Kat Sloma is blogging on thresholds today – http://www.kateyeview.com/ – and it’s an appropriate topic for me right now. Our lives are about to change and the change may be a big one or a small one – we hope to find out later today when Geoff gets news about his redundancy (or otherwise). For the last few months we’ve felt as if we’re both in limbo and in flux, and when you’re in the midst of change and uncertainty life can seem like a scary sort of place.
In this kind of situation the best we can do is to hold on to a belief that whatever the changes are they will ultimately be for the best, and to hope that the life change we’re approaching is going to be like moving through the photo above – passing the threshold into a sunlit, lush, and lovely new place.
Which would you choose?
In reality, it’s probably going to be more like the photo above – two or more thresholds and choices to make. But both of those thresholds look enticing, both would lead to adventures of different kinds, and both of them lead us out of the uncertain darkness into sunlight.
This uncertainty we’ve been living with for so long has made it hard to remember that this could be the start of something good. I’ve always loved entrances and half-open doors, fantasising about what might lie behind them. The reality might be banal or even unpleasant, but the excitement of discovery remains, and sometimes what you find is even better than you hoped for.
I was in the City of London at the weekend teaching a beginner’s photography workshop. Just as we got to the main road, a posse of bikers turned up, parked their large shiny motorbikes, got off, and mounted a row of Boris’s bicycles. (For non-UK readers, Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, set up a scheme that enables anyone to pick up and borrow a bicycle for a small fee from the many banks of them distributed all over London)
We were on the other side of the road and a central railing prevented us from crossing for some way each side, so I climbed up onto a large block of stone and managed to get this photo.
I have no idea what they were doing – they were in high good spirits, waving at traffic going by, cars were honking their horns at them, and passing photographers were risking their lives in the road taking pictures. It looked like a publicity stunt, but there didn’t seem to be any publicity going on. Whatever it was, it added a bit of fun to our day.
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?
I came across the work of photographer Nina Katchadourian a while ago, and was really taken by two of her projects: in the first, she mended spider’s webs with red thread and the in the second, she patched cracks in mushrooms with bicycle repair kits.
The spiders would often react to the repair by pulling out the red threads, leaving a pile of them on the ground below. You can imagine them being disgusted at the standard of workmanship and outraged at the use of red thread!
There’s something very playful and whimsical about this that I find enchanting, but it does pose some more serious questions about our interactions with nature. Should we intervene? Katchadourian says that she often destroyed the web further in her efforts to do the repair. Sometimes we just blunder in and make things worse.
It reminds me of the story of a man who saw a butterfly struggling to emerge from its cocoon and ‘helped’ it by pulling the cocoon apart. What he didn’t realise was that the struggle to emerge was designed to force fluid from the butterfly’s body into its wings and that, without this struggle, the butterfly’s wings would never form enough to fly.
Putting all that aside, I do think there’s a wonderful innocence in the notion of repairing webs and mushrooms that takes us back in time to childhood when magic was around every corner and everything was possible. It’s refreshing to come across work that just has to make you smile.
Photo challenge: what could you do to ‘repair’ nature and then photograph it?
I never intended to take up photography at all. I came to it via an Access to Art & Design course that I took at my local college, because what I really wanted to do (I thought!) was paint and draw.
One of the first exercises on the course was to choose a partner and then each of us had to draw the other person in our sketchbook. My drawing was the one you see on the left and if it hadn’t already been in my sketchbook, it would have found itself in the bin in short order. It’s terrible! My only consolation was that the drawing Kevin – my victim – did of me was probably even worse.
But…..it was only about two weeks later that I produced the self-portrait on the right. It doesn’t look like me, but it does look like a real face, and it’s amazing what an improvement drawing all day for a couple of days a week has made. In Kevin’s portrait there’s no shading, no real observation of what his face actually looked like – I didn’t draw what my eyes were seeing, I drew what I thought was there.
Naming stops us seeing
Frederick Franck, in his book The Zen of Seeing, says that the minute we label something we stop seeing it properly. So I looked at Kevin and saw two eyes, a nose, a mouth, some hair, etc. You can see I made some attempt to observe the shape of his face and that’s probably because you can’t pin a label on that so easily. In contrast, when I did the self-portrait I was closely observing things like the folds round my eyes, the shape of my mouth, the way my hair curled, and so on. I didn’t think ‘this is an eye’ while drawing my eye, I simply observed the shapes and the tones that were there without naming them. And instead of ending up with Kevin’s flat, white face, I’ve seen where the shadows and highlights lie, drawn them in, and subsequently my face has volume and shape.
So what does this have to do with photography?
To be a good photographer you have to learn to look at the world differently, and learning to draw is a very good way of changing how you look at things. You begin to notice patterns of light and shade, interesting little shapes, and the lines and curves that make up your subject. Even something boring becomes interesting when you try to draw it.
For instance, maybe you think the view from your window is really dull. And if you look at it and just see houses, cars, washing lines, and so on, it will be. If you stop seeing it in terms of these things and start noticing the fabulously clashing colours of the clothes on the washing line, or the soft, golden light hitting just one window of the house opposite, or the curved lines that form the shapes of the cars, or how no two leaves on the tree in your garden are exactly the same shape, then a whole new world will open up to you. Nothing will ever look dull and boring again once you learn how to really look at it, and you’ll be able to find a picture anywhere.
You don’t need to be good at drawing for this to work, although you will become good at it naturally when you start really ‘seeing’ the world. It’s not the end result – the drawing – that’s important; it’s the process you go through to arrive at it. It trains you to look carefully and closely at the world around you. And if you do this then you can’t help but become a better photographer.
I hope I might have convinced you to give it a go. Apart from anything else, it’s a lot of fun.
Books to help you learn to draw
I tend to avoid the kind of learn-to-draw book that teaches in a very technical way. I’m not a very technical person and I find it off-putting and boring. I like the kind that gets you enthused and inspired, or helps you use a more right-brained approach to drawing. Here are some I can totally recommend:
This is a classic, and I never thought I could draw at all until I tried the exercises in this book. I was astounded at the difference these made in just one day of drawing. If you only buy one book, make it this one.
This is a charming – and free – downloadable ebook, written by a man who found drawing helped him deal with the death of his mother and a chronic illness.
There are loads more books out there but I’m not going to overload you. I hope you’ll think about picking up a pencil and doing some drawing – I guarantee it will change the way you see things forever.