Just after I posted about using limitations to enhance creativity, I came across this TED talk from Phil Hansen, called ‘Embrace the Shake’. He thought his art career was over when he developed a tremor in his hands, but it turned out to be the start of something much bigger and better – but only once he’d accepted and embraced his limitations. It’s well worth ten minutes of your time.
Lots of bits and pieces this week, plus a few images that I like with but about which I don’t have a great deal to say. To start with the images, they were taken by the road bridge over the River Trent in Newark where, on a sunny day, there’s a reflection in the water of the metal posts that fence the road up above. When the ducks swim through it the reflections get swirled around and this zebra effect is created. This appeals to me greatly, and that’s really all there is to to say………….
We visited Connected 2016 this weekend, an annual photography exhibition which is on at Patchings Art Centre in Notts till May 21st. I would have been going anyway, but when I saw the poster advertising it I realised that a photographer whose work I’ve been following for a while was going to be giving a talk at the Launch Event, so that made it an absolute must. If you haven’t come across Vanda Ralevska, she creates wonderful and very individual images and is currently doing a 366 project on her blog. I find it hard enough doing my rather more modest 52 Trees project, and how she manages to maintain such a high standard on a daily basis, I really don’t know. I got to meet Vanda, who is a very lovely lady, and her talk was excellent – funny, fresh, interesting and hugely enjoyable. There was also a talk by Guy Aubertin, who himself creates beautiful landscape photos. If you’re in the area a visit to the exhibition is well worth it – the standard is high, and the work varied.
I’ve been interested for a long time in methods for teaching the creative side of photography, and Sean Kernan’s approach is unusual, to say the least. He uses theatrical exercises to give people the experience of cultivating awareness without analysis, and the exercise in the video below (which has a number of professional dancers taking part) is a lot of fun to watch.
Kernan is also an amazing photographer and well worth checking out. I came to his work through his still life series Secret Books, which were like nothing I’d ever seen before.
The video above reminds me of reading John Daido Loori’s account of going on a workshop in 1980 with Minor White – someone well known for his unorthodox photographic teaching methods. Students were expected to get up at 4.00am and participate in dance and meditation exercises, and were often not allowed to pick up their cameras till after a day or two of this had passed. Loori, at the time, thought this was ridiculous and nearly stormed out; however he was persuaded to stay and came to see the value in White’s approach by the time he finished the workshop. You can read his account of this in The Zen of Creativity: Cultivating Your Artistic Life.
Moving on, I came across an article called Why Typical Preschool Crafts are a Total Waste of Time. The main thrust of the article is that these crafts are both too ‘ready-made’ and thus about as creative as painting by numbers, and more importantly, that they put too much emphasis on the end product rather than the process. By doing this, the article claims, we’re indoctrinating young children in the belief that you must have something to show for any time you spend on creative pursuits. There’s a parallel here in that so much emphasis is put on the images we manage to ‘capture’ and not enough on what the process of photographing does for us in itself. After all, even if you don’t catch a fish, going fishing can still be rewarding.
As someone who can procrastinate with the best of them, I really liked this article’s take on how to use it to your advantage, and found it quite amusing: ‘All procrastinators put off things they have to do. Structured Procrastination is the art of making this bad trait work for you.’
The key idea is that procrastinating does not mean doing absolutely nothing. Procrastinators seldom do absolutely nothing; they do marginally useful things, like gardening or sharpening pencils or making a diagram of how they will reorganize their files when they get around to it. Why does the procrastinator do these things? Because they are a way of not doing something more important. If all the procrastinator had left to do was to sharpen some pencils, no force on earth could get him do it. However, the procrastinator can be motivated to do difficult, timely and important tasks, as long as these tasks are a way of not doing something more important.
I have never kept a photography sketchbook. We were encouraged to do this when I was studying photography, but a blog was thought to be an acceptable alternative. I kept the blog, which has morphed into the one you’re reading now, but I’m wondering if I’ve missed a trick in not keeping a more tangible and less public sketchbook where I could explore ideas and keep a record of them. These examples of photography students’ sketchbooks make me want to join in.
One of the first books I read that introduced me to the idea that photography was about a whole lot more than the camera, was Freeman Patterson’s Photography and the Art of Seeing. I loved this book, still re-read it regularly, and think it should probably be required reading for every photographer. This interview with Patterson is long and dates back a bit, but well worth reading through to the end. Patterson is another person whose photography teaching goes far beyond the usual ‘this is how your camera works’ style of classes. Here he is, talking about the kind of assignments he gives to his students, each one individually designed for that particular student:
…..one person might be given a white sheet and asked to photograph it as a landscape; somebody else might be given the topic ‘outer space’. We don’t care how they deal with it. Someone else might be given a colourful shirt and told to photograph it, but only in water. One of my favourite assignments, and I’ve only given it two or three times, is the Joseph Campbell quote “the privilege of a lifetime is being who you are”. We gave it to a guy this week from near Chicago and it was just one of those intuitive things. We could tell this guy was experiencing a period of real personal liberation, and he really carried that assignment off, it was beautiful to see what he did.
