OCA

How to handle criticism when you’re an over-sensitive wuss

 

There are issues I struggle with when it comes to photography, creativity, and art in general. They’re the kind where I seem to have totally conflicting thoughts or mixed emotions, and which continue to niggle at me like a small stone stuck in my shoe. Periodically I try metaphorically banging the shoe against the wall to loosen the stone, shaking it out, only to find when I put it back on it’s still obstinately stuck there. Recently I’ve been grappling with a load of issues centred around criticism, how it’s delivered and how to handle it.

(Warning: this is a loooong post; if you’re short on time, you can just skip to about halfway, where you’ll find some ways of dealing with criticism)

I’m going to be honest – I have quite a thin skin, and on occasions it can become positively transparent. I don’t really believe anyone who says they find it easy to take criticism, but I do seem to take it harder than most. For those of us who have a particularly difficult time with it, it’s often because we grew up in an atmosphere where we were constantly found wanting, not good enough, and not valued for ourselves even when we got things wrong. We like to think that we’re big girls and boys now, but that small vulnerable child-being is still in there and it takes things hard. What we did or said in those days was not usually separated from who we were, so that we’ve been left with the feeling that we haven’t just got something wrong, there’s something wrong with us as a person. This can feel like an attack on the very root of our being; it’s tough to handle, even when you’re all grown-up and sophisticated.  It’s not so bad when criticism’s handed out in a kind and considered way, but when it involves tactlessness, derision or dismissiveness, it can leave you quivering under the bedclothes for the next week.

I think this is particularly so in the creative fields, where our products – if they have any hope of being good – must come from our selves and what lies deep within us. Criticism really can feel like a personal attack, even when it’s not intended that way at all, and it’s not helped by the ‘toughen up’ school, who like to blame us for our over-reaction rather themselves for their heavy-handed inability to deliver something constructive. But, you know, just because we might be a little over-sensitive it doesn’t make their methods acceptable. There are too many stories of people abandoning some creative pursuit or other because they’ve been told they’re no good. Some of these have eventually bounced back and gone on to become very successful in their field. Others have given up for good, and who knows what they – or we – may have lost in the process. I wouldn’t want to be responsible for that.  Yes, we need to become a little less sensitive, but some critics need to become a little more considered.

I teach, as many of you know. I wouldn’t dream of going into a class of beginners or even intermediates, or – well anyone, really – and telling them just how terrible they are at producing a decent image without expecting them to walk out and never come back. On the contrary: I see it as my job to give them confidence, to find something in whatever they do that can be praised. I want them to go out the door full of life and motivation. This is not a bleeding heart thing: I don’t lie to them – I tell them where something falls down as well, but I’m more interested in bolstering their enthusiasm as this is what will carry them through the learning curve when things get difficult.

Criticism is generally accepted as being essential to growth and progress. If that’s the case, how can the wusses among us handle criticism, especially the difficult kind, without becoming de-motivated and discouraged? Here are some ideas I’ve found useful.

