One of the hardest things in photography is to simplify. Every good photograph is a distillation – a removal of anything that dilutes the spirit of the subject, bringing out its essence and its full flavour. I read somewhere that as you become more skilled as a photographer, you become able to manage more and more complex scenes, focussing attention on what you want people to see and handling distractions with aplomb. When you have a simple scene it’s relatively easy to select the part you want and exclude the parts you don’t, but the more lines and shapes and colours and textures that are present, the harder it is to stop it looking like a great big muddle. A lot of my early shots definitely fell into that category – some still do, but you don’t get to see those……..
One situation I always found challenging was to photograph woodland – there’s so much going on. The complexities of overlapping branches and bushes and trees, all those leaves, the contrasts of bright sun and dark shadow, and the innate untidiness of nature left me not knowing what or where to shoot – I couldn’t figure out how to simplify things. I realise I must have improved somewhat, because I don’t find it so hard any more. Somehow it’s become easier to see broad shapes and swathes of colour and to select the bit I want.
We visited the forest around Moel Famau last week. Moel Famau is the name of one of the peaks in the Clwydian mountains in Wales. They’re not large mountains by any standard – more like very big hills – but we didn’t go all the way up. It was one of those days they’d call ‘soft’ if we were in Ireland – slightly misty, a little damp, cool but not cold, bright but with low white cloud. Not the kind of light I usually favour, but it really worked in terms of bringing out the soft but vibrant pastel colours. These aren’t my usual colours – I tend to go for strong, bright shades and higher contrast – but I love the way they’ve come out. I added a teensy bit of Orton effect – very subtly – just to bring out the colours a little more and to emphasis the slightly fairytale feel of the place.
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.
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
Some of you might remember I’ve been working on a project I call ‘Fallen’ – you can view some previous shots here. There’s something about these that still intrigues me, although I’d find it hard to put my finger on why, and I keep taking new ones wherever I go. I’m amassing quite a collection now. During last week’s London workshop I found myself taking even more, and I found some shots with blue and red markings next to the leaves that I rather liked. Although there are still some squared-off shots here – in line with what I’ve done before – I found that many of these recent shots seem to be developing a diagnonal slant now. Again, I’m not sure why – they just presented themselves to me that way. I could really have done with using a polariser to get rid of some of the glare from the water but I didn’t have one with me, and in some ways I think the glare gives a better feel for what kind of day it was – very bright, but very wet.
I may get tired of these eventually, but I’m showing no signs of stopping yet. It may be that they keep evolving in terms of composition and other elements, and I’m interested to see where I end up with them. I don’t go out looking for these – I almost always see them while in the throes of shooting other things and it was a happy accident that they’ve turned into a series.
One of the suggestions from the tutor leading our critique session at the Leeds study weekend, was that I could use these for my seasonal portfolio when I put my work in for assessment. (As part of the Landscape course we have to put together a portfolio of three images each that depict each season.) Unfortunately I hadn’t thought of this and now don’t have time to get enough images together to make up the full portfolio in this way, but I’m thinking that I might include one ‘Fallen’ picture for each of the seasons. Naturally, they would have to be different from the ones I used for Assignment 3 but I’ve got so many now that that shouldn’t be a problem. The difficult bit is differentiating between spring and summer, and autumn and winter. These look quite autumnal, but in fact we’re not quite into autumn yet and it was just a miserable September day with the leaves being blown off the trees by strong winds. Frost or snow would offer the obvious solution to the winter problem – I might have to wait a while. The way the weather’s going I wouldn’t be surprised to see both of them happen quite soon………….
Rain does wonderful things to a place. Something that would be quite uninteresting in the dry becomes fuel for wonderful images in the wet. For once, I’m going to shut up and let them speak for themselves.
In the name of getting myself out of the house and into contact with more people, I’ve been looking for interesting things to do locally. I thought I’d keep an open mind and try anything that’s arty, crafty, or alternative, as these are the kind of places I feel I’m most likely to come across interesting people. A shop/art gallery called the Funky Aardvark has opened in Chester, and they were running a one-day workshop called Felting the Landscape. The idea is you make a picture out of felt, based on a photograph. There are pretty obvious reasons why I was interested in this and it sounded like fun so I thought I’d give it a go. You can see my piece of felt above, underneath the landscape photo I used for inspiration.
It’s certainly not a masterpiece by anyone’s standards, but I don’t think it’s too bad for a first attempt. I have no claims to be a textile artist, and I don’t think it’s a line I’ll be pursuing! I’m happy sticking to photography – where I might have some modicum of talent – but it was an interesting exercise to transform something from one medium into another. One of the big disadvantages of studying something through distance learning is that there aren’t any opportunities to step outside your main focus of study or to combine different media.
