I have written before, in many and various places, how confined I feel living where I do. My home is dark, partly because it just is, and partly because there are so many houses here, efficiently stashed together into terraces to take up minimal space, and between the houses are mean, narrow little streets where the light struggles to make its way in. A small slice of sky is all there is.
Often I long for sky, wide open expanses of it. When I drive to Thanet, where the land is flat and the sky goes on forever, my heart begins to lift and flutter, my breathing slows, and something in me unwinds. And I don’t even like the place that much – it just has a lot of sky.
Where I grew up, in Scotland, we have a lot more space than we do here in south-east England and a lot of it’s pretty empty if you don’t count the sheep. I lived in a highly populated part of it but I spent a lot of time in the mountains and on the moors and coasts, feeling as if it was just me and the sky and endless, wonderful space. I’ve never regretted leaving Scotland, but I do miss that sky.
The sky is this planet’s negative space – mostly empty, isn’t used for much in itself, but absolutely essential to make everything else feel right.
This photo of a couple with an umbrella was taken through a fountain – the abstract, painterly result was an unexpected, and welcome, surprise.
Uncertainty is the name of the game right now. We’ve had seven months of being uncertain whether or not Geoff would be made redundant, and now that he has there’s even more uncertainty. Will he get a job? Where will it be? Will we have to move house? Will it pay as much as he gets now? How will we survive if it doesn’t? Will I be able to supplement our income doing what I love to do? Will I have to get a ‘normal’ job? What happens if he doesn’t find a job? If we move will I find friends as good as the ones I have here? Will I be lonely? Will I miss this place? And on and on.
It’s the middle of the night, and I’ve been lying awake pondering these and other questions. And then it struck me that uncertainty is what makes photography so rewarding and so much fun. When I go out with my camera I have no idea what I’m going to find, or if I’ll come back with any decent shots, and that’s exciting. I set out with an open mind, a large dose of curiosity, and the assumption that I’m going to have a good time finding out. Sometimes I’m disappointed with what I shoot and delete most of it, but I’ve still gained a lot from the process, and I simply allow myself to feel the disappointment for a moment and then move on.
More often, I find something unexpected – a shot that turned out far better than I could have hoped, or something that looks completely different – and better – in the photograph than it did in reality. I come back with treasures. Going out on a photography session is an adventure – I don’t know what will happen and that’s exactly what I like. Imagine if you knew beforehand what shots you’d take, what they’d be of, how they’d turn out. Dull, isn’t it?
I want to approach the rest of my life like this. I want to treat it as an exciting adventure instead of a worrying unknown. I want to approach it with curiosity and an open mind. I want to discard the bad bits without regret and move on to what’s next. I want to get excited over the unexpected. I want to find treasures I didn’t anticipate.
“Faith means living with uncertainty – feeling your way through life, letting your heart guide you like a lantern in the dark.“ Dan Millman
One of the first photos I ever took – before I knew anything at all about how to use a camera – on a Nikon, 2-megapixel, point-and-shoot
When I first started running photography workshops, I set up two different workshops that I thought would complement each other. One was a creative one, aimed at helping people see a good picture, and the other was a technical one that showed them how to use their cameras. In my naivety I put the creative one on first, which caused some consternation among people who phoned to book. “Well I’d like to do the creative one”, said one woman, “but I don’t see how I can do that until I’ve learned how the camera works”. This view turned out to be shared by just about everyone.
But I had a reason for putting the creative one first – well, two reasons really. The first is that if you have a good eye, you can take fantastic shots without ever moving off the Auto setting, but no amount of technical expertise in the world will make up for not being able to ‘see’ photographically. I’ve seen this played out time and again; I’ve had several students (on the technical course) who’ve already been taking amazing photos without being able to do anything with their camera other than press the shutter button.