  • Give yourself time to get past your first reaction: if at all possible, try to be on your own or to at least have someone there who cares about you when you receive a critique. When we get negative criticism our immediate reaction is likely to be shock – I have felt it like a kick in the stomach at times – or a deep sinking feeling in the pit of your abdomen, or some other horrible symptom that feels so physical you’d swear you’d been assaulted. You need some time to get over this.  If you have to be criticised in public – and most face-to-face art education works this way – don’t immediately react. You’ll probably feel defensive or completely cowed; either way, you won’t be in any position to assess things objectively. If you have to say anything, you can say that you find the criticism interesting and will take time to consider it. And do just that, but do it later.
  • Get it out of your system: go home, cry, scream, bash a pillow and pretend it’s your tutor, eat a lot of chocolate and hit the wine bottle. Write down exactly what you’d like to do to that person in excruciating detail, how you’re feeling, how unfair life is, and how you’ll never amount to anything worthwhile and how your mother always said that was the case and, heck, she was right all along. Then do something, anything, to take your mind off it – watch a film, go swimming, lose yourself in a book, soak in a hot bath with a cool cocktail, go out with some friends (but if you do, don’t talk about it). Physical exercise is always good for getting rid of the stress hormones; walking somewhere green works well.
  • You should feel a teensy bit better the next day. Probably better enough to give what’s been said some sensible consideration. First of all, is it the criticism itself that’s getting to you, or the way it was handled? Try to separate the two; it’s easy to be blinded to the merits of the first when you’re feeling angry as hell about the second.
  • Ask yourself if the bad stuff was justified? Even a little? Be honest with yourself and try to take a balanced view.  If you still don’t feel it was, it might be worth seeking out some other opinions.  And keep the next few points in mind.
  • Remember that not all criticism is created equal (1): you can be criticised in a way that’s hard to take, but is good and fair; you can be criticised in a way that’s hard to take and is biased; you can be criticised in ways that are simply mean and thoughtless. If you’re really lucky, you can be criticised by someone who knows how to do it: a fair evaluation of your efforts, some pointers about where it’s gone wrong, some encouragement based on what’s right with what you’ve done, finishing off with a topping of constructive ideas about how you could improve. If you’re at all sensitive, you’ll seek out the first and last of these and avoid the other two like the plague.
  • Remember not all criticism is created equal (2): consider who’s doing the criticism. Do you respect them? Do you respect their work? No matter how successful or famous someone is, it doesn’t make them infallible. It doesn’t mean they’re always right about your work. It doesn’t mean they have any idea how to help you. But it doesn’t mean they don’t, either, so you need to weigh up where they’re coming from and decide how much importance to give to their opinions.
  • Remember not all criticism is created equal (3): is the criticism relevant to what you’re trying to do?  I’ve written about this here, in more depth, but if the criticism comes from the buyers at IKEA but you’re doing degree level art, then it just isn’t relevant.  They’re looking for, and valuing, quite different aspects of your work.
  • Make sure you understand what’s been said: go back to your critic and ask them questions – exactly what do they mean by X? What would they suggest you do to change things/improve? Can they give you some examples, other artists to look at? It’s easy for them to dole out the heavy stuff and then swan off into their effortless, sun-kissed lives – make them work a bit!  But seriously, discuss it with them.
  • Try to imagine the criticism is about someone else’s work and you’re trying to get a full understanding of what the critic is actually saying, and how that person could improve on what they’ve done. Really, this is what we should be aiming for at Step 1 – it would save us a whole lot of angst if we could detach a little from it in the first place – but let’s be realistic here, it’s something we have to work up to. You can get some perspective by literally putting yourself in their place. Put two chairs opposite each other; sit in one and pretend you’re the critic, and imagine yourself sitting in the other chair. Now go over the criticism again, and see how it feels when it’s coming from you (you’re the critic now, looking at yourself over there). Do you understand better what your critic was trying to do?
  • Do your best to remember that they are not your mother! Or your father, your headmistress, your Aunt Mabel, or whoever spent your entire childhood putting you down. Much of the time what your critic says is well-meant, even if it lacks something in the delivery. It’s good to remember that.
  • Get some strokes from somewhere: yes, we all know that ‘wow’ comments on Flickr are pretty meaningless, but it’s still good to get them isn’t it? Seek out people who’ll be nice about your work; don’t take what they say too seriously, just use it to give yourself a temporary boost. Psychologists say for every negative we need five positives to make up for it; seek the positives wherever you can find them.  A good idea, if you’re affected badly by criticism, is to keep a folder/notebook/scrapbook of all the compliments you’ve ever had about your work or your person. Then get it out, read it, and you’ll feel a whole lot better. I promise.
  • Get back in the saddle: as soon as you can, go and produce some more work.  Don’t agonise over whether or not it’s any good, just do it and do your best to have fun doing it.  If you’re on a course, give yourself a little break from the coursework and enjoy your photography (or whatever your thing is) for its own sake.  Try to remember why you took it up in the first place; it was because you enjoyed it, wasn’t it?  See if you can get that feeling back.

So, is there anything else you could add to this that might help others?  Please add it in the comments so we can all benefit!  And remember:

To escape criticism –

Do nothing, say nothing, be nothing

Last summer’s seed head

Seehead 1

I don’t know what’s wrong with me at the moment; I’m just not taking many photos, and that’s not good when you’re writing a photography blog.  I think some of it might be because I don’t really know where to go in this area in terms of interesting places to take pictures.  Or maybe it’s just that I’m still feeling unsettled and the creative juices aren’t flowing quite the way I’d like them to be.  That’s probably more like it, as I’ve just spent three days in London and hardly took anything at all while I was there, and that’s pretty unusual.

It seems a good time to go through the archives and pull out some things that got passed over at the time.  Last summer I brought home this seedhead.  I don’t know the name of the plant, although it’s very common; it’s bugging me a little, so if you know what it is, can you tell me please?  I love the clear-cut spikiness of the bottom bits (I’m not good on botanical terms) and the intricacy of all the little seeds that make up the head.  I spent quite a while photographing it from every possible angle, as you can see.

I was processing these images this morning, and they weren’t coming out quite as I wanted.  They were a little too dark, but if I boosted the light tones they became too hard and contrast-y.  After a bit of experimentation, I duplicated the original layer and set the blend mode to Screen, then increased the transparency to about fifty percent.  The last one was done a little differently; with that one, I added some Gaussian blur to the duplicated layer and I didn’t increase the transparency at all.  It’s given a very soft, high-key effect that I’m quite pleased with.  All were taken using the Lensbaby – by default, as I don’t have anything else that will do macro.

