‘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?
And finally, the palest sliver of a fingernail moon, almost lost in a pastel sky.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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?
I have always hated having my photograph taken. These days I admit that it has a lot to do with vanity, as I always hope that I look better than it turns out I do in most of the photographs taken of me, but even as a very small child I didn’t like it. In the photo above, that’s me, hiding behind the deckchair on the left because I didn’t want to be in the picture. I was only about five or six years old at the time, so issues of vanity didn’t prevail and whatever it was that I didn’t like about it has to be something I would have been unable to articulate then but still instinctively feel today.
A few years back I had a friend who was always trying to sneak photos of me, taking them at odd moments when I wasn’t paying attention. I found it quite annoying, especially as he knew I really didn’t want to be photographed. One day he took a photo on his phone and then applied an app to it that turned my face into a kind of zombie/living dead thing – the kind of thing you see in horror movies, with half the skull showing through and eyes melting down the cheeks. I thought it was awful and even quite disturbing, but what was worse was that he posted this photo on Google+ – it’s still there as far as I know. That’s not the reason I’m no longer friends with him, but it didn’t help.
I’ve just started reading a book called PhotoTherapy Techniques by Judy Weiser, and she has this to say about photos of ourselves taken by other people:
“Photos are a good means for exploring the power dynamics in our relationships with the people who have photographed us. As each photographer ‘takes’ another person’s picture, the terms subject and object acquire additional meanings in terms of subjectification and objectification. It is interesting to consider which person’s picture signals the most truth to us about ourselves and to explore what that may signal about whose reality is the most accepted as being true (and who can therefore be trusted with the photographic equivalent of one’s self….).”
It’s the last sentence that interests me most – who can be trusted? While I don’t think I’m ever going to like my photo being taken, I have another friend whom I would trust implicitly to do the job, and indeed she has taken one of the few photos of me that I’m happy to use for online purposes. I know that the way she sees and portrays me is likely to reflect the way I see myself and want to be seen. I know she would delete any in which I looked laughable or odd or just plain terrible, and she wouldn’t dream of posting them on social media sites without my permission – in fact, it wouldn’t even occur to her.
I’ve always instinctively felt that the taking of someone’s photo by another places the weight of power in favour of the photographer. Certainly, the traditional idea of the photographer as male, with his female subject (victim?) posing according to his demands, supports this. Of course the reality is often very different and this is a heavily stereotyped version of the relationship, but something of it lingers on, especially in amateur photography magazines where articles on portraits always involve some pretty, thin, and very young female being photographed by older male photographers laden down with phallic lenses.
There are obvious feminist issues here concerning the male gaze and how that objectifies women, but that’s not where I want to go with this – the question that intrigues me is one that would apply even if the photographer were female and the subject male. What I’m interested in is whether or not the balance of power always lies with the photographer, however sensitive s/he is, and how much of that understanding hides behind the reluctance of many of us to have our photograph ‘taken’?
It’s desperately frustrating when you’ve been trying to express something for a long time but have never quite managed to find the words that will pin down the thought or feeling. Then one day, with a surge of relief, you read something that someone else has written and they’ve said exactly what you would have said could you have brought those words into consciousness. I subscribe to Brain Pickings – something I can whole-heartedly recommend if you want in-depth reviews of extremely interesting books – and one of their latest posts covers Alain de Botton and John Armstrong’s book: ‘Art as Therapy’.
