I’m still obsessed with water and trees – can’t get enough of them, and even I thought I’d be getting tired of them by now. Recently, I came across a possible explanation for this, which lies in the idea of fractals. Fractals, put simply, are complex and never-ending patterns that repeat themselves over different scales – if you’d like a beautifully simple, illustrated, one-page explanation of them, go here.
There are two sorts of fractals – the mathematical and the natural kinds The mathematical kind, which are pretty to look at but which I’m certainly not capable of explaining adequately, are created by calculating a simple equation thousands of times and feeding the equation back to itself in a never-ending feedback loop. The natural kind don’t need any understanding of mathematics to appreciate and can be seen all around us – you can find them in the branching patterns of trees, clouds, lightning, snowflakes, canyons, and river confluences, or in spiral forms such as seashells, hurricanes and galaxies. Basically, the building blocks of natural things are fractal patterns and the human body is no exception – our lungs, blood vessels, brains, kidneys, and so on all display fractal patterns, and even the receptor molecules on viruses and bacteria are fractal in design.
Perhaps because of this, we like to look at fractal patterns and find them aesthetically pleasing. Richard Taylor of Oregon University, who is working on developing artificial retinal implants to bring back lost sight, compares the way the camera ‘sees’ with the way the eye sees. The eye only sees clearly what’s directly in front of it, with peripheral vision being much fuzzier, and so we have to move our eyes continually, scanning small areas, in order to ensure that the area of interest to us falls directly on the part of the eye with the sharpest vision – the pin-sized fovea. In short, the natural movement of our eyes is fractal. In contrast to this, a camera captures everything in uniform detail all over the picture plane. If someone was given a retinal implant that was based on how a camera works, they would not only be overwhelmed with visual data, they would also see – in Taylor’s words – ‘a world devoid of stress-reducing beauty’.
Almost certainly because we’re ‘made’ of fractals, it turns out that they have a strongly stress-relieving effect on us and looking at mid-range (don’t ask!) fractals can reduce stress by up to 60%. It’s been known for a while, for example, that people with trees outside their hospital windows heal more quickly than those without, but nobody really knew why. One explanation lies in fractals. A lot of art and architecture also forms fractal patterns, notably Gothic and Baroque architecture and the paintings of Jackson Pollock, De Kooning, Hokusai, and Escher. They’re also found in African designs, Hindu temples and, indeed, all sorts of other places where you might find satisfying and soothing design elements.
So it seems thatmy fascination with water patterns and tree branches almost certainly has a lot to do with their fractal construction and without my being conscious of it, taking these kinds of pictures probably does a lot to de-stress me. Hopefully, they do something to de-stress whoever looks at them as well. Here are a few very recent images displaying the fractal patterns of winter tree branches, both on their own and reflected in water.
If you want to know more about fractals and how they affect us………
Back again, after a wonderful week in North Yorkshire – good weather and spectacular walking. More and more I’m coming to realise that I can’t take decent photos on a first visit somewhere, or when I’m in the company of a non-photographer, so I have very little productive output from the holiday and not many of them involved trees. There were a couple of tree pictures I could have used, but neither of them seemed quite right.
However, since coming home, I’ve been back to Sconce and Devon park and spent some time down by the river photographing reflections and water. It’s water that excites me most when it comes to photography – the only time on holiday when I got carried away was when we were walking next to rivers and streams. Other subject matter – even trees – takes me longer to warm up to. I do wonder sometimes how much mileage there is in water, what there can possibly be that hasn’t been done – or even that I haven’t already done myself – and how I can get something new out of it. I don’t know the answer to these questions.
I’ll go on photographing water because it’s my passion and because it endlessly fascinates me – after all, this is really for me and it’s simply a bonus if other people appreciate the results too. The image above – for once – isn’t a reflection. The sun was sparkling off the river surface and a branch of beautiful, feathery leaves dipped down into it.
‘The nights are drawing in’ was always a phrase I hated to hear. Having grown up in a chilly part of the UK, cold weather doesn’t bother me and in fact I find very hot days a bit hard to handle, but the extended darkness of winter has always been something I’ve dreaded. We’re at that part of the year now when it’s still warm, but getting dark earlier and earlier. The skies are beautiful as they fade into the night, but feel tinged with the sadness of autumn.
The black line behind the tree shows where the weir is situated
Still on the quest for lovely places to walk in this area, we went to the RSPB nature reserve near Collingham. It’s certainly nicer than most of the walks I’ve tried so far, and part of it takes you alongside Cromwell Weir – the point at which the tidal part of the River Trent meets the non-tidal part.