Seedhead 8

Seedhead 2

Seedhead 3

Seedhead 1

Seedhead 5

Seedhead 4

Seedhead 7

The picture postcard Azores

Azores village

A couple of years ago we went to Sao Miguel island in the Azores. The Azores had fascinated me ever since I heard about them; most people have no idea where they are and neither did I till I went there.  (Just to fill you in, they’re a small archepelago of islands right in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean, roughly level with Lisbon in Portugal)  They’re volcanic islands, and there’s still a lot of geothermal activity going on, with thermal springs, bubbling hot mud, and the sort of thing you’d generally expect to find in Iceland.   In fact, that was a large part of their appeal to me – Icelandic geology but with sunshine and warmth instead of cold and rain.  They’re also a prime whale-watching site, but we never did see any of those.

There’s some stunning scenery there, but two things were working against me at the time.  One was that I was feeling very uninspired and disillusioned with photography in general, and landscape photography in particular; I’d just started my Landscape course and I knew I wasn’t interested in taking the kind of standard landscape shots that I thought it required.  Over time I realised I could interpret the brief much more freely than I’d thought, but that’s another story.

The second thing was that roads on Sao Miguel are narrow and there is only one main road that rings the island.  You can’t just stop anywhere you feel like it, so you’re forced to drive past lots of – what were to me – very interesting shots.  To accommodate tourists, stopping places have been created wherever there are ‘views’.  You stop, you get out your car, you stand in the designated place, and you take your shot.  To me, this feels like painting by numbers.  You end up with a very nice shot, but it’s identical to the ones on the postcards in the tourist shops and so I think you might as well save yourself the trouble and buy a postcard.  I couldn’t find any way of getting my own vision into these shots and I got very bored with taking them.  So bored that they’ve mostly been lying on my hard-drive for the last two years without seeing the light of day.

View to Sete Cicades

Tea plantation, Sao Miguel

As our stay went on, I dutifully shot the prescribed views but I also started looking for other, often smaller, things that interested me.  I took some ‘view’ shots that weren’t from prescribed places on bright sunny days and liked these a bit better.

Summer storm, Azores

Approaching storm, Azores

Waves

Misty morning, Azores

Sunset, Azores

Mountain road, Azores

Two trees, Terra Nostra Park, Azores

And then I became fascinated by all the little thermal springs and wells that we found everywhere we went; some of these had quite astounding colours formed by the sediment left by the minerals in the water.

Spring water, Azores

Spring water, Azores

Spring water, Azores

Spring water, Azores

Furnas spring, Azores

Thermal stream, Azores

Thermal water, Azores

I was also drawn to taking small detail shots; the distinctive roofs and tiles, windows, wildlife, and the wonderful light and shade caused by the strong, hot sun.  By this time I was enjoying my photography a whole lot more.

Drinking cat, Azores

Roof tile shadow, Azores

Forest floor, Azores

Curly bottom feathers

Shutters, Azores

Gatepost, Terra Nostra Park, Azores

House, Azores

Roof tile detail, Azores

What I remember when I look at these is the push/pull I felt between taking photos that ‘explain’ the place to people who haven’t been there, and taking these pictures of small details that say ‘Azores’ to me when I look at them but would mean nothing to most folk.  These shots could work for someone who’d been there, and in fact might be quite effective in that case, but would be pretty useless for a tourist brochure or to give someone an impression of the place.

This is more of an issue with somewhere like the Azores because most people have little or no knowledge of the place.  If you take a very well-known tourist destination – let’s say London – people all over the world are familiar with the major sights and icons, so shooting small and quirky details only expands on that knowledge.  However, if you want to communicate to people what the Azores are like, you really do need to concentrate on the ‘tourist’ pictures that I found so boring to take.  I like all of these shots much better looking at them now than I did then and wonder why I was so ready to dismiss them at the time.  I know I was bored and uninterested taking the ‘postcard’ shots, and felt much more inspired and involved when taking the detail ones; these seem more ‘me’ somehow.

I guess the question is who you take the shots for, and why. I think I was trying to do two things at once: take photos I could show to friends and family to let them see what the place is like, and take photos that I enjoyed taking and were very personal to me, but which wouldn’t function as ‘tourist’ pictures.

It would be a boring old world if we all thought the same…..