I haven’t read the book yet, only the review (although I aim to rectify that as soon as I can), so I’ve drawn heavily on Brain Pickings’ account of it. In the book De Botton and Armstrong propose seven core psychological functions of art, one of which they term ‘hope’. I’ve long had a problem, which I keep coming back to, concerning the conflict between beauty or prettiness in art, and depth. The two seem at odds with each other and art critics are frequently derogatory and dismissive of anything that might be regarded as primarily beautiful or pretty, seeing such things as ‘a failure of taste and intelligence’. I’ve wanted to argue against this view many times, for it seems to me that art that gives pleasure must have something of worth about it and for the first time I’m seeing an account of this dilemma that makes sense. This is the basic problem:
The love of prettiness is often deemed a low, even a “bad” response, but because it is so dominant and widespread it deserves attention, and may hold important clues about a key function of art. … The worries about prettiness are twofold. Firstly, pretty pictures are alleged to feed sentimentality. Sentimentality is a symptom of insufficient engagement with complexity, by which one really means problems. The pretty picture seems to suggest that in order to make life nice, one merely has to brighten up the apartment with a depiction of some flowers. If we were to ask the picture what is wrong with the world, it might be taken as saying ‘you don’t have enough Japanese water gardens’ — a response that appears to ignore all the more urgent problems that confront humanity. . . . . The very innocence and simplicity of the picture seems to militate against any attempt to improve life as a whole. Secondly, there is the related fear that prettiness will numb us and leave us insufficiently critical and alert to the injustices surrounding us.
De Botton and Armstrong go on to point out that neuroscientific research indicates that optimism makes both us and the world better:
If optimism is important, it’s because many outcomes are determined by how much of it we bring to the task. It is an important ingredient of success. This flies in the face of the elite view that talent is the primary requirement of a good life, but in many cases the difference between success and failure is determined by nothing more than our sense of what is possible and the energy we can muster to convince others of our due. We might be doomed not by a lack of skill, but by an absence of hope.
The Dance, Henri Matisse, 1909
The authors then refer to Matisse’s Dance (iii), 1909, saying that the dancers in the Matisse painting are able to put us in touch with a part of ourselves – a carefree, happy part of ourselves – that better equips us to cope with life’s problems. Nevertheless, while looking at the painting helps us to access the happier, more optimistic parts of our psyche this should not be seen as a denial of the cares and troubles that beset ourselves and our world.
We should be able to enjoy an ideal image without regarding it as a false picture of how things usually are. A beautiful, though partial, vision can be all the more precious to us because we are so aware of how rarely life satisfies our desires.
This resonates very strongly with me. I’ve often had people say to me things such as ‘get real’ or ‘welcome to the real world’, as if the only reality we have is the bad stuff. Reality is a mixture of good and bad, of hope and despair, of joy and grief, of kindness and cruelty and I’ve had my share of all of them. All these things are equally real, and dancers engaged in a carefree dance are no less real than people being starved, killed or tortured. While art plays an important function in drawing attention to inequalities, catastrophes and inhumanities, surely we shouldn’t be restricting the function of ‘serious’ art to this one thing?
As things stand we’re bombarded from every side with depressing, troubling images. It’s important to know what’s happening in the world, but there’s plenty of research to show that an excess of these words and images are actually harmful to us both physiologically and psychologically. The more time we spend looking at such images, the more our immune system is prone to damage and our psyche to depression and pessimism.
This isn’t a selfish exhortation to ignore the fate of others in order to keep ourselves OK – happy, healthy people are in a much better position to help others than depressed, sick people, and are actually more likely to do so. Like the safety instructions in the plane to put your own oxygen mask on first before helping anyone else, we can only help others effectively when we’re not struggling ourselves. Art that can help us access the positive, optimistic and untroubled parts of our selves, can also set us up to be strong enough to tackle both our own and the world’s problems more effectively.
When it comes to the depiction of the positive in art, the trap lies – as De Botton and Armstrong say – in the tendency to lapse into a shallow sentimentality that lacks complexity and therefore depth. This often does happen, but I don’t think it always has to. Good, uplifting art has the potential to act as a counter-balance to an overdose of all that’s bad in the world, and to help us to transcend it. This needn’t be its only function, but rather one of many equally valuable ones, and art that falls into this category deserves a lot more respect and validation than it gets these days.
I find it significant that De Botton and Armstrong have chosen as an example a painting that’s more than a century old – in this Post-Modernist age, uplifting art is hard to find. It’s never been my view that art shouldn’t deal with misery and trouble – I think art should deal with everything that’s part of life – but it seems to me that we’ve concentrated on the angst at the expense of the joy and that that is harmful to us both personally and culturally. The zeitgeist encourages us to act ‘cool’ – cynicism, irony and pessimism are applauded, while sincerity, authenticity and optimism are sneered at and derided, and that’s reflected in the art we have today. De Botton and Armstrong, of course, are not writing for the rarefied world of the art critics, but for the layperson who’d like a better understanding of what meaning art might have for them.
