I’ve had some conversations with friends lately in which I’ve tried to explain why I feel a need to put my photographs and my writing ‘out there’, and why I get discouraged when there’s no subsequent response or interaction with people who’ve read or seen them.
Their reaction is to tell me – usually fairly vehemently – that it shouldn’t bother me, I should take pictures purely for myself, I shouldn’t care whether anyone else likes them or not, and so forth. There’s quite a bit of truth in this, and for a while it made me question my own motives – am I really so insecure that I need some kind of ‘applause’? Perhaps I am, I thought. And then I thought, but I don’t give much significance to getting ‘likes’ on Instagram or Facebook, and have long realised it’s all a big popularity game with no substance. Obviously I’d rather have likes than no response, but it doesn’t mean a whole lot to me.
What it means to me, I suddenly realised, is that someone has looked at them. Or if it’s a comment on a blog post or article, that someone has read it. And what I most want, it came to me, is to share what I’ve done with other people. If something really good happens to me, my first reaction is usually to get on the phone to a friend or to Geoff to tell them all about it. I have a strong urge to share it with someone else. So when I take a shot that I’m pleased with, I want to say the equivalent of ‘Look! Look what I saw!’ A joy shared is a joy doubled for me, and I always hope that it works the other way round too, just as I get happy when I hear some good news from a friend. And a sorrow shared is a sorrow halved, if that’s the way it’s worked out.
It also seems to me that creativity is a lot about communicating. All artists with integrity do the work for themselves and their own fulfilment, but if they chose to keep it to themselves then the world would be deprived of a lot of pleasure, insight, and satisfaction. A lot of issues wouldn’t be raised, or beauty made available. A lot of great art would have been lost to the world. If Vivian Maier’s photographs hadn’t been discovered in a storage locker, wouldn’t the world have been deprived of something valuable?
Art is a kind of communication – yes, there is a point in writing for one’s own satisfaction only, but if you have something to say then wouldn’t you like to open it up to conversation? Make it available to others? There is a point in taking photos purely for your own pleasure, but isn’t looking at other people’s photography and sharing your own with them part of what makes it good? For me, it would be like living my life without ever talking to anyone.
But I can hear a whisper in the background – a lot of art is banal, derivative, awful,crude. There’s no denying this, but whatever sort of art it is, it still gives pleasure to a lot of people. You may think they have terrible taste, but this kind of art serves them, just as your kind of art serves you, and you can choose not to engage with what doesn’t work for you. And who’s to tell, in the moment, what’s good and what’s bad? Van Gogh was derided for his ‘amateurish’ work in his day, and Monet, Duchamp, Turner, El Greco, and a host of others were severely criticised and not taken seriously in their lifetimes. There are always diamonds to be found in the dross, but no dross, no diamonds.
On that note, I offer you some beach huts, taken last year in a wintry North Berwick, near Edinburgh. I hope you like them, but it doesn’t matter if you don’t – I’m just pleased that I’m able to share my moment of seeing with you.
I had to write an artist’s statement recently, about the images you see on this post. I don’t like these things and always struggle to word them. The truth of it is – I notice something that interests me, I photograph it, I take it home, and I play with it on a screen until it looks the way I like it. That’s it. No great thoughts, concepts or ideas lurk in my head to be turned into meaningful words. I make photos purely on instinct even if I have to, or choose to, rationalise about them afterwards.
The statement I had to write this time was for a competition, and my husband Geoff – in the voice of a five-year-old – suggested this:
Here are my pictures. I quite like them. I hope you do too. Love and kisses, Gilly
After I’d stopped laughing, it seemed to me there was a certain sort of honesty in this that couldn’t be denied. It surely is the five-year-old in us that likes to take the pictures and just wants others to like them too. Simple.
I’m still playing with Color Efex Pro from the Nik suite. It’s fun, and it’s giving me ideas, but I have some mixed feelings about it that I’ve been trying to sort out. On the one hand it’s allowing me to get the look that I want a lot more of the time, but on the other there’s something that bothers me about it.
I’ve never been a purist about post-processing. While I would always want to get as much as possible right in-camera, and I hate to see a fundamentally poor shot being tarted up with special effects in an attempt to make it acceptable, what seems most important to me is the resulting image and not whatever means were used to achieve it. I’m not going to go into all the tired old arguments about this but it’s a fact that, even in the days of film, extensive work and adjustments were done in the dark room post-shooting and it’s neither here nor there that this is now done digitally instead.
I’ve also never been interested in straight representational photography – most of it simply doesn’t appeal to me greatly and doesn’t hold my interest for long. I find it boring to do, and technical perfection – while I do admire the skill involved – can sometimes seem rather chillingly intellectual. I’m far more interested in attempting to express a mood, a feeling, an emotion, or a story. Most of the time, I like my pictures soft, often blurred, with some mystery and ambiguity present.
But how far do you go to do that? The image at the top of the post has been dramatically altered using Color Efex Pro, and is now the way I’d like it to look and the way that the place felt to me while I was there on that day – dazzling light and soft colours. However, the original image looks significantly different. To let you see the change, I’ve put the before and after together, below.