Mosse, Colonel Soleil's boysColonel Soleil’s boys, Richard Mosse

This rather startling magenta pink is the result of using infrared surveillance film to take ordinary photos. It’s the work of someone called Richard Mosse, and yesterday I was at a study day in which we saw two exhibitions that concerned themselves with the subject of war and genocide. This isn’t my usual cup of tea when it comes to photography; I don’t really need it pointed out to me that there’s a lot of misery out there in the world and I’d prefer to be reminded about the better qualities of humankind – it’s easy to forget about those.

But anyway, that’s what we went to see. Thing is, these images left me untouched and decidedly bored, which is not (I’m fairly sure) the effect they were supposed to have. Other people seemed to be getting a lot out of them, but after five minutes I was standing there wondering when the coffee was coming. We had a little discussion over the coffee when we eventually got some, and after some mild internal panic about whether or not I could think of anything sensible to say, I managed to pull something out of the hat. In case you’re interested, it went like this: the predominant pink colour is Barbie pink and reminds you of girls, and dolls, and toys and Walt Disney, and as this is so very opposite to the masculine world of war depicted in the images, it sets up a certain visual tension. I knew my philosophy degree would come in useful some day.

But you know, I don’t really think this; I don’t think these photos worked. Certainly not for me. I felt nothing looking at them, nothing at all, except a desire to move on to something more interesting. Janet made a good point over the coffee table – ‘why’, she said, ‘is this pink colour not just a gimmick? If we submitted something like this for an assignment, we’d get hammered and accused of just that.’ Gareth looked thoughtful. ‘Well’, he said carefully, ‘Richard Mosse is an established and famous photographer and doesn’t have to explain himself; you’re just a student.’ Those weren’t his words, you understand, and he’s considerably better at being tactful than this would suggest, but that was the gist. ‘And it’s not really a gimmick’, he went on, ‘because he’s making a point by using film that played a role in the conflict itself’. Ok, there’s a bit of cleverness there, I guess – but only a bit.

Upstairs was another exhibition by Simon Norfolk, called For Most of It I Have No Words – brilliant title. He was looking at various sites throughout the world where genocide had taken place, and photographing the traces left there. These images were stunning in themselves, but more than that, they made me feel something. One that touched me was a simple image of some stone steps, with the light coming down from above and highlighting the indentations in the steps made by thousands of feet over time. So what, you might think, until you read the caption and understood that these were prison steps at Auschwitz. Photographically, you’re at the bottom of the steps looking up; standing in darkness and seeing light above, but the tragedy is that you may move up into that light never to come down again. The history of the place is held in the stone of the steps, and it’s very moving.

Simon Norfolk, prison steps, AuschwitzAuschwitz: staircase in a prison block by Simon Norfolk

I’m hopelessly biased, I know. I’ve said before that I need an image to be visually satisfying in order to pull me in. This is something so fundamental to me that I know I’m never going to change in this respect, no matter how much art education I’m subjected to. I loved Simon Norfolk’s photos, loved them. I thought they were beautiful in themselves, and profoundly moving when read in conjunction with the captions. They’re quite old now, in art terms, and are much ‘safer’ than the Mosse images. I’m aware of this, and I like to be challenged, and I’ll do my best to appreciate something that doesn’t have immediate appeal. But Norfolk’s photos are what I relate to; they make me feel something while Mosse’s left me unmoved. Mosse’s had shock value and I sometimes think that a lot of modern art relies on this for any effect it has. Norfolk’s were quieter, subtler, and to my mind all the more powerful for that.  ‘Ah well’, said Fiona as we walked out, ‘it’d be a boring world if we all thought the same.’  And so it would.

Both Richard Mosse and Simon Norfolk are on exhibition at the Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool, until 10th June.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words………

Starry night Van Gogh“In spite of everything I shall rise again: I will take up my pencil, which I have forsaken in my great discouragement, and I will go on with my drawing”

Everywhere I look at the moment there’s discussion about criticism and feedback. Brenda wrote of how some feedback given by experts on an online show was derisive and rude, my fellow OCA students Eileen and Penny have both written this week about their reactions to some hard-to-take feedback they were given, and Tara Sophia Mohr has written a very interesting article on the topic that puts a slightly different spin on things.

Tara’s view is basically this: feedback/criticism doesn’t tell you about you, it tells you about the person giving the feedback. She says that when we seek out feedback, we shouldn’t see it in terms of our own merit or value, but as useful information that tells us whether we are reaching the people we want to reach in the way that we want to reach them (my italics). So if you want to win the camera club competition, feedback from the judges can tell you how to do that. Of course, you may not actually want to produce the sort of work that pleases camera club judges, or higher-level education tutors, or someone who likes ‘greeting card’ photography, or the people who buy for IKEA, and in that case feedback from those people is essentially useless to you and means very little, except whether or not you’re not giving them what they value. If you take on board what they say when you don’t actually want to compete in that field, then you’re going to end up becoming discouraged or untrue to yourself. Of course, if you have ambitions in the area in which they’re expert, then it would be sensible to consider their opinions.

