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………



52 by 52 – photographing the un-photogenic

Brick wallBricks – yes, but look at those colours!

I stumbled across the 52 by 52 project recently, which is a weekly photography challenge set by a different ‘accomplished’ photographer each week.  You can join in at any point (it’s about halfway through now) and you can post photos in response to old challenges as well as the current one.  I’m not terribly good at sticking to this kind of thing, and I don’t think I’m going to try doing more than the occasional one, but the challenges seemed a lot more interesting than the usual ‘weekly theme’ that you see in other places.  They certainly require a lot more thinking about, to the extent that so far I’ve only thought about them and haven’t actually done any.  I’m not sure whether this is a good thing, but at least it’s engaging my brain cells.

I’m still pondering the one just gone: ‘take a photograph that is strong and necessary of something that is not photogenic’.  OK, ‘strong’ I get, but ‘necessary’?  Mmmm………not sure what that means.   More than that, though, it’s got me thinking about the question of what’s photogenic and what isn’t and why that might be.  If something is ‘photogenic’, my dictionary tells me, it means it looks good when photographed.  By this definition, anything that looks good when I photograph it is not going to be ‘not photogenic’.  I hope I haven’t lost you with all the double negatives here – what I mean is that if I photograph something and it looks good, I haven’t satisfied the brief.  Trouble is, I don’t want to photograph something without attempting to make it ‘look good’ in some sense; I can’t quite see the point.  And I could, of course, get horribly pedantic here and start disappearing up my own philosophical tutu by asking what it means to say that something ‘looks good’.

You’ll be relieved to hear I’m not going to go there; greater minds than me have spent eons on that particular question.  All this pondering, though, has made me question my own need to make things ‘look good’.  (I’ll assume we all know what we mean by that)  There is a photographic trend at the moment for photographing the banal, and keeping the influence of the photographer out of the image as much as possible – that is, you try to leave things looking as banal in the photograph as they do in real life.  My problem with this is that it then becomes very boring to look at (certainly to me); the idea behind it might be interesting, but if there’s nothing to hold my attention visually then I think there may be better media to use to get the concept across.  Photography is a visual art, and I feel there needs to be something visually satisfying about a photograph in order to make you want to look at it.  (And when I say ‘visually satisfying’ I don’t mean it has to be beautiful – which is a word that strikes horror into the souls of art critics – just that there’s something in the purely visual aspect of it that makes you want to keep looking, even at an ugly or boring subject.)

I’m thinking as I say this about the photograph that won the Veolia Environment Wildlife Photographer of the Year prize for 2011.  (I should point out that the photo doesn’t look anything like as good in the small size online as it does when you see it huge on the wall.) The subject matter is some pelicans who’ve been caught in a an oil spill and are covered in black, sticky crude oil.  It’s a disturbing subject, and one that you want to turn away from.  But the photographer has documented the plight of these birds while also managing to create something so visually interesting that you can’t turn away even when you want to.   The colours, the tones, the composition, all pull you in and make you want to keep looking.  Suffering animals distress me a lot, and normally I don’t want to know, but I kept going back to look at this again and again because of its photographic appeal, and for me its emotional impact was heightened by this more than it would have been by a straighter, more journalistic, approach.

But I digress.  I’m aware that I have a strong need in my photography to make what I photograph look good, in this sense of visually satisfying. If I wasn’t allowed to do this – by the art police, say – then I’d give up photography.  It’s that simple; it just wouldn’t hold any interest for me.  I’m a lot out of line with the times in saying this, but that’s how it is.  And I don’t mean that all I want to photograph are sunsets and cute puppies and mountain landscapes, as some of the tutors I know rather condescendingly assume of someone in my position.  I like the mundane, the banal and the everyday, but I want to take them and make them visually interesting or satisfying in some way (and my definition of visual interest/satisfaction is a wide one).  If I can also give them a deeper meaning, one beyond their surface appearance, that would be a bonus.  But deliberately making something look as uninteresting as possible? – well it’s just not for me.  Should I see this as a flaw, or an obstruction to doing quality work?  I’d certainly like to think not, but I’m often given this impression and even start to feel some small sense of shame or embarassment when I know someone who thinks this way might be looking at my work.  Foolish, or what?