The second reason is that this is how I learned myself. I came to photography from a fine art perspective and started out taking photos to use as the basis for drawings and paintings. Pretty soon that changed into falling in love with photography for its own sake, and before long I became frustrated that I couldn’t achieve the look I wanted without knowing more about how my camera worked. So I learned. I’m someone who just isn’t interested in learning technical stuff unless I have a purpose in mind, and the need to be able to put my creative ideas into effect was what motivated me to get to grips with it. I thought running a creative class first might inspire people and give them the motivation, too, to persevere with something that can be difficult at first.
Most people start by buying a camera, and learning how to use that camera and all its lenses and accessories……..Far fewer people start in photography by taking pictures, which is the correct way.
He goes on to explain how easy it is to get snarled up in trying to learn all the technical ins and outs, without actually spending much time just taking pictures. And more controversially he states:
Women are better photographers than men as a whole because women worry about their pictures, and not about their cameras. Men spend lifetimes researching and talking about cameras, which does nothing to advance their photography.
Women and children take pictures because they like them, not because they like playing with cameras. Their natural curiosity leads them to better pictures.
This is a bit of a sweeping generalisation, and I certainly don’t want to offend any men who might be reading, but in my own experience it contains at least a nugget of truth. Women usually come to photography primarily because they want to create pictures, and are often quite put off by having to tackle the technical side of things. Men seem – on the whole – much more interested in the equipment you take the photos with, and can even get a little obsessed about what settings have been used where, and how to get things technically perfect.
I once went on a workshop where one of the students (male) had a Hasselblad camera and every piece of photographic equipment you could want in a lifetime. He spent the whole workshop zooming in on his images on his laptop, saying “Look how sharp that is! Just look at the sharpness there!!” His pictures were at best conventional, at worst, dull. (Perfectly sharp shots of tractors, anyone?….) I think it’s fair to say he wasn’t much interested in photography, only cameras.
I’d better say very quickly here that I’m not claiming there’s no need to learn technical stuff; you can do so much more, and realise your creative vision so much better, once you know a bit about technique. I wouldn’t be teaching classes in it if I didn’t think that. And I have come across the other point of view at times, where learning the basics has been discouraged as unnecessary and even undesirable, and I disagree strongly with that. My point is that we need both, but that if you had to choose one over the other, then the pictures are more important than the camera.
Which is why it really surprises me that it’s so difficult to get people to sign up for creative photo workshops (at least in the off-line world). I’ve worked with Corinna, from Hairy Goat Photo Tours in London over the last year to help set up a range of photography workshops. The technical ones usually fill up quite easily, but attempts to run creative workshops have been a dismal failure – it seems no-one wants these or even sees the importance of them. When I’ve tried doing this in my own neighbourhood, it’s been exactly the same. I’m confused as to why this is, since I see lots of people online who’re exploring the creative side of things. I can’t believe there aren’t at least some people in the south-east of England who realise that learning about the camera is only one half of the equation, and the slightly less important half, at that. The whole thing leaves me very puzzled……..
“I’m always and forever looking for the image that has spirit! I don’t give a damn how it got made.”
Some of you may know that I’ve recently become a Mortal Muse. One of my Muse-ly duties is to choose a photo from each of the three Mortal Muse Flickr groups once a fortnight. This is a lot harder than you’d think and has involved much chewing of lower lip, releasing of troubled sighs, and eating of chocolate. I should have known this wasn’t the job for someone who suffers from terminal indecision on a regular basis. (And I’m going to have to do it once a fortnight!)
It did make me start thinking about what it was that made me look closer at something and what kind of images were making it onto my shortlist. This is all personal stuff of course, and I’m not claiming my criteria are the right ones, or that anyone should try to fit in with them. Nonetheless, they are mine and I thought it might be interesting to figure out exactly what they are, because I’m not sure I know myself. Here are some thoughts:
I wanted to find something a little different. Clichés are clichés for good reason, and a dandelion head is a beautiful thing even if it has been photographed a million times – and then some more. But the problem with a cliché is that it doesn’t mark you out from the crowd unless you do it more beautifully and more stunningly than anyone else has. And sometimes somebody does. But most of the time I moved quickly past anything there was a lot of.