I’m happy with the changes here, and I could no doubt have got the same result using Elements/Photoshop, although I’m not sure I would have known just how to get that to happen. But the great thing about Color Efex Pro is that you can apply and remove the changes with one click, and you can stack and unstack several effects at once, making it really easy to compare and see what works and what doesn’t. This shot had three effects applied to it – Neutral White, which sorts the colours out quickly and easily, Polaroid transfer, which smoothed out the too-obvious movement lines caused by the ICM process, and Film Fade, which gave it a high-key, faded, dream-like look. Although the colours are more intense and the light is brighter and stronger than in the original, this is how it felt to me to be there on that day. The in-camera image didn’t give me that feeling.
Playing with another of my ICM shots, I discovered the Indian Summer effect. Now I like this effect a lot, and it makes a lot of images look really good, but I do have a problem with it. But first, let me show you what it does (you can see the original here).
Basically it gives every image you use it on an early autumn effect. I do love these colours, and this take on the original, so what’s my problem? – well simply, it’s not how it felt to me at the time. Had I been there in late summer/early autumn, then it might have helped capture the essence of my experience, but as it is it feels removed from my experience and only satisfying on a decorative level. Doesn’t stop me liking it, but it doesn’t embody what I’m trying to do and I don’t feel it expresses anything of myself.
However, the opposite is true for the image below. While out walking, we came across this little tree protectively surrounded by mature trees, and lit up by a band of sunlight. I took quite a few shots, but none of them showed what I saw at the time. I tried, using Elements, to bring out the contrast between the sunlit baby tree and the darker trees around it, and I got a bit closer to what I wanted but it still wasn’t there. So I popped it into Color Efex Pro and finally managed to get it to look much more like how I’d envisaged it. It’s still not totally there, but lots better.
One thing that helps is that Color Efex goes further than I often have the courage to go. I had already tried applying a vignette effect to the original using Elements, and it had helped a bit, but my mistake was that I didn’t take it far enough. There’s surely a lesson for me here, but it took Color Efex to get that through to me. The vignette it applied was much darker and stronger – and more effective – than my more tentative efforts, and there was also an option – which I took – to lighten the centre of the shot. You can see the comparison between the original post-processed shot below, and the same shot after using Color Efex – the change is subtle but effective and pushes attention towards the small tree, which is what I wanted.
Yes, I could have done it myself in Elements/Photoshop, but I didn’t. And the one-click nature of Color Efex made it very easy for me to see what was needed and what did and didn’t work.
My conclusion is that Color Efex Pro makes it much easier for me to get to where I want to be with a shot, but that it would be too easy to rely on its effects to cover up a poor image, or to seriously overdo them and move towards the ‘gimmicky’. I have a certain fear that I’m going to get carried away with it, like I did (and many other beginner photographers do) with the Hue/Saturation slider when I first discovered it, leading to images that will make me wince and wonder what on earth I was thinking when I look back on them in the future. On the other hand, it does encourage me to play, in ways that I never would otherwise, and that surely can’t be a bad thing. And if we never make any mistakes, we cease to grow and learn.
Just after I posted about using limitations to enhance creativity, I came across this TED talk from Phil Hansen, called ‘Embrace the Shake’. He thought his art career was over when he developed a tremor in his hands, but it turned out to be the start of something much bigger and better – but only once he’d accepted and embraced his limitations. It’s well worth ten minutes of your time.
As time goes on I’m building myself a kind of creative manifesto: a set of fundamental principles that work to enhance my creativity. I think these principles are helpful to everyone, not just to me, and the idea came to me to bring them together in this space and explore them one by one. The first in this series was about cultivating boredom.
There’s a certain overlap between ‘restrict choices’ and ‘cultivate boredom’, but enough significant differences to make it a separate item. We’re inclined to think that it’s great to have lots of choices, and it does feel good, but in fact it works against our creativity. Too much choice can freeze us like a rabbit in the headlights, or perhaps more accurately, like Buridan’s Ass. Buridan’s Ass was hungry and was placed midway between two bales of hay, each of them equally tempting. He couldn’t decide which one to go for, as there was no obvious better choice, so he stood there in indecision until he eventually starved to death. I can relate to this.
Choice, in photography and other parts of life, is reasonably easy when one choice stands out as being better than the others. However, when faced with a number of choices that are equally appealing, it’s so much harder to decide and you can easily end up doing nothing, or trying to do it all. Which location should you visit, which lens should you use, which camera body should you take, which filters, which bag should you put it all into? Setting restrictions – ie, reducing choices – can eliminate a lot of the decision-making and release our creative spirit.
Not sure? How about this quote from Stephen Sondheim:
‘If you told me to write a love song tonight, I’d have a lot of trouble. But if you tell me to write a love song about a girl with a red dress who goes into a bar and is on her fifth martini and is falling off her chair, that’s a lot easier, and it makes me free to say anything I want.’ (Stephen Sondheim)
Paradoxically, less choice can actually make you more free. It gives you a starting place, a foundation on which to build, and then sets you free to do whatever you like with that. If I said to you ‘go and make a great photograph of anything you like’, you’d probably feel confused and lost. If I said ‘use a 50mm lens to take a great black and white photo of a tree’ you’d be far more likely to come up with the goods. And because these restrictions would be quite limiting, you’d end up looking for ways in which you could make it more interesting, and thereby get a lot more creative.
