My old cat died last night, just a couple of weeks short of her twentieth birthday. She stopped eating, and for the latter half of the day she lay there glassy-eyed and unmoving and I knew it was time. She was so thin it was hard to see how her body could support life, her fur was dry and matted, and she felt so fragile I thought she might shatter with a touch. Her time had come.
I wanted to hold vigil with her on her last night, so I wrapped her in a blanket and laid her on a cushion beside my bed. At 12:50am she began to twitch wildly, then took her last few ragged breaths as I gently stroked her. I think it was a good death, with a minimum of suffering, in a familiar place, wrapped in all the love I have to give.
The kittens gathered round, unsure what was happening, but somehow knowing to keep a respectful distance. Later, I placed her body on a table in my office and Fingal extended a gentle paw to touch hers. I was lucky enough to have my camera in my hand at the time.
A little while ago, I wrote this poem after Wicca had made a rare visit to me when I was lying sleepless in bed one night. We have a three-storey house and she hadn’t been to the top floor of the house in months.
You came to me tonight,
easing your arthritic body up several steep flights
just to see me,
and allow me to stroke your dulled fur
and murmur your name into deaf ears.
I was having dark thoughts till you came,
but you led me back to a safe place
and my heart unfurled,
and the soft purr of a loved old cat was all I needed
to let me feel what there is of peace in this world.
I have two kittens. My early morning quiet is punctuated by the drumroll of eight tiny paws hurtling up and down stairs, on and off furniture, in and out of rooms. Set free from the confines of their overnight room, all that energy demands release. A thrown-away crumpled ball of paper becomes a delight – prey to be batted around, pounced on, chased. Once, they found the ultimate prize under the sideboard – a dead bumblebee! Pot plants rustle delightfully when playing tag through them, one at each side, and any object on a high surface is guaranteed to make a fascinating noise as it crash lands on the floor, if they can only get up there to knock it off. Curtains are made for climbing on, and for having mock tussles with each other while both cling on with claws hooked into the fabric.
Fingal is a black and white ‘tuxedo’ kitten, with a white bib, paws and underbelly, and a smudged diagonal white mark across his nose. His eyes are as round as the hole in a polo mint and full of kittenish wonder. He’s a floppety sort of cat, constantly falling off things, utterly relaxed, toppling and rolling onto his back at every opportunity, softness personified.
He thinks everyone is his friend, and so far that’s the way it’s worked out. He loves people, and will start up a deep rattling purr like the waves breaking on a pebble beach, at the slightest hint of attention from a human. Sometimes it’s hard to believe such a sound can come from such a small creature. He loves to cuddle, and his greeting to me is to come close to my face and very, very gently touch noses. This makes him – and me – very happy.
Flora is a tabby who looks a lot like a snow leopard – she’s exquisitely beautiful (this photo doesn’t do her justice). Her eyes are almond shaped and full of bright intelligence – while Fingal plays the clown, she is the brains of the outfit. She’s fussy about who touches her. When she first arrived I thought she was nervous, but then I realised she’s not scared of much at all, although she exercises a sensible caution in her interactions.
It took nearly a week before she’d let me stroke her, although she consented to play-fight my finger from the beginning. She did this with grace and gentle politeness, claws immaculately sheathed, never hurting me, just the velvet bat of her pads against my hand. It turns out she prefers men to women – she was all over Geoff the minute she saw him, eyes squinting shut in ecstasy as he rubbed behind her ears. That made me happy as well, if a little jealous. She adores Fingal, too, and tenderly puts an arm round his neck as she uses the other paw to wash his face. There’s no doubt she prefers men, but she’s getting to quite like me anyway, despite my gender. Last night she curled up on my lap and slept, and I’m now permitted to stroke and pet most areas although not, for some reason, her head and face.
They have brought such joy into my life. I still have Wicca, my cat of almost twenty years old, but it was making me terribly sad to see her so frail and old. She’s my first cat love and will always be very special to me, but I needed to bring some life and promise and joy into the house and the kittens have done just that. Wicca is being coddled, with hot water bottles on a comfy chair and everything she needs in one room, and we’re doing our best to make her remaining time as comfortable and happy as possible. I still feel sad to see her so reduced, but the fun and freshness of the kittens counteract that to a large extent, and promise a future where I won’t be left alone in a home empty of animals.
Photographing kittens is so difficult! These shots aren’t great, as I had to use an ISO of 1600, and even that wasn’t enough to get a truly fast enough shutter speed that would totally avoid camera or subject movement. Unfortunately my old camera only goes this far up the scale – I was using it because I think there are some focussing issues with the new one. I hope to get some better shots soon – the kittens are changing and growing so fast and I want to capture the cuteness before I find they’ve grown into full-size cats without me noticing. And it seems to me that sometimes it’s good enough for a photo’s to function as memory, and that a shot is worth having if it brings those to mind when you look at it, even if it’s sorely lacking in technical merit.