Only consider them, though. It strikes me that a successful photographer can tell you what has worked for them, but not necessarily what will work for you.  That doesn’t mean – at all – that what s/he says should be dismissed. S/he’s successful at something you want to be successful at too and on that basis is worth listening to and has much to pass on that’s useful, helpful and interesting. I suspect, though, that if you put the same photos in front of six very successful photographers, you’d get six very different critiques – each person will give feedback from their own perspective of what they would do, how they would create, all filtered through their particular value system. This can be very useful stuff, but none of them are you, and many of them are only able to tell you how to be ‘them’. To accept without question what they say about your work is as mistaken as dismissing it without thought.

There is also a school of thought that says you have to be able to ‘take it’, that life is full of rejection and that harshly worded critique helps you ‘toughen up’.  It’s mostly men who hold this view (and deliver criticism accordingly), and it seems to be based on the view that ‘it didn’t do me any harm’.  It’s the kind of thing people used to say to justify hitting their children.  Honesty is essential; brutality is not.  People who think that it’s good to knock someone down in order to get them to try harder are often emotionally damaged themselves and don’t have much understanding of human nature and how to get the best out of people.  The big stick may work for some, but most people respond far better to a more enlightened approach.

Mark McGuinness, writing on his blog Lateral Action, gives an ideal example of how criticism can be delivered effectively. At one stage in his career he had several of his poems critiqued by Seamus Heaney, who went on to win the Nobel Prize and who is therefore no lightweight in terms of merit and reputation. McGuinness tells how Heaney focussed on what was working and encouraged him in that, while staying honest about what wasn’t.

“Heaney made it easy for me. He was charming, tactful and funny, while making it very clear where my writing had some promise and where I was wasting my time. I left the room with renewed enthusiasm for writing and respect for the craft. Unfortunately, not everyone is so good at giving feedback.

Effective criticism doesn’t have to be delivered in a hard-to-take manner, and is usually far more effective when it isn’t.  The problem is that very few people are skilled at this and so, if you want feedback from someone who isn’t, you need to be prepared to take the flak and not let it get to you.  If you can’t do that, and there’s a danger it will end up blocking you in your path, then it seems to me you’re better off without it.  You have to know yourself – how much can you take without being discouraged?

Which brings me back to where I started: criticism, and how it’s delivered, says at least as much about the expectations and values of the person delivering it as it does about the merits of the person receiving it.  It tells you if you’re reaching that person and people like them, in the way that you want to reach them.  It doesn’t tell you a whole lot more than that.  If you’re able to adopt this attitude, it can certainly take the sting out of negative feedback and make it easier to deal with the badly-delivered kind.

I do think there’s a small caveat to this which Tara doesn’t mention: that if large numbers of people give you the same negative feedback then there’s probably something to it and you should take it on board.  That certainly applies to most of us.  Of course, if he were alive today Van Gogh might disagree with that………

 

 

Abandoned

Derelict

I’ve become slightly obsessed with the house next door. The house we rent is semi-detached, and the house we’re attached to is derelict.  In a street like this – which is very pleasant, attractive, and middle-class – it’s a real shock to see a house in this state of disrepair.  Through speaking to neighbours, we’ve learned that it’s owned by an elderly lady who’s been living in a care home for many years and who flatly refuses to sell the house, or maintain it.  Windows are broken, the rendering is breaking off the walls, window frames are rotten, rubbish lies everywhere, and there’s grafitti on the back door.   Our landlord has had problems in the past with damp seeping through to our house from next door and it would be difficult to sell the house we’re in because of the threat next door poses to its structure.  Much longer, and the only option for it will be demolition.

It’s desperately sad to see this house lying abandoned and unloved. Something about it touches me and I’ve wanted to photograph it for a while.  It’s quite creepy in some ways; from our own house we often hear muffled thumps and bangs that definitely sound as if they’re coming from the empty house.  I’ve got no doubt there are mice and birds and quite probably rats inside it, and it seems likely these are the source of some of these strange noises.  Still, being round there with one eye shut and the other to the viewfinder, I feel slightly ill at ease.

I haven’t been able to make my mind up how to photograph this. I knew I didn’t want the hard, sharp look of a photojournalistic approach.  I wanted something that felt nostalgic, sad and possibly a little disturbing.  I see this as an ongoing project and I thought I’d make a start by using my Lensbaby, with the plastic optic.  I felt that the soft, slightly unfocussed look of it would give a dream-like feel, and I also wanted the gentle, faded colours and low contrast of an old photograph.  These shots are pretty much straight out of the camera and I’m not totally happy with them, but I can’t think at the moment how else to approach things.  I’d be interested to hear your thoughts and comments.