I’ve been lucky enough – and I do use that word deliberately – to have had a lot of restrictions enforced on me. Chronic financial problems have meant that for the past eight years I’ve had one camera body and one zoom lens, plus a Lensbaby. I haven’t had the money to travel to exotic places, or even anywhere different, and so I’ve mostly been restricted to what’s on my doorstep. I may have felt intensely frustrated by this at times, but I’ve come to realise that it’s worked in my favour. It’s forced me to really look at my surroundings and see them differently, and to use what equipment I have to its full capacity, and that’s been a real gift.
Many wonderful images and some new techniques have arisen out of limitations. Ernst Haas is known for being a forerunner in the area of intentional camera movement – see some of his ICM work here – but this happened because of the limitations of colour photography at that time. It was impossible to get a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the action, so instead of railing against this, or giving up on the idea, he went with it and explored the possibilities. The resulting pictures were radically different and original for their time.
Andre Kertesz, another hero of mine, was confined most of the time by age and infirmity to his New York flat. His wife had died and he was heartbroken, lonely, and had given up photography. One day he bought a little glass bust that reminded him of his wife, and that coincided with the gift of a Polaroid camera from a friend. He began to photograph the bust on the window-ledge of his room and this ultimately led to a collection of small and very beautiful gem-like images which were later collected into the book Andre Kertesz: The Polaroids. Although he later introduced other elements into these images, he started with only three things: a Polaroid camera, a glass bust, and a window-ledge. And just to remind us of the therapeutic power of photography, this is what he had to say about it:
‘I began shooting slowly, slowly, slowly. But soon, going crazy. I worked mornings and late afternoons. With the morning light, the sky is nice, and in the later afternoon full of variations. I would come out in the morning and begin shooting, shooting, shooting; no time to eat. I discover the time has gone, and no breakfast. The same in the afternoon….I forget my medicine. Suddenly I’m losing myself, losing pain, losing hunger, and yes, losing the sadness.’
Kertesz continued to photograph until his death, six years later, leaving behind this one last powerful body of work, which I was lucky enough to see in person at the Royal Academy a few years ago.
Many years ago I read an article about photographers with physical disabilities, including one who had Parkinson’s and valiantly struggled to hold his camera still enough to get a sharp shot. The article was very touching, but I wondered at the time why he didn’t exploit the shakiness, which would have resulted in something original, instead of fighting it so that he could produce the same sort of thing as everybody else. Some limitations are thrust on us, and some we choose. Either way, it can be a very positive thing.
Accepting and working with limitations that you haven’t chosen yourself is very much in the ethos of contemplative photography. Accept them, open yourself to the possibilities, and wait for them to give you their gift – there will be one. Imposing limitations deliberately is a more calculated approach, but equally effective and perhaps a bit easier on the acceptance front – if it doesn’t work out for you you can always try something else and, whatever else, the experience will be valuable.
Exploit your natural limitations – where do you see yourself as lacking in your photographic practice? Is there some way in which you can work with this and make something of it? Personally I’m not good at sharpness, so I’ve gone down the route of softness and blur – something I tend to prefer, anyway. On the other hand, I have a photographer friend whom I’ve always envied because her images are so beautifully sharp and clear, only to find out that she felt unable to produce the kind of blurry stuff that comes easily to me. I’m also hopeless at getting horizons straight – no matter how hard I try it rarely works out – so I often leave them out and concentrate on more intimate shots.
Exploit your lack of gear – only got one lens? or an ancient camera? Push it to its limits and find out what you can do with it. There’s a reason why many people love Holgas and other ‘toy’ cameras – they’re among the worst and most technically limited cameras you can buy but they can also be the most fun and the most creative.
Exploit your neighbourhood – if you’re stuck where you are, look at where you live as if you’re a visitor to the area. How does that change the way you see it? For inspiration, read Alexandra Horowitz’ book, On Seeing, in which she takes a look at her own neighbourhood through the eyes of some very different people and begins to see things she never saw before. A simple exercise is to try various physical perspectives – what does it look like from a very low, or a high, viewpoint? How does it look driving through it? Or cycling? How would it look to a dog, a Martian, a baby in a pram, someone from another continent? What would they notice that you don’t?
Work with the weather and light – instead of waiting for what’s normally regarded as good light, work with whatever light you have and whatever weather happens. Rain, and grey flat light? – go out anyway and see what rain does to colours and surfaces. Harsh bright sunlight? – look at shadows, intentional lens flare, sparkles and bokeh. Wind? – try to capture the movement. The key is to accept whatever weather or light you’re presented with, and figure out how you can work with it.
Explore one subject or theme – this is my favourite sort of restriction. It’s too easy to get a great shot of something and then pass onto the next thing. Sticking with one theme forces you to explore, to stretch yourself, and to produce more creative work. It has to be something that interests you enough to keep you persevering, and it has to offer a lot of different options and ways of interpreting it. My 52 Trees project is one example of this.
