What might have happened had Vincent gone to art school

Sunflowers, Vincent van Gogh

It is early morning, and a young art student stands outside his tutor’s study door. He knocks, the door is opened.

Good morning, sir.  I’ve come for your feedback on my first assignment – Vincent van Gogh.

Hey!..Vince, Vince, come in and take a seat.

Thank you, sir.

Could you just lose the sir, Vince? It’s a little old-fashioned, you know? – Pete will do fine.

OK, Pete.

Right-oh, okeydokey, what do we have here……..aaaaaah…….yeees……the sunflowers.

Yes, sir – sorry – Pete.

Well I gotta give it to you straight Vince – you see this just won’t do at this level, it’s really not in line with contemporary practice at all. I mean, flowers, well…..this is an art course, Vince, not a calendar publishers. I gotta ask you, Vince, I mean what are you trying to say here?

Well, I love flowers and the colours were…….

Yeah, well you see that’s another thing. Have you thought about losing the colour? I mean it kinda distracts from the message, don’t it? Well it would if you had a message. And that reminds me, I don’t see your artist’s statement here anywhere…..makes it a little difficult to know what to say about this.

Well, Pete, I believed it spoke for itself, and if I had to explain it to people then I hadn’t succeeded.

Ah, Vinnie… just ain’t got no idea have you? The artist’s statement can change everything.

How’s that, sir – sorry! – Pete?

Well, Vince, if you referred to the sunflowers as a post-modernist ironical statement on the vernacular perception of summer, it would put a whole new shine on the thing – in fact you could critique their sentimentality while carrying through their essential Provencal-ness – I really think that might work.

But that’s not what I meant to do, Pete.

Yeah, yeah, well that doesn’t matter, it’s how you present the thing Vince, you gotta learn that if you’re going to fit here.

Can I just get this clear, Pete? You mean that if I paint the sunflowers because I find they fill me with joy and I want to show people that I see something wonderfully transcendent in them, they’re no good, but if I paint the same picture and say it’s a – what was it? post-modern ironical statement? – then it’s OK?

Now you’re getting it, Vinnie, keep going like this and you’ll do well.

Uh……….OK, so if I have to have an artist’s statement, what kind of thing do I say?

Well, Vince, it’s not really for me to say, but you could try something like this:

My work explores the relationship between acquired synesthesia and the liminal spaces.
With influences as diverse as Schopenhauer and Florence Nightingale new combinations are crafted from both constructed and discovered layers.
Ever since I was in the womb I have been fascinated by the unrelenting divergence of meaning. What starts out as undefined soon becomes manipulated into a carnival of power, leaving only a sense of decadence and the dawn of a new reality.
As subtle derivatives become clarified through frantic and academic practice, the viewer is left with a glimpse of the edges of our existence.

Much better, don’tcha think, Vince?


OK, let’s move on now. I haven’t seen any evidence here of research Vince, or how you’ve placed yourself in the context of the history of painting.

I didn’t know I had to do that, sir.

Pete, Vince, Pete……hell, yeah, it’s essential to research thoroughly before you even pick up your brush; I gotta admit I can’t believe you didn’t know that.

But why do I need to do that, Pete? I like to think I paint spontaneously from the heart and allow my art to emerge; if I try to plan it, it never seems to work. And if I spent lots of time looking at what other painters had done with flowers, seems to me I’d have a lot less time for painting.

Yeah, yeah, that’s all fine and dandy, but remember the essay, Vincent! You’ll be writing a critique on this when we get to Assignment four, so you gotta do your research, boy! You gotta recognise your influences!

Pete, can we cut to the chase here – would you just tell me what mark I got for this?

Well, Vince, I did what I could but I’m afraid I had to fail you – sorry an’ all that.

You failed me?! I’m pretty upset about that Pete. Could you tell me what I need to do to get my mark up?

Vinnie, Vinnie, it’s simple. Just get that artist’s statement done – you can do that first before you get going on the painting – and you want to spend a good part of your time researching, because I have to say it, Vince, there’s a touch of the chocolate-box about your work you know. I mean, you might get away with the flowers if you put them in an empty skull, or you could investigate the technical aspect and paint them using cutlery, or maybe you could freeze them and then explode them.  And I know you’re short of cash, boy, so you could turn that to your advantage – how about painting the flowers with your own blood, or you could try cow dung – I don’t think that’s been done yet and you’d save a helluva lot on the materials. Uh…Vincent? Vince? Where you going, Vince?

The door swings shut behind Vincent.


Turquoise wave

I’ve been thinking lately about the whole business of being ‘influenced’ by other artists. Researching other photographers and putting our own work into that context is something that we’re supposed to do for our coursework. I’ve always found that a little bit strange – I mostly just do what I do without thinking about who else has done something similar first. Apart from helping us avoid the reinvention of the wheel, I’m not sure what the benefit to us is supposed to be. (And actually, even if we did reinvent the wheel photographically speaking, we’d almost certainly do it in a different way that had our own stamp on it – so it’s still worth doing.)

It might give us some inspiration, perhaps, or supply us with an idea that we could build on, or twist in some way to create something new.  The danger is, though, that it could also push our own ideas into the background or lead us to feel that we might as well not bother as someone else has done it better first.  It’s for these reasons that photographer Cole Thompson practices what he refers to as ‘photographic celibacy’ – he won’t look at anyone else’s work in case he’s influenced too much by it.  It’s a controversial approach and if you want to read what he has to say about it, you can find it in this interview (the bit about photographic abstinence comes right after the sixth image).

