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.
[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……..
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.
Early 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.
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.
Happiness – 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.
Blossom 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.
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.
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……..
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, 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?
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!