Felting is a very imprecise thing as the wool fibres move around a lot as you ‘felt’ them, and it’s difficult to get any sort of detail going on. You can’t see it very well, but some of the twiggy things in my piece of felt were added afterwards using a technique called ‘needle felting’ and the wool for that came from my fellow workshop participant, Rachel. Rachel keeps sheep (‘only fifty’, as she says) and these pieces of wool came from her own flock – I learned quite a bit about sheep keeping while I was there. Rachel lives in Wales and I believe it’s almost obligatory to keep sheep if you have even a teensy bit of land and live in Wales. 🙂
Having had some time to reflect, I think I’d prefer to make pieces of felt that concentrate on abstract colour, rather than aiming for something pictorial. I thought perhaps I could use some home-made felt to make the cover for a book – I’m not sure at the moment what that would be, but it occurred to me that a photography book portraying aspects of the landscape and a cover made from the wool of the sheep that graze it could be an interesting way to go. Perhaps that’s a little obvious, but I’m sure there are lots of other possibilities.
If you’re ever in Chester, the Funky Aardvark is well worth a visit. The shop is amazing – there’s so much in it you can’t take it all in at once, but they have high-quality crafts of every variety, including some beautiful glass pieces and many things made out of hand-made felt. They also stock materials – sketchbooks, camera film (including out-of-date film to experiment with), wool, beads, and all sorts of other things. They run arts and crafts workshops, analogue photo walks, and are starting a photography club very soon. I’m really happy to have found this place and hope to be doing lots of interesting things there in the future.
I’m used to seeing yellow ‘no parking’ lines everywhere on our streets, but these red lines are much more unusual. I thought they looked great with the contrast of the wet tarmac, and the puddles of rain on them.
People queueing to see inside the Bank of England building, OpenHouseLondon, 2012
London never fails to inspire me. It’s a tiresome place in many ways – the hassle and time involved in getting around it, the uncomfortable humidity of the tube system that slaps you in the face like a hot wet blanket, the carrying of a heavy bag up endless stairs, the crowds of people so wrapped up in their own worlds that they don’t even see you as they push past, the expense of it all – but despite that I love the visual stimulation it offers. I’ve found nowhere round here that affects me in the same way.
The occasion this time was my first workshop for Hairy Goat in nearly a year. It felt good to be out there again, teaching, helping, feeling as if I had a purpose, and of course, bringing in a little income too. I was a bit rusty – my explanations weren’t as polished as they could have been, the cameras were new models that I hadn’t seen before and had to figure out how to work, and I felt at times that I was dredging knowledge up from the sticky, muddy depths of my memory – but I think it went well, considering, and everyone seemed happy enough.
They turned out to be a very self-sufficient group and didn’t need much at all in the way of help when we went photo-walking, so I got a lot of opportunity to take pictures. It was a wet day – a very wet day – but rain can be a gift sometimes and the shots I got owe everything to it. It always interests me to see how students respond when the weather is bad. You can see that some of them would rather be somewhere else – anywhere else that was warm and dry – and some of them stoicly soldier on but without really having their hearts in it. But the ones I always think of as the true photographers get so excited by what they’re seeing that they forget they’re getting wet and cold, and are so absorbed in their photography that they barely notice it. You just know that they will be the ones that will go on to produce really good work.
I took a lot of pictures and they’ve fallen quite naturally into several different themes. I’m going to start with buildings and people, although these aren’t the shots I’m happiest with. I also have some great reflection shots, some more to add to my Fallen series, and some involving red parking lines, all of which I’m very chuffed about. I made myself process these ones first because there were fewer of them to get through, but the others are on their way………
I’m not long back from a residential study weekend run and organised by OCA* students. I’m not even going to attempt to cover every part of the weekend, partly because there’s so much to say and think about, and partly because I know that not everyone who reads this is part of OCA and I don’t want to bore you with insider stuff. So I’m going to pull out a couple of highlights that got me thinking hard about photography.
I’m still buzzing with it all. Anyone who’s been reading along with me will have noticed the gradual diminution of blog entries over the last few months, and the complete lack of photographs in the last few, and you’ll have heard me bemoan the fact that I’d lost my photographic mojo and couldn’t locate it again. Readers, I was depressed – more depressed than I even realised myself. I’ve been having some treatment for that (alternative-style, not the drug kind) and was feeling a lot brighter before I went on the weekend but still not inclined to get out there and get shooting. This weekend has changed it all about for me – yesterday I went out with my camera for the first time in months, and I’m full of ideas and enthusiasm and motivation again. I’ve got myself back – yeeha! (And a huge thank you to Penny and Eileen who organised and ran the whole thing with flair and friendly efficiency.)