There are obviously situations where you have to relate your work to other photographers – for example, the assignment in which I attempted to produce work in the style of Ernst Haas involved a lot of research into Haas and some analysis of his work, followed by an attempt to see the world through his eyes. What struck me most while I was doing this was that the attempt didn’t involve much effort as I was already photographing ‘in the style of’ Haas before I even knew he existed – it’s what I’m drawn to doing anyway. (I’ll hurriedly add that I’m not claiming to be of the same standard – just that I see the world in a very similar way)

I took the picture at the top of this post years and years ago, before I’d even heard of Haas; compare it with After the Storm, by Ernst Haas, here: Not identical by any means, but there’s a similarity of approach.

Naturally, one of the reasons I chose Haas as my subject is that I love his photographs and his vision. While there are plenty of other people whose work I enjoy and who have very different ways of relating to the world, I knew it would be much harder for me to come close to working in their style. It might have been more interesting – it certainly would have been more challenging – and a part of me thinks it would have been very good for my learning to choose someone with a very different voice. However, I doubt I could have pulled it off very successfully because I’d have been working against my own style, and it would have been a lot more difficult for me and perhaps frustrating, too.

Oddly though, it’s just possible that if I had chosen someone very different to me, I could have ended up being more influenced by them than I am by someone whose work fits with what I’m doing anyway. Emulating Haas hasn’t made me change anything that I was already doing, but if I’d had to emulate someone very different, it might have given me cause to change some, at least, of what I usually do – and that would have been a very definite influence. Even if it hadn’t, it might have given me a better understanding of why I like to work in the way that I do, and that might have had a beneficial influence in its own way.

If anyone gives a list of their influences, you can always see elements of the work they do in the people they’re influenced by. My guess is that they’d have done work that was much like this anyway, and that their influences haven’t actually influenced them that much, although they may have encouraged or inspired them to continue on the same path (which I concede is also one kind of influence).  What you never see – well I haven’t, anyway – is someone claiming to be influenced by someone whose work is entirely different to theirs.  If you know of any examples, please post a link in the comments!

Less like an ending than just another starting point

Landscape, Port LympneLandscape, Port Lympne

It’s done, it’s packaged up, and from tomorrow I’ll have my life back again – the assessment is in the post and I can get rid of the mess that’s taken over in my study. All that remains is to look back over the course and reflect on what I’ve learned along the way. Here’s what I’ve discovered.

Landscape can be interpreted in any number of ways
One of the most challenging things for me on this course was to find a way through it that didn’t require me to fit into the mould of classic landscape photographer. I don’t tend to enjoy photographing large vistas, and pinpoint sharpness is not my obsession – moreover, despite the course content, the classic approach is not really what the college is looking for.

I did a lot of reading around the subject of landscape, and looked at a lot of non-traditional landscape work, finally realising that it could be interpeted in any number of ways, many of them far from obvious. One book I looked at – Shifting Horizons: Women’s Landscape Photography Now by Wells, Newton & Fehily – had a portfolio in it of elastic bands found in various streets and then used to create photograms. That’s landscape? – it seems so. I figured I could certainly do what I wanted to do and still stay a lot closer to most people’s idea of what landscape covers. That was a huge relief, and I’ve pretty much followed my own instincts and passions.

I need to start doing my own printing
My existing printer isn’t up to the job of doing decent photographic prints, and so I get my prints done through online printing services. I’ve always known there would come a time when I’d feel the need to start printing myself, but I didn’t realise it would happen right in the middle of getting my final assessment prints done.

Until now I’ve used Photobox and despite having an uncalibrated screen, their prints matched up pretty well with how they look on my own computer……..until now. The batch I just got back from them were appalling by any standards. Most of them were so soft that they were totally unusable, and the rest had strong colour casts. A friend had also just received a batch of prints from them and hers were very badly done too, with a lurid yellow-orange cast to them. I think this is where Photobox and I part company for ever.

I ended up having to have them redone by a more professional printing lab, and that then involved learning how to do things like add ICC profiles and so on. Because my screen isn’t calibrated I had to guess at colours and brightness levels and it was all a major stress – I had to have some prints done more than once before I got them right. I know now that I must get a decent printer and a calibrator for my monitor and start doing my own – a learning curve, yes, but in the long run it will be much easier. I’ve put it off for too long.

I’ve gained the impetus to continue with my own projects
One of the reasons I like to do these courses is that they give me a structure to work to and force me to persevere with small projects. As I’ve worked through this course I’ve found that, more and more, I’m coming up with little projects of my own without the motivation having to come from an external source. The last time I finished a course I had a gap of a few months before I started the next one, and I found that I drifted a bit and lost focus (no pun intended). This time I feel as if I have the momentum to keep going. There are a number of things I’d like to explore and even without the course structure in place, I think I’ll be working on some of these. Writing this blog has helped a lot to keep me motivated.

I’m not sure that academic photography is for me
More and more, I’m feeling as if I’m in the wrong place. On a study visit yesterday I got a bit fed up with the endless discussions of photographic theory and history, and the emphasis on the conceptual idea. ‘If I’d wanted to study philosophy’, I found myself thinking, ‘then I’d have done a degree in that. But wait………I already did!’.

I took up photography as a way of getting out of my head, where I spend far too much time as it is. I wanted something that would allow me to be more spontaneous, intuitive, and creative. I had the rather naive idea that a fine arts degree would be more focussed on these things than, say, a philosophy degree – how wrong can you be? There’s a real danger, when it’s studied in this way, that you end up doing more thinking about it and reading about it than you spend actually taking photographs. And that’s not the point for me. It’s not that I’m not interested in the theory and so on – I find a lot of it very intellectually stimulating – but it’s not where I want my focus to be. I need to do more and think less.

