My contribution to the project – low tide, West Kirby, on the Wirral Peninsula
Ages ago – years ago, now – when I was just finishing studying with Open College of the Arts, some students on the Flickr forum got together and designed a collaborative project. It was called The Nearest Faraway Place, and each of us who wanted to take part had to supply a 6 x 4 print that interpreted the title any way we wanted.
The book took a concertina form which made it easy for each person to add their bit onto the end of it, and it travelled round the world to one student at a time so that they could personally attach their contribution. Each person also saved the stamps from the parcel it arrived in and added them to the metal box in which the book travelled. The idea was that these would become part of a collage that made up the book’s cover.
I remember the day it came to me in the post. It was incredibly exciting to be holding something that had travelled so far, and had been put together by many people whom I knew online but had never actually met. There was something very special about holding the book and knowing that these people had also held it in their hands. This is how it looked when I got it:
The book made its way round a large chunk of the world – USA, China, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Russia, Tanzania, Japan, Switzerland, Greece, Ireland, and more – eventually ending up in the UK. There were one or two hairy moments when it seemed to have got lost in the post – with one notably long and anxious wait when it was making its way from South Africa to the UK – but it always turned up eventually.
I think it took about two years in the end for everyone to get their chance to contribute, but a few months ago the book finally made it to the last person on the list. This person is Yiann, who had volunteered to tidy the book up, make a cover for it, and generally put it into its final physical form. On one of my increasingly rare visits to Flickr, I discovered that she’s now done just that and, even better, made a video of the finished thing. She’s done a brilliant job with it, as you can see in the video below:
I once planned to do a whole project on nature reflected in cars, although I never did get round to it and it’s joined my very long list of ideas for themed projects that have never actually happened. Something about juxtaposing a hard, mechanical, man-made thing like a car, and the organic shapes of the natural world really appeals to me.
They seem so at odds with one another, but I was struck at the time with the fact that I needed a car to get myself to the kind of wild, natural spaces that I love – cars and roads paradoxically both destroy our environment and enable us to experience it. And everywhere I went for a while, I saw nature and cars coming together in some way – piles of spring blossom fallen on windscreens, trees reflected in bonnets, tyre tracks in woodland access roads, leaves trapped under windscreen wipers, a bunch of flowers on the parcel shelf, a sapling growing out of an abandoned car. And cars run on fossil fuel, created over time by trees, plants and other organic matter.
I love my car for the freedom it offers me, and its ability to take me to wild places that I couldn’t access any other way, while at the same time I’m aware that the act of doing that is helping to destroy those very places.
I’ve always loved and been fascinated by colour. Ernst Haas famously said ‘colour is joy’, and it always has been for me. For that reason I was never very interested in black and white photography – while I could see its merits, I was so absorbed in seeking out colour that I had little time for it. Lately, however, I’ve been doing a lot of work in black and white, which hasn’t been a conscious decision but something that has simply emerged.
I could say – and have – that this is because winter doesn’t offer much in the way of colour, and so I’ve concentrated my energies on what’s there rather than bemoaning what isn’t. There is some truth to this, and it’s been a welcome change to find subject matter that fascinates me right through the winter months. It used to be that I rarely picked up my camera in those months, waiting for the colours of spring to reappear before I felt inspired again.
However, I think there’s a little more to it than that. In the past I’ve done training in various psychotherapies, including NLP. For anyone not familiar with this, it’s a way of changing how you think (and therefore feel) about something by altering the way you perceive it in your mind/memory. At a simple level, the memory of a distressing experience can be made less impactful by changing the picture of it in your mind from colour to black and white – black and white simply drains a lot of the emotion from it. And depressed people, who have effectively numbed their emotions so much they can’t feel much at all, usually dress in greys and browns and black – it would be very unusual to see a depressed person wearing colourful clothes. Colour and emotion go hand in hand with each other.
For the past few months I’ve been struggling with some old demons that have resurfaced – traumatic memories that I thought had been dealt with but obviously haven’t. I’ve felt low and very numb – the whole range of emotion just hasn’t been available to me as my psyche tries to protect me from those old and painful memories. Interestingly, this has coincided with my sudden turn to black and white. At times, I’ve even found myself actively disliking colour, finding it too brash and intrusive. I have felt uncomfortable with it without knowing why.
I wonder – and I don’t feel able to answer this in any definitive way – whether a photographer’s attraction towards colour or black and white is related to their emotional range? Many avid black and white photographers seem actively antagonistic towards colour. I’ve never really understood this – if you prefer to shoot in black and white, then that’s absolutely fine and there doesn’t seem to me to be any need to denigrate those who choose colour instead. Those photographers who do have an aggressiveness about them that seems out of proportion to the matter in hand and smacks of defensiveness. Take, for example, this quote from Walker Evans:
Color tends to corrupt photography and absolute color corrupts it absolutely. Consider the way color film usually renders blue sky, green foliage, lipstick red, and the kiddies’ playsuit. These are four simple words which must be whispered: color photography is vulgar.