I saw some wonderful shots of babies and children, and I may yet choose some of these. On the whole, though, these shots are more meaningful to parents and relatives than they are to anyone else, and the same goes for wedding and engagement shots. If I choose something like this, it will be because it goes beyond that meaning and says something universal – or maybe just because it’s really funny (like this shot – which was chosen by another Muse before I got to it).
I’m getting into little idiosyncrasies now, but I hate it when people put large watermarks on their pictures. I can’t look at anything but the watermark and it really puts me off. I know it’s not nice to have your pictures stolen, but if you put them on as low-res shots, nobody can do much with them anyway. And did I say it really puts me off?
And finally lots of photos were really nice – but just nice, really. I felt the need of something more, some undefinable ingredient that stopped me in my tracks.
It's a well-known fact that lots of this stuff makes decision-making much easier
That ruled out loads, but still left me with a lot more to choose from. It’s much harder to say what it was about a picture that made me take a better look than it is to say what made me pass on by. I’ve just tried making a list but that didn’t work at all, because the shots that spoke to me did so because it wasn’t easy to lump them together in any kind of way. They might have a certain mood or atmosphere or gorgeously beautiful light, might be funny or quirky (I do favour things that make me smile), could be unusual takes on usual things or interestingly composed, or they might show a wonderful appreciation of colour. And of course, so much of it depended on what I brought to the picture myself – my own associations and feelings and memories.
When I was choosing from the pool that has a fortnightly theme, I did like it a lot when people interpreted that theme in a way you might not immediately think of. And then sometimes I liked something quite ordinary simply because it was so beautifully done. I think, on the whole, I’m drawn to things that are a little different, but the difference can manifest in all sorts of ways.
The hardest bit came when I did have a shortlist, because sometimes there was something I loved that I couldn’t choose because that person had been featured too recently, or it belonged to another Muse (I can choose these, but it doesn’t seem right somehow), or it was too similar to another Muse’s choice. And then I felt sad for the ones that got away.
It feels strange and a little disquieting to be One Who Decides. I want everyone to feel huge pleasure in their own photography and creativity, even if the result isn’t always something I’d make my personal choice – I’d like everyone to have that gold star feeling. (I know how chuffed I was when one of mine got picked many months ago.) And there are all these pictures I’d like to choose but can’t, because I only get to do this once a fortnight and I can only pick three. I want to leave messages saying, ‘I nearly chose yours!’
All I can say is, thank heavens there are nine of us, with a wide variety of tastes and interests that lead to an interesting mix of styles and subject matter – otherwise I think the responsibility would be just too much!
My ebook is nearly ready to go, and I’ve been giving the sales page a lot of thought recently. I want to write it in a way that’s true to myself but might still entice somebody (maybe even more than one somebody) to actually buy it. I really hate these hugely-long, yellow-highlighted, online sales letters full of sensational promises that no product could ever fulfil, but in the back of my mind a little voice has been saying ‘but that’s what you have to do if you want to sell your book’.
So I was absolutely delighted this morning to get a subscription reminder notice from Philosophy Now magazine, in which the first paragraph goes like this:
Your subscription to Philosophy Now ran out with Issue 83, and ever since then we’ve been inconsolable. “What”, we ask ourselves rhetorically, “is the point of continuing? Issue 85 is really good, but the achievement seems hollow, futile, if you aren’t going to read it…” Bring meaning back to our lives: if you send us a cheque for £15.50 we’ll send you the next six issues and I’ll be able to wean my colleagues off their anti-depressants….
…..Rick Lewis, Editor
I only let the subscription lapse because I’m very, very broke at the moment, but this letter means that I’ll be renewing the moment I have some spare cash. It not only made my day – I laughed out loud when I read it – it taught me a few things too about how connecting with people gets far better results than an in-your-face sales letter ever could.
I’m dedicating this post to anyone who has ever been floored by criticism of their work – here’s proof that you shouldn’t take what anyone says too seriously even if they are qualified and experienced.
