Justine Musk is talking about writing in this quote, but it applies equally well to photography.
Let yourself gravitate to the writers who attract you, pull you in, because their work is showing you something of yourself. Let yourself imitate them, until you notice those spaces where you can’t help but do something different. In those spaces, you start to make your own voice.
Sometimes we try so hard not to imitate other people that we leave ourselves nowhere to go – better to trust that in the imitation there will be spaces where our own voice insists on making itself known, and that if you’re drawn to someone’s work it’s because something of it already exists within you.
There’s a wonderful beach at Talacre, in North Wales. Unfortunately it’s somewhat spoiled by the tacky caravan sites that line its edges for miles, but it’s big and beautiful enough to survive this. At this time of year, there aren’t many holidaymakers and most people are there to walk and enjoy the open expanses. One of the most photographed landmarks on this stretch of coast is the old lighthouse and the kind of shots you see are pretty similar to the one above (of course, many are lots better than this one, but all quite similar – interesting sky/sunset/sunrise, open stretch of beach, romantic lighthouse, etc). I’ve been pondering the problem of photographing cliches for the past few years and have a few thoughts that I’d like to share with you here.
-It’s all been done before (but not by you). Of course it’s all been done before – there really isn’t anything new under the sun and no matter how original you think you are, somebody somewhere will be doing something similar. This is especially true if you’re photographing something that’s hugely popular, whether because it’s a well-known landmark or just a popular subject, like flowers. But the point is, you haven’t done it yet and you probably need to if only to get it out of your system. Even if your image is no different or better than a million others, it was you who took it and you who have the experience and memory of being there. It may not mean much to anyone else, but it has meaning for you and that really is enough to justify it (not that you should have to). And more importantly, if we weren’t allowed to do anything that’s been done before, we wouldn’t be able to do anything much at all.
-It’s been done before but you might be able to bring something new to the party. Two people can take the same shot, but it will be different – you’ll never take exactly the same shot as someone else even if you try. There are instances where you might come close – one of these happened when I took a shot of an old window in Italy, and then came across someone online who’d taken the – almost – identical shot. We used pretty much identical composition and framing, but her shot had more leaves on the vine surrounding the window and my shot had more interesting lighting. The same, but not the same. As it turned out – we’re now friends – we think and see very similarly. But this is quite unusual – most of the time, if you put six photographers in front of the same scene, you’ll get six very different images. The extent of these differences tends to reflect the extent of the group’s creativity, so in a group of beginners there’s likely to be more homogeneity than in a group of experienced photographers. But I’ve taught enough beginners to have seen that even people starting out will produce very different interpretations of the same subject matter. You do have something to bring to the party.
– You usually need to do the cliched shots before you can hope for anything better. Only a tiny number of us can jump straight to being inventive and creative, and I expect even these people reject a lot of their early attempts. Just as a writer wouldn’t expect to get a finished piece of work down at first go, and would write a rough draft that gets more and more refined with each edit, our first shots are likely to be ordinary and uninteresting. Keep going, though, keep shooting, and eventually you’ll leave the obvious behind. What happens is that you run out of ideas quite quickly and then you have to let something else take over. The ‘something else’ is what’s going to give you what you want – boredom often leads to creativity.
– When it comes to cliches for subjects, there are basically two ways of tackling things. Once you’ve got the obvious shots out of the way, the first – and what usually feels like the easiest – is to look for something unusual or interesting or different. The photos that follow are like this. The strange cyberman-like figure on the lighthouse balcony was an obvious choice. It leads to an image that’s interesting because it shows something unusual, rather than because of any particular cleverness on the photographer’s part. It’s the content that makes this work.
The next few are similar. A number of roses had been carefully placed around the concrete base of the lighthouse, and there was a rose at each side of the door – one red, one yellow – flanking a small glittery candle. Some kind of ritual or ceremony? I don’t know, but it was intriguing. Again, any interest these images have is because of the unusual juxtaposition of roses and lighthouse and doesn’t have a lot to do with the photographer.
