I’ve long been fascinated by people’s need to make gardens, sometimes in the most unlikely places. I’ve got this theme in mind for yet another personal project, although I’ve got so many of these on the go now that I’m losing track. It’s probably just as well that summer’s over and there won’t be much opportunity to follow this one up for a while. I do have a few shots that I hope are worth sharing, though.
The first few are of an amazing community garden on a rooftop right in the centre of London. I wrote here about my visit to the South Bank Centre, but I had loads of images in that post already and had to leave something out. It was quite surreal to go up the steps onto the rooftop and discover a thriving and abundant vegetable garden, complete with a meadow and a grassy area. The rain came down in those big heavy drops that wet you right through just after we got up there – I don’t have many shots and they’re not as good as I’d like them to be and they really don’t do the place justice. The sheer lushness of containers overflowing with fruit, vegetables and flowers just doesn’t come across. (But as you can see from the raindrops on the lens, I didn’t get a lot of time before running for cover.) In the one at the top, and the next one, you can see the London Eye in the background.
The next garden is much closer to home – just a few minutes walk from where I live. This house had a garage extension which provided it with a flat roof that was just begging to be turned into a garden. It went up for sale a while ago and the new owners did just that. It looks so out of place in among the rather austere Victorian terraces and all the brick and concrete around it. What I really love is how they used the adjacent telegraph pole as a hanging basket support.
There’s a part of me that really likes doing this kind of social documentary stuff, but it fights with the part that likes to produce a beautiful image. When I was taking the ones above, my normal instinct would have been to go in close and exclude anything ugly or unnecessary, and to turn it into something that was different from how it appeared in ‘real’ life. (The last image is getting much closer to my normal style) The whole point here, though, was to show the roof garden in context so that you could see how it was a little oasis of flowers in the midst of an area where few people bother to grow anything. The resulting pictures aren’t nearly as aesthetically pleasing as I like my images to be and I’m finding I have a real problem with that………..
I think I’ve solved my problem – that’s the one about how to provide better value to my readers. I’ve set up a page where I’ll have some how-to articles for download in pdf format. At the moment, I’ve put three articles on there that I’d already written and which were published by the Mortal Muses site, but I intend to add more as and when I get time. You can find them under the Free Stuff tab at the top of the page. I guess I’ll probably come up with some other nice things to give to people as well – I was thinking of doing screensavers. I’ve never made one before, but I think it’s quite easy (I may regret saying that…..)
And the dog? Well, I just think he’s lovely and I needed a picture to brighten this post up. He was peering through the glass in the door of a pub in London the last time I led a workshop there. And I have a real yearning to bring a dog into my life right now, and even though there are endless good reasons why I shouldn’t, the longing won’t go away. But I can have one on my blog, can’t I?
It always amazes me what you can do with Photoshop. I’m in a bit of an Ernst Haas phase at the moment as I have to create a collection of images in his style for a course assignment which is coming up soon. I’m planning to base this on his book The Creation, in particular the section of it that deals with the four elements.
I saw this pattern of ripples and sunlight on the bed of a stream, and thought I might be able to make something of it. This is the Haas image I was thinking of at the time; I couldn’t find a link to it online so I’ve scanned it in from my copy of the book. It’s not a great scan, so you have to use your imagination a bit. I also wasn’t aiming to replicate it, but just to use it as inspiration for my own version.
Ernst Haas: from The Creation
And the next photo is my original: as you can see, it’s a little dull. Using Curves made the biggest difference, bringing out the rich blue colour and emphasising the shadows and highlights. Then I cloned out the little stones underwater and the piece of grass floating in it, as I thought they were distracting. I then duplicated the layer, using Soft Light blending mode, turned that down a little by increasing transparency, and used a touch of dodging to bring out the highlights. Et voila! – quite a difference.
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.
I 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.
The electric light in our house, like most people’s nowadays, has been supplied up till now by energy-saving, eco-friendly lightbulbs. This has placed me squarely in the middle of a dilemma – I’m all in favour of cutting down energy consumption and helping save the planet, but I’d really like to be able to see. The strongest lightbulbs we could get would glow dimly, throwing out about as much light as a guttering candle – my mobile phone gives out more light. There have been times when I’d go to switch the lamp on in order to see better, only to find it was already on.
It’s OK, I guess, if all you want to do is sit and chat or watch TV (although it has to be said the general gloom can be quite depressing), but I rarely watch TV and I like to read or do other things instead. My compromise till now has been to hoard old-fashioned energy-guzzling lightbulbs bought in bulk from the corner shop (which is the only place that still stocks these things), and use just one of them to illuminate my book or whatever else I need to look at. I’ve felt mildly guilty about this, but it really has been necessary if I wanted to avoid living like a troglodyte.
One day, trapped by a mixture of guilt and desperation, it occurred to me that perhaps we could find a different kind of lighting – maybe halogen, for example. Geoff went on a mission to hunt something down and came back with a clutch of wonderful halogen lightbulbs that give out something approximating 150 watts. Suddenly, the whole house looks brighter and lighter and, yes, happier! And they’re still economical on energy so we don’t need to feel too guilty about them. It’s completely transformed the way the place feels and makes me dread the winter dark a little less than I usually do.
An unexpected side effect of all this is that when we added one to our dining room lampshade, which is made of criss-crossing rough string, the shadows it cast round the room were quite astonishing. It felt a bit like being in the middle of a dancefloor that has one of those glitterball things. I simply had to run for my camera.
I am just so behind with processing photos. These were actually taken way back in the spring and editing them was making me feel a little sad and nostalgic for the abundance of flowers and colours that are fast disappearing.
They were taken at Beech Court Gardens in Challock, which is down the road a ways from where I live. It’s a place that’s made me realise how important garden design is. It looks wonderfully colourful in late spring/early summer but after that there isn’t a great deal in flower. And even when it’s at its best, it’s a real hotch-potch of colours that are seemingly just thrown together instead of being planned in any way. The colours themselves are superb, but it’s very hard to get a decent photograph and it’s brought home to me how a good garden designer has already done much of the work for us when it comes to getting good shots. I always get really excited when I go there because it looks so spectacular, and then I’m mildly disappointed when I get home and see my shots.
I was in London at the end of last week, doing some private tuition for a youngish couple. It was her birthday, and he had bought the lesson as a gift for her. We were still in the throes of a very unseasonal heatwave, so I took them to a nearby garden and we sat there in the sunshine and went through the basic theory.
It started out just fine. They were very interested in how the camera worked and how you got it to do various things and when you’d use which settings, and so on, and so forth. Then we went walkabout so they could apply it all in practice. They only had one camera between them, so the tuition being her birthday present and all, she was in possession of it. I took them on my usual route, which covers all sorts of interesting, impressive and quirky parts of the city. There’s a modern, neo-Gothic building with three larger than life-size horse statues outside, a pavement with the whole history of London set into it in gold letters, a fabulous view of Tower Bridge and the Thames, weather vanes in the shape of fat, juicy fish, the Faberge jewel that’s the Swiss Re building, a shell of a mediaeval church that’s now a beautiful garden, Anish Kapoor’s Sky Mirror sculpture, the Lloyds Building reflected a hundred times in a facing structure……I could go on, but what I’m trying to say is that there were a million fabulous things all around them.
It all left them cold. Under-whelmed seemed to be the word of the day and she wasn’t very interested in photographing anything, it seemed – no, not even to practice. The only time they got at all animated was when they started photographing each other. (I went with that for a bit, but there was only so much mileage to be had there.) They lived and worked outside of London, so it wasn’t a case of familiarity breeding contempt, simply that nothing seemed to float their boat.
That was when I realised that what makes teaching enjoyable for me is when I see students getting enthusiastic and excited. I love it when they take picture after picture, and badger me with questions about how to get something to turn out right. They begin to see the city in a new way, and to see the possibilities for amazing images. The best of them don’t care about getting a little dusty and will happily lie on the ground if it will get them the shot. Their photographic eyes open up and they’re thrilled by everything they see. Some of them don’t say much at all, but there’s a gleam in their eye that wasn’t there when we started. That’s what makes it worthwhile.
So I sat on the train on the way home, feeling a little flat, missing the buzz that I usually get after teaching, and wondering why they didn’t see what I saw and why they needed to know how their camera worked when they were able to see little or nothing worth shooting. I think we all lost out there.
The Lloyd’s Building reflected in Anish Kapoor’s Sky Mirror
I’ve just come across a really fun Photoshop technique that turns your images into fantastical, soft twirls. I use Photoshop Elements and you can find instructions for doing it in Elements here. If you use the full version of Photoshop you can download an action here – just scroll down near the bottom of the page and look for Twirling Abstract Art.
I know it’s a bit gimmicky, but the effect is really lovely and reminds me of fractals. I can see I’m going to get a bit obsessed with this till the novelty wears off! I’ll no doubt be back with more.
If you want to see how it started out, this is the original:
I’m doing a bit of research into Ernst Haas at the moment for a course essay I have to write, and I’ve been reading through some quotes from him, like this one:
“Ask yourself about the source of your artistic longings. Why is it so necessary that you want to do your thing? How strong is it? Would you do it if it were forbidden? Illegal, punishable? Every work of art has its necessity, find out your very own. Ask yourself if you would do it if nobody would ever see it, if you would never be compensated for it, if nobody ever wanted it. If you come to a clear ‘yes’ in spite of it, then go ahead and don’t doubt it anymore.”
Whew! This made me think a bit. I’ve always said photography is necessary to me in a very fundamental way, but I’ve never asked myself these sorts of questions.
Would I take photos if it were forbidden, illegal, punishable? I’m really not very brave in that sense, so to tell the truth I’d probably find another outlet for my creativity that didn’t put me in that position. The fact that it was illegal or forbidden wouldn’t stop me if I knew for sure I wouldn’t be caught, but I don’t think I’d risk my life, or even punishment, for it.
But there are many, many people who have risked their lives for photography. I know of two photographers, Henryk Ross and Mendel Grossman, both of whom lived in the Jewish ghetto in Lodz during the Nazi regime and who daily risked severe punishment or death in order to record the inhumanities that were taking place there. (You can find their stories on the links above.) And in more contemporary times, Tim Hetherington was recently killed in Libya while working there as a photojournalist – just one of many photographers who have died in war zones over the years. It seems to me, though, that the documentation of events or the message they wanted to communicate was as important – probably more so – than the act of photography itself. Photography happened to be their chosen medium for this, but I don’t think they’d have risked their lives to take flower macros.
I think a couple of Haas’ other questions are more telling. ‘Why is it so necessary that you want to do your thing?’ It’s tempting here to start a long biographical rambling about how I came to photography, but I’ll try and spare you by keeping it to essentials. Briefly, I was very creative as a young child but I was discouraged from exploring this and by my early teens I had stopped drawing, painting, writing, and most other things. What didn’t stop was the yearning to create, and as a grown-up I looked for many years for some way of fulfilling it. I dabbled in a lot of different things but it was only when I came to photography that I felt I’d found what I’d been looking for all those years. One reason for this is that I actually had some talent for it – something that I was dismally lacking in other media. All the same, if something were to happen that stopped me taking photographs, I know I’d find some other, satisfying, way of being creative. Photography does feel very necessary to me, and I’m passionate about it, but mainly because it fulfills a more basic need of giving me an outlet in which to express myself and I know there are other things that could do the same. I love writing as much as I love photography, for example, although it doesn’t satisfy the part of me that needs to create something visual. What is over-poweringly strong is the need to create, even if it’s only satisfied by cooking or putting interesting clothes colour combinations together.
Would I do it if nobody ever saw it, or I wasn’t compensated for it, or nobody wanted it? Well I can answer the middle one with certainty – I’m only minimally compensated for it and I still do it! The other two are more difficult. I know it’s important to me that I share what I do with other people, and of course I love it – who wouldn’t? – when people say they like my pictures. There’s no doubt it helps to keep me motivated, and I’d only see that as a problem if I stopped doing what I liked and started trying to please everyone else.
But there’s more to it than that. Knowing my images will be viewed and sometimes enjoyed, gives me a purpose for taking them – otherwise they would just languish sadly on my hard drive. I’ve always wanted what I create or learn to be for other people too; I doubt many of us could produce into a void for very long. I also believe that photos should be viewed and enjoyed. I find it really sad when I read about someone like Vivian Maier, who took such wonderful photos but which were never seen by anyone until after she died. (Now, there was someone who took photos without caring if they were ever viewed.)
I’m really not sure how I’d feel if no-one saw or wanted my photos. It would certainly be less rewarding, but I think I might still do it. Recently I came across some bits of writing I did many years ago, including some poetry. No-one has ever seen these except me, but I wrote them to express myself at a time when I needed to externalize what was going on inside me. It doesn’t bother me that no-one is likely ever to see these, so it may be that I’d feel the same way about my photos. I can’t be sure. Even so, these bits of writing only happened sporadically, and I sense I’d have written more, and more often, if they’d had some kind of purpose outside of myself. I think it would be the same with photography.
It’s an interesting question because art history is strewn with artists who weren’t accepted in their time and whose work few people wanted – the obvious one is Van Gogh, and he kept going regardless, though I wonder if he would/could have done without the brother who so totally believed in him. Even an enthusiastic audience of one can be enough to make it worthwhile. Although art is about self-expression, I think it’s also about communication and communication requires an audience.
I think what comes through to me clearly is that photography is my strongly preferred choice when it comes to visual self-expression and being creative, but that if I didn’t have it for some reason, then I’d find another outlet. Would it give me the same pleasure? I really don’t know, but I think it could.
Although I’m a huge fan of Haas, I think he might be coming on a little strong here; as far as I know he was never in a situation where photography was life or death, and he was successful with his photography at a very early stage, with many public accolades and prizes awarded to him. He never had to encounter these questions in reality, and I wonder how he would have reacted if he had.