into close-ups, and I’m unlikely to get up at 4:00am and hike miles over moorland to catch the dawn light.  None of this fits with the traditional concept of landscape photography.

I had to navigate my own way through the course, which thankfully turned out to be a lot less prescriptive than the course materials suggested.  I looked at a lot of contemporary landscape photography, including a book called Shifting Horizons, on women’s landscape photography.  A lot of what I saw left me, shall we say, under-whelmed, but it did open up my eyes to new and interesting approaches.  One of the projects in the book was carried out by a woman who collected elastic bands from the pavements she passed along when doing the school run, which she then arranged on photographic paper to make photograms.  I have to admit I still have problems thinking of this as landscape photography, but it did have the effect of stretching my mind in a positive way.

Language and words, when used poetically and with imagination, can expand our minds and emotions rather than contract them.  However, when used to pin labels on things and sort them into categories, it’s easy for it to limit our thinking and end up trapping us in boxes formed of expectations and preconceptions.

But what if we threw away the rulebook – and the label – and asked ‘what if…..’  What if……landscapes could be blurred and soft?  What if……they could be small and intimate?  What if……..they were made of multiple exposures?  What if…..they could be abstract?  Or taken from above?  Or urban scenes?  Or things lying on the ground?  Or telephone wires and sky?  As Roberts goes on to say, not every picture taken with ‘what if..’ in mind is going to turn out original or exciting, but the attempt at something not bounded by preconceptions ‘might be the beginning of something – an opening up of ideas and ways of approach.’

I’ve used landscape as an example, but this is equally true of any other kind of photography.  The moment we try to fit things into a category and label them, we begin to close down our ideas.  The most interesting books, music, films, and photographs are usually the ones that it’s not easy to label – they transcend labels.  Those bays in the library labelled ‘family sagas’, ‘crime’ or ‘thriller’ tell the reader that the books on the shelves will hold no surprises, that they can rely on a certain formula to be used in each of them.

Sometimes we want the sweet familiarity of a formulaic approach, just as it feels good now and again to eat junk food for a day – there’s something reassuring and comforting about it.   But too much of it gets cloying and doing a bit of home cooking and changing some of the recipe ingredients, or perhaps throwing the recipe away altogether, is a lot more satisfying and exciting.

I still don’t know what kind of photographer I am – one who likes to cook, maybe?  Here are a few of my attempts to change the recipe!

Chillenden windmillThe blurred landscape

Trees reflected The reflected landscape

MudscapeThe mud-scape

Sunlight and grassesThe down very low landscape

Path through the wheatfieldThe minimal landscape

Poppy field abstractThe abstract landscape

The cloud scapeThe cloudscape

What the trees know

Tree branches with sunset behind

‘Trees are poems that the earth writes upon the sky’ – Kahlil Gibran

The spring skies outside my window never cease to astonish me.  In winter they were mostly white, pale grey, nothing to remark on or get excited about, but in other seasons they can take my breath away with their stunning beauty. As sophisticated and worldly photographers, we’re not supposed to love sunsets – that eternal cliche – but to turn to less obvious subjects, play it a little more cool.  But that’s the voice of cynicism speaking and anyone who doesn’t rejoice in the gobsmackingly gorgeous colours of the sky at dusk is surely lost to life’s simple pleasures.

Tree skeletons, too, are obsessing me.  Something about the complexity of the myriad overlapping branches and the challenge of framing them in a way that creates some kind of order out of their chaotic beauty, is behind it.  Something too, about the way they seem to reach into the sky, opening themselves up to it, not hiding themselves – as we might, as humans – because they’re bare and have temporarily lost the glory of their leaves.  Clothed in green they have a different sort of beauty, but this starkness is somehow more honest – they are able to show themselves as they are, knowing that what they are is enough, and to accept the gift of the sky’s light and warmth to enable them to flourish again.

We photograph ourselves, constantly – Minor White said that every photograph is a self-portrait.  Sometimes it isn’t until we write out our thoughts and feelings around what we photograph that we become aware of what it reflects to us, and we finally get the message.  The sky fulfills its purpose, which is simply to be the sky, and the trees flourish because of it.  The sky gives without expectation, and the tree receives without guilt.  The tree gives back to the sky by growing, its leaves pushing oxygen into the atmosphere.  It’s very simple, and quite perfect- the cycle of give and take, no keeping score, no feeling undeserving, no strings attached to the gift.  Why do we, as humans, complicate things so much?  Nature can teach us a lot about giving and receiving.

