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)
Look carefully at this one – these trees are reflected in very shallow water, and the dead leaves just underneath the water give it a textured effect. It seems a little like a double-exposure to me, and I liked the idea of bringing earth, sky and water together in one image.
In the West, when we break a cup or a plate we throw it away – in Japan, you might practise a technique called kintsugi. Kintsugi is a method of mending ceramics using a paste made with gold, silver or platinum. The idea is to incorporate the history of the breakage and its repair into the object, resulting in something more beautiful and meaningful than the original – you can see some pictures here. I love this idea and this week has brought some blog posts and articles to me that all link into it as a theme.
First off, I came across this post on Improvised Life, about Yoko Ono’s book Acorn. Here’s a little extract from the book:
Mend an object.
When you go through the process of mending, you mend something inside your soul as well.
Think of a ‘crack’ in your own life or the world. Ask for it to be healed as you mend the object.
Our tendency when we ‘break’ is to look for a return to how we were before, which can never happen as we’re irredeemably changed by these things. Instead of seeing ourselves as damaged, how much better to celebrate our breakages by mending them with the gold of wisdom and experience, so that our cracks add something valuable to us.
But quite apart from the parallels with mending your life, kintsugi is very much in line with the current trend for upcycling and turning old and broken things into useful and beautiful ones. It also overlaps considerably with another Japanese concept, wabisabi, which sees value and beauty in the old and the decayed, sadness and impermanence. Unlike our throwaway here-today-gone-tomorrow culture, it places value on the history of a simple piece, and evidence of wear and tear and the patina of time are valued far more than shiny new-ness.
Many photographers are naturally drawn to these things, loving to photograph the rich colours of rust, crumbling facades, dying flowers, or worn stone steps. Nina Katchadourian has taken this one step further. She mends broken spider’s webs with red thread, and split mushrooms with bicycle tire repair kits. The spiders don’t like it much, removing the repairs overnight and leaving a pile of red thread on the ground underneath by morning. The mushrooms are less able to comment, and to me the multi-coloured circular patches give them a whimsical air of fairy-tale toadstools that I rather like. (Incidentally, Katchadourian creates some of the most playful art I’ve ever come across – you might like it, you might hate it, but she obviously has a lot of fun making it.)
Not quite meeting the criteria for kintsugi, but containing something of the essence of it, Bing Wright used broken mirror glass to reflect sunsets, then photographed the results. These photos are so gorgeous I felt like smashing up some mirrors and going out to do the same, but this really isn’t in the spirit of kintsugi. Kintsugi arose out of necessity – as in our own not-so-distant past, Japanese folk had to reuse and recycle as it was outside most people’s means to throw away and buy new.
While photographing broken things doesn’t make them usable again, as kintsugi would, it can recognise and make something good out of brokenness. Some years ago I broke a glass bowl I was very fond of, and at first was upset. But then I looked at the pieces and thought how lovely they were in their own right. I placed transparent coloured sweet wrappers between the pieces of glass, shone a bright light on it, and took these photos. If I’d known about kintsugi then, I might have made my bowl whole again afterwards.
If you want to try Kintsugi yourself, you can buy a kintsugi mending kit from Humade.
There’s a melancholy air to this time of year that this picture seems to capture. Taken at twilight, a flock of birds took off suddenly, and followed the line of the trees through the clear area of sky above them. What I like best, though, is the small jet trail in the background – humans and birds, flying together.
We both like to watch and join in with University Challenge (for non-UK readers, this is a TV quiz show where the contestants are teams from UK universities). There’s a question they ask sometimes where you’re shown a series of paintings and asked to identify the artist of each one. The paintings they show are rarely the well-known ones, and are often quite obscure, but if you’ve looked at much art it’s surprisingly easy to get the answer right.
Every famous artist has a personal style that makes it possible to recognise work they’ve done that you’ve never seen before, probably down to some mixture of colour, texture, brushstrokes, line, form, and other factors. Subject matter can be a clue as well, of course, but they often deliberately show you something with subject matter that’s atypical of the artist.
It’s a mysterious thing, this personal voice, and when I began with photography I often longed to develop one. What I learned was that you can’t do it by trying, but only by photographing time and again those things that fascinate you. Think about handwriting – there isn’t much personal style to be found in children’s handwriting, but as we get older our handwriting becomes more and more distinctive and recognisably ours. And we don’t have to try – style is a by-product of maturity, whether in life or in our artistic work.