Or this one, from Roland Barthes:
For me, color is an artifice, a cosmetic (like the kind used to paint corpses).
Of course there are lots of perfectly good reasons to choose black and white over colour. If your image has one disconcertingly intense area of colour in it that would dominate the shot, then black and white will deal with that. If there’s very little colour in the image and it adds nothing to it anyway, then black and white will be a better choice. If the main interest of the shot lies in lines, shapes or tones, then black and white will show these up better and direct attention towards them. Removing colour can also make a shot more timeless – think of those crudely coloured fifties photos that can be dated immediately just by the colours.
And it’s also true that black and white can be used to make the image more dramatic – where a colour shot would look unnatural and crude if you were to increase contrast more than a little, a black and white shot can take it, and more. To make it more dramatic is to bring emotion into the shot, which of course goes against what I’ve said above. I’ve also come across this quote, which argues that black and white portraits actually reveal more emotion:
Removing color from a picture helps the viewer to focus on a subject’s emotional state. Black and white portraiture lets the audience see the subject’s face and read his or her eyes without distraction. – PhotographyVox
Not sure if I agree or not on that one.
I’ve done a little bit of digging around online, and can’t find anything much about this. My go-to place for this kind of thing is the online book Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche, by John Suler, which is full of fascinating stuff but he doesn’t specifically discuss colour and black and white anywhere that I can see. However, under the topic of Selective Colour he has this to say (‘selective colour’ is the practice of keeping one small part of an image coloured with the rest in black and white):
Why does the color stand out? Well, because it’s color. That seems obvious. But behind the obvious we find some interesting ideas. We live in a world of color. It feels more intuitively real in an image than the somewhat intellectualized and abstract quality of monochrome photos. Recognizing colors played an important role in the evolutionary survival of our species; we naturally rivet to it because we use color to identify what something is. We also associate colors with emotion, and emotions are the forces that connect humans to each other, so we can’t help but connect to the colorful element in an otherwise black and white image. – Selective Color, John Suler
It’s interesting that he links colour to emotions and emotions to a feeling of connectedness – emotionally numb people usually have a feeling of disconnection and isolation from the world and other people.
My conclusion is that, for the majority, the black and white/colour decision is one that’s made according to how effective it makes the image. Those folk happily switch from one format to the other accordingly. And there are some people who simply like black and white a lot, for no particular reason. But these people don’t usually make a big deal of it, and based on my own experience I do wonder whether the more emphatic black and white photographers are somehow threatened by colour because of its emotional component, and to shoot in black and white reflects their practice of keeping emotions at one remove. I might be widely off the the mark here, but I think it’s an interesting question. I’m not for a moment suggesting that all dogmatically black and white photographers are suffering from depression – more that they may be more uncomfortable than most with emotions. Depression is only one of many ways of numbing emotions, and I’ve concentrated on it here partly because there’s a great deal of literature linking it with lack of colour, and partly because I think it may be a component in my own turn away from it. But is this particular to me, or can it be more generally applied? What do you think?
The Colour Thief – a children’s book about a father’s depression. From the back cover: ‘My Dad’s life was full of colour. But one day Dad was full up with sadness, all the way to the top. He said that all the colours had gone.’
Interestingly, where a tiny hint of colour has crept into my own photography, it tends to be blue, as in the two shots below – another colour associated with low mood.
This little project is teaching me many things, and one of them is how hard it is to stay true to my own vision and not be swayed by what I think other people will like. Unusually, I had quite a number of images to select from this week and have changed the posted image about four times so far because I can’t make up my mind. Some were ‘safe’ – the kind of thing universally liked but not that interesting – some were dark, both in tone and visually, hinting at darker emotions that are not so immediately appealing. Some I loved myself, but knew that others almost certainly wouldn’t.
I never photograph for anyone other than myself. While I’m using the camera, it’s all about how I’m seeing things and what I’m drawn to. Afterwards, though – afterwards – I begin to see my pictures as other people are likely to. In some ways this is good – it introduces a little bit of objectivity into the proceedings – but it’s also when I start tying myself in knots.