I expect I’ll go on to do another course, but it will be a decision born of a lack of alternatives. There just isn’t anything out there that satisfies my needs course-wise. All the other photography courses I’ve seen are either technically based rather than art based, or are too low-level. I want something that challenges me and stretches me over a longish period of time, and at the moment this is all there is.

One of my options could be to change from being registered for a degree to studying the courses as leisure interest, which would give me more freedom to use the courses for my own ends. I’ve got a few reservations about this. I wonder if the tutors give as much attention or thought to their feedback if they know you’re not aiming for the full Monty? And I wouldn’t be allowed to have my work assessed if I’m not formally studying (the way I’m feeling at the moment that seems like quite an advantage, but if I’m going to do the work then it would be nice to get some recognition for it).

And last – but very definitely not least – I have protected fee status right now, which means that I’m spared the enormous hike in price that the courses have been subject to recently. The saving is huge, and I don’t think I’d be eligible for it unless I was studying as part of a degree. I need to check this out, but this will probably be the deciding factor that keeps me enrolled on the degree path.

To sum up
There was a whole year when I didn’t think I’d continue with this course, but I’m glad I did. It’s turned out to be a really valuable learning experience, though perhaps not in the manner in which it was intended. I feel that I’ve come much closer to finding my own voice and developing my own style and that my photography has moved on considerably since I started it. I’m relieved to have it over and done with but, to quote Chuck Palahniuk, ‘The feeling is less like an ending than just another starting point.‘  What’s next, I wonder?


Learning log blues

Swimming for the sky

Reaching for the sky – reflection in fish pond, Cambridge Botanical Gardens

I have very mixed emotions about the whole concept of educating people in art, and they’re escaping like worms from a can as I try to get my course assessment material together.  My biggest bone of contention is the learning log.  This, they’re quick to tell us, is for our own development and we should create it in a way that works for us.  So far, so good, but then they give us a 14-page A4 booklet telling us how to do it properly.  Mixed messages or what?

The logbook is part of the assessment, and as such, it gets a mark. If they were telling the truth about it being purely for our own benefit, they might want to see it, but they wouldn’t mark it.  Because as we all know, if you mark something you must have certain criteria that have to met in order to be able to give that thing an appropriate mark.  So that means there are certain things they expect to see in it, and certain ways in which you’re supposed to write about things, and if doing it that way doesn’t suit you, then you’ll get marked down.  Mmmm…’s for us, is it?

There are three questions, they say, that we should ask ourselves:

  • am I being honest with myself?
  • is this a useful process for me?
  • is this helping my own process of learning?

If the answers to these questions are ‘yes’, then ‘your learning log is right for you’, it says.  I think these are good questions, and I can answer each of them with a clear ‘yes’.  But I’m worried, because then it goes on to tell us about things we ‘must’ include in our logbook.

Of course you know where this is going. I’ve used this blog to explore my thoughts on my course and photography in general.  I think I’ve done a fair bit of reflecting on the course and on various aspects of photography, and that’s good – but there are an awful lot of things I haven’t done.  Or – let me be more specific – there are a lot of things I’ve done but haven’t written about.

I’m a voracious reader and not just of photography books. I read a lot of these, but I read a lot of other non-fiction as well and also try to relate what I learn there back to my photography studies.  But I haven’t written all of this down, mainly because I read so many books that I don’t have the time or the inclination to document them all.  I see lots of exhibitions, too, but I don’t write about many of them.  I don’t want to write about something because I’m supposed to, but only if I feel I have something interesting to say about it.  So I haven’t documented most of the books I’ve read, websites I’ve looked at, exhibitions I’ve gone to, or discussions I’ve had.

Another thing I haven’t done is to record my experiences with the exercises in the course materials. This is a very old-fashioned course that desperately needs to be re-written (I think it is being re-written at the moment) and it’s bad enough having to work my way through exercises like ‘try taking your shots in both landscape and portrait orientation’ or ‘take a photo with as many shades of green in it as possible’, without having to write all this up as well.  I hope I’m not suffering from hubris, but most of the exercises cover things I did ages ago when I was first learning to use a camera.  The remaining ones relate to film, which I don’t use.  The exercises are tired and old-fashioned, and I don’t feel they’ve contributed much to any learning I’ve done.

So I’m a bit worried right now, because the learning log counts for a substantial proportion of the marks and I think mine is likely to be frowned upon.  Doing this course hasn’t been easy for me – there was the demoralising tutor criticism at the beginning, and the subsequent loss of confidence that led to me taking a year off and not planning to come back.  I’ve also had to find a way of doing the landscape assignments that fits my particular style, which isn’t that of a traditional landscape photographer.  I’m proud of myself for having finished the course, when I thought at one point I was done with studying photography for ever, and I feel my personal style has developed and deepened in the process.  But because I see these courses as being for me rather than as a way of getting a bit of paper that qualifies me, I’ve gone about it very much my own way.

The first question they want us to ask ourselves is ‘am I being honest with myself?’ Well, yes, I am and I’m doing my best to be honest, too, to the people who’ll decide if I pass or not.  I’m probably going to suffer for that, but I’m past the point in life where I’m willing to play the education game any more.  I’ve already done that and got the certificate to prove it – I don’t need another one.  If I fail or get a low mark, and if part of that is because I’ve made the course fit me rather than fit myself to the course, then I guess I’ll just have to live with that.  But I know myself, and I know I’ll find it hard to deal with, and so I worry.