One of my one-hit wonders – the only decent image I produced that particular day, taken in Clumber Park, Nottinghamshire
Geoff has been a squash player for years, and in his heyday won loads of shields and trophies and was very, very good at it, but a bad knee combined with age and a steady increase in weight has meant that he’s now limited to the less physically stressful game of racketball. This is not a thriving area for racketball, but he has managed to find two or three people to play with. They’re of varying standards and he gets a better game from some of them than he does others.
He came back one evening, having won his game easily that night, and said ‘you know, he delivers some very good shots sometimes, and his good shots are as good as my good shots, but my bad shots are a whole lot better than his are, and that’s why I win.’ It got me thinking that this definitely applies to photography and probably many other things besides. Looking back at the images I took when I started out with photography, I can see that the best of them still look pretty good. However, the bad ones – and there are a lot of bad ones – are very bad indeed and the mediocre ones aren’t far behind.
As time has gone by, my bad shots have got a whole lot better and I think this might be one way of indicating progress. Photography is a strange pursuit in that, even when you don’t really know what you’re doing, it’s still quite possible to get a wonderful shot – that’s something that’s a lot less likely to happen in other art forms. The measure of a good photographer, however, might lie in the proportion of excellent shots they regularly manage to achieve, combined with the calibre of their worst shots.
One approach that photographers use much more than other visual artists is to work in series linked by a concept or theme. There are some obvious examples of painters who’ve done this too – eg, Monet, with his series of canvases showing haystacks, Rouen Cathedral, and waterlilies (not all at once, of course) or Hogarth with his prints of the Rake’s Progress. On the whole, though, I believe work that’s consistently presented as sets of linked images is largely peculiar to photographers.
There are a lot of reasons for this, not least the tradition of photo journalism where one picture might tell a story, but several will tell it better. Another reason – and one which sets them apart from a lot of amateur photographers – is that being able to produce a set of images that are consistently good, hold together in terms of tones and colours and so on, and are presented in a coherent way, is the mark of someone who didn’t just get lucky.
It’s surprisingly difficult to do. My first set of images for my first OCA assignment were mostly random shots that just about fitted the brief. On putting together later and better-considered assignments, it was immensely tricky to get all the images looking as if they belong together and frequently led to the heartbreaking situation of having to leave out my best shot because it just didn’t fit. I think this is one reason why producing a coherent group of images on a theme is one of the best ways of improving your photography.
It’s natural to track progress photographically by looking at how much better our best shots have become. Perhaps, though, the time to get excited is when our worst shots show signs of getting lots better.
Image copyright Eileen Rafferty and used with photographer’s permission
I’ve been thinking, recently, about an exhibition by Eric Kessels called 24 Hours in Photos. (Eileen has written about it, here). It’s a simple idea – Kessels printed out every photograph uploaded to Flickr in 24 hours and put them in a great big pile, in an even bigger room. I haven’t seen the exhibition, but just looking at the images of it is shocking – the sheer excess and superfluity quickly leads to a feeling that adding to the numbers of pictures already out there is a bit pointless. What’s it all for?
It started me thinking about the value, or lack of it, in the plethora of mediocre and sometimes downright terrible photographs that surround us online. The ability to take and share photographs easily and effortlessly has led to a situation where everyone is a photographer. This often gives rise to some disparagement, and even on occasion sneering, from those who think of themselves as ‘real’ photographers. There’s a sense that they’d prefer a situation where only those who’d taken time to acquire the requisite skills could produce photographic images.
It’s easy to feel that there’s just too much photography taking place – or perhaps more accurately, being ‘shared’ – and that we’re being so overwhelmed by images that it becomes harder and harder to sift through them to find something above the mediocre, something worth looking at. And there’s some truth in that, for sure. But actually I’m glad that photography has become something that just about everyone participates in, even if the result is too much sharing of too many poor photos.