It’s easy to say it shouldn’t matter and of course there’s a lot of truth in this. On the other hand, some of my motivation to continue taking photos lies in sharing them, and I like to feel I’m sharing them with people who enjoy what I do – for the most part, at least. I’ve questioned this need to share more than a few times, and the conclusion I came to is this: I need to share in the same way that if I got a piece of good news or something fantastic happened to me, I would feel a strong urge to phone up a friend and tell them about it. It increases the pleasure for me, and I hope gives them some second-hand pleasure too. It’s not a case of looking for validation – rather, an intention to connect through the medium I most enjoy. So I’m very grateful to anyone who takes the time to look at what I’ve done, and I’d rather not alienate them with too much stuff they won’t like.
Then there’s the business of trying to assess, as objectively as possible, what I’ve produced. I believe that I’m producing better art these days than I did a few years ago – in fact, I believe that I might venture to actually call some of what I do ‘art’ – but self-doubt is never slow to poke its head in. It’s so difficult to judge your own work – it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve looked at something I’ve done and loved it, only to realise later that it was pretty poor stuff.
Other people’s reactions are not really something you can go on here. The more you look at images the more sophisticated and informed your taste becomes, and any one person’s reaction to what I’ve produced is likely to be dependent on where they are on that scale of visual experience. What I’ve resorted to is looking at other people’s work – work that’s gained some recognition – and comparing with my own. Much of the time I can see how far I lag behind them, but on occasion I see people doing the kind of thing I’m doing myself, and even more occasionally I think I might be doing it better.
So I think I prefer the weeks when there isn’t much to choose from. I’ve no idea if I’ve made the best choice here or not, but I’ve been playing with diptychs lately – something I haven’t done for a long time – and this is one of them. I was also playing with my Lensbaby – another thing I haven’t done for a long time – and I liked the way it blurred the background layers of these hanging branches. It’s a quiet image, with perhaps something of a Japanese aesthetic about it.
I sometimes think photographers can be divided into two groups – those who like taking people shots and those who don’t. I tend to fall into the latter category, although from time to time I do enjoy a bit of street photography, and I have been known to do the occasional portrait. Last Sunday we went with some friends to an afternoon of live jazz at what is probably the best cafe in Newark – Strays. I’m not a huge jazz fan, but this was the kind of jazz I like – nothing too heavy, a trio of two guitars and a drummer, with a female vocalist for some of the numbers.
This girl had the most amazing voice – mature and sophisticated, and quite different from what her youthful prettiness would lead you to expect
One reason that I don’t do much people photography is that, if I’m going to indulge at all, I much prefer candid shots and I’m aware that not everyone likes being photographed when they’re not aware of it, so I feel I’m being a bit intrusive. When it’s musicians, however, I don’t feel bad about it as being photographed goes with the territory. I was sitting there wishing I’d brought a camera with me when I suddenly realised that I had – my little compact Fuji was lurking in the bottom of my handbag. I don’t enjoy using this camera at all, not because there’s anything wrong with it per se, but because the quality is so much lower than a DSLR, it doesn’t shoot in RAW, and it doesn’t have a viewfinder. It also has more shutter delay than I’m used to, which can be a bit frustrating. But as they say, the best camera is the one you have with you, so I decided to see what I could do with it.
There’s something quite freeing about making do with what you’ve got, and trying something that you wouldn’t normally do, and once I got started I had a very good time indeed. The impulse to start photographing in the first place came from one of the waitresses who was competently wielding a Nikon DSLR – it’s funny how just watching someone else take pictures can get you fired up yourself.
You can see how slow my shutter speeds were by the blurring of the guitarist’s fingers as he played
I’m not displeased with the results. They have a fair bit of noise, thus losing much of the fine detail and reducing the potential for sharpening, and I couldn’t get the shallow depth of field I like to use, but that’s all part of the challenge. I used the black and white shooting mode, largely because the singer was wearing the brightest orange jumper I’ve ever seen and it would have dominated a colour shot. Everything’s a bit soft, but in the circumstances it was all that was achievable.
The performer I only got one usable shot of was the drummer, despite spending most of my time focussing on him. He had an amazingly mobile face, with lots of great expressions, and was obviously thoroughly enjoying himself. But because he moved his head and face a lot, and the camera has its limits, every shot I took bar one shows him with blurred features. You can’t win ’em all.
The only usable shot I got of this musician – he had such great facial expressions but slow shutter speeds made it impossible to capture them
This chap’s expression didn’t change at all, but he was enjoying himself – honest!
One time you definitely won’t be noticed taking photos is when the person in question is doing some photography themselves.
Geoff and Paul in conversation during a break
After I’d exhausted the possibilities of people photography, I then reverted back to type and took these two shots!
This very elegant lady was the wife of the drummer in the band.