Collecting photobooks

Ernst Haas, Color CorrectionA while ago – about a year ago, I think – I bought the photobook Color Correction, by Ernst Haas, for about £28.  I love this book with a passion and I want to have it always, but I’ve just noticed that second-hand copies are on sale on Amazon for £400 upwards.  I’ve been thinking for some time that photobooks, if carefully chosen, would be an excellent investment.  There have been so many times that I’ve wanted to buy a copy of some photographer’s work, only to find that it’s out of print and would cost me several hundred pounds even if bought second-hand.  There have been lots of other times when I’ve thought about buying a recently published photobook but haven’t because I didn’t feel at that moment that I could spend the necessary £35.  Later I’ve gone back, and found that the price has soared because it’s gone out of print, putting it out of my reach.

The average photographic monograph can be bought for between £20-60, making it affordable to buy, say, one a month.  You’d probably have to keep them for quite a while (although my Haas book has soared in value very quickly) and there’s no guarantee that they will ever rocket to these giddy heights.  On the other hand, these books do tend to hold their value and you’re unlikely to lose much money if you buy them at the original price – on top of that you’ll have a wonderful collection of photo books to enjoy.  Of course you would have to handle them very carefully as even minor damage would reduce their value a lot, but this isn’t a problem for me as most of my books look like new even after I’ve read them several times.  It’s one of the few advantages of being anally retentive  🙂

I found this article from The Guardian, dated about a year ago, that suggests photobooks are a promising way to make money over the long term.  There are lots of pros and cons, of course, and I’m sure there are far more reliable investments, although not many that would be so enjoyable.  I have mixed feelings about the idea, because I wouldn’t buy something I didn’t like purely as an investment, and if I do like it then I’m probably not going to want to sell it.  Having said that, though, there are quite a number of photobooks that I’d very much like to have for a while and wouldn’t mind selling on once I’d had my fill of them.

Edge of VisionThere’s a book that I already have on my shelves, for exampleThe Edge of Vision: the rise of abstraction in photography by Lyle Rexer.  I bought this a year or two back, and it didn’t live up to my expectations, so I’d be more than happy to sell it.  I had to sit down when I saw how much it’s on sale for on Amazon – upwards of £1199.56 for a second-hand copy!  I can’t believe that anyone would be willing to pay this, but I’ll be putting it on there for sale just in case.  And if it does sell, guess who’s going to be using some of the proceeds to buy lots of photobooks?

Dark Beauty

Gold, Thurstaston Beach

Sometimes you can spend a long time grasping for a truth that you sense, but find impossible to put into words. I’ve tried many times before to write something sensible about beauty in art but have never managed to say quite what I wanted to say, mostly because I wasn’t clear on it myself.  I’ve been reading Thomas Moore’s Dark Nights of the Soul recently, a book I can recommend if you ever find yourself in your own particular dark night, and it’s clarified something for me that makes me feel I can now express some of my thoughts a little better.

I’ve felt for a long time that a large proportion of contemporary art is focussed on what I think of as the ‘nasties’ – the downright ugly, the negative, the anguished, the cruel – and all of this seems to go hand in hand with a view of life that’s cynical and pessimistic and without hope.  But when you argue against this and in favour of something more uplifting, you lay yourself open to accusations of sentimentality and an unrealistic Pollyanna-ish view of the world, as if it’s a wonderfully happy place – which it patently isn’t.  As ever, the truth lies somewhere between, but many folk like to assume that if you reject one of these views then you have to be in favour of the other.

I’m not drawn towards what I heard described recently as the ‘miserable bastard’ school of photography (a term I shall be using with great delight in the future), but I also dislike the kind of pretty-pretty, isn’t-everything-wonderful school either – the kind that’s full of frolicking children, dreamy sunflare , pretty girls drifting about in long white dresses, and ‘lifestyle’ interior shots.  And I realise, now, that one of the things that’s significant here is the difference between pretty and beautiful.  Pretty satisfies briefly but quickly becomes tiresome and dull – it’s the junk food of art.  Beauty satisfies for a long time, offering more each time you see it, and has great depth.  Beauty doesn’t have to be the obvious sort of beauty, but can be found in things the unperceptive might dismiss as ugly or unimportant.  It’s the difference between the smoothly polished and idealised celebrity actress and the elderly woman whose whole life is mapped onto her face – just look at this wonderful portrait of Jane Goodall to see what I mean.

Moore has a lot to say about what he calls ‘dark beauty’. This is a beauty that’s found in pain – a kind of sublime suffering.  Every life has both pain and joy in it, and that’s why an image of an elderly face, or any face that’s allowed to be ‘real’, gives us so much more than the air-brushed perfection we see everywhere.  Both the sorrow and the joy are there to see.  Moore argues that beauty and suffering are inextricably linked together, and that much of what we regard as great art has this pairing.

This is how I have experienced it. When I feel low, I often listen to Bach’s Mass in B Minor – most particularly the first and the last sections.  To me it holds immense beauty while at the same time being totally heartbreaking – listening to it, I have sometimes howled with pain while at the same time feeling hugely comforted by its beauty.  It offers me something that’s bigger than me and my problems – the kind of feeling I get when I look up at the stars in the night sky and realise how small I am in the total scheme of things. It manages to match my pain and recognise it, while also lifting me above it.  More than that, it also satisfies when I feel good, and at those times I find great joy in it.

Turning to photography, I saw this same mix of emotion in Joel Meyerowitz’s images of Ground Zero – interestingly, Meyerowitz himself referred to the ‘awful beauty’ of the scene. The devastation is shown in all its fullness, and with all its implications, but a kind of sublime beauty permeates these pictures.  In many of the images there is beautiful light coming from a directional source.  In one image, the light comes from above and although its source is actually an out-of-shot spotlight used to facilitate work on the site, it has the look of something much more metaphysical.  The wrecked but still-standing walls almost resemble cathedral ruins and in the background there are lights on in the surrounding office buildings – life goes on; there is hope.  Many of the images are of workers – rebuilding, clearing and restoring.  One worker, in a statement that’s almost poetic, was heard to say ‘we are gardeners in the garden of the dead’.  Meyerowitz’s work clearly shows the pain and devastation of a terrible event, but also allows us hope for the future and the possibility of transcending this awful thing.  In other hands this might only have been a depiction of horror and brutality – in Meyerowitz’s hands it offers layers of conflicting emotion that deeply satisfy and don’t offer pat or easy answers.