Before the advent of largely passive entertainment in the form of TV, video, internet, and so on, people used to do stuff. They sang or played an instrument, they took part in sport, they danced, drew, wrote, crafted and made things. They did it because there wasn’t much ready-made entertainment to hand, but also because there’s a satisfaction to be found in the doing even if the result isn’t that great.
Things have changed. Now, if you’re heavily into music it most often means you listen to it rather than play an instrument or sing; many sports enthusiasts sit and watch rather than play; people who love art go and look at it in galleries but don’t produce any themselves; film buffs have never had a go at actually making a short film. People go shopping to buy hand-made crafts but don’t try learning a craft themselves. Entertainment has become something that’s done to us and for us and not something we create for ourselves.
If you ask a room full of adults if they can sing, dance, or draw, very few hands will go up – there’s an assumption that in order to qualify you have to be able to do these things well. Young children, on the other hand, know they can do all these things and they do do them with a total absence of self-censorship and no assumption that they have to be good at it. Somewhere along the line we absorb the idea that if we can’t do something well we shouldn’t be doing it at all, and the easy solution is to opt out and become a consumer rather than a producer.
When did it get to the point where we feel ashamed to sing or dance or paint unless we’re good at it? Some of my fondest memories of my dad were listening to him play the clarinet. He was a really poor player, but the pride and pleasure on his face when he was giving us his rendition of ‘Stranger on the Shore’ means that that particular song can still bring tears to my eyes. I loved to watch him play, not for the music, but for the joy it gave him to perform it. I’m glad he played anyway even if he played badly, and it was part of what made him the person he was.
My dad also painted. He never did anything original, just made very accurate copies of anything he liked the look of that was contained within a book-sized catalogue of art prints called The Homelover’s Companion. He was good at copying, and he enjoyed it, and many people got pleasure from the resulting pictures. I still have one of them – an oil painting copy of Constable’s Salisbury Cathedral. You could never say my dad was an accomplished artist, but I don’t think the time he spent painting was in any way wasted.
Photography is the one area where people haven’t yet lost their joy in participation, or given up because they’re ‘no good’. One of our removal men took ten minutes to show me every single photo of his two cats that he had on his phone. They were technically awful photos – blurred, focus in the wrong place, all of that and more – but I liked that he’d taken them himself and wanted to show them off. They really meant something to him and I was touched by that.
So when I find myself cringing a bit at some of the stuff I see on online photo sharing sites, I choose instead to be pleased that there’s still one art form that everyone takes part in without embarrassment. Yes, I get tired of the endless, dull, and usually meaningless (to me) photos that we’re surrounded by, and I do think there are too many of them – perhaps we don’t need to share quite as many photographs as we do. But I don’t want to hear someone say, someday, ‘oh no, I can’t take photos – I’m really bad at it – I’d rather just look at other people’s.’
I’m starting something very new, and quite challenging. My good friend Eileen suggested to me that we do a collaborative project, something I’ve had thoughts about doing for quite a while. We wanted something very thought-provoking and it’s taken us a little while to come up with a plan, but here’s where we are right now.
We’ve been inspired by the idea of Socratic dialogue. Socrates taught his students not by feeding them information or telling them what they should think, but by asking questions of them. By asking the right questions and getting them to examine their own replies, he helped them clarify the issues and work out why they thought what they thought, quite often leading them to change their minds of their own accord. Socratic questions don’t have any right or wrong answers, and often there are no absolute answers at all – the important thing is the questioning process and the deeper understanding it leads to. This is what we’re aiming to achieve with our new project, but with images being as important as words (or maybe more so).
We’re going to choose a piece of text – or it could even be a photograph, an audio recording, or a video – and exchange images that show some kind of response to it, along with some explanation and thoughts as well. We’ll probably keep going with the text until we feel we’ve exhausted the possibilities and then change it for something else. We’re hoping that it will give us – and perhaps anyone who’s reading our blogs – some food for thought. We’re also hoping that other people might like to join in the discussion, and perhaps even leave links in the comments to their own photographic responses to the text.