I’ve been going through rather a tough time lately, with some childhood unhappinesses resurfacing, and I think that may explain my attraction to this sad, neglected building.  It’s one of the few times I’ve been able to directly relate my photography to what’s in my own psyche.  I’m not sure if this helps things along, or perhaps gets in the way.  These are quite different from my usual style – they’re not striking or attractive or colourful.  They’re much quieter and less immediately interesting.  I feel a little self-conscious about them because of this, but this simply feels like something I have to do.

Ivy

Garden gate

Wheel

Shed

Abandoned

Corner

Overgrown

Glass

Front door

Window

52 by 52 – photographing the un-photogenic

Brick wallBricks – yes, but look at those colours!

I stumbled across the 52 by 52 project recently, which is a weekly photography challenge set by a different ‘accomplished’ photographer each week.  You can join in at any point (it’s about halfway through now) and you can post photos in response to old challenges as well as the current one.  I’m not terribly good at sticking to this kind of thing, and I don’t think I’m going to try doing more than the occasional one, but the challenges seemed a lot more interesting than the usual ‘weekly theme’ that you see in other places.  They certainly require a lot more thinking about, to the extent that so far I’ve only thought about them and haven’t actually done any.  I’m not sure whether this is a good thing, but at least it’s engaging my brain cells.

I’m still pondering the one just gone: ‘take a photograph that is strong and necessary of something that is not photogenic’.  OK, ‘strong’ I get, but ‘necessary’?  Mmmm………not sure what that means.   More than that, though, it’s got me thinking about the question of what’s photogenic and what isn’t and why that might be.  If something is ‘photogenic’, my dictionary tells me, it means it looks good when photographed.  By this definition, anything that looks good when I photograph it is not going to be ‘not photogenic’.  I hope I haven’t lost you with all the double negatives here – what I mean is that if I photograph something and it looks good, I haven’t satisfied the brief.  Trouble is, I don’t want to photograph something without attempting to make it ‘look good’ in some sense; I can’t quite see the point.  And I could, of course, get horribly pedantic here and start disappearing up my own philosophical tutu by asking what it means to say that something ‘looks good’.

You’ll be relieved to hear I’m not going to go there; greater minds than me have spent eons on that particular question.  All this pondering, though, has made me question my own need to make things ‘look good’.  (I’ll assume we all know what we mean by that)  There is a photographic trend at the moment for photographing the banal, and keeping the influence of the photographer out of the image as much as possible – that is, you try to leave things looking as banal in the photograph as they do in real life.  My problem with this is that it then becomes very boring to look at (certainly to me); the idea behind it might be interesting, but if there’s nothing to hold my attention visually then I think there may be better media to use to get the concept across.  Photography is a visual art, and I feel there needs to be something visually satisfying about a photograph in order to make you want to look at it.  (And when I say ‘visually satisfying’ I don’t mean it has to be beautiful – which is a word that strikes horror into the souls of art critics – just that there’s something in the purely visual aspect of it that makes you want to keep looking, even at an ugly or boring subject.)

I’m thinking as I say this about the photograph that won the Veolia Environment Wildlife Photographer of the Year prize for 2011.  (I should point out that the photo doesn’t look anything like as good in the small size online as it does when you see it huge on the wall.) The subject matter is some pelicans who’ve been caught in a an oil spill and are covered in black, sticky crude oil.  It’s a disturbing subject, and one that you want to turn away from.  But the photographer has documented the plight of these birds while also managing to create something so visually interesting that you can’t turn away even when you want to.   The colours, the tones, the composition, all pull you in and make you want to keep looking.  Suffering animals distress me a lot, and normally I don’t want to know, but I kept going back to look at this again and again because of its photographic appeal, and for me its emotional impact was heightened by this more than it would have been by a straighter, more journalistic, approach.

But I digress.  I’m aware that I have a strong need in my photography to make what I photograph look good, in this sense of visually satisfying. If I wasn’t allowed to do this – by the art police, say – then I’d give up photography.  It’s that simple; it just wouldn’t hold any interest for me.  I’m a lot out of line with the times in saying this, but that’s how it is.  And I don’t mean that all I want to photograph are sunsets and cute puppies and mountain landscapes, as some of the tutors I know rather condescendingly assume of someone in my position.  I like the mundane, the banal and the everyday, but I want to take them and make them visually interesting or satisfying in some way (and my definition of visual interest/satisfaction is a wide one).  If I can also give them a deeper meaning, one beyond their surface appearance, that would be a bonus.  But deliberately making something look as uninteresting as possible? – well it’s just not for me.  Should I see this as a flaw, or an obstruction to doing quality work?  I’d certainly like to think not, but I’m often given this impression and even start to feel some small sense of shame or embarassment when I know someone who thinks this way might be looking at my work.  Foolish, or what?