One of the most touching art installations I’ve come across formed part of the Folkestone Biennial several years ago.  Loudspeakers were fixed to the wooden benches that look out from high on the cliffs, over the English Channel, and a recording was triggered as you sat down.  The recording consisted of readings of letters written by soldiers during WW2 who died in France, on the coast you can just make out in the distance across the water.  The beauty of the scene, the love and pain expressed in the letters, and the poignancy of knowing the men who wrote them had died, and in what conditions, all combined to create a mixture of beauty and pain that left a memorable impression.

For me, this is what’s missing in a lot of contemporary art. Only the bad is shown, in as ugly a way as possible, with no room for an understanding of the complex layers of emotion and story that surround it, or a more nuanced interpretation.  The best art – in my view – says ‘this is the human condition, and it has many aspects to it’ and it connects us rather than isolates us. But of course, to welcome art like this you have to recognise these feelings in yourself.  If you’ve grown a hardened shell of cynical dismissiveness, then it can be threatening to encounter something that might crack you wide open, and it’s a lot safer to stick with the coolly intellectual and to sneer at or dismiss as sentimentalists those who think differently.  What troubles me sometimes is that the most feted of contemporary art seems to have at its centre only the aim of shocking and disgusting its audience, at the expense of looking for a deeper truth.

I would never want to be prescriptive about what consitutes good art, and I’m glad that there’s a whole smorgasbord of art out there, of all types, to suit everyone.  But for myself, I’m looking for art that does more than diminish me and leave me feeling troubled.  I’m looking for something that fully acknowledges life’s pain, while also celebrating the beauty and the wonder that can be found on the other side of it.  I was accused once, by a tutor, of having ‘old-fashioned values’, which only made me wonder why anyone would believe that values should be something that are a matter of what happens to be on-trend at the time.  The human condition is timeless, and I don’t think the values that support us as human beings are subject to much in the way of change.


The future really isn’t orange

Orange headlight

My photographic mojo’s been missing for quite a while, and although I’ve now got it back, I’m still pondering something that bothered me a lot during the time it went AWOL.  One of the reasons I felt no interest in carrying my camera around with me was that I kept asking myself what I was photographing for?  If it wasn’t to display the images in some way, or be part of an assignment or a commission, or to have some kind of ultimate purpose, then why was I doing it?  A while ago I would have answered that it was the process itself that was the thing, and I still stand by that, but lately I’ve been feeling the need for it also to have some kind of purpose.

I’ve got so used to working in themes and creating bodies of work for assignments, that I’ve mostly lost interest in the one-hit-wonder style of photography – you know, where you take a great shot but it stands entirely on its own without any relation to anything else you’ve taken.  I’ve got to the point now where I have lots of photographs of most types of things and I ask myself if I really need another macro flower shot.  But if that flower macro was designed to be part of a series, then it becomes greater than the sum of the parts and a lot more interesting.  This is quite a radical change in how I used to think, and I guess it’s one that every photographer reaches at some stage in their career.

This is all fine and dandy, but the trouble is that it takes away a bit from the simple pleasure of wandering around and shooting whatever comes up.  I do sometimes think that increased sophistication – in any field – has its own rewards but also leads to a certain loss of sheer and simple pleasure.  When I started drinking wine in my teens, I thought Liebfraumilch and Lambrusco were wonderful; now I really wouldn’t thank you for them.  My taste and appreciation of wine has developed over the years and, though I’m by no means a connoisseur, I can tell a good wine from a bad one.  Which means of course that I don’t enjoy the bad ones any more and I can’t help feeling this is a bit of a shame, while at the same time not wishing to be that uninformed, novice wine-drinker again.  In the same vein, I now know better than to wear those leopard-print leggings or the gold cowboy boots that I thought were just wonderful at the time, which means I look a whole lot more tastefully dressed these days but don’t enjoy my clothes nearly so much.

I was reminded of all this when I went to a new photography club that recently started up locally.  I’ve always avoided photography societies like the plague because – and I know I generalise, but it’s largely true – they’re full of men of a certain age who mostly want to compare equipment and indulge in competitions that limit the concept of a good photograph to very narrow parameters.  This group was different, consisting of people about half my age and being aimed at the more creative side of things, with its main purpose being simply to have some fun.  But it seems I’ve lost that simple fun thing, and I couldn’t get terribly enthused about what we were doing.

Being the first meeting, it was all a bit vague what we should do and eventually we decided to go out and look for the colour orange.  I can’t quite remember how orange came up; I think we thought it was unusual enough to make it a bit of a challenge.  It was nice being out on a shoot with other enthusiastic people, but I realised pretty quickly that I’m not interested in shooting orange things for the sake of it – I’m really not.  Had I had some kind of passion for orange, or some other non-arbitrary reason to shoot orange, then it might have been different but I didn’t.  Had I been trying to develop my colour awareness, then that might have changed things for me, but I don’t feel that need any more.  Had I wanted to show the use of orange and its implications in western society  then it might also have been different, but I didn’t.  In other words, I found it rather empty and meaningless and not very interesting, and I also found it a bit sad that I felt like that. None of these shots really hang together in any other way than the colour, and it seems that’s not enough for me any more.  No, for me the future really isn’t going to be orange.