And we’re not starting easy – oh, no! We’ve chosen our text and this is it:
Ultimately – or at the limit – in order to see a photograph well, it is best to look away or close your eyes. ‘The necessary condition for an image is sight’ Janouch told Kafka; and Kafka smiled and replied: ‘We photograph things in order to drive them out of our minds. My stories are a way of shutting my eyes.’ Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida
Before we came up with this text – well, it was actually Eileen who came up with it – we’d already exchanged a set of images each. She’s now emailed me her interpretation of our pictures, with reference to the quote above. First of all, here are Eileen’s photos:
And you can see the ones I sent to her at the top of the post. I was feeling very mentally and creatively blank at the time, and wasn’t sure why I’d picked these ones out specially – I was just drawn to the colour and light in them.
Here’s what Eileen had to say:
My pictures are very much about space and perhaps absence – large pictures with limited information across most of the picture plane. Yours in contrast are small images, and have a slight feeling of enclosure. When reflecting on them, it seemed to me that where my images are in part about absence, yours are very much about presence. The light that falls across the scene feels to me like a very definite presence, almost physically palpable. It’s a warm, comforting presence and the more I look at them the more I imagine it as personified. Light as God, or the ultimate parent, or some form of spirit or benign being. It was reflecting on that presence, and the role these pictures might play in your life, that drew me back again and again to the quote above. I think I am making expansive and peaceful images at least in part because my life feels so busy and unpeaceful just now. Who or what is this presence that is calling to you in these images?
Does making these pictures drive them out of our minds, not to help us avoid them, but to give them some form of incorporation, to make them more real, to comfort us and to seek to share that with others? To what extent are they about things you can’t see, and how necessary are words to deepen understanding and explore more complex points?
Whew……some big questions there. I’ll do my best to respond to at least some of them – as this is an ongoing kind of thing, I’m not even going to try and answer everything at once.
First of all, these two images are very typical of my work. Sometimes I make images that are about emptiness and absence and involve a lot of space, but it’s more like me to produce smaller, intimate pictures like these ones. Something comes over me when I see beautiful light or amazing colours, and it’s something that lifts me out of myself and my petty concerns and makes me forget about myself for a while. In that sense there’s a transcendent element that kicks in when I shoot these things – it’s no longer me capturing the pictures, but the pictures capturing me, and that’s when I feel I do my best work.
As for a kind of presence, I don’t believe in any kind of orthodox god – if I were pushed to say what I believe in, it would be that there’s something like a benevolent but impersonal positive force or energy that we can draw on and tap into. Some people might call that ‘god’ but I don’t like the connotations that hang around the word. However, if I had to give this thing a physical presence, that presence would be something that trailed clouds of light and colour – very like what I’ve attempted to show in these images, in fact. It’s coincidental that these pictures were taken in a cathedral, but perhaps the space lent itself to the expression of this kind of thing. My beliefs are very personal to me, and not something I want to go into here, but it’s interesting to me that Eileen has seen something in my images that expresses them rather well.
But let’s go back to the text again. – why the need to ‘drive them out of [my] mind’ and give them tangible form? I think this is a question that’s relevant to all photography – why do we need to give the things we see a physical form? Why is not enough to simply experience them? I don’t think I have any answers right now, but the question is interesting. Garry Winogrand once said that he took photos to see what things looked like when they were photographed, and I think there’s something in that that resonates with me. But what is it that makes that an interesting thing to do? And isn’t there more to it than that?
‘The necessary condition for an image is sight’, quotes Barthes. But there are quite a number of blind photographers out there who get something from creating images that they can’t see. Some of them do have some residual sight, others are completely blind but did see at one time, so they’re ‘seeing’ the image in their minds, but it still puzzles me why someone would get anything out of doing this. Turning to a different sense, there’s also the example of Beethoven, who continued to compose music he’d never hear except in his own mind. It seems, then, that we have some kind of need to ‘drive them [our images] out of our minds’ and put them into tangible form, but it’s not clear why. Is it the process that’s important rather than the result, and why is this process important even when you can’t see what you’re taking?