This has been an ongoing challenge in my landscape course – how can I work with my need for visual interest and satisfaction without slipping into the realm of the cliche and the chocolate box?  I’m still working on answering that one.  I think a number of students simply jump on the bandwagon of what’s currently approved of by the art establishment because you get a lot of ‘strokes’ for that, and it’s the easy option.  But perhaps I’m doing them a disservice.

Going back to my starting point, I rather suspect the key factor in this challenge is the word ‘necessary’. I include some pictures of very mundane things that I like to think are ‘strong’ in some sense.  However, I somehow don’t think they’re ‘necessary’ – even if I’m not very clear on what that means – and to reproduce them without any of the photographer’s artifice would simply make them dull pictures of dull things.

StringString

Bird on a wireBird on a wire

SunpatchSun patch

WheatWheat

Stacked chairsStacked chairs

Floor, with sunlightSunlight on floor

Tales from the waterways

Waterways Museum, Ellesmere Port

We used to belong to a club that owned an ancient and very battered narrowboat, the big advantage being that you could hire it for very little money compared to normal prices.  You booked your dates, and the morning you were due to leave you’d receive a phonecall or an email telling you where the last person had left the boat.  This could be anywhere – fortunately these boats don’t move fast so it generally wasn’t too far from its home base.  Then you drove to where it was, usually somewhere down a country lane with a muddy, slippery path down to the canal, unearthed the key from the gas cylinder storage cupboard, and let yourself in.  There then followed about twenty trips up and down that slippery path, arms laden with bedding, food, drink and waterproofs.  Once your holiday had come to an end, you found a place to moor, unloaded, took a taxi back to where you’d left your car, and let the next person know where you’d left the boat.  These little breaks contained an element of surprise that’s hard to find nowadays.

It’s a different world on the canals. They often run alongside or underneath major roads and rail routes, but they go unnoticed by the majority and once you’re on the boat you see these familiar things from a whole new perspective.  Large parts of the canal system cut through countryside it would be difficult to get to any other way, and a lot of that countryside is stunningly beautiful.  Birds and wildlife don’t regard the boats as threats, so you get right up close to them in a way you never normally could.  And there’s something very satisfying about the old lock mechanisms – it’s such a technically simple idea but so effective, and locks are interesting places to linger and watch as well.  There’s a peace and simplicity about life on the canals that belongs to a previous age and you can feel that tight spring inside you effortlessly unwinding as you glide through the water, especially if you can manage to be the person in the pointed end with the book and the glass of wine.

It wasn’t as idyllic as this all the time, of course. Nothing is more miserable than standing on the back deck driving the boat while torrential rain bounces off the water and trickles icily down your neck.  And this particular boat was very old.  The sewage tank sometimes hadn’t been emptied by the previous occupants, and the smell from the toilet could be so bad on occasion that we waited till we got near civilisation and used the public loos rather than have to venture in there. The ‘double’ bed I shared with my husband was no wider than a large single and since he’s a large man that involved some serious co-ordination when it came to turning over in the night, not to mention ongoing insomnia.  And all the cupboards were full of rusty tools, old boathooks, and other assorted junk so that there was nowhere to put anything and we’d constantly trip over all the stuff on the floor.  There was also the fun of periodically having to turn the boat round – a 63 foot boat with no directional control when you’re going backwards is not easy to turn in a turning hole that’s not much wider than the boat is long.  There are fishermen who’re probably still cursing us today.

The first twice we used the boat, the engine broke down. We were fortunate the first time – we broke down in Braunston, which is a major canal centre with engineers and chandlery shops all to hand.  The second time was worse.  We’d been told not to stop anywhere  in Leicester as it wasn’t safe – you know what’s coming, don’t you?  The engine went silent somewhere not far from the centre of Leicester.  The boat swung sideways across the canal, but with a bit of judicious use of boathooks we managed to get it into the side and tied it to some trees.  We were near a bridge that led up to a rather sinister and deserted industrial estate, and there were no passing boats, or people on the towpath, or any obvious source of help.  There wasn’t much we could do except that old staple of the British – put the kettle on.  After a couple of hours had passed, a man on a bicycle came by and shouted hello.  He was a volunteer canal warden and contacted a call-out engineer service for us.  The engineer couldn’t come till the next morning, and we were nervous about being left on our own in a notoriously bad area, so we took everything removable and of value inside the boat, and locked ourselves securely in for the night.  We were right to be worried; that evening some local youths started throwing stones at the boat.  They might, in fact, only have been the size of pebbles but the sound a stone makes when it hits the hollow metal box that constitutes a narrowboat has to be heard to be believed.  It was seriously scary.  They left us alone after a while, and the next morning – somewhat sleepless – we were towed to safety.