Chimneys, Chester

Traffic cone

Orange thing, River Dee, Chester

Orange bricks, Chester

Creativity – sometimes it’s obvious

Ceiling detail

I often find that books I read on subjects other than photography are more helpful to me than books that are directly about it. One I go back to frequently is ‘Impro’ by Keith Johnstone, which is about theatrical improvisation. I have little or no interest in theatrical improvisation itself, but what fascinates me about the content is how easily it can be applied to any aspect of life, including photography.

One of the most interesting sections is on spontaneity and originality. As artists, we all aspire to be original but so much of the time our work is lacking in it. Johnstone’s view is that the more we strive to be original, the more likely we are to fail, and that’s usually because it leads us to constantly censor how we respond. When he teaches students to come up with successful improvisations, he asks them to do or say the very first thing that comes into their heads. When they do this the improvisation works but when they hesitate slightly and substitute something they think is more acceptable or more interesting or more original, it kills the whole thing. We all know how it feels to see someone try too hard – it’s never effective.

The worst possible thing improvisers can do, according to Johnstone, is to make a deliberate effort to be original. This always falls flat anyway, and usually they think they’re being original when in fact their ‘originality’ is the same as everyone else’s – a bit like punks rebelling against authority and the pressure to conform, but all doing it in the same way so that it becomes just a different way of conforming. ‘I gave up asking London audiences to suggest where scenes should take place’, says Johnstone, ‘Some idiot would always shout out either “Leicester Square public lavatories” or “outside Buckingham Palace”. People trying to be original always arrive at the same boring old answers‘.

Ceiling detail 2

Thinking too much before you shoot is a certain way to produce photographer’s block. For a while, due to some tactlessly delivered criticism from a tutor, I kept hearing the word ‘trite’ in my head every time I went to take a shot. No doubt most – perhaps all – of the resulting images would have been trite, but to censor myself like this meant I froze so much I couldn’t take anything at all. And maybe, just maybe, had I let myself take without judgement what presented itself to me then there may have appeared the germ of a good idea in there. And even if it hadn’t, if I’d continued to shoot for long enough then the odds would have got higher that something would appear – creativity can often be a numbers game. The first shots anyone takes are frequently trite and obvious, but if they do what’s obvious and get it out of the way, they make space for something more interesting to develop.

Johnstone emphasises that there are two points to consider here. The first is that we must let go of that hesitation, that self-censorship, and allow the first impulse to emerge even if we think it’s too obvious or too dull. The second is that when we do this, what starts out as objectively obvious and dull can actually become original and intriguing to others in no time at all. It still feels obvious to the person doing it, but they’ve moved away from the obviousness that comes from conformity, to the uniquely obvious that comes from deep within them.  ‘An artist who is inspired is being obvious’, says Johnstone, ‘He’s not making any decisions, he’s not weighing one idea against another. He’s accepting his first thoughts.’ Johnstone goes on to say: ‘No two people are exactly alike, and the more obvious an improvisor is, the more himself he appears’.

When we’re inspired, we’re being truly ourselves. This sounds easy but is one of the hardest things to achieve and most of us never manage it. I think that’s why great artists often appear a little crazy or eccentric or just very different to the rest of us, who’re too busy trying to appear sane to other people to allow our real thoughts and feelings to emerge. Being ourselves means ignoring the influence of what we think is acceptable, or clever, or on trend, and allowing our own uniqueness to emerge. Since we’ve been trained since babyhood not to let this happen, it’s pretty difficult for most of us to reverse the process.  It can also make us feel extremely vulnerable, and that’s scary.

To a very few, this comes more easily. People like Mozart and Van Gogh weren’t trying to be original, they were just being themselves. Mozart had some success in material terms, while Van Gogh struggled in poverty, but both of them were doing what seemed ‘obvious’ to them. Van Gogh probably had one of the most original visions in art history, but he wasn’t trying to be original – he simply did what presented itself to him without self-censoring. And he didn’t realise his unique vision overnight – much of his early work is quite dull and poorly executed.

Mozart wasn’t trying to be original either – he said:

‘Why my productions take from my hand that particular form and style that makes them Mozartish, and different from the works of other composers, is probably owing to the same cause that renders my nose so large or so aquiline, or in short, makes it Mozart’s, and different from other people. For I really do not study or aim at any originality.’

If we allow our fear of being dull and unoriginal, or our awareness of other people’s opinions, or our own self-censorship to stop us doing what might seem ordinary and obvious, then we could be smothering our creativity at its very source. We need to give ourselves permission to be boringly obvious, in order to cultivate the ability to be obvious in our own unique way.

Ceiling reflection black and white

Photographers call it ‘working a scene’ –

keep going, move past the obvious shots, and you will eventually come up with something more interesting

How to handle criticism when you’re an over-sensitive wuss


There are issues I struggle with when it comes to photography, creativity, and art in general. They’re the kind where I seem to have totally conflicting thoughts or mixed emotions, and which continue to niggle at me like a small stone stuck in my shoe. Periodically I try metaphorically banging the shoe against the wall to loosen the stone, shaking it out, only to find when I put it back on it’s still obstinately stuck there. Recently I’ve been grappling with a load of issues centred around criticism, how it’s delivered and how to handle it.