These photographers will never be able to see prints or screenshots of what they’ve taken, so the end result is presumably not the driving force. Talking to another friend of mine a few weeks ago, we were pondering the problem of what you actually do with your photos or artwork once you’ve created them. If you aren’t going to sell or display them, why produce them? I could argue that it’s the process that’s the important thing, but would I still take pictures if I knew no-one but me would ever see them? I think not, so it can’t just be about the process for me. I think I feel a need to communicate what I’m seeing, perhaps to try and point out something that I’ve noticed but that you might not have. Or if you did, you might have seen it in a different way. It works as both expression and communication, and if someone resonates with something I do, then some small connection is created between us and that’s a very satisfying thing.
There’s a lot more to say, and in true Socratic style I’ve asked far more questions than I can ever hope to answer, but there’s an alarmingly high word count appearing at the bottom of my screen. I’m going to leave it here for now, except to return briefly to Eileen’s pictures. For me, they’re all about space to breathe. When I look at them I feel as if I can take a big deep breath and let go of my problems – which is exactly what I’m going to do now.
‘Where or what is home?’ is a question that’s been occupying me for some time – for obvious reasons – so when I came across this TED talk by Pico Iyer I stopped everything to watch it. If the question interests you, then I recommend you watch it too – it’s fourteen minutes well spent. (I’ve had terrible trouble getting the video to embed, so if it’s disappeared again you can link to it here: http://www.ted.com/talks/pico_iyer_where_is_home.html)
Iyer points out that ethnic origins no longer define where home is – he’s Indian by ethnicity, but has never lived there nor can he speak any of its languages. For myself, I’m Scottish by ethnicity and birth, but although I identify to a great extent with Scottish culture and I have a great deal of love for the landscape, I’ve never actually felt at home there. Even at a young age, growing up in the west of Scotland, I never felt as if I belonged. As time went past I managed to forget that, and a few years ago I went back there to live, expecting it to be a permanent move. I was miserable. That whole feeling of not fitting in and not belonging came back in a huge rush. Scotland is where I come from, and a place I love to visit, but it isn’t home.
There’s a problem with linking home to a physical place – what happens if that place disappears? Iyer had the misfortune to have his house burnt down in a Californian bush fire and was left with nothing but the clothes he was wearing and a toothbrush. That’s an extreme example, thank goodness, but most of us have lost a place that represents home in some much less dramatic way. Leaving Canterbury felt like losing my home. I was back there for a week recently, and it really did feel like going home even though I no longer have any physical roots there. But the latter isn’t really what home is about:
“…for more and more of us, home has really less to do with a piece of soil than, you could say, with a piece of soul.” Pico Iyer
That piece of soil may be strongly linked to a piece of our soul, but the soil itself isn’t home.
If home isn’t synonymous with place, we could think of home as being where the people we love are, which is fine if we’re thinking about spouses and pets, but what if your children, parents, and friends all live far away from you? And what if they all live in different places? No, home is something far more nebulous and much harder to pin down. And perhaps it’s something that’s different for different people.
Part of my feeling that Canterbury is still home lies in its familiarity. For the first time in a year and a half, I knew how to get to places, I knew where the best places were to go, I knew where to buy the things I wanted – it was all so easy and reassuringly familiar. New places are exciting, it’s true, but when you have to actively remember where the light switch is each time you want to put it on, novelty can get a bit wearing. I know some people thrive on it – they’re the travellers, the adventurers. I’ve never been like that. My taste for adventure lies in new ideas, different ways of thinking and being, and to travel effectively in my mind, I find I need a familiar, reliable, physical base. You may be quite different.