Restrict your equipment – choose just one lens and keep it on your camera for a month. What happens when you have to take all your shots with it? If you have a zoom lens, pick a focal length and tape the lens so that it can’t be moved from that, and take every shot with that focal length. Rather than adapt the camera/lens to what you want to do, adapt yourself to what it’s able to do at that focal length. You could also choose just one camera – perhaps something you wouldn’t normally use, like a point-and-shoot compact, or a phone camera, and see what you can do with that. Something else that works for some people is to restrict the number of shots they can take – inserting a small memory card with limited space on it might make you think harder about what you choose to shoot, and work more slowly. I have to admit this one doesn’t work for me – I end up taking nothing at all because I’m so anxious about using up my limited space – but it might be different for you.
Stick to one area – it’s up to you how big or small you make it, but the biggest rewards often come from the biggest restrictions. You could choose a park, a small area of countryside, a river, the street your home is on, your garden, a city block, a building, a bridge, or anything else that takes your fancy. Having just come up with it, I rather like the idea of a bridge – so many possibilities, like the bridge itself, whatever runs underneath, the people and vehicles that use it, how it appears at different times of day, and so on. Another idea is to photograph out of one window – I’ve done this many times and found it surprisingly rewarding. If you really want to stretch yourself with a limited location, Freeman Patterson uses an exercise where he gets his workshop participants to throw a hoop at random, then photograph only what can be found within the hoop.
The images in this post were taken either while it was raining or shortly afterwards, in a small area in and around the market square in Newark.
What haunts us is often the shadow side, the dark side, of our selves. It appears to us like these figures – dark, faceless, ominous. Jung believed that we needed to make friends with these shadow selves in order to become whole, and that once faced, they no longer had the power to haunt or frighten us. More than that, he believed that this shadow self held treasures for us to discover. If you dare to look into these sculptures in Beverley Minster, you’ll see they contain ‘hearts’, made out of beautifully coloured glass fragments.
For the photographers
Beverley Minster is one of the only cathedrals I’ve been to where they charge you for permission to photograph even if it’s only for personal use. I felt a bit annoyed by this and wasn’t going to bother initially, but got excited enough when I saw these sculptures (by Helen Whittaker) to walk back up the length of the cathedral to buy a permit. Because I was excited, I started snapping away without even thinking about settings and the first shots came out over-exposed and blurred. However, once I’d calmed down enough to set the camera properly, I found that the straight shots didn’t really work and lacked atmosphere. I went back to deliberately hand-holding during a long exposure and, after a bit of processing, ended up with the image above. For me it captures the feeling I wanted far better than the ‘correct’ settings ever would have done. Serendipity is a wonderful thing.
“Conventional photos get most of their meaning from whatever objects are in them. Here is a child, here a sky, there a wall, a tree. The photographer hasn’t really dealt with the content and the experience is brief. What you see is what you get, and usually it’s not much.”
Sean Kearnan, Looking into the Light
It’s a strange fact of life that, as your photography improves in terms of its artistic worth, you’re likely to get fewer and fewer likes on Flickr or Facebook or whatever social media platform you use. This is because the visually uneducated eye (ie, the average viewer) responds most strongly to the content of the image, and the more spectacular, awe-inspiring, cute or funny that content is, the easier it is to have a clearly defined and immediate reaction to it.
But, to paraphrase Sean Kernan, all you see is all that you get and it’s mostly surface glitter. It’s human nature to stop and look at anything that’s beautiful, striking, or unusual, and the majority of these photos are simply making a record of those things. The best of them show large amounts of technical skill, which is to be respected, and which certainly adds to the experience. There’s definitely a place for this kind of photography – it’s very accessible and gives a great deal of pleasure to many folk.
One of the problems it gives rise to, though, is that people erroneously think that they must have spectacular subject matter to make a spectacular photograph. They bemoan the fact that they live in an ordinary area that houses ordinary things and they go on exotic photography holidays in order to be exposed to the stuff of ‘great’ photos.
Take a look through the small ads in the back of any photography magazine and you’ll see photography workshop destinations like Iceland or Namibia or Provence. You won’t see Bradford or Milton Keynes or Grimsby or Paisley, and yet all of these places are perfectly capable of yielding huge amounts of inspirational material for photographs, as is almost any place you care to mention – even your own backyard.
In fact, if you want to learn to be a better photographer, then you’re far better off in one of these ‘ordinary’ places than you would be in Iceland (for example). At the beginning of my photography career I was lucky enough to spend time in Iceland, a spectacular place if ever there was one. I like a lot of the photos I took there, and they’d certainly do very well in a tourist brochure, but they’re not at all what I would take now because I’ve grown as a photographer since then. If I were to revisit I’m not sure what my photos would be like, but I know they’d be very different and I know that that’s because of all the images of ordinary things that I’ve produced in the years since then.