And I never could resist an interesting reflection, although this one was at the absolute limits of my zoom, and is a mite soft because of it
I’m at the stage where I’m getting a little bit bored with this project, or at least, bare trees with no leaves. However, we’re now getting a bit of sunshine and on Sunday it was bright enough to cast these wonderful shadows on the Georgian houses round the corner from us. It makes a change from reflections.
I guess this is the danger time in a project, when you’re well enough into it to have lost the initial excitement and you begin to get the feeling you’re repeating yourself a little too often. Time to up my game a bit, I think, and start thinking a little more laterally.
It does help to have a camera with you at all times. I don’t usually, because mine’s far too big and heavy, but on this occasion I happened to have a little digital compact in my bag. The quality’s not nearly so good but, as they say, the best camera is the one you have with you. However, at long last it’s looking as if I might get a bright shiny new camera in the near future, and I’ve decided to go for the Sony a6000 which is going to be small and light enough to carry around with me most of the time. I’m rather hoping it will give my photographic creativity a bit of a boost.
Oh how I long for colour! Much as I’m enjoying the strong lines, shapes, and contrasts of black and white photography, colour is what I most love. There’s little of it around at the moment, so when I saw these richly coloured autumn leaves floating at the edge of the lake, adding their vibrant tones to the darkness of the water, I was drawn right to them.
Some years ago I was on holiday in Somerset, by myself. Each day I went walking in a different place, and on one occasion I ended up in an extensively forested area. I’d been walking for a couple of hours, had stopped to eat my bread and cheese and olives, and realised I wasn’t sure which way I’d come or how to get back. In all the time I’d been walking I hadn’t seen anyone at all, so there wasn’t much chance of being able to ask for help.
I felt the beginnings of panic, but pushed it away and rationalised that there was plenty of daylight left and even if all I did was walk in one direction, then sooner or later I’d come to a road and I’d find my way back (this is the UK, after all, where there isn’t that much wilderness left). I felt a bit calmer, took a few deep breaths, lay back on the grass, and allowed myself to enjoy, for the moment, the warmth of the early spring sun on my face. Then it came to me – the sun had been dazzling me from my left as I walked from the car park, and taking into consideration its rotation as the day went on, I could probably figure out roughly which direction to go in. I could, I did, and it got me home again.
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. you must let it find you.
Palmer tells a similar story to mine in his post, about a time he got lost, and how he began to panic, and how he calmed himself down and suddenly knew what he needed to do. I’ve always been very scared of getting lost – unreasonably so. To quell the panic that surges up I feel the need to do something, try something, anything, to solve the problem, but frantically poring over maps and doing mental calculations just increases the desperate feeling of being hopelessly lost. The best way to solve the problem is to stop, be still, calm down, come into the present, and become aware of where I am at this moment. Only then can I understand how to get to where I want to go.
You can see the parallels with life. We live in a an action oriented culture and when we come to a part of life where we feel lost and directionless, the need to do something can be strong. Taoism has a term – wu wei – which means, literally, non-doing. Paradoxically, in the Taoist state of non-doing you are actually doing quite a lot. However, what you’re doing is allowing yourself to feel a sense of connectedness to others and to your environment, and strengthening your ability to tune in to both inner and outer messages. It relies on being present to the moment. Any action you then take – using action in the sense in which we mean it in the West – becomes spontaneous, effortless, and highly effective. We might call it intuitive, or inspired action. ‘Stand still. Wherever you are is called Here.’ – let the forest find you.
Coming into the present – the Here – not only removes the panic caused by imagined, disastrous futures but focusses attention on what’s around us, what we can see, hear, feel, taste, and smell. Those things we now notice give us the answers we need. We might call this mindfulness.
I hope you can also see the parallels with a contemplative approach to photography. We go out with our cameras and feel lost and directionless – nothing inspires us, there’s nothing to photograph. We try harder. We look and look. Still nothing. We’re frustrated, all this effort tires us, irks us, so we give up, stop, and decide instead to enjoy the walk. Suddenly we notice the patterns on the water, the shapes of the clouds, or the colours in the tree bark. In this coming into the present, the Here, we begin to see again and, amazingly, the photographs find us.
A return to ‘straight’ photography this week. This magnificent tree grows within the shell of Newark Castle, which was turned into public gardens by the Victorians. As usual at the moment not much colour around so a black and white conversion it is.
I’ve got a bit of thing about gardens inside the shells of old buildings. My favourite place in London is St Dunstan’s Church, in the City, which is just that. In the days when I visited London regularly it was one of my go-to places for photography, and I loved the contrast between the peaceful green leaves of the garden inside and the hurry and scurry of the city workers on the outside. So, two for the price of one this week, as I’m feeling nostalgic. (And also a nice reminder of summer)