What do your photographs tell you?

 

Sunset with branches

sunset with branches

Sunset with branches

Sunset with branches

And finally, the palest sliver of a fingernail moon, almost lost in a pastel sky.

Fingernail moon

The longing for wild places

Stapleford Woods, Notts

There’s been a lot of talk lately about something called ‘nature deficit disorder’.  It’s not a disorder as such, but just a catchy name for something that we’ve so far failed to properly recognise – that people’s well-being depends on having a connection with nature.  I would phrase this differently, because talking about having a connection with nature supposes that we’re somehow separate from it, when in fact we’re natural beings and are part and parcel of the natural world.  It’s just that a lot of folk have forgotten this, and it’s not so much a case of connecting as it is of remembering.

I grew up in Scotland, with spectacular – and wild – scenery on my doorstep.  I pretty much took this for granted until I moved ‘down south’ to Hertfordshire, and rather naively started asking people where they went when they wanted to get out into some wild and empty country.  It didn’t take long for me to realise that there was no such thing there, and that was a huge shock to me.  Eventually two things happened – the first was that we moved to Kent, which is generously endowed with lovely woods and beaches, some of them almost empty of people, and these filled the gap for me quite effectively.  The second was that, by then, I’d got used to the idea that I didn’t have access to the kind of wild spaces I grew up with.

But now we’re living in Nottinghamshire, and the problem has resurfaced.  The countryside round here is very pretty but it’s all been tamed and so far I’ve not been able to find anything that even approaches what I’m looking for.  Again I’m asking people to recommend places to go, and they send me to country parks with tarmac paths and toilets and gift shops and cafes, when what I want is mud and silence.  They don’t understand what it is I’m searching for.  They don’t know what it is that they’re missing.

Stapleford Woods, Notts

At one point I thought I’d found a place, a small wood only ten minutes drive away with no facilities at all other than a car park.  It wasn’t really big enough, but it was something.  And then I went there last summer and had a scary experience.  After I parked, I noticed a man in a white van looking at me very intently. Every time I looked up he was staring at me and I put off getting out of the car.  Eventually I got annoyed with myself, told myself I was imagining things, and left the car and headed off into the woods.  A bit foolish, but I wanted my walk.  I was wary enough to keep an eye on him through the trees, only to see him park his van next to my car and start walking into the woods behind me.

Major panic!  I ran, looping off the path into the undergrowth and doing a large circle that brought me back to the edge of the woods next to the car park.  Then I had a horrible thought – could he be waiting there for me?  So I stood there hidden by the trees for ten minutes until another car drove in and then I ran to my car.  He wasn’t there.  Later – quite a lot later – I found out that these woods are a notorious ‘dogging’ site, which at least explained what had happened and put a less frightening perspective on it.  It still meant I couldn’t go back there.

Stapleford Woods, Notts

I have never felt afraid in truly wild spaces.  Most of my female friends wouldn’t dream of going for a walk in an isolated spot by themselves, but truly wild places aren’t frightening at all to me.  My view is that anyone who wants to prey on women isn’t going to go there, because you could wait a long time to find a woman walking alone.  I feel less safe in busy places, and less still in what Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts refers to as the Edgelands – those no man’s lands where the town trails off and the countryside hasn’t yet begun.  Those places that are full of graffiti, and the plant life is strewn with broken bottles, empty beer cans and cigarettes.  These woods, although seemingly wild, were too easily accessed from a nearby major road.  They don’t look like edgelands, but they have the spirit of the edgelands rather than the spirit of the wild, and I didn’t know the area well enough to realise.

Most people’s relationship with the countryside is mediated.  The wild is managed, and turned into the tame.  Of course all land in this country is managed, but a lot of it doesn’t feel as if it is and still has the essence of wild space about it.  And we need it.  Peter Kahn, an ecopsychologist, writing in Psychologies magazine (July 2011), says this:

Connect to nature as much as you can.  But connect more to the wild side of nature.  Many people who talk about the importance of nature focus on what can be termed as domestic, nearby, everyday nature – a favourite tree in one’s neighbourhood, a local park or garden, or one’s pet.  Domestic nature is important, but it’s only half the story.  The other half is wild nature.  For as a species, we came of age in a natural world far wilder than today, and much of the need for wildness still exists within us.  Wildness in the natural world often involves that which is big, untamed, unmanaged.  We should interact more with the wild – forests, rivers and the like – as we are strengthened and nurtured by it.