It’s very difficult to ‘see’ properly when you’re blinded by the awe-inspiringly beautiful. The place to learn to see is the boring place, the ordinary one, the one that makes you feel a bit fed up and has you wishing you lived somewhere different. If you can’t make an interesting photo in one of these places, you’ll never get beyond the tourist shots when you go somewhere more appealing. You’ll continue to rely on the subject matter of your images to give impact, at the expense of a deeper level of seeing and understanding.
I’m as guilty as anyone of wanting to go somewhere lovely to do some photography. I get it, I really do. But I know that any ability I have to see beyond surfaces has come about from being bored by what I’m looking at. Boredom is your friend when it comes to photography, and if you let it, it will open your eyes. If you bore your left hemisphere for long enough, it switches off and allows the right one to take charge, and it’s the right one that will find the spectacular in the ordinary. The left hemisphere is easy to bore, the right one doesn’t understand the concept.
‘When you pay attention to boredom, it gets unbelievably interesting.’ Jon Kabat-Zinn
‘Boredom always precedes a period of great creativity.’ Robert M Pirsig
Once you start to look at the ordinary with new eyes, it becomes quite extraordinary. Just about everyone remembers or knows of the scene in American Beauty of a plastic bag being randomly blown around in the wind. It’s like watching a hypnotic and very beautiful dance. If you’d like to be reminded, here it is:
Why is this scene so memorable? – I think it’s because most of us would never have noticed and would have walked straight on by, because, surely, some rubbish blowing around on the pavement is boring. But boredom is usually a failure of curiosity and attention – pay enough attention, cultivate curiosity, and you’ll never be bored.
Despite knowing this, I still get bored sometimes when I go out to photograph, and some of those times never lead to anything more than that. But when I allow myself to open up to the possibilities, something good almost always emerges. The photograph at the top of the post is of oil spilled in a ditch and eventually led to a whole series of images created from a polluted ditch in an uninspiring place. I’ll leave you with a few more photos of ‘boring’ things in ‘boring’ places – I’ve tried to choose images from some of the most unpromising places I’ve ever been. I doubt any of them would get a ‘wow!’ on Flickr, but they do demonstrate that you can make a decent picture out of almost anything.
My version of the beauty of the plastic bag – part of a torn plastic carrier bag floating in a murky boating pond. A little bit of cropping and processing turned it into something resembling a delicate sea creature.
A whole class of photography students walked right by this red puddle. I was left behind, jumping up and down and yelling ‘look!’ It still fills me with questions – what made it so red? why was this paving slab missing? why didn’t anyone else notice it? I could have done something better than this with it given time, but I had to catch up…….
A dull day in Rye harbour, but these pieces of rope, built up over years and years of boats being tied to a mooring post, caught my eye. The images work on their own, but they work even better as a set.
And this little arrangement was next to a dead pigeon underneath a park bench:
Taken in a Thai restaurant, while waiting for our meal to arrive:
Another restaurant, this time a Pizza Express, some red bus motion blur through the window, and a mirror reflection next to it.
Even grass can be interesting if you get down low and create a background out of a red-leaved shrub:
And finally, a dull wet day, a car park, and an autumn tree seen through a rainy windscreen:
Since I’m going to be quite busy developing some new products/services/ideas over the next few weeks, I thought it would be good to re-post some older posts. This one was something I got quite caught up in when I wrote it, and I thought it was worth resurrecting. If you find it at all interesting, I’d recommend getting hold of a copy of Molly Bang’s book, Picture This: How Pictures Work, as it’s one of the best books I’ve ever come across for showing clearly how the elements of a picture work together to create an emotional charge.
I picked up a fascinating little book in a second-hand shop recently. It’s called Picture This: How Pictures Work and it’s by Molly Bang. Molly is a writer and illustrator of children’s books, but one day she realised she didn’t have any great understanding of what makes a picture work. She decided to experiment using simple geometric shapes cut out of craft paper, to see how these could be used to evoke emotion through their arrangement and colour.
She was working with young children at the time and she did an exercise with them where she cut paper in four different colours – red, black, pale purple, and white – into shapes to create an illustration for Litte Red Riding Hood. She got the children to give her directions about what made the picture more or less scary – the kids weren’t too enthusiastic (they wanted to make pictures that looked real) but as she went on to try this exercise with a range of children of all ages and with adults too, she found that there were fundamental principles of design that gave an emotional charge to certain arrangements of shapes on the page. In this book she takes us through the process of decision-making that leads to the most effective illustration of the Red Riding Hood story and then pulls out the principles at work behind them.
So, for instance, she starts with trees like these one, made out of triangles (the slight shading to the right of all of these images is a result of the scanning process):
but then changes them to this (Little Red Riding Hood is represented by the red triangle):
Using tall rectangles that disappear off the edge of the page makes us feel that the trees are very tall and overbearing, giving a better sense of being in a threatening space. Placing some rectangles higher in the frame and making them narrower gives a feeling of depth to the image as the trees appear to recede. But upright trees are too static and reliable, which is at odds with the tension of the story, so to increase the feeling of tension she introduces some trees that lean and look as if they could fall on Red Riding Hood. Placing her inside the triangle formed by two trees also makes it look as if she’s trapped, even though we know rationally that she is situated further into the distance than this. She’s also been made smaller, to increase the sense of her vulnerability.