Looking back down the lighthouse steps towards the beach produces a reasonably interesting shot because of its unusual angle and the contrast of the seaweed covered rocks with the sand surrounding it, but it’s without depth or emotion. There’s not much I can get excited about in this shot.
This one, I feel, is slightly better and has more of me in it. I liked the way both the lighthouse and the post act as signs and echo each other.
– The second approach is less easy. You let yourself be guided by what draws you and what inspires you, regardless of whether it’s a new idea or not. The hope is that something a little different will come out of it, but if it doesn’t you at least have the compensation of having had a great time taking the shots. What immediately grabbed me when we walked onto the beach were the reflections in the seawater pools. What I really liked was the ambiguity of the crystal clear lighthouse reflections mixed with the sand ripples and pebbles in the pool. These are the shots that make me happy regardless of what anyone else thinks about them. These are the shots that I got so excited about I couldn’t be pulled away. I don’t think they’re all that original – puddle reflections are a cliche in themselves – but it seems to me that they have something of ‘me’ in them that the other shots don’t, and that’s a result.
I often find that books I read on subjects other than photography are more helpful to me than books that are directly about it. One I go back to frequently is ‘Impro’ by Keith Johnstone, which is about theatrical improvisation. I have little or no interest in theatrical improvisation itself, but what fascinates me about the content is how easily it can be applied to any aspect of life, including photography.
One of the most interesting sections is on spontaneity and originality. As artists, we all aspire to be original but so much of the time our work is lacking in it. Johnstone’s view is that the more we strive to be original, the more likely we are to fail, and that’s usually because it leads us to constantly censor how we respond. When he teaches students to come up with successful improvisations, he asks them to do or say the very first thing that comes into their heads. When they do this the improvisation works but when they hesitate slightly and substitute something they think is more acceptable or more interesting or more original, it kills the whole thing. We all know how it feels to see someone try too hard – it’s never effective.
The worst possible thing improvisers can do, according to Johnstone, is to make a deliberate effort to be original. This always falls flat anyway, and usually they think they’re being original when in fact their ‘originality’ is the same as everyone else’s – a bit like punks rebelling against authority and the pressure to conform, but all doing it in the same way so that it becomes just a different way of conforming. ‘I gave up asking London audiences to suggest where scenes should take place’, says Johnstone, ‘Some idiot would always shout out either “Leicester Square public lavatories” or “outside Buckingham Palace”. People trying to be original always arrive at the same boring old answers‘.
Thinking too much before you shoot is a certain way to produce photographer’s block. For a while, due to some tactlessly delivered criticism from a tutor, I kept hearing the word ‘trite’ in my head every time I went to take a shot. No doubt most – perhaps all – of the resulting images would have been trite, but to censor myself like this meant I froze so much I couldn’t take anything at all. And maybe, just maybe, had I let myself take without judgement what presented itself to me then there may have appeared the germ of a good idea in there. And even if it hadn’t, if I’d continued to shoot for long enough then the odds would have got higher that something would appear – creativity can often be a numbers game. The first shots anyone takes are frequently trite and obvious, but if they do what’s obvious and get it out of the way, they make space for something more interesting to develop.
Johnstone emphasises that there are two points to consider here. The first is that we must let go of that hesitation, that self-censorship, and allow the first impulse to emerge even if we think it’s too obvious or too dull. The second is that when we do this, what starts out as objectively obvious and dull can actually become original and intriguing to others in no time at all. It still feels obvious to the person doing it, but they’ve moved away from the obviousness that comes from conformity, to the uniquely obvious that comes from deep within them. ‘An artist who is inspired is being obvious’, says Johnstone, ‘He’s not making any decisions, he’s not weighing one idea against another. He’s accepting his first thoughts.’ Johnstone goes on to say: ‘No two people are exactly alike, and the more obvious an improvisor is, the more himself he appears’.
When we’re inspired, we’re being truly ourselves. This sounds easy but is one of the hardest things to achieve and most of us never manage it. I think that’s why great artists often appear a little crazy or eccentric or just very different to the rest of us, who’re too busy trying to appear sane to other people to allow our real thoughts and feelings to emerge. Being ourselves means ignoring the influence of what we think is acceptable, or clever, or on trend, and allowing our own uniqueness to emerge. Since we’ve been trained since babyhood not to let this happen, it’s pretty difficult for most of us to reverse the process. It can also make us feel extremely vulnerable, and that’s scary.