Weirs are quite scary things, and this one is no exception. In fact, on the other side of the river next to the lock, there is a memorial to ten soldiers who died when their craft was swept over this weir during a night-time exercise. The sheer power of the water is frightening, and we watched some flotsam being rhythmically swept under and then bobbing up again, trapped in the circular motion of the water. In another area the water formed a small whirlpool, with the central portion being a foot or two lower than the rest of the water. Despite many attempts, I couldn’t get an image that clearly showed this, but you can get an impression of the violent churning of the water in the picture second from last, below.
Water has always fascinated me in all its various forms, but it’s the sheer power of something so innately formless that takes my breath away. It always amazes me how something that can be as soft and gentle as mist, can also turn into something overwhelmingly powerful when it gains volume and speed.
I always feel it’s a bit of a cheat to photograph other people’s artwork – like all the hard work’s been done for you. The only time it becomes satisfying is when you can add something more to the original. I loved the subtle colours in this Henry Moore sculpture in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, particularly the warm bronzy red patch in the bottom curve, and then I noticed how the autumn trees in the distance picked up and reflected the sculpture’s colours. Moore’s beautiful stone curves, and his trademark ‘window’, became a wonderful frame for the trees.
One of the joys of photography for me lies in the post-processing. I know lots of people hate that part, but I often get into ‘flow’ while doing it and hours can go by. I like trying out different ways of processing to see how many versions I can get of one photo, and how they compare and differ in terms of their emotional and visual impact. I don’t do it with every image, but some seem to lend themselves to different interpretations.
This view of the lake is one example. It was one of those perfect, soft autumn days with hazy golden light, when pictures just hand themselves to you and it’s hard to go completely wrong whatever you do because the light is so damn perfect. I took a lot of shots, many of which only had the perfect light to recommend them, but there were a few others I was quite pleased with.
My first processing of this lake view was a straightforward one, with some sharpening and a small crop to improve the proportions. I also slightly enhanced the cyan of the sky and lake, as it was a little weak compared to the strong oranges of the trees. The result is at the top of the post.
I was fairly happy with this, but with some reservations. First off, it didn’t really capture for me the way the day felt. Probably because of that, it also seemed to me like a pretty, but generic, postcard-style view. I started playing with it to see what I could do to bring out more of the feeling I had when I shot it, and ended up moving the RAW converter Clarity slider in the ‘wrong’ direction to give a very soft focus effect, as you can see below.
This feels much better to me, as the day had a very soft, quiet feel to it and the image now matched that more accurately. However, I started wondering about the composition – it’s a little unbalanced, with the dominant orange trees and reflections on the right. I tried cropping it to a square to see what that would do. This puts the emphasis on the birds, placing them at the centre and giving more of a focal point, and losing some of the background trees seems to produce a better balance overall.
Another choice of crop – perhaps a more obvious one – would be a letterbox format like this:
While I think this works OK, it somehow doesn’t give me the same feeling that the square crop does and I prefer that one.
In the end it always comes down to personal choice – some will loathe the soft-focus effect, some will think the rectangular or letterbox format works better. However, what I’m always trying to do is to get the image to express what I felt when I took it, and so the first person I have to satisfy is me. I’d like to think that at least some people will get the same feeling from it that I do, but this is more of a lottery. We all bring our personal preferences and pre-conceptions to the viewing of photographs, and the filters you look through will be different to the ones I have in place.
There are other things I sometimes experiment with – converting to black and white is one of them, but the colours and warm light were important to me in this shot so I wouldn’t normally have considered that. However, I thought I’d give it a go for the purposes of this post and I got a pleasant surprise. The shot below is a black and white conversion of the ‘straight’ version of the image at the top of the post, and has little to recommend it – it’s pleasant, that’s all, and otherwise unremarkable.
But look what happened when I converted the soft focus, square-cropped version:
Now this I really like, and I never would have tried it had I not been writing this post. The black and white conversion has a look of infra-red photography about it, and I like the dreamy, ethereal effect. I still prefer the colour version, but I think this one is interesting and it’s encouraged me to try this again in the future. (Oddly enough, the black and white conversion of the letterbox shape didn’t work at all well – strange!)