This has been an ongoing challenge in my landscape course – how can I work with my need for visual interest and satisfaction without slipping into the realm of the cliche and the chocolate box?  I’m still working on answering that one.  I think a number of students simply jump on the bandwagon of what’s currently approved of by the art establishment because you get a lot of ‘strokes’ for that, and it’s the easy option.  But perhaps I’m doing them a disservice.

Going back to my starting point, I rather suspect the key factor in this challenge is the word ‘necessary’. I include some pictures of very mundane things that I like to think are ‘strong’ in some sense.  However, I somehow don’t think they’re ‘necessary’ – even if I’m not very clear on what that means – and to reproduce them without any of the photographer’s artifice would simply make them dull pictures of dull things.


Bird on a wireBird on a wire

SunpatchSun patch


Stacked chairsStacked chairs

Floor, with sunlightSunlight on floor

Photography as a male sport

Camera as phallic symbol Image courtesy of Corinna, at

A week or so ago I met up with my friend Corinna in Birmingham, and we went to the Focus on Imaging exhibition at the NEC.  It’s basically a photographic equipment fair – not something that interests me overmuch, especially when I can’t have a spend, but it was a good opportunity to meet up for a long chat and a wander round.

The first thing we noticed – and it was hard not to – was that the place was full of men pretty much all of whom were wearing their cameras round their necks, longest lenses attached and lens hood on the end to make it even longer.  Since there was absolutely nothing to photograph, these could only have been for the purposes of display – I hope you’re keeping up with the symbolism here.  Just in case you’re not, Corinna started referring to them as ‘willy wavers’, a name that brought a nod of agreement and a broad smile to the people manning the stalls.  Naturally, we had our cameras with us too, but they were stashed in our shopping bags like Jane Bown used to do when she went to posh London hotels to photograph the Beatles.

Seriously, there were hardly any women there at all (if you discount the heavily made-up, scantily dressed, pre-pubescent ones that tripped around the place wearing advertising signs).  Moreover, none of the equipment or clothing was designed with women in mind and much of it was unusable if you were female.  I was rather taken with a camera harness, for example, that carries your camera on the front of your body, but having my fair share of female curvature made it not only very uncomfortable but positively obscene – it’s got a solid metal plate on front that sort of divides and pushes things out the sides if you get my gist.  Camera straps worn across the body do something very similar, but they are at least narrow enough to more or less go down the middle.

Weatherproof jackets and those vests you get with all the pouches on them were mostly available in men’s sizes only, and there were some photographer’s gloves that we’d have bought had they come in female sizes.  (Just in case you’re wondering, the index finger and the thumb have little caps on them that push off, leaving you free to operate your camera with the two essential digits while keeping the rest warm.)

One stall had some very innovative products; the one I liked was a set of photographer’s spectacles.  When you get to the stage I’m at with your eyesight, you find that you need your glasses on to see what you’re photographing but you need them off to be able to read the display screen or do anything else that requires looking closely.  So you end up in the sort of scenario where you’re trying to change camera lens – which involves enough juggling about with various bits and pieces anyway – while adding a pair of glasses to the twenty-three other things you’re trying to hold onto all at the same time.  The photographer’s glasses have lenses that tip up out of the way, and you can even tip one of them up and leave the other one down, making it a cinch to see whatever you need to see without any need to remove them.  I tried them on: ‘these seem a bit big’ I said, and got the reply ‘yes, we only do them in men’s sizes, I’m afraid’.  Oh well, I guess I should have known.

Not only do camera bags only come in dull, male, colours – black or khaki, anyone? – but they’re often too heavy (even empty) and too large to work well if you’re female.  Now I know there are plenty of women who’re probably quite happy with black, and this is not even a particularly genderised thing – I’m married to a man whose work briefcase is bright turquoise, for goodness sake – but there are other issues here.  Men have pockets in their clothes.  They use those pockets to hold their wallets, their handkerchiefs, their spare keys, and basically all their little bits and pieces.  Women’s clothes mostly don’t have pockets; that’s why we carry bags all the time.  So we need room in a camera bag for things like purses, and keys, and a packet of tissues, and a hairbrush, and even, if you’re that way inclined, a lipstick.  You may have noticed that camera bags don’t allow for this.