Just as copying someone else’s handwriting would feel forced and unnatural, trying to develop a style by imitating someone else’s is never going to work. Neither is basing it on attempts to be different:
“There’s nothing wrong with seeking to do things in a unique form, but seek to be different for the sake of being different and you won’t have images that express your vision, you’ll have photographs that are merely different. You can get that in a million ways that have nothing to do with good photography. You can be different without ever saying anything. You yourself are unique – you have ways of seeing your world that are unlike those of anyone else – so find ways of more faithfully expressing that and your style will emerge.”
Your own style comes from being the unique person that you are, and learning how to express that through whatever medium you choose as yours. There is a sting in the tail, however:
“One cannot express something compelling, interesting or inspiring without first having something compelling, interesting or inspiring to express. And so, in pursuit of expressive work, one also becomes motivated to seek those things that are worth expressing: meaningful experiences, complex thoughts, powerful emotions, and useful or interesting knowledge.”
In other words, taking more interesting photos is not a matter of standing in front of more interesting stuff, but in becoming a more interesting (or perhaps, more interested?) person. And developing personal style is inextricably linked with having the courage to be the person you are. That might mean taking photos that will rarely get a ‘like’ on Facebook or Flickr, being prepared for other people not to understand what you’re doing or saying, shrugging off criticism that genuinely doesn’t feel relevant, having friends and family ask you why you no longer take those lovely flower shots, and generally being prepared to be unpopular if it goes that way – not easy in this age of social media popularity contests.
This is a worst case scenario, of course. The chances are much higher that there will be at least a small tribe of people who’ll love what you’re doing and will be happy to say so. But the point is that it’s not easy to express your real self in a world that’s trying to make you conform from the moment you’re born to the day you die, and it’s that real self that holds the key to your personal style.
And there’s another element to personal style that’s often misunderstood:
“…..vision also is not something you find in complete form and have from that point onward – it’s something that evolves and changes with you, reflecting your sensibilities, thoughts, skills and maturity at a point in time.”
Your personal style shouldn’t be something that, once ‘discovered’ (like a sort of Holy Grail), never changes. As you change, so will it, and if you don’t change you’ll become stale and so will it. The people with the most distinctive personal styles are usually those who frequently change what they do, re-inventing themselves constantly. In the music world, David Bowie, Tom Waits, and Madonna spring to mind. But yet another thing – constant experimentation and exploration will inevitably result in work that is less sure of itself.
“In our culture there is little understanding of the growth process of an artist – which is often conducted in a very public arena. For the very public artists, for film makers and novelists in particular, there is little room for the work made during necessary periods of creative flux. Concert musicians report the same dilemma – a style matures idiosyncratically and spasmodically, moving not from beauty straight to beauty but from beauty though something different to more beauty. Few reviewers value the ‘something different’ stage.
Julia Cameron, Walking in This World
You might not be at a stage in your photographic career where you’re being reviewed, but it’s often the case that the people around you will not want you to change. They like what you’ve been doing, they want you to keep on doing it. They don’t want to be challenged in their appreciation of your work. They don’t have the fine artistic eye that you have developed. It’s relatively easy to dismiss this kind of thing when you don’t care much about the people involved – much harder when it’s people whose good opinion matters to you – friends, loved ones.
The difficulties of becoming aware of your deep self, and making yourself vulnerable by putting that self on show, explains why so many people produce accomplished but bland work that lacks any kind of personal voice. It feels a lot safer to stick with the tried and true, the stuff that’s been done before – the stuff that reflects someone else, not you. There is good news, however. If you work at photographing what fascinates you, without regard for what the world thinks, then your personal style will ultimately reveal itself. Like a shy puppy, it will slowly creep out from behind the sofa. It may get scared and dive back in again a time or two, but eventually it will roll on its back at your feet and let you tickle its tummy. It has no choice.
In the spirit of taking risks, the images in this post are all experiments and explorations that I’ve made in the recent past, with trees as subject. The first three and the last one were created in-camera, the remaining two are heavily processed. Some of these work, some maybe not, and some I might not normally have chosen to share. However, all of them fascinated me at the time.
Something that’s always paid off for me is to keep ‘working’ the same area time after time, even when I think there’s nothing new left to photograph. The act of going back and looking, again and again, until I start seeing things I never saw before,has been one of my most rewarding experiences as a photographer.