And on that note, I leave you with some more zebra-patterned water:
What it looked like before the ducks swam through:
I so wanted to see the poppy installation when it was at the Tower of London, but never managed to get there. A part of it, though – the Wave – is now at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and we made a visit there last week. It’s small in comparison – around 5,000 poppies compared to 888,246 at the Tower – but still impressive. The poppies pour down from a small stone bridge, spilling into the water at the bottom, and the setting works well.
Unfortunately it was a dull grey day with uninteresting light, plus a lot of other people on site, so getting decent photos of it wasn’t easy. To be honest, I felt a little bit flat on seeing it. From a distance it looked fantastic – a flow of bright red in the greyish landscape- but close up it lacked something. The coach parties of visitors didn’t help – I would have liked to spend time with it alone, tuning in to its real meaning. I took some photos nonetheless, and quite like some of the close-up details.
I think perhaps the poppies paled into insignificance for me after viewing the Bill Viola exhibition first (also on at the YSP). Bill Viola is a video artist – or as he prefers it, an artist who happens to use video. Now, I usually find video art very unappealing, but there are a few exceptions – Tacita Dean’s installation in the Tate Turbine Hall, for example, and something I once saw in an art gallery in Reykjavik although I can’t remember what it was. Even then, they don’t touch my soul in the way that a lot of other art does. Bill Viola, though, is my new art crush.
I can only tell you about it here, because although there are plenty of videos on Youtube showing his major works, they’re badly-recorded phone camera jobs that aren’t even a pale imitation of seeing the real thing and would probably make you think he’s not worth bothering about. A lot of this is because Viola’s films are exceptionally and beautifully sharp and detailed, and shown very, very big. Much of their impact lies in the clear, sharp, detail, coupled with the extreme slowing down of the ‘action’ which is his trademark.
I first came across Viola years ago, when I was taken along to what I think was his Quintet Series 2000 exhibition. I wasn’t as into art then as I am now, and I didn’t have much understanding of it either, but I knew quality when I saw it. However, I found this work quite hard to take as it involved huge close-up videos of five actor’s faces in exquisite – and sometimes excruciating – slow motion as they experienced a variety of mostly negative emotions. I often feel very uncomfortable looking at faces this closely, and I found it difficult to watch the minute nuances of anguish on someone’s face over a period of what felt like hours, although it was actually minutes. It was very, very good, but I simply couldn’t watch it for long.
However, much of Viola’s work is centred around water and fire, and these were the pieces that did it for me at the YSP. Two of them were created to act as backdrops for a production of the opera Tristan and Isolde. One of these, Ascension, starts with a pale, draped figure lying prone on a white plinth. Gently at first, a column of water begins to pour upwards from the figure, getting ‘heavier’ and ‘heavier’, till there are water drops bouncing off the plinth and waves developing in the water around it. Then slowly the figure begins to ascend towards the source of the deluge, finally disappearing, and the water slowly decreases again till it’s nothing more than mist. Its accompanying film, Fire Woman, begins with the silhouette of a woman against a huge wall of flame. Eventually she begins to move, slowly, until she dives into a pool of water in front of her and the water splash rises up in front of the flames, to fall back into the fire-reflecting ripples of the water. Both videos had soundtracks, of the pouring water or the crackling fire, and were shown several times larger than lifesize. Everything happens in slow motion, and is meditative, stunningly beautiful, and awe-inspiring.
There were many more of Viola’s works to see, all of them quite amazing and many of them somewhat more complex than the two I’ve described. The whole point about them, though, is that like the best art they manage to express ideas and feelings that can’t be put into words, and so to attempt to describe them rather misses the point. There’s a meditative quality to all his work that draws you into it and won’t let go, and it’s difficult to get across something so intangible. All I can say is, if you’re in the vicinity, go and see it!
Resources: I eventually found a half decent video of Fire Woman on Vimeo. Just bear in mind, if you watch it, that when shown as intended the screen is twice as high as an average interior wall and a small video loses most of the impact, as you can’t see the subtle detail. The woman doesn’t begin to move until three minutes in, and doesn’t dive until nearly four minutes in, but this doesn’t matter when you see it really big – it’s enthralling enough to hold you even though not much is happening.
“Conventional photos get most of their meaning from whatever objects are in them. Here is a child, here a sky, there a wall, a tree. The photographer hasn’t really dealt with the content and the experience is brief. What you see is what you get, and usually it’s not much.”
Sean Kearnan, Looking into the Light
It’s a strange fact of life that, as your photography improves in terms of its artistic worth, you’re likely to get fewer and fewer likes on Flickr or Facebook or whatever social media platform you use. This is because the visually uneducated eye (ie, the average viewer) responds most strongly to the content of the image, and the more spectacular, awe-inspiring, cute or funny that content is, the easier it is to have a clearly defined and immediate reaction to it.