To a very few, this comes more easily. People like Mozart and Van Gogh weren’t trying to be original, they were just being themselves. Mozart had some success in material terms, while Van Gogh struggled in poverty, but both of them were doing what seemed ‘obvious’ to them. Van Gogh probably had one of the most original visions in art history, but he wasn’t trying to be original – he simply did what presented itself to him without self-censoring. And he didn’t realise his unique vision overnight – much of his early work is quite dull and poorly executed.
Mozart wasn’t trying to be original either – he said:
‘Why my productions take from my hand that particular form and style that makes them Mozartish, and different from the works of other composers, is probably owing to the same cause that renders my nose so large or so aquiline, or in short, makes it Mozart’s, and different from other people. For I really do not study or aim at any originality.’
If we allow our fear of being dull and unoriginal, or our awareness of other people’s opinions, or our own self-censorship to stop us doing what might seem ordinary and obvious, then we could be smothering our creativity at its very source. We need to give ourselves permission to be boringly obvious, in order to cultivate the ability to be obvious in our own unique way.
Photographers call it ‘working a scene’ –
keep going, move past the obvious shots, and you will eventually come up with something more interesting
In You’re More Creative Than You Think You Are John Paul Caponigro shows how you can create a synergy between skills you already have (writing, drawing, photography) to turbo charge your creativity. If you aren’t already familiar with Caponigro’s work, do have a look at his website – it’s well worth it.
It was one of those days when I didn’t even want to take my camera along for the walk. The kind I’ve been talking about recently – grey, hazy, flatly-lit. I took it anyway, thinking that I’m always saying to people that you can find good shots anywhere, any time of day, any weather – you only have to be open to looking. I decided it was about time I took my own advice.
At first it just wasn’t working. I took a few shots, half-heartedly, not being happy with any of them. I came to the estuary shore; everything looked flat, dull and uninviting. In desperation I started out across the marshes, picking my way towards the large and permanent puddles, hoping I might find something there. I had to cross over a drainage ditch and as I looked down, I noticed that someone had spilt some oil or petrol in it. Something stirred, and I had a vision of what I could do with the colours and textures.
Many shots later, and after much Photoshopping, this is the result. They truly have been heavily Photoshopped*, which some little bit of me feels is cheating, but is it really? Especially as I took the shots with the post-processing in mind. I knew they’d need a lot of work to look the way I had visualised them at the time, but I also recognised the potential. They’ve turned out better than I hoped; like clouds, I see pictures in them and have named them accordingly. Perhaps you see something different…….
*In case you’re curious, processing included doubling or even tripling layers and using various blending modes, hue saturation of individual colours, small amounts of cloning, cropping, and rotating or flipping.
I’ve just been reading The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner. It’s about which countries are happiest – and unhappiest – and why that is. Surprisingly – to me, at any rate – one of the happiest countries in the world is Iceland, which is up near the top of the league table in these things, despite spending half the year in almost total darkness.
When I visited there several years ago, they certainly seemed like happy people. We took an unauthorised trip into the interior – unauthorised because our hire car wasn’t insured to go there. The ‘road’ was literally made up of rubble and you could only drive at 5mph if you didn’t want to be shaken up like a James Bond cocktail. That was the good bit. Once you left the main road, all bets were off and you could end up having to drive through small rivers and other less pleasant natural hazards. Every so often we’d see a coach juddering along the roads, looking totally unexpected and out of place. At one point we saw one stuck in the mud; a party of schoolchildren were at the back of the coach, pushing it, and we had to stop while they got on with it. One of the accompanying teachers came over to our car and told us, mischief in her eyes, that the coach wasn’t really stuck at all and that they were just teasing the children. She laughed enthusiastically at this very good joke and waved goodbye. Well you wouldn’t get that happening in the UK, would you? Heavens, just think of the health and safety issues.