There are times, too, when we’d rather it didn’t look as if we’re carrying a rather expensive piece of equipment around with us, especially if we’re walking around in the less salubrious parts of the inner city.  (This may apply to men too, of course)  So why can’t we have some colourful, attractive camera bags that have room for more than the camera and don’t make it too obvious that that’s what you’re carrying?  We put this question to a variety of stall holders, none of whom seemed to know why, but more than one of whom mentioned that you can get these things in the US but not here.   Seems to me there’s a gap in the market in this country.

I know from teaching workshops that there are at least as many women interested in photography as men, and women usually outnumber men on these courses.  If I was being unkind, not to mention sexist, I might say that this could be because men don’t like admitting they don’t know something and would rather fumble around by themselves than actually go and get some instruction.  But I’d never say anything like that.  The fact remains, though, that there are vast numbers of women out there who like taking photographs and they’re not being catered for.  Walking round this exhibition felt a little uncomfortable, almost as if we shouldn’t have been there, in this very male territory.

I’ve thought for a long time that photography is very male-centric. In our local newsagents, photography magazines are displayed under the heading of ‘Male Interest’.  The content also has this bias, with portraiture articles only using young, slim, conventionally pretty girls as their models.  I’d love to see something on photographing men, or ‘ordinary’ women, or old people, but you never do.  Camera reviews assume you’re male, referring to things like the finger grips not being big enough – yes, they’re not big enough for large male hands, perhaps, but might suit some of us very well.  A minor issue, true, but the whole impression if you’re female is that you’re not included in the gang.

All of this is true of the amateur photography market; it’s not nearly so true for the professional side of things, where you’ll find plenty of women in key positions.  There were more women behind the stalls in the exhibition than there were in front of them, for example.  But we all have to start somewhere, and I know from talking to them that many women are put off by the male emphasis on photographic technology and the sometimes condescending attitudes towards them of men with cameras.  I’m really not saying all men are like this – I know some absolutely lovely male photographers – but the amateur, ‘camera club’ brigade do have a tendency to think you’re incapable if you’re female.  Add that to the total lack of accommodation photographic manufacturers make for women and the impression is that this is not an area of life in which you’re welcome.

I’ve leave you with a little anecdote. When I was teaching regularly in London, I’d have to leave on a very early train on a Saturday or Sunday morning.  The man who sold me my ticket asked if I was doing something nice that day.  I replied that I was working, and he asked what I did.  I said ‘photography’. An intense look of puzzlement came over his face for a moment and then (I could almost see the lightbulb going on) he said  ‘oh!………you must be the model then?’  ‘No’, I spluttered, ‘I’m the tutor!’.  Sigh………it can be hard to get taken seriously sometimes.



The King’s Speech: film, music and emotion

The other night we watched a DVD of ‘The King’s Speech’. Throughout the film Bertie – unwilling King after his brother abdicated – struggles with a stammer and the need to make frequent public speeches.  He’s eventually helped by a very unorthodox voice therapist and in the final scene, he has to give a speech anouncing Britain’s declaration of war on Germany, with Logue (his voice teacher) in the background silently coaching and encouraging him.  It’s a touching scene, and the background music is a piece I’ve always loved – Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, 2nd movement.  Putting aside the irony of using music by a German composer in this context, it’s made me ponder about music and about film on a number of levels.

If you saw a film with and without the music, it would surely be two different experiences, and that makes me wonder if the lack of sound in still photography is one of its drawbacks (or one of its advantages?).  Although I know very little about music and wouldn’t consider myself any kind of enthusiast – in the sense of buying loads of CDs, going to concerts, and so on – I do find it affects me on a very deep emotional level.  Often, when I leave a film, it’s the ‘background’ music that stays with me, long after my memories of the film itself have faded.

Although this is surely true of many people, there are many others who don’t even seem to notice the music used – my husband, for example, rarely registers the music and he’s much more of a music enthusiast than I am.  There is a possible explanation for this: if you’ve ever studied or read anything about NLP, you’ll know that we process our experiences through our senses and that one of these senses is usually dominant in any one person.  (of course, we use all of them, but we tend to favour one in particular)  Taste and smell are difficult to work with, so NLP limits things to the three major sensory channels: visual, auditory, and kinaesthetic (feel/touch).   Unsurprisingly, given my passion for photography, my dominant sense is visual, with auditory some way down the scale.  However, Dawna Markova wrote about how the less dominant sensory channels can access our unconscious and our emotions more easily – it’s as if they have a direct path in there, without having to be sifted through our intellect or consciousness.