Our first external speaker was Mishka Henner. I’d looked at his website before we went, and to be truthful didn’t really get a lot from his work, but how that changed when he started talking about it – it was fascinating and I ended up loving what he did. It also made me aware of my own prejudices in one respect – Mishka uses photographs to make art, but they’re other people’s photographs and not his own. Something in me wants to reject this as photography – as art, yes, but as photography, no. I had to ask myself what it means to say we’re photographers. For me, this involves actually using a camera but is my thinking too rigid in this respect? For several of his projects Mishka uses photos taken from Google Earth. Now, OK, he didn’t shoot them, but in terms of his projects he chose the frame, cropped it, enhanced it in Photoshop, and presented it as art. That’s probably more effort than the Google people put into that particular frame, and these are all parts of the photographic process. I must admit that I’m still inclined to feel he’s an artist who uses photography rather than a photographer as such, but old prejudices die hard and I dare say I’ll get over it. It’s not really so different from Marcel Duchamp appropriating a urinal and presenting it as art (but then I wouldn’t have called him a ceramicist!).
One of the things I really liked about his work was that, although it was strongly conceptual, it was also very aesthetically pleasing. The images were visually satisfying even when you removed the conceptual element from them. This isn’t necessary, of course, but it keeps me happy. For one of his projects he would use a number of portraits taken by a particular, well-known photographer – such as Diane Arbus, Rineke Dijsktra, or Lewis Hines – and super-impose them on each other. He selected portraits that were taken face-on and lined them up using the irises of the eyes. The results are astonishing. He shows the process in video form, each layer (set at 3% transparency) going on top of the others, until a final face takes shape; the faces emerge out of the blackness, slowly becoming more defined. I find it hard to say why these are so compelling, but they certainly are, with the eyes staying strong and clear and the rest of the face acquiring a softly smudged state of ethereality.
It’s not my intention to give any kind of comprehensive overview of Mishka’s work, and I intend to come back to some of it in due course, but I must just mention his Dutch tulip fields. These are views of the tulip fields, taken from the air, and transformed into dramatic abstract shapes, reminiscent of modern paintings. It struck me that here is a very different view of spring. When I was putting together my first assignment on the Landscape course, which was to portray spring, this might have given me some food for thought – although I’m not sure my budget would have run to aerial photography. I don’t know whether he took these shots himself, or if they’ve been taken from Google Earth again, but either way, they’re stunning. However, as someone pointed out, OCA students wouldn’t get away with submitting photos for our assignments that we hadn’t taken ourselves. It seems there’s one rule for students and another for when you’ve gained some sort of a reputation – fair enough, I guess, although I wonder if that’s the case in all degree courses.
One of the other sessions I found really interesting was from tutor Jesse Alexander. He took us through the process of development of his MA submission, from its early beginnings to the finished work. Interesting in itself, and again I loved the fact that his images are visually stunning as well as having conceptual meaning. His project is called Threshold Zone and is all about underground landscapes, the transition from light to dark, and the myth and meaning surrounding journeys into the underworld. However, it’s not the images I want to discuss but the fact that he told us that he found these places pretty scary and had to face up to these fears while carrying out the project. In a similar vein, another of the other students on the workshop showed us pictures of pollarded trees during the critique session, and said that even though she hates to see trees like this, and finds it almost painful to look at them, she feels compelled to take shots of them. I don’t think I have any instances of this in my own work, but I wonder how many photographers are drawn towards subjects they find painful, distressing, frightening, and so on. In a way, Jesse’s underground shots could also represent for him a journey into the underworld of his own psyche – it’s an interesting parallel. By photographing these things, are we looking for a way of coming to terms with them, or perhaps simply expressing a reflection of some inner process of our own?
I’m leaving it here for the moment. I have loads more to say, and a huge number of things to think about, and a lot of that will no doubt find its way into this space in due course. As you’ll have gathered by now, it was a terrific experience and has turned things around for me in so many ways. This is due in no small way to the other students on the course. It was a real joy to have such a diverse and interesting group of people to talk to, knowing that you wouldn’t bore them by rambling on about photography too much. And it was just great to finally meet people whom I’ve mostly only known as avatars and user-names on forums. It’s a strange experience – you feel as if you know someone already, but it also feels like you’re meeting a stranger. People are very much as you imagined them, but also in some ways very different. Weird. I can only hope that we continue to have weekends like this. Well done Penny, Eileen, tutors Peter and Jesse, and OCA for their support for the venture, as well as our two guest speakers Mishka Henner and Peter Rudge from duckrabbit. (and more of duckrabbit later).