The book continues in this vein but this should be enough to give you the idea. Although the basic principles are all things we intuitively feel, it’s less usual for us to have a conscious understanding of why we feel as we do. I can see that having an awareness of these principles could be very useful in photography, perhaps a little less so for spontaneous shots, but definitely so for those that are planned ahead. It also offers a way of assessing photos we’ve already taken, to understand why they work or don’t work. It’s a very thin and deceptively simple book that actually delivers rather a lot.
The final, finished image, with the wolf in it, looks like this:
The key elements here are the trees as described before, the largeness of the wolf in relation to the smallness of Red Riding Hood, the red eye, the lolling red tongue, the sharp white pointed teeth, and the lilac background that gives the feeling of it being night, or at least ominously dark.
I thought it would be interesting to look on Amazon to see what existing book covers are like, and to see if they use similar means to get an effective illustration. I found the books fell roughly into two camps – the modern versions, mainly designed for very young children, had played down the scariness of the story, sometimes to a ridiculous extent. The wolf in the illustration below looks more like a big friendly dog than anything Red Riding Hood would want to run from:
Of course, this book is aimed at really young children who could end up having nightmares if things got too frightening. There are lots of variations available on the basic story, some of them telling it from the wolf’s perspective, some turning it into something funny, and some that are adult stories based on the original. You’d expect the covers to be quite different for each of these, and they are. Despite the fact that we consider fairy tales to be for young children, the original stories were often grisly and frightening. It’s been argued – by Bruno Bettelheim for one – that fairy stories help the child make sense of the world and cope with its own fears and baffling emotions, and that they have to deal with frightening and confusing scenarios to do this. Modern versions frequently take a Disney-esque approach that changes them into something they were never meant to be and removes a lot of their power.
However, some of the covers, even though still aimed at children, stay more true to the original intent of the fairy tale, and go for a scary, threatening feeling even where some ‘cuteness’ is still in evidence. In these covers we can see quite a number of the features of Molly Bang’s geometric shape image. This one has the trees disappearing off the top edge of the frame, some trees that lean, and the wolf hiding behind the trees, but I think it loses effectiveness because the wolf is quite small relative to the girl and actually not very noticeable.
Here’s another cover that contains a lot of the elements in Molly Bang’s image, but the wolf looks a tad too friendly to be really threatening, and Red Riding Hood doesn’t look particularly alarmed or concerned either. It looks more like a happy game of hide and seek than a scary story.
In both the above images, however, Red Riding Hood is facing the viewer. If we were to see her from the back, it would give a much greater feeling of threat – as if we’re sneaking up behind her, like the wolf is. Molly Bang uses a red triangle to denote Red Riding Hood so we don’t know for sure which way round she is, but for some reason I assumed we were seeing her from the back. Despite trawling through pages of book thumbnails, I could only find one cover that shows her from behind and it belongs to a book that tells the story from the wolf’s point of view. The wolf in this version is a decent sort, but imagine this cover if he had a hungry and predatory expression on his face.
Of the traditional versions of the story, I managed to find a couple that take a side-on view. This is one of them, and the change of viewpoint plus the fact that the wolf is made significantly bigger, delivers geater impact in terms of scariness than the ones where Red Riding Hood faces us. However, the colours are very gentle and pretty, and the trees rather manicured and orderly, and this works to tone down the frightening aspects of the story.
The next one omits the setting of the woods, but is probably one of the scariest images on offer. Many of the wolf’s features – open jaws, sharp white teeth – are similar to those used in Molly Bang’s image. The dominance of the colour red also imparts a feeling of danger, with its associations of blood, and the positioning of the wolf above the girl also helps.
One of the covers I like best, and find most effective, takes quite a different approach. In the following cover, all we have is an area of scribbled red, with a tiny Red Riding Hood running towards the corner edge of the image. I tend to like simplicity, so perhaps that’s why this appeals so much, but that scribble of red says a lot about danger to me, hanging over Red Riding Hood like a threatening storm cloud, with her tiny figure running for safety.
Finally, this image forms the cover of an adult take on the original fairy story. Again we have the tall trees disappearing off the top of the frame, with some leaning in threateningly towards Red Riding Hood. No wolf in this one, but look at the spiky branches sticking out from the trees – don’t they remind you of sharp teeth?
I got a lot more swept up in these comparisons than I thought I would, and it struck me what a good way it is of figuring out what works and what doesn’t in an image, and why. You could take any book of which there are a number of versions or editions and do something similar. I think there’s a lot to be learned from this that could be incorporated into our photographs. It was fascinating to see the same elements occurring again and again, but also to find covers like the red scribble one above that are quite different in concept. I wonder how minimalist you could get with this – what’s the least amount of information needed to get the emotion and, to a lesser extent the storyline, across?
I don’t read so many new books these days as I used to, because I spend quite a bit of my reading time revisiting books I’ve read before. Most recently I’ve been re-reading Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit. It’s a terrific book, rich with good advice and insight and I find something different in it every time.