So it’s always seemed to me that the Icelanders are quite a jolly lot. But why? Well, Weiner has some theories on this and a lot of them revolve around the Icelandic culture. For a start, Icelanders love their language – they just love it to bits. They love it like the French love theirs, but without getting all precious about it as the French are wont to do. Weiner says ‘everything wise and wonderful about this quirky little nation flows from its language’ and to the Icelanders their language is a great source of joy. Any time there’s a new invention, they don’t import the foreign word for it but find a way of expressing it in their own Viking tongue. So a television is a ‘sight caster’ and an intercontinental ballistic missile is called a ‘long distance fiery flying thing’. But one of the best things about the language is that instead of saying ‘hello’ they say the equivalent of ‘come happy’ and when they say goodbye they say ‘go happy’. That might be enough on its own to explain a few things.
Anyway, I’m taking a long time getting round to the most interesting bit, which is that Iceland is one of the most creative places you’re ever likely to come across. Everyone writes, for a start – everyone – and there’s a real creative vibe throughout the island that extends to all the arts. Weiner asked a native why he thought the place was so seething with creativity compared to most other places on the planet, and it seems we could learn something useful from the answers. The first is that, in Iceland, people don’t suffer from creative envy. They don’t try to keep their discoveries and innovations to themselves but share freely with each other, so that each can build on what the others have discovered. In other words, instead of competing they share, and this is a very different attitude from most other places. This was also true of turn-of-the-century Paris, says Weiner, which was another hotbed of immense creativity. In a different context this attitude is often found on the web, where open-source software is produced by people collaborating and working together and has led to some extremely creative programmes being produced. There are also amazing sites like Wikipedia, which is a project that relies on free sharing of knowledge. Unfortunately it doesn’t work this way in most cultures and people are more likely to defend their own little patch against anyone who might want to ‘steal’ it from them.
So that’s one thing; what else? Well, they admire failure. More specifically, what’s admired is trying and getting out there and having a go even if you’re not much good. If you’re an Icelandic teenager, you can expect your parents to be supportive when you want to start a garage band. Everyone is encouraged to do whatever they want to do and not criticised if it doesn’t quite work out. “There’s nobody on the island telling them they’re not good enough, so they just go ahead and sing and paint and write”, says Weiner. Of course, he admits, they produce a lot of crap, but as he also says:
“….crap plays an important role in the art world. In fact, it plays exactly the same role as it does in the farming world. It’s fertiliser. The crap allows the good stuff to grow. You can’t have one without the other. Now, to be sure, you don’t want to see crap framed at an art gallery, any more than you want to see a pound of fertiliser sitting in the produce section of your local grocery store. But still, crap is important.”
In most other cultures you’re discouraged from doing anything creative unless you show signs of talent right from the start, and you’re certainly not encouraged to keep doing it if you’re no good at it. So we end up with a culture where people are more likely to listen to music than play an instrument or sing, or to look at and criticise art rather than pick up a brush and paint. We’ve become a nation where most people are observers and consumers of creative end products, rather than creators themselves and therefore miss out on the joy that comes from expressing themselves through the arts.
People in Iceland love doing creative things – and who wouldn’t if they were constantly encouraged, weren’t worried about being criticised, and there was an ethos of sharing and supporting each other? Iceland puts to rest once and for all the myth of the unhappy, struggling artist and replaces it with one in which everyone can be creative and have a high old time. It’s beginning to sound quite enticing, isn’t it? Add in a few other things, like a community small enough to establish strong connections but big enough to be interesting; swimming in naturally heated, geothermal pools with the snow softly falling around you; geysirs, bubbling mud, and some of the most gobsmacking waterfalls you’ve ever seen; and the Icelandic tolerance for different ideas and philosophies, and I’m rather tempted to go and book my plane ticket right now………I’m just not sure I could ever cope with six months of darkness.
We visited Charleston Farmhouse, in Sussex, a week or so ago. This was the home of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, who were part of the Bloomsbury group of artists and writers, which included people such as Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster.