The tutor I started out with on the course I’m currently studying is not known for his tact or empathy. He didn’t like my first assignment one little bit and criticised it so harshly that it took me the best part of a year to get my confidence back. I asked for a change of tutor at the time and so the same assignment was marked a second time. What you see in this post are a few of the images with both tutor’s comments added to them. I don’t think I need to say any more……except, don’t take anything too much to heart!
I’m so happy to have discovered the Introvert’s Corner section on the Psychology Today website; it makes me feel a lot less like an oddball than I usually do. I once filled in a questionnaire on introversion and I was practically off the scale on some of the parameters. My introvert traits often perplex and puzzle the extravert people in my life, who mostly don’t understand that I’m just wired differently. For every three extraverts in the world, there’s just one introvert, so we’re seriously outnumbered and usually more than a little bit misunderstood.
In case you’re an extravert yourself, let me just clear up a few misconceptions. We’re not people haters – we often love people but only in small doses and in ones, twos or threes rather than large numbers. We prefer peace and quiet, because loudness simply overwhelms our more delicate nervous systems and we can’t think straight. And we love to talk, but only about things that really interest us and when we feel we’ve got something to say – you can’t shut us up when that happens. We’re not shy people (well we can be, but it doesn’t go with the territory) and we’re often very friendly and sociable (just not 24/7).
The big, big difference between us and extraverts is that even when we have the kind of people contact we enjoy, our energy is drained by it, but extraverts actually gain energy from being around others. For that reason we need to spend much more time alone to recharge our batteries.
Parties are not our idea of fun
Because of all this, our idea of fun is a lot different from an extravert’s notion of the same thing. We loathe parties. We understand that extravert people have a lot of fun that way, but we just don’t. We’d rather have root canal work than have to go a party (especially as you don’t have to make small talk when your mouth’s full of dental instruments). Parties are noisy, you can’t have any sort of in-depth conversation at them (which is the kind we like), and even worse, you have to try and look as if you’re having a good time even when you’re very definitely not. On top of that, we find parties and most social things involving large groups of people, well…… quite boring, really. We tend to have a low tolerance for small talk, and we’d much rather be doing something other than standing around, struggling to have banal conversations over wincingly loud music. And when we say doing something, that could just be thinking – we usually have a lot going on in our heads.
So what does this have to do with photography?
I’ve found that being a photographer helps a lot when it comes to finding a way of surviving these things. A camera – particularly the serious DSLR kind – makes me look as if I have a purpose and gives me something to do. It means I can talk as little or as much as I want to, wander around or sit on the edges if I like, and when it’s all over I can present the host with some nice images of their ‘do’, which usually goes down very well. And not least, it gives me something absorbing and interesting to do that doesn’t make me look rude. Result!
Once I got over the initial stages of learning how to take photos – when I used to feel that people were looking at me and my DSLR and imagining I actually knew what I was doing, when I was all too aware that I didn’t – the camera became a great tool both to hide behind and to make connections with. I attract attention because of it, but it gives me a role to play and I find that reassuring. It gives people something to ask you about, and a reason to speak to you. (I may not be big on small talk but a little bit of it does make the world a nicer place.)
It’s probably not the same for all introverts. Most introverts hate being the centre of attention or indeed attracting attention to themselves in any way whatsoever. For myself, I don’t mind as long as I have a role to play. I’m happy and comfortable being a photographer, or a tutor, or a hander-round of canapés, but without being able to wear the role like a protective cloak I quickly feel exposed and lost in large gatherings. That kind of social interaction is deeply unsatisfying to me and it takes huge amounts of energy for me to try to fit in, but if I don’t make the effort I look and feel like a spare part. Having a role to play takes that kind of pressure off.
For me, at least, photography hasn’t just given me the creative outlet I always yearned for, it’s also stopped me feeling like quite such a party pooper (although I’d still much rather not go!)
This week, Kat Sloma is blogging on Reflections in glass
I’m a bit obsessive about photographing reflections, although when I started trawling through my archives it turned out I have far more photos of reflections in water, mirror, metal, or other substances, than I do in glass.