It may be this that creates such a strong link for me between emotion and music. The day after I saw the film I thought I’d like to hear this piece of music again but without the associated scene.  I found it on Youtube and clicked play.  Suddenly and without warning, tears were streaming down my face.  For a few moments I couldn’t understand what was going on, but then I remembered that at the time I’d first discovered this piece of music I was deeply unhappy in a difficult marriage, but one that I hadn’t completely given up hope on yet.  The music has always sounded like a combination of huge sadness overlaid with hopefulness to me, and this is what I felt at the time.  I’d played it then, over and over and over again, and hearing it now was vividly bringing back the abyss of unhappiness I was falling into at the time.  There are other pieces of music that act similarly on me: for example, I love Philip Glass but find his music so disturbing, in some way that I can’t articulate, that I simply can’t play it very often.  In this instance it isn’t linked to any particular experience, there’s just something about the music that gets to me.

Going off at a slightly different tangent, the video I found on Youtube enthralled me in a different way again. It’s a graphic version of the music that creates visuals of each instrument and note.  I’ve never been able to read music, although I tried to learn many times, but seeing it made visual in this way gave me an appreciation and understanding of this piece that I never had before.  It seemed to me I could ‘read’ it in a way I never managed with traditional notation, although obviously traditional music notation is visual too (and, in fact, imparts more information than this format does).  I’ve always found I need something visual in order to be able to listen properly; if I try to listen to a radio talk my mind just wanders off on its own path and I miss most of it.  But give me a related image or chart or something to look at while the talk is going on, and I can keep my attention on it.

Getting back to photography, something I’ve seen suggested more than once is to put on headphones and play music while you photograph, allowing the music to guide you in any way that feels right.  I’ve never tried this, but it would be an interesting exercise to play several different types of music while photographing in the same place, and compare the results.  We often rather foolishly try to separate out the senses when we talk about them, but in fact the input from each sense strongly influences the others.  Still photography lacks sound, and usually, tactile presence, limiting its input to one sense only.  Does this also put limits on its power to affect us?



Happiness is in the middle

Stone pile, Thingvellir park

A question of balance?

I got four photography books for Christmas (Yay!) and I’ve just started The Photographer’s Vision by Michael Freeman.  He talks about there being two different audiences for photographic work:

“There is the smaller one that is more educated in contemporary art movements, more discriminating, looking for creative breakthroughs, possibly elitist and equally possibly feeling intellectually superior. There is the much larger audience that enjoys the more obvious appeal of clarity, skill and craft, more traditional, preferring to relax in front of art than be constantly challenged…….Neither of these two audiences – let’s call them high-concept and popular for want of anything better – will ever change its fundamental likes and dislikes. The particular photographers and artists being looked at and judged may come and go, but the high-concept audience will always dismiss the obvious, lush, emotional and beautiful in photography, just as the popular audience will always embrace these qualities. The two audiences have a mutual distrust, the view in one direction looking unsophisticated and too easily pleased, the view in the other elitism, pretension, and the emperor’s new clothes.”

He’s right, of course, but why should it be like this? Can’t we be open to appreciating aspects of both and – even more importantly – accepting that there are many forms of enjoyment in this world and that liking one over the other doesn’t make you either inferior or superior? So many things in our culture are framed in terms of either/or, and black & white; the implication is that you’ve got to choose one or the other, and no credit is given to there being many enjoyable shades of grey or a capacity to enjoy both extremes.

Actually, I like being part of both audiences. I love to see challenging art that forces me to think, but I don’t want that all the time – it requires too much effort and gets tiring. I thoroughly enjoy the ‘clarity, skill and craft’ of the other approach and revel in its sheer visual pleasure, but I’d get bored if that was all there was. There’s much in both approaches that I don’t like at all or get anything out of, and there’s much in both that I do. I don’t want to have to put myself in one camp or another – I want to enjoy both and not be put down by either. (As things stand, I do enjoy each of them and am often put down by both!)

If you think about this in terms of food (bear with me here), then one end of the scale might be fish and chips from the greasy spoon, and the other would be a gourmet meal. Much as I like exquisitely cooked, restaurant meals, I wouldn’t want to eat this way all the time and would end up yearning for good old baked-beans on toast. I know this from experience – I used to be married to someone who liked eating out all the time, and I was longing for grilled cheese after a while.  But if all I ever got was comfort food, I’d be very unhappy then too. Most of the time I like the kind of food that lies somewhere in the middle – good home-cooked-from-fresh-but-not-particularly-fancy meals. And so it is with most other things in life – both ends have their own enjoyments but for me happiness lies mostly in the middle, with frequent excursions towards each end.