But, to paraphrase Sean Kernan, all you see is all that you get and it’s mostly surface glitter. It’s human nature to stop and look at anything that’s beautiful, striking, or unusual, and the majority of these photos are simply making a record of those things. The best of them show large amounts of technical skill, which is to be respected, and which certainly adds to the experience. There’s definitely a place for this kind of photography – it’s very accessible and gives a great deal of pleasure to many folk.
One of the problems it gives rise to, though, is that people erroneously think that they must have spectacular subject matter to make a spectacular photograph. They bemoan the fact that they live in an ordinary area that houses ordinary things and they go on exotic photography holidays in order to be exposed to the stuff of ‘great’ photos.
Take a look through the small ads in the back of any photography magazine and you’ll see photography workshop destinations like Iceland or Namibia or Provence. You won’t see Bradford or Milton Keynes or Grimsby or Paisley, and yet all of these places are perfectly capable of yielding huge amounts of inspirational material for photographs, as is almost any place you care to mention – even your own backyard.
In fact, if you want to learn to be a better photographer, then you’re far better off in one of these ‘ordinary’ places than you would be in Iceland (for example). At the beginning of my photography career I was lucky enough to spend time in Iceland, a spectacular place if ever there was one. I like a lot of the photos I took there, and they’d certainly do very well in a tourist brochure, but they’re not at all what I would take now because I’ve grown as a photographer since then. If I were to revisit I’m not sure what my photos would be like, but I know they’d be very different and I know that that’s because of all the images of ordinary things that I’ve produced in the years since then.
It’s very difficult to ‘see’ properly when you’re blinded by the awe-inspiringly beautiful. The place to learn to see is the boring place, the ordinary one, the one that makes you feel a bit fed up and has you wishing you lived somewhere different. If you can’t make an interesting photo in one of these places, you’ll never get beyond the tourist shots when you go somewhere more appealing. You’ll continue to rely on the subject matter of your images to give impact, at the expense of a deeper level of seeing and understanding.
I’m as guilty as anyone of wanting to go somewhere lovely to do some photography. I get it, I really do. But I know that any ability I have to see beyond surfaces has come about from being bored by what I’m looking at. Boredom is your friend when it comes to photography, and if you let it, it will open your eyes. If you bore your left hemisphere for long enough, it switches off and allows the right one to take charge, and it’s the right one that will find the spectacular in the ordinary. The left hemisphere is easy to bore, the right one doesn’t understand the concept.
‘When you pay attention to boredom, it gets unbelievably interesting.’ Jon Kabat-Zinn
‘Boredom always precedes a period of great creativity.’ Robert M Pirsig
Once you start to look at the ordinary with new eyes, it becomes quite extraordinary. Just about everyone remembers or knows of the scene in American Beauty of a plastic bag being randomly blown around in the wind. It’s like watching a hypnotic and very beautiful dance. If you’d like to be reminded, here it is:
Why is this scene so memorable? – I think it’s because most of us would never have noticed and would have walked straight on by, because, surely, some rubbish blowing around on the pavement is boring. But boredom is usually a failure of curiosity and attention – pay enough attention, cultivate curiosity, and you’ll never be bored.
Despite knowing this, I still get bored sometimes when I go out to photograph, and some of those times never lead to anything more than that. But when I allow myself to open up to the possibilities, something good almost always emerges. The photograph at the top of the post is of oil spilled in a ditch and eventually led to a whole series of images created from a polluted ditch in an uninspiring place. I’ll leave you with a few more photos of ‘boring’ things in ‘boring’ places – I’ve tried to choose images from some of the most unpromising places I’ve ever been. I doubt any of them would get a ‘wow!’ on Flickr, but they do demonstrate that you can make a decent picture out of almost anything.
My version of the beauty of the plastic bag – part of a torn plastic carrier bag floating in a murky boating pond. A little bit of cropping and processing turned it into something resembling a delicate sea creature.
A whole class of photography students walked right by this red puddle. I was left behind, jumping up and down and yelling ‘look!’ It still fills me with questions – what made it so red? why was this paving slab missing? why didn’t anyone else notice it? I could have done something better than this with it given time, but I had to catch up…….
A dull day in Rye harbour, but these pieces of rope, built up over years and years of boats being tied to a mooring post, caught my eye. The images work on their own, but they work even better as a set.
And this little arrangement was next to a dead pigeon underneath a park bench:
Taken in a Thai restaurant, while waiting for our meal to arrive:
Another restaurant, this time a Pizza Express, some red bus motion blur through the window, and a mirror reflection next to it.
Even grass can be interesting if you get down low and create a background out of a red-leaved shrub:
And finally, a dull wet day, a car park, and an autumn tree seen through a rainy windscreen:
In You’re More Creative Than You Think You Are John Paul Caponigro shows how you can create a synergy between skills you already have (writing, drawing, photography) to turbo charge your creativity. If you aren’t already familiar with Caponigro’s work, do have a look at his website – it’s well worth it.
Not about photography today, but money and happiness are things we’re all interested in. If money isn’t buying you happiness, it might be because you’re not spending it right. Here’s Michael Norton on how that works: