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
It’s always tempting to think that what you need for inspiration, photographically, is to visit some exciting new place and it’s true that being somewhere new and different can give you a real creative boost. But if you look at many famous photographers, you find that their best shots were often taken very close to home. For example, Ansel Adams lived near Yosemite and visited it again and again; Edward Weston lived near Point Lobos and did the same. Painters, too, often paint the same thing over and over – think of Monet with his lilypond, haystacks and Rouen Cathedral.
Going back time and again to the same places enables you to fully explore them and your own reaction to them. I first noticed this when I did a course assignment on Canterbury Cathedral. I had to make several visits to get enough material for the assignment, but even when it was finished I kept going back. Each time I went there, I saw different things, and my seeing became more nuanced and subtle. The kind of photographs I took there began to change, and began to express better how I felt about the place. That’s not to say that these were the photographs that everybody else liked best, but they were the ones that made me feel I’d done what I wanted to do – which, let’s face it, is what’s important in the long run.
But cathedrals are a bit of a visual feast anyway, and what do you do when you’re going back to places that don’t inspire you that much in the first place? I often feel the need to get out of the house and away from the computer, but I’m very limited in where I can walk to without getting in the car first. My usual walk takes me up a country lane and back through the orchards, which sounds nice but there isn’t a lot there that’s particularly inspiring. The last time I took my camera with me, for some reason my eyes seemed wider open to the possibilities and these shots were the result. It did help that someone had been playing with the apples and plums!
This one’s a little bit macabre, but on the way there I spotted this headless doll lying on the other side of the fence and it reminded me of a crime scene. I shot the whole body at first, but then I thought that just having the hands reaching out for something said a lot more. Not my jolliest of shots, but I like them in their own way and feel they say something.
The wheatfield looked wonderful, but at first I couldn’t figure out how to get a shot that made it look the way I felt when I saw it. There were some narrow tracks through it and I thought I’d try to use one of those to lead the eye through the image. When I got home and put it up on the computer screen, it just didn’t give the effect I wanted. The path didn’t stand out enough because there wasn’t enough contrast, but when I increased the contrast the wheat looked harsh and hard-edged. I wanted to get the feeling of softness and abundance that I was experiencing. After a bit of experimenting, I tried the Orton technique on it and got what I wanted. It emphasised the path enough to show it up, and added to the soft feel that I was trying for.
And then on the way home, I spotted these flowers and petals which had fallen from an overhanging tree onto the concrete path. I thought the colours were lovely – this is probably my favourite shot of the day and I like the way it looks a bit painterly without me having done anything much to it to make it that way. I’ve also realised that I have quite a few images of fallen petals, flowers and leaves, and I think I might try to add to this and develop it into a little personal project.
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.”
We visited Charleston Farmhouse, in Sussex, a week or so ago. This was the home of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, who were part of the Bloomsbury group of artists and writers, which included people such as Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster.
Inside, the house is large and rambling, and just about everything has been crafted and decorated by its inhabitants. The interior is fundamentally quite shabby, but every surface – walls, floors, fireplaces, furniture – has been decoratively painted. The furniture is a motley collection of different styles but it’s been covered with decorative designs, and old chairs were re-upholstered with hand painted textiles. Lampshades are made out of pottery and attached to the ceiling with wires in a Heath-Robinson-ish sort of way. Every inch of the place displays the creativity of its inhabitants. Paintings – their own and others – cover the walls, and one room is lined with old books.
It was a place where artists and writers came to stay, to sit by open fires and talk of life and ideas late into the night, and to relax, play and paint in the walled garden and grounds.
What struck me most was what an idyllic life it seemed to be. They did have some money problems – although coming from a fairly gentrified background this was all relative – but they used their creativity to make a wonderful, welcoming home out of what must have been a rather scruffy old farmhouse. Instead of employing interior designers, or buying expensive furniture, they used their own skills and talents to create one of the most individual places I’ve ever seen. And they pretty much did whatever they wanted to do there – painting, writing, creating, talking.
They also made a stunningly lovely walled garden. Walking into it through the door in the wall takes you into a magical space – it’s criss-crossed by narrow paths which are almost hidden by the luxurious spilling over of vividly coloured flowers and plants. In many places the plants grow up to shoulder-height so that you only see the bit of the garden you’re in and the rest becomes an intriguing mystery. It was:
“a summer garden for playing and painting, an enchanted retreat from London life. As Vanessa Bell wrote in 1936, “The house seems full of young people in very high spirits, laughing a great deal at their own jokes… lying about in the garden which is simply a dithering blaze of flowers and butterflies and apples.”
I love that phrase ‘dithering blaze’, don’t you? It sums it up entirely – a cottage garden of the best kind, an untidy abundance of everything summer has to offer.
I’m sure it wasn’t quite as idyllic as it looks to us now, but I love the idea that these people created the kind of life they wanted, doing what was important to them, following their passions, and making a life where being creative wasn’t a thing apart, but spilled over into every area of their lives.
Unfortunately, photography isn’t allowed inside the house, and the garden was so full of people on the sunny August Sunday when we went, that photography on anything other than a fairly small scale was almost impossible. However, I did manage to get these small vignettes that I hope give a little flavour of how it was.
We’re not good at showers, here in the UK. Visit a lot of our bed and breakfast places and you’ll find yourself having to soap up and rinse off under a pathetic trickle of water that emerges from a very small shower-head with an array of tiny pinhead-sized holes. Usually quite a few of these are blocked up with limescale and it’s often more like standing in heavy mist than it is like being showered.
You’ll have gathered from this that I like a good powerful shower, and usually I get one, but last week the tube that runs inside the metal shower hose split, and most of the water wasn’t making it more than an inch or so upwards. But it’s an easy thing to fix so we got a new hose from Wilkinson and Geoff put it on. Two days later the tube in that one split, even worse this time, and for the last few days we’ve been trying to shower under the equivalent of a small leak in the plumbing.
This morning involved a trip to somewhere that sells shower hoses of a quality that lasts longer than a couple of days (never buy one of these from Wilkinsons!), and you’ve no idea how wonderful it was to get a decent shower at last. I stood there, water cascading steamily over me, and thought how the hot shower is one of life’s great, under-appreciated pleasures.
A selection of Andre Kertesz’ still life Polaroids
I went to the Royal Academy recently to see Eyewitness: Hungarian Photography in the 20th Century. I so enjoyed this exhibition – the Hungarian photographers have a style and visual language that’s very close to what I love to do myself. I’ve always adored Andre Kertesz’ work – he’s got to be in my top ten list of favourite photographers – and there was lots of it here as well as loads of other amazing stuff.
I like pretty much everything Kertesz has ever done, but my absolute favourites are the series of Polaroids he took towards the end of his life. In many ways Kertesz is a sad figure – after considerable early success in Hungary and Paris, he emigrated to New York and then war broke out in Europe leaving him unable to go back. Unfortunately New Yorkers didn’t appreciate his distinctive style and approach, and although he continued to work for magazines there were frequent disputes with editors and cancelled commissions, and he also found himself too busy to work on his personal projects. It wasn’t a happy time for him – he never really learned to speak English very well, which added to his isolation, and he always felt like an outsider. Many of his New York photographs reflect the sadness of that time.
His wife Elizabeth, whom he adored, died in 1977. There’s a terribly poignant photograph called “Flowers for Elizabeth”, taken while his wife was in hospital. In the book ‘Kertesz on Kertesz’ he says: “I wanted the apartment to be painted for her when she came back, but she never came back.”
More or less confined to his apartment, and depressed after Elizabeth’s death, he started playing with a Polaroid camera that was lying around. In his own words:
Years ago I was given a little primitive Polaroid camera and I didn’t like it – it was for snapshots. But one day I took it out. I had discovered, in the window of a shop, a little glass bust, and I was very moved because it resembled my wife- the shoulder and the neck were Elizabeth. For months and months I looked at the bust in the window, and finally I bought it…….And I took it home, put it in my window, and began shooting and shooting with the Polaroid camera – in the morning, in the afternoon, in different lights. Something came out of this little incident, this little object. They made a book of all the pictures I took. It is dedicated to my wife.
Kertesz on Kertesz, 1985
I think these photos are small and exquisite treasures; they represent everything I’d like to be able to do with still life. I’ve been trying to get a copy of the book, which is out of print, for some time now and was thrilled to get an email from Amazon this morning saying that it’s on its way – I can’t wait to see it.
After going round the exhibition, Eileen and I sat outside in the forecourt for a couple of hours, talking, people-watching, enjoying the evening sun, and taking photos. Here are a few.
Buildings reflected in a sculpture by Jeff Koons, at the Royal Academy
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!
We recently had our second wedding anniversary and, as is our custom (although obviously not a very long-established one), we booked a table for lunch at the restaurant where we held our reception. So there we were, all dressed up and ready to go, and out the front door and heading for the car…….or so I thought. We don’t have a driveway so the car can sometimes be parked a bit of a distance away. Still, some way down the road I began to think that this was much further than usual and I said to Geoff, ‘Where is the car?’ ‘Opposite the house’, he replied. ‘So why are we walking this way?’, I asked. ‘You’ll see’, he said, with a small smile and a glint of something in his eye.
I kept going with the questions but obviously wasn’t going to get an answer. Eventually we ended up at the main road and crossed it, then he stopped. I looked at him. ‘We’re waiting for a car’, he said. I started mentally flipping through the options of who might be giving us a lift – there weren’t many and none seemed likely. I looked at him again. ‘Just watch the road. You’ll know which car it is when you see it’, he said.
And suddenly, there it was. A 1958 Chevrolet Bel Air looking very out of place among the usual Friday lunchtime traffic. And what a car! I don’t get at all excited about cars usually, but I do love old ones – they have so much character and quality about them. And this was a beauty – roughly the same age as me, but in considerably better nick, inside and out. It was driven by Geoff’s friend Stuart, who provides classic cars for weddings when he’s not being a driving instructor – a group of them had been out drinking a week or so before and Geoff had hatched this plan to surprise me.
As you can see, he was mightily pleased with himself, and I do think he had every reason to be – even if we did have to come home on the bus!
Check out the fluffy dice hanging from the rear-view mirror!
Stuart – our chauffeur for the day
And if you want proof that using a wide-angle lens makes things further away look smaller than they really are, here it is. Sorry, Stuart – if I’d had longer I’d have stretched you to normal height in Photoshop.
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.