Being in the middle has always been something of a put-down – middle-class, middle of the road, middle-aged, middling, middle man, Middle England, middle brow. It sounds boring, stuffy and fuddy-duddy.  But the problem is that these phrases imply being rigidly stuck in some dull, unimaginative territory that’s neither one thing nor another. I want to stick up for the middle position.  I think being in the middle can be really stimulating if you enjoy what’s there and also use your position to scoot up and down towards each end of the scale whenever you feel like it. Decamping to one end and totally dismissing the other one seems to me like missing out.

Many (most?) of the people who cling to one end and righteously criticise the other are actually ignorant of what’s on offer. This is probably more true of the non-intellectual end, but not exclusively so. How many people would have given opera a chance before Pavarotti sang at the World Cup? But they found they liked it. And how many people would have read or listened to Auden and enjoyed his work before watching Four Weddings and a Funeral? And if you’ve never played bingo or gone line dancing or watched The X Factor, how do you know that you wouldn’t enjoy it, even if only very occasionally?

Wouldn’t it be good to see a world in which we all have our own preferences and make our own choices, but not out of ignorance, and with courtesy and tolerance for those people who decide differently. But I’m not holding my breath, and in the meantime I’m sitting pretty, here in the middle.

Would you photograph a funeral?

Jojo's coffin

Many years ago a friend’s husband tragically died of a sudden heart attack at the age of 45.  I was a bit taken aback at the end of the funeral service when a professional photographer appeared, ushered us all outside, and took a group photograph.  That had certainly never happened to me before.  It felt rather strange – do you smile for the camera, or maintain a stoic expression of pain and suffering?

It seemed a very odd idea at the time, but reflecting on it afterwards I thought that we photograph weddings and christenings and birthdays, so why not photograph funerals too?  Of course, they’re not particularly happy occasions, but they do mark a very important event.  And when you’re in the throes of immediate grief and just trying to get through to the other side of the burial or cremation, you’re usually feeling quite numb and not taking much in.  I know I barely noticed who was at my parents’ funeral and a photograph of everyone who attended would be something I’d like to have now.

More recently, my mother-in-law died after many years of living with advanced Alzheimer’s.  I’d left my camera in the car for the cremation and service, because even though I usually take it everywhere, it seemed wrong and a little tasteless to take photos in these circumstances.  It turned out, however, that everyone wanted a photograph of the flowers and I had to run back to the car and get it.  Although I was able to take shots of the bouquet on its own after the service, they wanted one of the flowers sitting on the top of the coffin as well, which meant I had to hang around with the undertakers and pall bearers as it was unloaded from the hearse.

I felt really awkward; there I was, hovering in the middle of all these dark-suited men with solemn expressions, and feeling as if I was getting in the way and wanting to say: ‘hey, look, I was asked to do this – it wasn’t my idea!’  It was probably all in my head, but I imagined impatience and disapproval coming at me in spades as they were stopped in their tracks to allow me to do something so frivolous as take snaps.  I snatched some shots and escaped as quickly as I could.

But I wonder – would you feel comfortable shooting a funeral? Do you think it’s in bad taste?  And why don’t we photograph the unhappy times as well as the happy ones? – they’re just as much a part of life.

Jojo's flowers

ART, Art and art

Anish Kapoor at the Royal Academy

What is art?

I’ve been pondering on this question for ages, since I read my blogging friend Susan’s post on how she had to write an essay on the subject. I actually wrote something in response just after I read her post, and it ran to 1600 words and I still didn’t feel as if I’d finished. Then I read it back and decided it was all nonsense and not at all what I wanted to say anyway. So I left it languishing unpublished, but I’ve been thinking a lot since then and I finally believe I might have something to say about this (and I’ll do my best not to stray into the thousands on the word front).

What I want to say is this: it seems to me that there is art, Art, and ART, and although they overlap, they’re all different too. Let me explain what I mean (and I’ll just say here that I’m confining this to the visual arts so I  – and hopefully you – don’t get too bogged down and confused).