The word ‘reflection’ comes from the Latin ‘reflex’, which means to bend back – in the case of glass it’s the light rays that are bending back but this also gives it its other meaning of considered thought – ie, you turn back on your thoughts and give them more consideration. I’m pretty keen on that kind of reflection as well and have eagerly engaged in lots of it – some might say to the point of over-indulgence but I don’t listen to them. Studying philosophy just egged me on as far as this went and I was actually encouraged to write whole essays about this sort of thing –
Do you ever wonder if the guy in the puddle is real, and you’re just a reflection of him? — Calvin and Hobbes
Kind of makes you want to disappear up your own tutu, doesn’t it?
Staying true to my nature, I’ve been giving a bit of thought as to why many of us are so fascinated with photographing reflections. Speaking for myself – which is all I can do here – I’m drawn towards abstraction in art and reflections can turn something quite ordinary into a fascinating abstract. They distort the subject, sometimes making it semi-transparent, and giving it a less substantial, dream-like look. You often get a double-exposure effect as well, which adds to this. I like the sense of ambiguity and the little bit of effort that’s needed to figure out what’s going on. You can’t usually take in a reflection picture in one casual glance – you have to really look at it. If you look at the image at the end of this post, it can take a while before you realise that the leaves are painted onto the glass and the building is reflected in it.
I also don’t like straight lines much and find it fascinating to see buildings and other straight-edged objects take on wavy, curvy shapes. I’ve always loved Gaudi‘s architecture because of its lack of hard edges and straight lines – a reflected building can turn into an instant Gaudi.
Someone else who likes distorting buildings is Cole Thompson. In his project The Fountainhead, he photographs skyscrapers reflected in some kind of curved metal board (I can’t remember what it’s made of). I think he’s had a mixed reaction to these, but I like them.
I’d love to know what it is that other folk like about reflections. Nearly everyone is fascinated by them so if you have any thoughts on why, I’d welcome a comment below.
Today I’m 55 years old. That’s beginning to sound quite old to me – I’ve already outlived my parents by several years and that’s a strange feeling, I can tell you. Depending on which one I compare with, I’ve already had three or four years longer on this planet than they did.
55 seems like a significant sort of age even if it doesn’t end in a zero – I’m now definitely closer to sixty than I am to fifty and the likely time left to me can sometimes seem alarmingly short. I don’t feel this old, but then most people would say that. I don’t think I look too bad for my age, but then most people would probably say that too. And I think my attitudes, tastes, and outlook on life are all younger than many people of my age, but then they’d all probably say the same thing. The truth is you can never see yourself the way others see you and self-delusion is all too easy. The only thing I know for sure is that I wouldn’t go back to being twenty again even if you did restore my waist to its former glory.
It’s been an interesting life so far. Bad things have happened – a damaging relationship with my mother, parents dying in a road accident, two divorces, one terrible marriage to someone who I now think had sociopathic tendencies, the ensuing loss of most of my confidence and belief in myself, an illness (M.E.) that took ten years of my life, and many other, smaller, things. But that’s just one way of telling the story. I can also tell the story of a father who loved me dearly and with whom I had a close relationship, the time and space my illness gave me to explore and think about my world, the stronger sense of self I ended up with after escaping my second marriage, the most wonderful dog companion I ever had who saw me through a lot of unhappy times, and the lovely, lovely man who’s been in my life for the last eleven years and to whom I’m now married. It’s the same life, just two different ways of seeing it.
I’m a lot wiser – I think – than I used to be, although the extra wisdom has made me realise just how much I don’t know and don’t understand. In many ways I don’t mind ageing and actually find it quite interesting. As a child I used to wonder what I’d look like when I was old and now I’m beginning to see.
I’m quite happy with how it’s gone so far but there is just one thing that bothers me. I used to be someone who had adventures and I don’t any more. Some were big and often ill-advised adventures: leaving Scotland and everything I knew to be with a man I’d only known for a couple of months, going a little wild while studying for my MA and effectively making up for an adolescence I never had, and – more recently – making a decision under stress to sell up and go back to Scotland to live and then being so miserable I was back again within six months, considerably poorer and somewhat wiser.
