inspiration

A photographer’s miscellany

Swan reflection, River Trent, NewarkSwan on the River Trent

Another collection of interesting links I’ve come across lately.  No linking theme, not all photography – just anything that caught my interest or my eye.

On Being an Unemployed Arts GraduateThe unemployment of arts graduates is shameful and unnecessary because culture has answers and highly useful consolations to the urgent dilemmas of real people. We just need to get these insights out, package them properly, and commercialise them adequately, so that the armies of people currently serving coffee can put their minds to proper use.” The humanities are a ‘a storehouse of vitally important knowledge about how to lead our lives‘ and instead of universities consisting of departments like History or Literature, they should have instead ‘a Department for Relationships, an Institute of Dying and a Centre for Self-Knowledge’.  An interesting take on how the arts should be put to use to benefit society.

The Book Barge – one of my recurring daydreams has been to kit out a narrowboat as a bookshop and spend my life touring round the canals selling books.  This lady has actually done it.

Michael Pederson’s street art – humorous signs that make you think.

Embracing the night – Jeanette Winterson, writing in the Guardian on why winter darkness is to be welcomed rather than dreaded.

Creative photography ideas – a lot of these are mixed media and most are very ‘studenty’, but for all that there are some very fresh and interesting ideas here that could be taken and adapted.

Technicolour landscape paintings – just roads and telegraph poles, but the colours are wonderful.  Impossible not to smile when you look at these.

Natural media – the rise of ecologically sound advertising that uses natural materials like water, sand, snow, moss, grass, chalk, and milk paint to communicate its message.

Living under a rock – the astonishing Spanish town of  Setenil de las Bodegas, where the buildings huddle underneath huge slabs of overhanging rock.

The Art of Homemaking in a Dugout – a different take on life in the trenches during WW1.  Photos showing how soldiers (although just the officers, I should think) domesticated and decorated their dugouts.

Philip J Brittan – some very unusual and colourful landscape photography.  Won’t be everybody’s cup of tea, but it shows how there’s still plenty of room for a different take on landscape.

6 Photographers Invited to Photograph One Man – In an experiment carried out by Canon, half a dozen photographers were invited to capture a portrait of a man called Michael.  “On the day of the photoshoot, each artist was told something different about this man. Each photographer was given a different backstory for Michael, being told he’s one of the following: a commercial fisherman, a self-made millionaire, a recovering alcoholic, a man who’s saved a life, an ex-inmate, or a self-proclaimed psychic. In reality, Michael is an actor who took on each of these roles in alignment with what was told to the respective photographer.”  The resulting images are fascinating and show just how much a photograph is shaped by the person behind the camera, as well as by what’s in front of it.

More ‘little people’ photos from Tatsuya Tanaka – some highlights from the miniature worlds created for Tanaka’s Miniature Calendar project.

Finally, just for fun and to bring a smile:

A trip to the spa

Stand-off

 

The dark side

Pilgrim sculpture by Helen Whittaker, Beverley Minster

For the psychologists among us

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.

 

 

To the lighthouse – photographing cliches

Talacre Lighthouse

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.

Metallic man, Talacre Lighthouse

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.

Yellow roses, Talacre Lighthouse

Yellow rose, Talacre Lighthouse

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.

Steps, Talacre Lighthouse

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.

Signpost, Talacre beach

– 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.

Reflection 1, Talacre Lighthouse

Reflection 3, Talacre Lighthouse

Reflection 2, Talacre Lighthouse

 

 

The future really isn’t orange

Orange headlight

My photographic mojo’s been missing for quite a while, and although I’ve now got it back, I’m still pondering something that bothered me a lot during the time it went AWOL.  One of the reasons I felt no interest in carrying my camera around with me was that I kept asking myself what I was photographing for?  If it wasn’t to display the images in some way, or be part of an assignment or a commission, or to have some kind of ultimate purpose, then why was I doing it?  A while ago I would have answered that it was the process itself that was the thing, and I still stand by that, but lately I’ve been feeling the need for it also to have some kind of purpose.