(Warning: this is a loooong post; if you’re short on time, you can just skip to about halfway, where you’ll find some ways of dealing with criticism)

I’m going to be honest – I have quite a thin skin, and on occasions it can become positively transparent. I don’t really believe anyone who says they find it easy to take criticism, but I do seem to take it harder than most. For those of us who have a particularly difficult time with it, it’s often because we grew up in an atmosphere where we were constantly found wanting, not good enough, and not valued for ourselves even when we got things wrong. We like to think that we’re big girls and boys now, but that small vulnerable child-being is still in there and it takes things hard. What we did or said in those days was not usually separated from who we were, so that we’ve been left with the feeling that we haven’t just got something wrong, there’s something wrong with us as a person. This can feel like an attack on the very root of our being; it’s tough to handle, even when you’re all grown-up and sophisticated.  It’s not so bad when criticism’s handed out in a kind and considered way, but when it involves tactlessness, derision or dismissiveness, it can leave you quivering under the bedclothes for the next week.

I think this is particularly so in the creative fields, where our products – if they have any hope of being good – must come from our selves and what lies deep within us. Criticism really can feel like a personal attack, even when it’s not intended that way at all, and it’s not helped by the ‘toughen up’ school, who like to blame us for our over-reaction rather themselves for their heavy-handed inability to deliver something constructive. But, you know, just because we might be a little over-sensitive it doesn’t make their methods acceptable. There are too many stories of people abandoning some creative pursuit or other because they’ve been told they’re no good. Some of these have eventually bounced back and gone on to become very successful in their field. Others have given up for good, and who knows what they – or we – may have lost in the process. I wouldn’t want to be responsible for that.  Yes, we need to become a little less sensitive, but some critics need to become a little more considered.

I teach, as many of you know. I wouldn’t dream of going into a class of beginners or even intermediates, or – well anyone, really – and telling them just how terrible they are at producing a decent image without expecting them to walk out and never come back. On the contrary: I see it as my job to give them confidence, to find something in whatever they do that can be praised. I want them to go out the door full of life and motivation. This is not a bleeding heart thing: I don’t lie to them – I tell them where something falls down as well, but I’m more interested in bolstering their enthusiasm as this is what will carry them through the learning curve when things get difficult.

Criticism is generally accepted as being essential to growth and progress. If that’s the case, how can the wusses among us handle criticism, especially the difficult kind, without becoming de-motivated and discouraged? Here are some ideas I’ve found useful.

  • Give yourself time to get past your first reaction: if at all possible, try to be on your own or to at least have someone there who cares about you when you receive a critique. When we get negative criticism our immediate reaction is likely to be shock – I have felt it like a kick in the stomach at times – or a deep sinking feeling in the pit of your abdomen, or some other horrible symptom that feels so physical you’d swear you’d been assaulted. You need some time to get over this.  If you have to be criticised in public – and most face-to-face art education works this way – don’t immediately react. You’ll probably feel defensive or completely cowed; either way, you won’t be in any position to assess things objectively. If you have to say anything, you can say that you find the criticism interesting and will take time to consider it. And do just that, but do it later.
  • Get it out of your system: go home, cry, scream, bash a pillow and pretend it’s your tutor, eat a lot of chocolate and hit the wine bottle. Write down exactly what you’d like to do to that person in excruciating detail, how you’re feeling, how unfair life is, and how you’ll never amount to anything worthwhile and how your mother always said that was the case and, heck, she was right all along. Then do something, anything, to take your mind off it – watch a film, go swimming, lose yourself in a book, soak in a hot bath with a cool cocktail, go out with some friends (but if you do, don’t talk about it). Physical exercise is always good for getting rid of the stress hormones; walking somewhere green works well.
  • You should feel a teensy bit better the next day. Probably better enough to give what’s been said some sensible consideration. First of all, is it the criticism itself that’s getting to you, or the way it was handled? Try to separate the two; it’s easy to be blinded to the merits of the first when you’re feeling angry as hell about the second.
  • Ask yourself if the bad stuff was justified? Even a little? Be honest with yourself and try to take a balanced view.  If you still don’t feel it was, it might be worth seeking out some other opinions.  And keep the next few points in mind.
  • Remember that not all criticism is created equal (1): you can be criticised in a way that’s hard to take, but is good and fair; you can be criticised in a way that’s hard to take and is biased; you can be criticised in ways that are simply mean and thoughtless. If you’re really lucky, you can be criticised by someone who knows how to do it: a fair evaluation of your efforts, some pointers about where it’s gone wrong, some encouragement based on what’s right with what you’ve done, finishing off with a topping of constructive ideas about how you could improve. If you’re at all sensitive, you’ll seek out the first and last of these and avoid the other two like the plague.
  • Remember not all criticism is created equal (2): consider who’s doing the criticism. Do you respect them? Do you respect their work? No matter how successful or famous someone is, it doesn’t make them infallible. It doesn’t mean they’re always right about your work. It doesn’t mean they have any idea how to help you. But it doesn’t mean they don’t, either, so you need to weigh up where they’re coming from and decide how much importance to give to their opinions.
  • Remember not all criticism is created equal (3): is the criticism relevant to what you’re trying to do?  I’ve written about this here, in more depth, but if the criticism comes from the buyers at IKEA but you’re doing degree level art, then it just isn’t relevant.  They’re looking for, and valuing, quite different aspects of your work.
  • Make sure you understand what’s been said: go back to your critic and ask them questions – exactly what do they mean by X? What would they suggest you do to change things/improve? Can they give you some examples, other artists to look at? It’s easy for them to dole out the heavy stuff and then swan off into their effortless, sun-kissed lives – make them work a bit!  But seriously, discuss it with them.
  • Try to imagine the criticism is about someone else’s work and you’re trying to get a full understanding of what the critic is actually saying, and how that person could improve on what they’ve done. Really, this is what we should be aiming for at Step 1 – it would save us a whole lot of angst if we could detach a little from it in the first place – but let’s be realistic here, it’s something we have to work up to. You can get some perspective by literally putting yourself in their place. Put two chairs opposite each other; sit in one and pretend you’re the critic, and imagine yourself sitting in the other chair. Now go over the criticism again, and see how it feels when it’s coming from you (you’re the critic now, looking at yourself over there). Do you understand better what your critic was trying to do?
  • Do your best to remember that they are not your mother! Or your father, your headmistress, your Aunt Mabel, or whoever spent your entire childhood putting you down. Much of the time what your critic says is well-meant, even if it lacks something in the delivery. It’s good to remember that.
  • Get some strokes from somewhere: yes, we all know that ‘wow’ comments on Flickr are pretty meaningless, but it’s still good to get them isn’t it? Seek out people who’ll be nice about your work; don’t take what they say too seriously, just use it to give yourself a temporary boost. Psychologists say for every negative we need five positives to make up for it; seek the positives wherever you can find them.  A good idea, if you’re affected badly by criticism, is to keep a folder/notebook/scrapbook of all the compliments you’ve ever had about your work or your person. Then get it out, read it, and you’ll feel a whole lot better. I promise.
  • Get back in the saddle: as soon as you can, go and produce some more work.  Don’t agonise over whether or not it’s any good, just do it and do your best to have fun doing it.  If you’re on a course, give yourself a little break from the coursework and enjoy your photography (or whatever your thing is) for its own sake.  Try to remember why you took it up in the first place; it was because you enjoyed it, wasn’t it?  See if you can get that feeling back.