Some were much smaller and more enjoyable adventures: a night out with three Franciscan monks, who invited me to their study centre the next day, where I found the only other women were nuns and I was wearing a mini skirt; a motorbike trip through France where loads of things went wrong but somehow it was all still good; applying for – and getting – a job teaching IT when I knew a lot less than I – and they – realised about how to work a computer; crawling through a field on a summer’s evening to watch badgers; taking part in a river race where you had to launch yourself into a fast flowing river with only an inflatable mattress and a crash helmet, and then, partway along, jumping thirty feet into the base of a waterfall; a Thelma-and-Louise type holiday in a red sports car with two university friends who were ten years younger and considerably more gorgeous than I was, and who spent the whole time experimenting with intoxicating substances, except for when we were having sound healing and being regressed into past lives in Glastonbury – I felt a bit like the maiden aunt acting as chaperone, but I enjoyed it anyway.
I used to meet strange and interesting people, too. At university – which I went to late in life – there were people of all nationalities and some very eccentric academics with unconventional lives, one of whom lived with three women (not all at once; they took turns). Another, whom I went out with for a year, would only wear red socks and later took up unicycling and playing the didgeridoo. A third used to cook exquisite five course dinners for fifteen members of the philosophy society every week, and was said to be the only person who’d acquired a PhD purely on the strength of his wizardry in the kitchen.
My academic phase was followed by my ‘alternative’ phase, where I got to know people who dressed entirely in shamrock green, claimed to communicate with extra-terrestrial beings, built labyrinths, lived over converging ley lines, read tarot cards, modelled penises out of clay (I couldn’t make this stuff up), cleared ghosts out of houses, and many other weird and wonderful things. Now, I wouldn’t want to be around these people all the time – that would get quite tiring I think – but knowing them made my life richer and a whole lot funnier. (And a quick note to my more conventional friends – I want to reassure you I love you all dearly and wouldn’t swap you for anything– just so you know)
In the last few years there hasn’t been much of this kind of thing at all. My last real adventure was to go to art college, having only been drawing and painting for three months (before that, the last time I picked up a pencil or a brush was when I was thirteen so there was a bit of a steep learning curve). That led to my passion for photography, for which I’ll be ever grateful.
But since then? Zilch, nothing, nada. I’m living like the middle-aged person I undoubtedly am. I’m playing it safe and it needs to change. I used to be much more spontaneous – truly, it did get me into trouble on numerous occasions but I regret the things I haven’t done more than the things I have. I need a change or a challenge. And not the kind of everyday challenge like earning money and finding work, but something completely new and exciting and possibly scary, that will stretch me out of the complacent, contented shape I’ve recently grown into, even if it’s only for a few hours. I don’t know what it’ll be yet, but watch this space……..
Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, chocolate in one hand, martini in the other, body thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and screaming “WooHoo, what a ride!”
Kat Sloma is blogging on thresholds today – http://www.kateyeview.com/ – and it’s an appropriate topic for me right now. Our lives are about to change and the change may be a big one or a small one – we hope to find out later today when Geoff gets news about his redundancy (or otherwise). For the last few months we’ve felt as if we’re both in limbo and in flux, and when you’re in the midst of change and uncertainty life can seem like a scary sort of place.
In this kind of situation the best we can do is to hold on to a belief that whatever the changes are they will ultimately be for the best, and to hope that the life change we’re approaching is going to be like moving through the photo above – passing the threshold into a sunlit, lush, and lovely new place.
Which would you choose?
In reality, it’s probably going to be more like the photo above – two or more thresholds and choices to make. But both of those thresholds look enticing, both would lead to adventures of different kinds, and both of them lead us out of the uncertain darkness into sunlight.
This uncertainty we’ve been living with for so long has made it hard to remember that this could be the start of something good. I’ve always loved entrances and half-open doors, fantasising about what might lie behind them. The reality might be banal or even unpleasant, but the excitement of discovery remains, and sometimes what you find is even better than you hoped for.