Inside, the house is large and rambling, and just about everything has been crafted and decorated by its inhabitants. The interior is fundamentally quite shabby, but every surface – walls, floors, fireplaces, furniture – has been decoratively painted. The furniture is a motley collection of different styles but it’s been covered with decorative designs, and old chairs were re-upholstered with hand painted textiles. Lampshades are made out of pottery and attached to the ceiling with wires in a Heath-Robinson-ish sort of way. Every inch of the place displays the creativity of its inhabitants. Paintings – their own and others – cover the walls, and one room is lined with old books.
It was a place where artists and writers came to stay, to sit by open fires and talk of life and ideas late into the night, and to relax, play and paint in the walled garden and grounds.
What struck me most was what an idyllic life it seemed to be. They did have some money problems – although coming from a fairly gentrified background this was all relative – but they used their creativity to make a wonderful, welcoming home out of what must have been a rather scruffy old farmhouse. Instead of employing interior designers, or buying expensive furniture, they used their own skills and talents to create one of the most individual places I’ve ever seen. And they pretty much did whatever they wanted to do there – painting, writing, creating, talking.
They also made a stunningly lovely walled garden. Walking into it through the door in the wall takes you into a magical space – it’s criss-crossed by narrow paths which are almost hidden by the luxurious spilling over of vividly coloured flowers and plants. In many places the plants grow up to shoulder-height so that you only see the bit of the garden you’re in and the rest becomes an intriguing mystery. It was:
“a summer garden for playing and painting, an enchanted retreat from London life. As Vanessa Bell wrote in 1936, “The house seems full of young people in very high spirits, laughing a great deal at their own jokes… lying about in the garden which is simply a dithering blaze of flowers and butterflies and apples.”
I love that phrase ‘dithering blaze’, don’t you? It sums it up entirely – a cottage garden of the best kind, an untidy abundance of everything summer has to offer.
I’m sure it wasn’t quite as idyllic as it looks to us now, but I love the idea that these people created the kind of life they wanted, doing what was important to them, following their passions, and making a life where being creative wasn’t a thing apart, but spilled over into every area of their lives.
Unfortunately, photography isn’t allowed inside the house, and the garden was so full of people on the sunny August Sunday when we went, that photography on anything other than a fairly small scale was almost impossible. However, I did manage to get these small vignettes that I hope give a little flavour of how it was.
I love books; I’ve always loved books, with a passion. I read all the time and can easily get through a book in a day (and do other things as well). But as much as I love the content of books, what I like equally much is their physicality – I love the weight of them in my hand, the lovely squared-off heft of them. I love the way they smell: every book smells different and each one is enticing in its own way. I love the feel of the pages, whether they’re tissue-thin or thick as card; matt, or smooth and glossy. I love shiny new books, for their perfect edges and untouched quality, and I love old, tattered books, for their faded covers and soft, much-handled, pages. (Kindle, eat your heart out)
So perhaps it’s not surprising that I’ve had a yearning to make my own books for some time now. Eventually I’d like to combine my photography projects with hand-made books so that I could create beautiful, individual works of art with each element enhancing the other.
That’s for the future, and you’ve got to start somewhere. I haven’t made it to a book-binding class yet but I have made my first ever book. I know it’s not perfect, and it doesn’t have any of my photos in it, but I made it and I’m proud of it.
The backstory is this: it was Geoff’s 50th birthday in March and I wanted to do something special for him. I didn’t have much money so it had to be something that was meaningful but didn’t cost much. So I came up with the idea of making a small book called ’50 Things I Love About You’ – one for every year of his life. I themed it around rabbits because he adores rabbits. I had a lot of fun putting it together, although it was more time-consuming and challenging than I thought it would be.
I made the pages out of cream luggage labels from Paperchase, and each page was decorated with pieces of rabbit confetti (found on ebay), painstakingly glued on, one by one. I managed to find a phone charm in the shape of a rabbit, and then I found a key with a little tag with ‘My heart’ on it on a card-making site. The other components were things I either had lying around the house or found in a card-making supply shop. And on every page, I wrote one, two or three things that I love about him. (The first 30 or so were easy; the next ten were more difficult; and by the time I got into the 40s I was having to think very hard indeed – and wishing he was a lot younger.)