I’ve got so used to working in themes and creating bodies of work for assignments, that I’ve mostly lost interest in the one-hit-wonder style of photography – you know, where you take a great shot but it stands entirely on its own without any relation to anything else you’ve taken.  I’ve got to the point now where I have lots of photographs of most types of things and I ask myself if I really need another macro flower shot.  But if that flower macro was designed to be part of a series, then it becomes greater than the sum of the parts and a lot more interesting.  This is quite a radical change in how I used to think, and I guess it’s one that every photographer reaches at some stage in their career.

This is all fine and dandy, but the trouble is that it takes away a bit from the simple pleasure of wandering around and shooting whatever comes up.  I do sometimes think that increased sophistication – in any field – has its own rewards but also leads to a certain loss of sheer and simple pleasure.  When I started drinking wine in my teens, I thought Liebfraumilch and Lambrusco were wonderful; now I really wouldn’t thank you for them.  My taste and appreciation of wine has developed over the years and, though I’m by no means a connoisseur, I can tell a good wine from a bad one.  Which means of course that I don’t enjoy the bad ones any more and I can’t help feeling this is a bit of a shame, while at the same time not wishing to be that uninformed, novice wine-drinker again.  In the same vein, I now know better than to wear those leopard-print leggings or the gold cowboy boots that I thought were just wonderful at the time, which means I look a whole lot more tastefully dressed these days but don’t enjoy my clothes nearly so much.

I was reminded of all this when I went to a new photography club that recently started up locally.  I’ve always avoided photography societies like the plague because – and I know I generalise, but it’s largely true – they’re full of men of a certain age who mostly want to compare equipment and indulge in competitions that limit the concept of a good photograph to very narrow parameters.  This group was different, consisting of people about half my age and being aimed at the more creative side of things, with its main purpose being simply to have some fun.  But it seems I’ve lost that simple fun thing, and I couldn’t get terribly enthused about what we were doing.

Being the first meeting, it was all a bit vague what we should do and eventually we decided to go out and look for the colour orange.  I can’t quite remember how orange came up; I think we thought it was unusual enough to make it a bit of a challenge.  It was nice being out on a shoot with other enthusiastic people, but I realised pretty quickly that I’m not interested in shooting orange things for the sake of it – I’m really not.  Had I had some kind of passion for orange, or some other non-arbitrary reason to shoot orange, then it might have been different but I didn’t.  Had I been trying to develop my colour awareness, then that might have changed things for me, but I don’t feel that need any more.  Had I wanted to show the use of orange and its implications in western society  then it might also have been different, but I didn’t.  In other words, I found it rather empty and meaningless and not very interesting, and I also found it a bit sad that I felt like that. None of these shots really hang together in any other way than the colour, and it seems that’s not enough for me any more.  No, for me the future really isn’t going to be orange.

 

Chimneys, Chester

Traffic cone

Orange thing, River Dee, Chester

Orange bricks, Chester

Getting your photographic mojo back

Rainbow lights

A couple of years ago I had an awful time when photography stopped being something that made me happy, gave me strength, and was always there for me, and instead became a source of worry and angst. My inspiration had upped and left the building and it didn’t feel good. The sense of loss was horrible; my whole life was – is – centred around photography and I felt like I imagine a religious person would if they lost their faith. What I didn’t realise then was that it happens to nearly all of us at some point or other, and it’s happened to me many times since. It doesn’t worry me nearly so much now, because I know it will almost certainly come back. There are some things I’ve learned during these times – things that give practical help and things that are comforting – and I thought I’d bring them together here in the hope that they might be of use to someone else.  This is not so much about those times when you run out of ideas (much more easily sorted), but more about a kind of ‘dark night of the soul’ of photography when it all feels hopeless and you can’t quite remember why you’re doing this.

