“In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.”
Albert Camus, Return to Tipasa
“In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.”
Albert Camus, Return to Tipasa
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.
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.
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.
After I’d exhausted the possibilities of people photography, I then reverted back to type and took these two shots!
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.
I was reminded of this on reading a post by Parker J Palmer, which included this wonderful poem by David Wagoner:
by David Wagoner
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)
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.
Here is the Improvised Life article featuring Yoko Ono’s book.
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.”
Guy Tal, The Expressive Photograph
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.