I know there are a lot of purists out there who disapprove of extensive manipulation and post-processing. I’m not one of them, and I don’t really care what route people take to get the result they want. I could have done at least some of this in-camera – I could have used a soft-focus filter, a camera that would shoot in square format, and if I’d really wanted to I could have shot the whole thing on black and white film. But I can’t see the difference between manipulating in-camera or afterwards, and if I’d done everything in-camera I wouldn’t have the same options open to me afterwards to create variations on a theme.
By shooting in RAW format, it seems to me you get the best of all worlds and the greatest variety of options. I often feel I learn more from the processing I do after the fact than I do while photographing, and that that learning carries over and informs my subsequent practice. A lot of the finished images that most please me are ones where I’ve visualised what could be done with the raw material that’s actually in front of me. I’ve never been interested in simply reproducing what’s there, but more in creating the world as I’d like it to be or imagine that it could be. Sometimes that involves straightforward representation of something that’s not obvious to the casual viewer; sometimes it involves changing what’s there into something that more closely matches an inner vision or feeling.
A night of thick mist and fog, a dull morning, and then as afternoon approached, a mellow autumn sun cutting through the mist. It was one of those perfect autumn days that don’t happen very often and must be relished when they do. Autumn as it should be, and a photographer’s gift.
I’ve added a touch of Orton technique, just to bring out the glow. And only a touch – it’s easy to overdo. If you’re not familiar with the Orton technique, or you are but don’t know how to do it, you can find a downloadable pdf (plus other how-to articles) right here. If the link doesn’t work, click on the Articles tab above the post.
Lone walker in the Wye Valley – if you can’t see him, click for a larger view!
Another very ‘linky’ post this week, but it demanded to be written! The last week or two has seen a surprising number of landscape-related things land in my inbox. The first was Geoff Harris’ article on why landscape photography is often so boring and predictable, with hundreds of images all looking much the same.
“It seems as if many enthusiast photographers (and some of the more predictable professionals) have internalised a landscape photography checklist which they feel they always need to follow. First, they head to the coast, or popular beauty spots. Then there needs to be some of kind of rocks or boulders in the foreground to lead in the eye, then the depth of field needs to stretch to infinity.
This is often balanced by water and sea shot at long exposures, so it looks glassy or milky, and heavily filtered skies that look so apocalyptic, you expect the accusing finger of God to point down through the clouds………A layer of HDR varnish is sometimes applied by cruder exponents of this style, or the golden hour colours ‘lysergically’ cranked up in software.”
Harris does concede that this style of photography is not easy – it’s very demanding technically, and sometimes even physically when it entails rising before dawn and walking miles to get to the right spot – but he argues that there’s little personal expression in the resulting images, and there’s a danger that satisfying the technical and compositional requirements becomes an end in itself. He calls for more originality in landscape photographs.
Harris goes on to talk about an exhibition local to me, in Southwell Minster, called Masters of Light, which he feels transcends the traditional landscape. I went to this myself a few weeks ago, and was blown away by the quality and originality of the work there. You can see several examples of it in Harris’ article. There were seven photographers exhibiting, and although a couple of them were showing a very traditional style of landscape image, these had something that lifted them above the crowd, and they were anything but dull and predictable. Of the rest, two photographers really pushed the boundaries of photography – Valda Bailey (whose work I love) and Paul Kenny – and the others spanned the spectrum between these extremes. It was one of the best exhibitions I’ve seen for a long time, and showed beyond doubt that landscape photography can be varied, interesting, and exciting.
One of the participating photographers, Mark Littlejohn, was Landscape Photographer of the Year 2014, winning it with an image of Glencoe that stands apart from the traditional views. I grew up in Scotland, spent a lot of time in the Highlands, and to me this image ‘says’ Glencoe in a way that the other classic views I’ve seen of it never have – it’s a place of dark rock, grim beauty, and falling water, and most images romanticise it and fail to express the slightly menacing feel of the place. Littlejohn has written an interesting article for On Landscape online photography magazine that explains his approach to photographing landscape and displays some of his work. The full article can only be read by subscribing to the magazine, but there’s a fairish chunk of it available free.
A link to this year’s Landscape Photographer of the Year winners then appeared in my inbox. This has often been a bastion of the traditional landscape view, but I noticed with pleasure that a large number of this year’s winners have moved a long way away from this. An image by one of my favourite photographers – Caroline Fraser – was included in the top 101, and it’s a double exposure which is wonderfully unlike the sort of thing we’ve come to expect. She’s written a blog post telling the story of how it came about.