Early in the book Tharp lists her own creative fears. We all have an assortment of these, and I knew I had them too, but I hadn’t clearly articulated them to myself and it struck me that this might be a worthwhile exercise. Then I thought that it might also be good to share them, because it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that everyone else is super-confident and it’s only ourselves that are shriveling up inside. So here goes – I’ll share my fears with you, and if you feel brave enough, maybe you’ll share yours with me in the comments.
Fear number 1: I’m deluding myself.
This is a big one for me – I think about all those people on X Factor who truly believe they can sing and have talent when in fact people are actually laughing at them because they’re so bad. Whenever a little fin of pride shimmies around inside, I get this awful thought that perhaps I’m deluding myself, perhaps – horrors! – people are amused that I think I can actually do this (whatever it is).
It’s a bit of a twist on imposter syndrome (feeling like a fraud, and that any day now people will discover that’s just what you are), but imposter syndrome is about feeling you’re fooling others, while mine is more about feeling that I’m fooling myself and that others aren’t fooled in the slightest. I find that a whole lot scarier.
Oddly, imposter syndrome doesn’t worry me so much – I’m a big fan of the ‘fake it till you make it’ school and there have been plenty of times in my life when I’ve had to wing it and have pulled it off. I know I pick things up fast and improve fast, so I also know I’ll actually be what I appear to be, given a little time and experience. We’ve all got to start somewhere.
It’s fear of self-delusion that stops me entering photography competitions or putting my work forward in any way that invites judgement. Although I have moments of it in all areas of my creative life, the fear is strongest in the areas where there’s least chance of objective feedback. There are methods of assessing art in a relatively objective way, but it’s fundamentally a subjective thing and so I don’t know how seriously to take criticism or praise. In the end, it’s up to me to decide whether or not my work has merit and I don’t entirely trust myself.
I think anyone who practises an art in any serious way has to be both supremely confident in their work (or they wouldn’t be able to keep going), and also full of doubts about it (or they might fall into the self-delusion trap). I’m comforted by this quote from the art critic, Robert Hughes:
‘The greater the artist, the greater the doubt. Perfect confidence is granted to the less talented as a consolation prize.’
And Bertrand Russell:
‘The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.’
Of course the mere act of doubting doesn’t mean you’re any good, but I guess it does mean that you’re less likely to suffer from self-delusion. Strange that doubt can be so reassuring.
Fear number 2: tall poppy syndrome.
Once I get past the fear of self-delusion, fear of tall poppy syndrome kicks in. The expression refers to ‘a social phenomenon in which people of genuine merit are resented, attacked, cut down, or criticised because their talents or achievements elevate them above or distinguish them from their peers.’ (Wikipedia)
While looking for quotes for a previous blog post, I came across this poem by Jane Taylor which encapsulates the rather petty sentiments of those who would cut down the tall poppy (or in Taylor’s case, all poppies):
High on a bright and sunny bed
A scarlet poppy grew
And up it held its staring head,
And thrust it full in view.
Yet no attention did it win,
By all these efforts made,
And less unwelcome had it been
In some retired shade.
Although within its scarlet breast
No sweet perfume was found,
It seemed to think itself the best
Of all the flowers round,
From this I may a hint obtain
And take great care indeed,
Lest I appear as pert and vain
As does this gaudy weed.
Well that puts it in its place, doesn’t it!! All those poppies should just crawl right back into the soil they came from lest they offend anyone by daring to think they’re worth attention!
I’ve never been successful enough to have suffered from tall poppy syndrome, but I’d like to be. Successful, that is, not a target of it. But in the lower recesses of my mind I think that if I become too noticeable then people will attack me, criticise me, or otherwise try to bring me down. I know exactly where this one comes from – if I got noticed as a child (primarily by my mother) it inevitably led to one or more of these, so I kept my head down and made myself invisible, and the habit has stuck.
This is one fear I simply have to ignore. I know it’s inevitable that the more visible you are, the more likely you are to attract the trolls, but continuing to hide is not a solution. Authentically putting yourself out there is always going to be scary, but it’s so much more worthwhile than becoming what Billy Connolly refers to as a ‘beige person’ – somebody who blends in so well that nothing distinguishes them or makes them interesting. He should know – he has a purple beard and is absolutely and totally himself at all times.
Fear number 3: people won’t want what I have to offer.
Happiness – No Entry sign – image by byronv2, used under Creative Commons licence, via Flickr
This is quite a biggie, as well, and something I’ve given into till recently. I tend to offer the kind of services that I think people will want, rather than what truly comes from my heart and soul. It doesn’t help that a lot of marketing advice tells you to do exactly this: find out what people want, and then give it to them. And how do you find out? – you ask them.
However, I think that often people don’t know what they want and that perhaps you can offer them something they didn’t know they wanted until you offered it to them. I often find I’m a year or two ahead of the norm – many years ago when I wrote my ebook I had to explain to just about everyone what ebooks were – and what seems suspiciously different now is what everyone’s going to want in due course, so why not go ahead and get in there first? Besides, by the time it’s the norm I’ll probably have lost interest and be onto something else.