So many people haven’t experienced the wild, and domestic nature is all that they know.  It might hurt me inside that I don’t have any wild spaces close by, I might feel the constant ache of longing for something to which there’s no easy access, but I’m grateful that at least I’ve experienced enough of the wild to know what it is I’m missing.

With thanks to Joanna, whose recent blog post By the Side of a River prompted this one.

The photos are of Stapleford Woods, near Newark.

Stapleford Wood, Notts

 

 

Rewilding the language of landscape

A dreich day on the Dingle PeninsulaA dreich day on the Dingle Peninsula

The most recent edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary excludes a large number of words that are no longer considered to be relevant to today’s children – such words as acorn, bluebell, buttercup, conker, catkin, cygnet, dandelion, fern, ivy, kingfisher, mistletoe and pasture.  It says it all that a selection of the words that take their place include celebrity, broadband, chatroom, blog and voice-mail.

I find this depressing and worrying.  We name things that we think are important – the act of naming gives significance to a thing, says it’s worth paying attention to.  It seems to me that our current obsession with saving the planet and being eco-friendly means absolutely nothing if we’re not even interested in knowing the names of the things we say we want to save.

We’re all aware of that old classic that Eskimos have umpteen words for snow. If you click through the link to the article, you’ll see that this is slightly misleading, but it is true that language reflects distinctions that are important to us.  It’s not just the Inuits who make linguistic distinctions of natural features – every culture does or has done at some point.  A little bit of research into my own Scottish heritage threw up the fact that there are over 70 Gaelic words for hills and mountains – we have a lot of those in Scotland and it makes a difference whether it’s a small, flattish hill or a steep one with a ridge.

However, as we become more and more disconnected from the natural world, this area of language is rapidly falling into disuse.  Robert Macfarlane, in his new book ‘Landmarks‘, has catalogued as many of these words as he’s been able to discover.  There are some wonderful words here:

outshifts – the fringes and boundaries of a town (Cambridgeshire)

snow-bones – long thin patches of snow still lying after a thaw, often in dips or stream-cuts (Yorkshire)

muxy – sticky, miry, muddy ground (Exmoor)

smoored – smothered in snow (Scots)

grimlins – the night hours around midsummer when dusk blends into dawn (Orkney)

roarie-bummlers – fast-moving storm clouds (Scots)

Mud pattern 1Muxy – sticky, miry, muddy ground

I searched my memory for Scottish landscape words that I commonly heard used when growing up there.  Many of them are alternatives to already existing words – eg, glen (valley), loch (lake), burn (stream), gloaming (twilight), and bramble (blackberry) but there are some words that have no equivalent in ‘ordinary’ English and describe something quite specific:

lochan – a very small loch

dreich – wet, grey miserable, dull weather

corrie – a bowl-shaped hollow in a hillside

strath – a wide, flat glen

skerry – a small rocky island, too small for habitation

(My spell checker is going mad right now!)

The question is – if we lose these words, do we lose our awareness of what they describe?  We certainly lose a richness of vocabulary and that’s a sadness in itself, but does it affect us on a deeper level than this?  Is the loss of these words simply a reflection of our disconnection with nature (sobering enough), or does the loss of these words actually contribute to our disconnection with nature?  Or is it a bit of both?

The feminist movement has always believed that the language we use helps form our thoughts and attitudes.  They got a lot of flak for this, and often it was taken too far, but the point remains and has validity.  I’m not a linguist or a researcher, and I can’t answer these questions on anything other than a gut level, but I do find it very disturbing to think that dictionary compilers no longer think that children want or need words that identify a bluebell or an acorn.  That’s not a world I care to live in.  But now, over to you – what do you think?

Sources

Robert Macfarlane, Landmarks

Article by Robert Macfarlane, From Aquabob to Zawn, The Guardian, 28th February 2015