I’ll begin with ‘ART’, which is the kind of art that makes a big statement and shouts at you to notice it. It’s the inaccessible kind, the kind that critics talk about, and the kind that arty intellectuals use to demonstrate their superiority over the rest of us when it comes to understanding art theory. It’s art for the ‘enlightened’ few and it usually sells for hugely inflated prices. One sometimes suspects that the artists who produce this ART are really mostly out to shock and one sometimes wonders if the ART in question really comes from a place of sincerity. This is not to say that none of this kind of ART is good or interesting; some of it is good, some of it is very interesting, and some of it is even groundbreaking, but a lot of it smacks of the Emperor’s New Clothes. Few of us aspire (if that’s the right word) to create this kind of ART and not many of us understand it.

In-between ‘art’ and ‘ART’ is Art. This is the kind of thing that people buy from proper galleries. People who create Art often earn all or part of their living from it. It has a much wider range, in quality, interest and accessibility, than ART and because of that it’s difficult to describe. The thing that does mark it out is something it also has in common with ART. When we refer to it, we’re talking about the final product – the painting, the sculpture, the installation, the video, the film.

Both Art and ART are all about the final product, the thing that hangs in the gallery, the thing that can be bought. But ‘art’ is different: ‘art’ is about the process of creating. When we engage in art we’re busy creating. Sometimes it doesn’t work out and we throw away the result, and sometimes we don’t even have a result because it all goes wrong and there’s nothing to show for our efforts. But even without the end product, we’re still doing art. So my argument is that art is really a process; it’s something we do, not the thing that we might or might not produce. It’s a lot like fishing – whether or not you come home with a bunch of fish, you’ve still been fishing.

Of course, Art and ART by necessity must involve doing art, but when we talk about them we’re usually talking about the product, not the process – no product, no ART or Art. And if we stick to looking at art as the process of creating, then we might not be ARTists, or even Artists, but any one of us can be an artist.

Can you blog for both love and money?

Make Money

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the whole business of blogging for money and I wonder how compatible it is with blogging for enjoyment. I would keep this blog going anyway, even if I had to be gainfully employed elsewhere, but ultimately my aim is to offer quality ebooks and ecourses, and to earn some sort of a living from selling these. I’ve done a year’s training course in how to make money online, and I’ve read endless books, ezines, blogs and websites all on the same theme. But every time I’ve tried to blog the way I ‘should’, I get stuck and frozen. The only thing that seems to free up my writing is to write about what interests me, and to be authentically myself. For that reason, this blog has turned into a much more personal thing than it was ever meant to be.

But it worries me. I can see that ‘providing value’ – as we’re told to do – is important and I don’t feel that what I write provides very much value at all. I feel I should be writing ‘how-to’ articles and so on, but every time I sit down to write them it feels all wrong and I can’t do it. I’ve written this sort of thing for other blogs (eg, Mortal Muses) without problems, but somehow I can’t get it to work when I try it here. I haven’t yet figured out why that is, and maybe it’s something I’ll get over in time. Or maybe I just need to do a different kind of how-to article, or to put them somewhere else than in my blog – I don’t know yet.

FoldersI think this is a similar problem to one that confronts anyone who tries to make money from their art. The minute you alter what you do to please an audience, you’re in danger of ceasing to be who you really are and to do what you really want, and of course the real value of your art lies in your unique take on the world. It’s so tempting to end up working to a formula and producing stuff that you know people will like, even if that’s not what you’re drawn to doing. Even where money isn’t involved, you can feel a little saddened (for example) when you put images onto Flickr that you’re really pleased with and they get ignored and don’t gather any comments because they don’t satisfy popular taste. It shouldn’t matter, and it doesn’t really, but I don’t think I can be the only one who feels a smidgeon of disappointment when that happens.  It matters a lot more if you’re trying to make money out of what you offer, because being ignored isn’t going to get food on the table.  But is it worth it if you have to be something that you aren’t?

So I’ve decided to go with what feels good to me for the moment, and simply write about what interests me. It may not relate directly to photography, but everything I am and do is reflected in my photography in some way. In the end, we photograph what interests us and those interests can encompass a wide variety of things; in a sense, every photograph is a self-portrait. I don’t know if I’m scuppering my chances of making money online by taking this approach, but I think I have to take that risk.  I’ve felt myself getting a little stale lately, as I’ve become more and more unsure about where I’m going with all this, and I feel the need to get back on track again.  If it doesn’t work out………well, I’ll think about that later.