1.   Remember these times are part of the natural creative process. Gail McMeekin, author of The 12 Secrets of Highly Creative Women, refers to it as the Void and says “In the creative cycles of birth and death and rebirth, there are times when we are empty of ideas, adrift in a sea of ambiguity and nothingness. These times can be labelled the neutral zone, the void, a vacuum. No matter what they are called, they are part of the creative cycle and wise women accept them and trust that when it’s time their inspirations will percolate again.”

In Chinese philosophy winter (whether of the earth or of the soul) is seen as a time of quiet, of withdrawing, reflecting and preparing for spring. It’s not regarded as an unproductive time at all, but as a necessary stage and a time to nourish yourself for the bursting energy of the spring that’s on its way. It may not look as if much is going on, but underneath the surface there’s a lot happening. I’ve noticed that after a spell where nothing inspires me or interests me photographically, when I do finally pick up my camera again I start to produce better shots – it’s as if I’ve taken a quantum leap forward. These fallow spells often herald a positive change when you do get going again.  I think we reach a kind of learning plateau where we can languish for a while like a boat in the doldrums.  Sometimes giving it time is all that’s needed.

A lack of inspiration can also be a sign that we need to change direction, or re-assess what we’ve been doing. However, it’s best not to try to force this; do what you can to become calm and  Zen-like about the whole thing and realise that you can’t push the river, but must let it take its own time and make its own way forward. It might not be what you want to hear at that point, but this is how it tends to work.  Take the pressure off yourself and allow what’s happening (or not happening) to happen.

2. Try morning pages It helps if you can do something to get out of your own way. For a long time I resisted the idea of Julia Cameron’s ‘morning pages’. If you haven’t heard of this, the idea is that, first thing in the morning, you scribble down three pages of stream of consciousness writing. You write whatever comes into your head, without thinking about it or censoring it. If nothing comes into your head, you write ‘nothing’s coming into my head’ over and over until something else does or you’ve done your three pages. Don’t even think about grammar or spelling or punctuation – just get it down. I regard it as a kind of brain dump – all the rubbish and angst and limiting thoughts you have get dumped out on the paper. Write as if no-one’s ever going to see it, and make sure no-one does, because if you’re anything like me you’ll sound like the world’s most neurotic person ever.  It’s best not to read back through it either unless you’ve left quite a bit of time between the writing and the reading, but it can be quite interesting to read back through it at a later date.

I didn’t really believe this process would do anything, and only tried it out of pure desperation one day. I was astonished to find that within the next day or two I had three of the best ideas I’ve had for some time. I’m not sure it always works that quickly, but it does clear your head so that other things can get in.

I do find Julia Cameron a bit prescriptive about how you’re supposed to do this. She says you must write your pages first thing in the morning before you do anything else, write them in longhand with pen and paper, and do it every day without fail. Well I don’t do any of these things and it still seems to work. I’m not ready to do anything first thing in the morning except read something enjoyable while I drink my morning tea; I can type almost as fast as I can think, so I find doing the pages on computer works much better for me than writing by hand; and I only do them from time to time when I feel the need. I tend to rebel if someone says I ‘must’ do something a particular way and if I had to do them Ms Cameron’s way I’d probably never do them at all. It works just fine however you do it, I’ve found.

3. Fill the well If you’ve emptied the trash out of your mind but you’re still empty of inspiration then you need to fill yourself up, but you also need to be careful how you do this. What works best for me is to look at other kinds of art than photography. If I look at great photographs when I’m in this state it just tends to depress me, as the void between them and me seems too huge for me to have any hope of even beginning to bridge it. For that reason I find it much more helpful to look at other kinds of art. Go to art galleries, look at art online, look at beautifully made things in sophisticated craft shops, go to a sculpture park or trail, watch some art films.

It doesn’t even have to be art. Get out in nature and look at natural things. Don’t look with a view to photographing them, just look and enjoy. Go to something you’d never normally think of going to – dog racing, perhaps. Try something new – anything. Novelty wakes the brain up, and will help get you going again.