Home is more like a feeling than something that you can point to. I still find it difficult to understand why I feel at home in one place, but not in another, which doesn’t help when I have to make choices about where to live. I never felt at home when we were living in Cheshire, although it isn’t obvious to me why that was. And I already feel much more at home where I’m living now, even though I’ve been here less than two months. It isn’t exactly ‘home’ yet, but I can see that it might become it in time. Home, for me, feels something like having a familiar, stable base – a metaphorical and physical fixed point from where I can venture out and explore. It’s a mixture of familiarity, proximity to people I love, and perhaps most of all, a feeling of belonging. The first and last of these take time to develop, and sometimes never do. I wonder if there are places where we simply never can feel at home? I think it’s possible.
Steep Hill, Lincoln – perfect in its imperfection?
We’re house hunting again, and it’s making me think a lot about what I like and don’t like and why that might be. What we really want is something old and characterful, but most of the housing stock is post 1960s and we’ve begun to consider other possibilities. Recently we thought about viewing a house I spotted on Rightmove – it was very modern, but it was light, bright, and beautifully decorated and finished. It was immaculate. But therein lay the problem – we don’t live immaculate lives. We’re often messy and sometimes the housework goes un-done if there are more interesting things to do (and there are always more interesting things to do). I just couldn’t see myself in this house at all.
It was so perfectly presented that a few crumbs in the kitchen would have ruined its good looks. And then I thought – one reason I love this rental house so much is that it accommodates our lives and doesn’t ask too much of us. The kitchen has an ancient, broken brick floor that doesn’t show up all the little bits of food that get dropped on it, and the solid old pine of the units can take a few crumbs left lying and the kind of watermarks you get where it’s been wiped with too wet a cloth. I like to cook, and I want a kitchen I can cook in and really use, not a show place. The rest of the house is like this, too – this house supports us, we don’t support it.
I don’t really like perfection. It has an instant appeal, but I become bored with it quickly and it somehow pushes me away. This is ironic, given that I’ve spent much of my life trying (and failing) to be perfect, thinking somehow that it would make me more lovable. And yet that’s not how I respond myself. I’ve never found perfect faces and bodies very interesting – give me a quirky, individual sort of beauty any time. And I love the house we’re living in for its bumpy walls, sloping floors, uneven staircases, and all its glorious, imperfect idiosyncracies. It has immense character. Perfect faces don’t have much character, and neither do perfect houses – they tell you nothing about themselves.
Perfection both demands something of us and is untouchable in itself. If a thing is perfect, there’s nothing you can add to or subtract from it without messing it up – it gives us nowhere to go, no way of interacting with it and all we can do is worship at its feet. At the same time, its perfection can be like a reproach, by highlighting our own lack of it. Nobody much likes the person who seems to live an immaculate, perfect life (of course, they never do, and we’re only seeing what they want us to see, but it doesn’t endear them to us). And when we fall in love, it’s often someone’s vulnerabilities that open up our hearts.
I find this with photography, too. The perfect can have a kind of instant, ‘wow’ type appeal, but it doesn’t last. Technical perfection often has a soul-less quality and it leaves the viewer nowhere to go – it’s glossy and finished. When I started in photography I would sit gazing in awe at the immaculate, perfect landscape shots in the magazines, wishing I could produce such a thing myself. After I’d seen lots of these, though, they lost their appeal and now I don’t give them much more than a passing glance.
And another thing – I grew up in Scotland, and I can tell you that the much-photographed Highlands very rarely look the way they look in this kind of image. It’s a wilder, grimmer, wetter place, full of swarms of irritating midges, and cold, buffeting winds. The reality of it is not so immediately appealing but it touches the soul in a way these images never do. Those perfect, idealised photographs of it don’t capture what the place is really like – immensely beautiful, but also sometimes threatening, gloomy, timeless, untamed, and at times hostile. This is what makes it what it is, and when I look at these photos I don’t see the Highlands I know.
The Japanese have a concept they call Wabi Sabi. It’s complex and not easy to translate, but put simply it’s about the beauty and nostalgia of age and imperfection. Perfection is controlling, Wabi Sabi is accepting. Perfection is an attempt to preserve, contain, and stop the ravages of time, Wabi Sabi embraces them. Where perfection only sees entropy and disarray, Wabi Sabi sees beauty. When something is Wabi Sabi, it’s perfect in its imperfection.