It’s difficult to answer this one. I’m not sure why I don’t just get on with it. There are a number of negative thoughts that twist together in small strands to form the thick and sturdy rope of negativity that pulls me back – I’m not sure how to position myself in the market; I’m not sure how to explain or label what I want to do; I find it hard to handle the look of doubt on people’s faces when I explain what I want to do; I have to explain it for them to get it; I don’t know how to explain it for them to get it; I don’t know how to find the people who’ll want it; I’m scared no-one actually will want it; I’m scared of the pain of disappointment.
It’s the last one that has most emotional force. If you never try anything you won’t be disappointed and you can hold onto the hope that it would all work out if you gave it a try, rather than having to deal with the wrench of disappointment when it doesn’t. But I’ve been disappointed before. My life has been full of disappointments and I’ve survived. I’m still here, I’m still breathing, and I’m still doing things. And not everything turns out to be disappointing – heavens, sometimes things actually go well. So why should this fear be so strong? I don’t know, but it runs through me like the lettering in a stick of seaside rock. I have to get over it, that’s for sure.
I have lots more fears but none so disempowering as these ones. I think I’ll hold back on the rest in case you’re already thinking that I’m a bundle of fear-induced neuroses. (You’d be right, but I’d rather you didn’t think that.) Are you willing to reveal what scares you when it comes to putting your creative dreams into practice? – let’s share the fears and take their power away.
Blossom through the bathroom window – one morning’s discovery
You might know that I’ve been doing the 12 x 12 photo challenges for the last couple of months. I’ve completed two of them, and the third is coming to an end now and, after a bit of thought, I’ve decided not to do this one. Before I go into why, let me give you a bit of background. The third challenge goes like this:
Build something with the intention of photographing it. After you have photographed it disassemble whatever it is that you created.
— Dan Winters
Dan adds…“Create whatever type of object that you want. It could be as ambitious as a house or as simple as a house of cards. The photographs will be the evidence of your efforts.”
My mind began busying itself with the possibilities, and there were many of them. I wasn’t short of ideas. My first thought was something along the lines of Andy Goldsworthy’s work – for those of you not familiar with him, he creates wonderful structures, usually in wild places, made out of natural materials like brightly coloured flowers, icicles, leaves, mud, pinecones, snow, stone, twigs, and thorns. He photographs them, and then they’re left to decay, melt, be blown apart, or drift away. His work is transient, and very lovely.
I had plenty of other ideas as well, from building something from coloured ice cubes and watching it melt, to making a drawing with watercolour pencils and then spraying it with water to dissolve it, to building a sandcastle and watching the sea take it away.
After a while, though, I felt a definite lack of enthusiasm when it came to making any of these projects actually happen. And then I began to think about why that was. Here it is: I’m a discoverer, not a designer. I like to stumble on subjects and allow them to present themselves to me. I’m not so good with creating things from scratch, or with planning, except in a very loose sort of way.
Twyla Tharp, in her book The Creative Habit, talks about the blank page, the empty room, the white canvas, and how every artist of any kind is constantly presented with the daunting challenge of making the first mark or its equivalent. My immediate thought was that photography is possibly the one art where you don’t have to face the blankness unless you choose to. There’s always something there to make a photograph from, and it’s only a question of being open to noticing it.
For me, this has always felt easy. My brand of creativity lies in building on something that’s already there. When I cook, I like to have a recipe to give me a kick start, but the end result will be my own take on the original and is often very different. And I’ve always loved programmes about makeovers, because I delight in the idea of taking something unpromising and doing something wonderful with it.
This is one reason why contemplative photography suits me so well – it simply asks you to be open to what’s there and to see it in a new way. (I do also like to transform what’s there into something different, which is not really part of contemplative photography – but then I treat the contemplative approach like I treat a recipe: take from it whatever I find useful, and play around with the mix.)
There are numbers of photographers who take the opposite approach and go in for meticulous planning. People like Gregory Crewdson, for example, who builds the most elaborate sets and lighting to produce haunting, unnerving tableaus that require a whole film set full of people to produce. And Ori Gerscht – who would have fitted perfectly into this 12 x 12 challenge – who cryo-freezes elaborate flower arrangements, blows them up, and photographs the resulting gorgeous explosions. These photographers are designers, not discoverers, and I really like their work but I’ve got no desire to emulate how they do it.
Twyla Tharp also talks about what she calls our ‘creative DNA’ – a creative style of our own that’s intrinsic to us and comes easily to us. We can work in other ways, and it can be good for us to do that, but our work is never going to be as strong and effective as it will be if it’s aligned with our authentic creative instincts.
For me, the planning involved in coming up with an idea and building it from nothing takes away what I most enjoy about photography. The fun for me lies in discovery and serendipity – it’s like a treasure hunt, where I go out never quite knowing what I’m going to get. I lost my enjoyment of photography once before, when I was in a learning environment that was taking away the aspects of it that gave me pleasure and forcing me to work in ways that didn’t. I don’t want to go there again. Being a designer isn’t for me, and that’s why I’m not doing this month’s challenge.