It didn’t work out quite as I had hoped. The luggage labels seemed like a good idea at the time, but they had metal eyelets in the holes and when they were piled up together they became much thicker at one end than I’d anticipated, and that required a complete rethink about how I was going to hold everything together. There were other problems too, but I got it to work well enough in the end.
That all happened back in March so why am I bringing it up now? Well today I got delivery of the most gorgeous book called ‘Book + Art: handcrafting artist’s books’. It’s full of stunning and inspiring artist’s books, plus just enough of the practical how-to stuff on binding to be useful without being boring. (Rather appropriately,I bought it using an Amazon voucher I was given for my own birthday.) I’ve only flipped through it so far, but it’s fired me up already and I’ve realised this is something I so want to do. Combining my love of photography and my love of books just has to be the way to go.
And, oh yes, in case you’re itching to know: did he like it? Well, I did have to pass the tissues so I think the answer’s ‘yes’.
Danny Gregory, in his book The Creative Licence, says that if you want know how successful you are creatively, don’t look at how much money you earn, or what people say about your work. Instead, ask yourself these four questions:
Did you express yourself?
Did you have fun?
Did you learn something?
Did you see?
He’s talking about drawing, but it applies equally well to photography. Sometimes we forget that art is not just about the finished product – in fact, you’re still engaged in making art even if it all goes wrong and there is no finished product. While it’s good to see a result for your efforts, the process of doing it is at least equally important – it’s the act of creation that counts. If we only engaged in art in order to produce a product, then art would turn into a job. And while it might be a very enjoyable job, it probably wouldn’t satisfy that thing in you that got you interested in the first place.
Did you express yourself?
Does your photograph express what you felt when you took it? Does it bring out similar emotions in the viewer as it did in you when you took it? Does it show the scene/event in the way that you saw it? Does it say what you want it to say? If it does, then reward yourself with chocolate – you’ve done well.
The photograph at the top is far from perfect, but for me it expresses the feeling I wanted to capture of walking home through town on a wet winter’s night.
We went kite flying, had a lot of fun, and I got this!
Did you have fun?
This is the question that most often gets neglected. Remind yourself why you took up photography – I’ll bet it was because you enjoyed it, it was a lot of fun. The trouble is, once you get serious about doing something the fun often starts leaking out of it. It doesn’t have to, but we get all adult about it and start beating ourselves up when it doesn’t work out the way we’d hoped. Watch a young child in the act of creating – they don’t worry about the end product, they just have fun doing it. And if a child didn’t have fun painting or drawing or making something out of matchsticks, then s/he wouldn’t do it. Remember that; fun is important
And yes, I know there are times when it’s not fun but you have to persevere anyway because you’re not a child anymore and the end result is worth the angst. Nobody’s saying it’s going to be fun all the time – just make sure it’s fun at least some of the time. OK?
Did you learn something?
If you didn’t manage to express yourself effectively, and you didn’t even have fun doing it, then maybe at least you learned something. Maybe you made what looked like a mistake but actually resulted in a cool new effect. Maybe you just made a lot of mistakes – but now you know what not to do next time, don’t you? Don’t be too quick to delete your mistakes either; I’ve had bad shooting days where I haven’t liked anything I’ve taken, but when I’ve revisited later I can see that there are some fine shots there that I didn’t notice because of my negative mood.
Before I took up photography, I never would have looked closely enough to notice the reflection in this orb.
Did you see?
Did you begin to see things in a new way? Photography is a fantastic pursuit for getting you to look at things differently and to see interesting things where once you thought it was all terribly boring. If you saw something in a different way, even if you didn’t manage to capture it in your camera, then you’ve gained something very valuable from the experience. If all that photography ever did for you was to make you really see the world, it would be worth it for that alone.
Sometimes it happens that we can say a big ‘yes’ to all of these questions: those are the best of days. Sometimes we can only say ‘yes’ to two or three of them – that’s good too. Even if we only say ‘yes’ to one of them, we can count that as a success. So stop criticising the photographs you end up with, and start asking yourself these questions instead – they’re a better measure of true success.
Can you think of any other questions it would be good to ask yourself?