There’s usually some place nearby that draws me to it. When I lived in Canterbury, it was the cathedral; when I lived on the Wirral, it was the Dee Estuary; here, it’s the cemetery and small lakes that lie behind it. Whatever it is, it has to be close enough to where I live to make constant, even daily, visits easy, and there has to be something about it that makes me happy to go there often.
Many times I don’t even want to take my camera with me – it’s grey, flat light, it’s dull, there can’t be anything worthwhile left that I haven’t already photographed, I say to myself. The trick is to take the camera anyway and not care if I come back with nothing – but I rarely come back with nothing.
The images on this post started with one of those days. I went out for the exercise mostly, took my camera but didn’t think I’d use it. It was a grey day, although quite bright, and there was very little wind. I’m always attracted to water reflections but have done the obvious ones; however, when I looked closely at the patterns made by the interaction between the tree reflections and the ripples created by the many water birds, there were wonderful lines and textures and shapes to be seen and investigated.
I’ve been back several times for more, but these kind of images aren’t that easy to achieve. Too much wind destroys the reflections, too little light makes it impossible for me (with my rather archaic camera) to get a fast enough shutter speed, and too much sun creates too much flare and dazzle. It’s rather hit and miss even in perfect conditions – the lines and ripples move and change constantly, and getting any kind of focus isn’t easy. The autofocus hunts around like crazy, taking ages to lock onto anything and my few attempts at using manual focus were a complete disaster – even with an adjusted dioptre, it became obvious that I can’t see well enough to know if it’s in or out of focus. I’ve deleted many more images than I’ve kept, but every so often one of them pops up as a keeper and keeps me going.
“Boredom always precedes a period of great creativity.” Robert Pirsig
I’ve found this to be very true: nearly all my best – or at least most absorbing – work has arisen out of boredom. Something happens when I feel apathetic about what’s in front of me. If I go with it and don’t fight it, and just accept the apparent dullness, some little thing will eventually catch my eye. I’ll feel a flicker of excitement, of possibility, and then suddenly I’m away. I’ve rarely known it to fail.
A year ago I was loving winter’s skeleton trees and couldn’t get enough of them – this year, I’m longing for the soft greenness of the leaves to appear. Last winter the starkness of the trees suited my mood – we’d just had a depressing Christmas and were heading into another year of Geoff’s search for work. We’d had to borrow money from family to help pay the mortgage, and although I had some irons in the fire they weren’t yet producing anything. I’m so glad we didn’t know then that he’d still be out of work a year later, or our gloom would have been even deeper. As it was, he did get a short but well-paid temporary contract that helped us to keep going, I managed to develop enough of an income to make a difference, and somehow we survived the year.
For a while it was looking as if this Christmas would be even worse than last – all our savings were gone and we knew we couldn’t go on as we were. But, as often happens, we had a sudden turnaround and Geoff starts a brand new job in February – suddenly the future seems a lot brighter and we’re moving out of the limbo we’ve been living in for so long, and maybe that’s why the Gothic severity of the bare trees doesn’t appeal so much any more. Looking up through them, however, it seemed to me they were reaching for the light just as we are – a little dim at the moment but knowing growth and abundance is on its way to us.
Yes, I’ve finally done it! – changed to a new WordPress theme. I’ve had the same theme since I began writing back in 2011, and it just didn’t hack it any more on a number of counts. Things have moved on since then and these days blogs need to be mobile responsive – mine wasn’t. I’ve also been frustrated by the fact that I had a maximum available width of 595 pixels for any photos I put on it, which isn’t big enough to show them at their best. I can now post images at almost double the size – yay!
I still have a few glitches to iron out, and some re-writing and re-jiggling of sections to complete, so there’s lots more work to be done. And because I’ve ditched the sidebar to get greater width, archived posts and such like things can now be found in the footer. You can sign up for email subscriptions in the comments section after each post, and I hope to get an RSS feed option up and running before too long.
I’m finding it difficult at the moment to come up with much variety in these shots, especially as I was knocked out by a very nasty chest infection for about two weeks over the Christmas break and I haven’t been able to get out much. I’m feeling the need for fresh inspiration – to go somewhere new, or at least somewhere different from my usual walk round the cemetery/lake – but the virus has left me feeling too tired for an outing right now. However, I did like the way that this low winter sun peeked through the mass of skeleton trees in the cemetery.