This long preamble is leading up to the fact that we visited the National Waterways Museum at Ellesmere Port last Saturday, and it’s the most amazing place – if you’re ever anywhere nearby, do go and visit it.  There’s a persistent romance about the canals even though the reality in industrial times was that running a canal boat was a tough life, and had its dangers too.  Whole families lived and did everything in a tiny space that measured about eight feet square (the rest being used for cargo), but they took pride in their living space and boats were decorated and painted, lace curtains were hung, and bonnets were made.  The work was hard and unrelenting and I’m sure I wouldn’t want to have done it, but it still seems to me that it must have been better than repeating some monotonous task all day long in a dark and gloomy factory.  You could at least feel the sun on your back and breathe fresh air, you were part of a strong community, and you were in charge of your own destiny to an extent that most working class people were not.

I leave you with some photos. I’m never very good at taking the kind of big views that make it onto postcards – they don’t interest me much – so these are small things I saw as we walked around, with explanations where necessary.

Rooftop, British Waterways Museum

Gate with shadow

Old boat - detail

Blacksmith's window

These elaborate bonnets were made and worn by the women of the canals.

Bonnets

They also produced this ‘canalware’ – ordinary objects decorated with brightly-coloured roses and castles.  (I have no idea what that white circle is around the one on the right)

Canalware

Light on the water

Leeds and Liverpool Canal

Some commenorative spoons, and some original mud from the excavations of the Manchester Ship Canal, which is nearby.

Mud from Manchester Ship Canal

This is a small row of Porter’s cottages, which were lived in not only by porters, but by shipwrights, blacksmiths, and other workers associated with the canals.  Each cottage recreates a home from a different era – 1840s, 1900s, 1930s and 1950s – with all the furnishings and decor of its time.  We got there just as they were locking the cottages up at the end of the day, so we only had a quick look, but the little we did see was fascinating.

Sunlight Soap

Sink

And finally, this one simply amused me: a picture of a tap to let you know the thing that looks like a tap underneath is, indeed, a tap.

Tap

Ness Gardens – capturing water

Waterfall, Ness Gardens

Some more photos from Ness Gardens. I went there thinking I might be able to get some shots that would work for my current assignment.  I’m working on a set of 12 photos that emulate the style of Ernst Haas, and I wanted to concentrate on the kind of work he did for his book The Creation.  This was an ambitious attempt to tell the biblical creation story in pictures, and is divided into three parts: the elements, the seasons, and the creatures.  In order to narrow it down a bit, I thought I’d stick to the section on the elements and was even thinking that I might just do water and forget about earth, air and fire (I feel I might have particular trouble with the fire element as, unlike Haas, I don’t have access to many volcanoes).  I’m not at all sure about this and it will probably depend on what I manage to achieve image-wise.  The idea is to capture the essence and feeling of that element, as it might have been as the earth was being formed, so  man-made intrusions aren’t welcome.  As you can see, all except possibly the last one fail on these grounds, but my close-up images of the water itself simply didn’t work.

Haas wasn’t a great one for realism, preferring to use an abstract approach that expressed his feeling about the subject matter.  I already have a small number of shots that I’m happy with and think will work for my assignment – you can see one of these previous attempts at capturing the water element here.

Waterfall, Ness Gardens

Waterfall, Ness Gardens

Waterfall, Ness Gardens

There’s something about the combination of reflections in water with things floating on its surface that I find intriguing.  These two shots are much closer in spirit to what I want to achieve, but unfortunately don’t make the grade either, as they’re not really saying ‘water’ and aren’t close enough to Haas’ style.

Water and sky, Ness Gardens

Tree reflections, Ness Gardens

I really like the richness of colour in this one, although it reminds me more of Eliot Porter than Ernst Haas:

Pool

And I love the light in this shot, and that red leaf, although it’s not at all what I’m trying to do for my assignment.

Pool, Ness Gardens

Anyway, I did at least acquire another two shots for my ‘Fallen’ series (if you missed my posts about it, see here and here).  I’m not too happy with the amount of contrast in the first one – I think it’s a bit harsh, and actually the more I look at it, the less I like it and I think it might end up being trashed.  I’m much happier with the second one – I like the way the light is falling in this one.  I added a small amount of vignetting to hold the attention on the leaf.

Feather

Fallen leaf

Serendipity is a wonderful thing

EruptionEruption

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.

Oil spillDistant galaxies

RainbowSea serpent

HorizonSea Horizon

Mountain topsNight mountains

FlightFlight

SunsetSunset

LandscapeWinter Landscape

Oil spill 3