Sarah Merino has compiled a list of 200+ women landscape and nature photographers. Female landscape photographers, on the whole, would much prefer to be known as landscape photographers who just happen to be women, and whose work is assessed on its own merit, but it’s a fact that women are under-represented at the top levels in this field. Some of this may be the common female reluctance to push ourselves forward, but there’s almost certainly more to it than that. (You can read more about this under-representation in Merino’s article, along with her reasons for compiling the list.)
It takes a lot of time to work your way through more than two hundred links. I’ve been doing it in chunks since I received the article, and still have many to go. I thought it might be a nice idea to sift out the photographers that stand out for me, and give links to a few at a time over the course of the next few weeks. I’ll make a start at the end of this post.
Finally, I’ve just come across another couple of events featuring women in photography. The Tate is holding a conference in November entitled Fast Forward: Women in Photography which ‘explores the complex and dynamic evolution of the history of women in photography, from early commercial practices, to the impact of World War II on women and their work, to reframing the role of the archive’. And the Oxo Tower in London is holding an exhibition called Mistresses of Light – I do feel it could have been better titled, but it features some of the best and most interesting female landscape photographers around. It runs from 9th-13th September and if I could get there, I would.
200+ Women Landscape Photographers – a selection from Sarah Merino’s list
This is a very personal selection which won’t reflect everyone’s tastes. Everyone on the 200+ list is worth looking at and many of the photographers not featured here are masters of their craft. I had to sift through them somehow, however, so I dismissed most of the more traditional approaches to photography because they don’t interest me greatly, although I did include a small number that I felt really stood out. I also left out all the nature photographers because, although I love watching wildlife, I don’t particularly enjoy photographs of it. On the whole, I was looking for something different and something with a very individual voice – images with which I felt I’d like to spend some time. Over the next weeks I’ll link to a small number of photographers at a time and hope you’ll follow the links and have a look round.
Jennifer Adler – Adler’s subject matter is unusual: underwater photographs taken in mainly freshwater sites. I particularly like her Rain gallery, in which you find yourself looking up from underneath at the rain on the water. These are a cut above other underwater photographs I’ve seen, and show a very individual approach.
Valda Bailey– Valda has to be one of the most original photo artists I’ve come across. She uses intentional camera movement and multiple exposures to create multi-layered, textured images that are quite unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. Her work is (quite literally) darker than I usually like, but it’s so striking that it doesn’t matter. She pushes photography to its limits and beyond.
Sandra Bartocha – Bartocha’s work is much closer to the traditional idea of landscape photography, but it stands out from the usual. Her light, delicate images have an appealing ethereality about them, and in places she makes use of interesting techniques and perspectives. Her Pflanzen gallery – macro flowers – is particularly lovely.
The conditions that favour poppy seeds are simple – the seeds lie dormant, deep in the soil, until something comes along to plough and break that soil up, allowing sunshine, warmth and moisture to reach them so that they spring into vibrant, astonishing life.
Their overwhelming association with the trenches of WW1 is because, in land that had been ripped apart by shells and fighting, they were the first sign of life to reappear. It must have been a poignant sight – the blood of the fallen springing up as dancing red flowers. The poppies symbolised both the huge loss of life and shedding of blood, but also the triumph of life over death, of beauty over man-made devastation.
I wish the link with war wasn’t so strong. The poppy is the most joyful of flowers – to come across fields like the ones in these images is something that lifts the heart. But then – for me, at least – the symbolism kicks in and it’s impossible not to think of Flanders fields, in the same way that I can no longer see a plane flying towards some skyscrapers without thinking of 9/11.
However, these poppies were busily creating their own little pocket of joy – the small layby next to the fields housed an ever-changing parade of cars whose occupants had stopped to gaze in awe at the poppies stretching into the distance, and more often than not, to get out and take pictures. Everyone was smiling at everyone else, and exclaiming how wonderful and amazing it was. These poppies were bringing people together.
I searched the web for quotes about poppies that didn’t refer to war. It’s almost impossible to find any, so this one stood out:
‘That we find a crystal or a poppy beautiful means that we are less alone, that we are more deeply inserted into existence than the course of a single life would lead us to believe.’
The quote is from John Berger who – coincidentally – wrote extensively about the theory of photography. I do believe that there’s something about nature’s spectacular beauty that connects us more strongly to the world, puts our problems into perspective, and opens our hearts to the simple pleasures that lie in looking at something as gorgeous as this.