Another thing that works for me is to read some kind of inspirational book. I don’t necessarily mean you have to dig out the Tao Te Ching or whatever – it could simply be a story of someone overcoming a problem or a tragedy, or maybe a book of interesting quotes. As long as it’s life-affirming and not cynical it will help and it doesn’t have to be about photography (in fact it’s probably better if it’s not).

4. Take up a different form of art or creativity Something that can also help quite a bit is to take up a different form of creativity. If you normally take photographs, try painting or drawing. (If you think you can’t draw, try Zentangles – everyone can do these and they’re a lot of fun.) Or avoid visual arts altogether and have a go at drumming, or dance, or knitting, or origami, or making bread, or writing poetry. You won’t put the same pressure on yourself as you would in your primary creative outlet, and doing something else will satisfy that part of you that misses being creative.  I find that writing helps me when I can’t do photography.

5. Hang out with the right kind of friends Many of us have at least one person in our lives who sends us away buzzing with enthusiasm and ideas after a chat over coffee.  Ring this person right now, and arrange to see them.  Hopefully you’ll be able to do the same for them at another time.  (And thank you from the bottom of my heart, Eileen, because you’ve done this so many times for me!)

What helps you get your photographic mojo back?

There’s always more to a place than first meets the eye

It’s always tempting to think that what you need for inspiration, photographically, is to visit some exciting new place and it’s true that being somewhere new and different can give you a real creative boost.  But if you look at many famous photographers, you find that their best shots were often taken very close to home.  For example, Ansel Adams lived near Yosemite and visited it again and again; Edward Weston lived near Point Lobos and did the same.  Painters, too, often paint the same thing over and over – think of Monet with his lilypond, haystacks and Rouen Cathedral.

Going back time and again to the same places enables you to fully explore them and your own reaction to them.  I first noticed this when I did a course assignment on Canterbury Cathedral.  I had to make several visits to get enough material for the assignment, but even when it was finished I kept going back.  Each time I went there, I saw different things, and my seeing became more nuanced and subtle.  The kind of photographs I took there began to change, and began to express better how I felt about the place.  That’s not to say that these were the photographs that everybody else liked best, but they were the ones that made me feel I’d done what I wanted to do – which, let’s face it, is what’s important in the long run.

But cathedrals are a bit of a visual feast anyway, and what do you do when you’re going back to places that don’t inspire you that much in the first place?  I often feel the need to get out of the house and away from the computer, but I’m very limited in where I can walk to without getting in the car first.  My usual walk takes me up a country lane and back through the orchards, which sounds nice but there isn’t a lot there that’s particularly inspiring.  The last time I took my camera with me, for some reason my eyes seemed wider open to the possibilities and these shots were the result.  It did help that someone had been playing with the apples and plums!

Apples and plums

Apples and plums

Applies and plums on fence

This one’s a little bit macabre, but on the way there I spotted this headless doll lying on the other side of the fence and it reminded me of a crime scene.  I shot the whole body at first, but then I thought that just having the hands reaching out for something said a lot more.  Not my jolliest of shots, but I like them in their own way and feel they say something.

Crime scene

Crime scene - reaching

The wheatfield looked wonderful, but at first I couldn’t figure out how to get a shot that made it look the way I felt when I saw it.  There were some narrow tracks through it and I thought I’d try to use one of those to lead the eye through the image.  When I got home and put it up on the computer screen, it just didn’t give the effect I wanted.  The path didn’t stand out enough because there wasn’t enough contrast, but when I increased the contrast the wheat looked harsh and hard-edged.  I wanted to get the feeling of softness and abundance that I was experiencing.  After a bit of experimenting, I tried the Orton technique on it and got what I wanted.  It emphasised the path enough to show it up, and added to the soft feel that I was trying for.

Path through the wheat field

And then on the way home, I spotted these flowers and petals which had fallen from an overhanging tree onto the concrete path.  I thought the colours were lovely – this is probably my favourite shot of the day and I like the way it looks a bit painterly without me having done anything much to it to make it that way.  I’ve also realised that I have quite a few images of fallen petals, flowers and leaves, and I think I might try to add to this and develop it into a little personal project.

Fallen flowers