So, is there anything else you could add to this that might help others?  Please add it in the comments so we can all benefit!  And remember:

To escape criticism –

Do nothing, say nothing, be nothing

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words………

Starry night Van Gogh“In spite of everything I shall rise again: I will take up my pencil, which I have forsaken in my great discouragement, and I will go on with my drawing”

Everywhere I look at the moment there’s discussion about criticism and feedback. Brenda wrote of how some feedback given by experts on an online show was derisive and rude, my fellow OCA students Eileen and Penny have both written this week about their reactions to some hard-to-take feedback they were given, and Tara Sophia Mohr has written a very interesting article on the topic that puts a slightly different spin on things.

Tara’s view is basically this: feedback/criticism doesn’t tell you about you, it tells you about the person giving the feedback. She says that when we seek out feedback, we shouldn’t see it in terms of our own merit or value, but as useful information that tells us whether we are reaching the people we want to reach in the way that we want to reach them (my italics). So if you want to win the camera club competition, feedback from the judges can tell you how to do that. Of course, you may not actually want to produce the sort of work that pleases camera club judges, or higher-level education tutors, or someone who likes ‘greeting card’ photography, or the people who buy for IKEA, and in that case feedback from those people is essentially useless to you and means very little, except whether or not you’re not giving them what they value. If you take on board what they say when you don’t actually want to compete in that field, then you’re going to end up becoming discouraged or untrue to yourself. Of course, if you have ambitions in the area in which they’re expert, then it would be sensible to consider their opinions.

Only consider them, though. It strikes me that a successful photographer can tell you what has worked for them, but not necessarily what will work for you.  That doesn’t mean – at all – that what s/he says should be dismissed. S/he’s successful at something you want to be successful at too and on that basis is worth listening to and has much to pass on that’s useful, helpful and interesting. I suspect, though, that if you put the same photos in front of six very successful photographers, you’d get six very different critiques – each person will give feedback from their own perspective of what they would do, how they would create, all filtered through their particular value system. This can be very useful stuff, but none of them are you, and many of them are only able to tell you how to be ‘them’. To accept without question what they say about your work is as mistaken as dismissing it without thought.

There is also a school of thought that says you have to be able to ‘take it’, that life is full of rejection and that harshly worded critique helps you ‘toughen up’.  It’s mostly men who hold this view (and deliver criticism accordingly), and it seems to be based on the view that ‘it didn’t do me any harm’.  It’s the kind of thing people used to say to justify hitting their children.  Honesty is essential; brutality is not.  People who think that it’s good to knock someone down in order to get them to try harder are often emotionally damaged themselves and don’t have much understanding of human nature and how to get the best out of people.  The big stick may work for some, but most people respond far better to a more enlightened approach.

Mark McGuinness, writing on his blog Lateral Action, gives an ideal example of how criticism can be delivered effectively. At one stage in his career he had several of his poems critiqued by Seamus Heaney, who went on to win the Nobel Prize and who is therefore no lightweight in terms of merit and reputation. McGuinness tells how Heaney focussed on what was working and encouraged him in that, while staying honest about what wasn’t.

“Heaney made it easy for me. He was charming, tactful and funny, while making it very clear where my writing had some promise and where I was wasting my time. I left the room with renewed enthusiasm for writing and respect for the craft. Unfortunately, not everyone is so good at giving feedback.

Effective criticism doesn’t have to be delivered in a hard-to-take manner, and is usually far more effective when it isn’t.  The problem is that very few people are skilled at this and so, if you want feedback from someone who isn’t, you need to be prepared to take the flak and not let it get to you.  If you can’t do that, and there’s a danger it will end up blocking you in your path, then it seems to me you’re better off without it.  You have to know yourself – how much can you take without being discouraged?

Which brings me back to where I started: criticism, and how it’s delivered, says at least as much about the expectations and values of the person delivering it as it does about the merits of the person receiving it.  It tells you if you’re reaching that person and people like them, in the way that you want to reach them.  It doesn’t tell you a whole lot more than that.  If you’re able to adopt this attitude, it can certainly take the sting out of negative feedback and make it easier to deal with the badly-delivered kind.

I do think there’s a small caveat to this which Tara doesn’t mention: that if large numbers of people give you the same negative feedback then there’s probably something to it and you should take it on board.  That certainly applies to most of us.  Of course, if he were alive today Van Gogh might disagree with that………