I know, I missed a week – I wasn’t feeling well, then my cat got sick, then my internet connection disappeared. Eventually I surrendered and accepted that it just wasn’t meant to be. I’ve taken on far too much lately. My Airbnb room has been booked almost solidly, and I now have a long-term booking till September. The long-term thing is a relief, as I’ll only have to clean and change sheets once a week, and I’m not doing breakfast at all.
I have this weekend to get through before that, however, and it’s typical of what I’ve been doing over the last 2-3 months. I have someone staying at the moment, till Thursday, then he leaves at lunchtime and my next guests turn up at 3.00pm. They stay till Saturday morning, and another guest arrives Saturday lunchtime. Then she leaves on Sunday morning and my long-term guest is installed sometime on Sunday afternoon.
Sometimes I feel like I do nothing much other than change beds, wash sheets, iron, clean, and shop, but I’m also still working in the library and doing occasional photography work for the Town Hall Museum, as well as tending the rest of the house, looking after our large garden, keeping the rabbits and the cat alive, maintaining some sort of social life, and trying to keep up with blog posts. Oh yes, and squeezing in the occasional bit of photography. Frankly, I’m tired.
It’s not just the physical work that tires me, it’s the fact that, as an introvert, it’s very wearing for me to have strangers constantly in the house. I’m a very sociable introvert, and I do enjoy meeting the huge variety of people that visit, but sometimes I long to be able to do what I want to do without having to think about how it will impact on my guests. I long to be able to go down to the kitchen in the morning and make a cup of tea, without having to put on my hostess face and make conversation. I long to be able to take a shower when I feel like it, rather than working around my guests’ schedules. I long to be able to go to bed and leave the kitchen in a mess until the morning. Most of all, I long just to be in the house on my own for a while without any obligations.
Normally I make sure I have some gaps between bookings, and this has kept me sane over the last year or so of hosting, but an offer I couldn’t refuse – of an ongoing Sunday to Thursday let – has filled in all the gaps and given me no respite. My home no longer feels like my sanctuary, but more like a workplace with no off-duty hours. Unable ever to switch off completely, I have worn myself down and worn myself out, so I’ve made the decision now to rent the room on a more long-term basis and hopefully free myself up to concentrate on those things that really matter to me. The potential income is less, but it’s enough, and the lifting of pressure should more than make up for it.
Since this is all about what’s been happening on the domestic front, this week’s image continues on a domestic theme. There’s a beautiful silver birch tree just outside the kitchen window, and in the evenings the sun shines through it, projecting the movement, light and shadow of its leaves and branches onto the kitchen wall. It just so happened to work rather nicely with the green wall and the red tea cloth.
On a technical note, the combination of strongly contrasting light and shade and that dreaded red colour, make this a difficult choice of subject. There are two areas where the highlights have blown somewhat – one bright spot near the top left, and an area of the red cloth near the bottom. (Oddly enough, the other bright spot to the right of the towels hasn’t actually blown, although you might think it had.) Short of using HDR, there really isn’t any way round this – maintaining the detail in the highlights would leave the overall exposure too dark. However, I might have been able to claw back more of the detail in the blown areas if I could have worked with the Raw files – still haven’t got round to buying a new version of Elements!
The book – I took the photo after two large glasses of wine, in a hurry, and in low light, and yes, there is camera movement – happens to us all sometimes!
When we first moved to this area we rented a wonderful 17th century cottage – living in it felt like being enveloped in a warm hug. We became good friends with our landlady Maria, who is one of the most delightful and lovely people you could ever hope to meet. She loves her cottage too, so when we left I wanted to give her something very personal as a thank you.
That was about a year and a half ago, and it’s taken me till now to do it. My idea was to photograph small quirky parts of the cottage and make the resulting images into a keepsake book. I took all the shots before we left and then things stagnated for a while, partly because we were very busy settling into our new home and partly because I didn’t know how to make the kind of book I had in mind.
Eventually I went on a small workshop that took me through the steps of making a leather-bound book, but then my ambitions began to soar and I had so many complicated ideas for how Maria’s book should be put together that I confused myself into a standstill. Eventually I got clearer (and simpler) on what I wanted to do, and while still a bit overly ambitious for a first attempt, it began to look do-able.
Unfortunately there was little prospect of seeing Maria for a long time, as she was then sole carer to her two very elderly and infirm parents and rarely had any time to herself. I’m the kind of person who’s far more likely to get things done if there’s at least a loose sort of deadline in place, and knowing I probably wouldn’t see Maria for ages meant that the book was constantly put on the back burner.
Things change, however, and Maria’s mother died a short while ago and with only her father to care for she gained a little bit more time for herself, although I still hadn’t managed to meet up with her. Then last week we had a small impromptu party and I invited Maria, expecting her to say that it would be too difficult for her to come. But then she said yes……
I was thrilled she was coming, but went into instant panic about the book. It meant I really had to get it finished, and in a matter of days, at that. But I did it, and the pictures you see here are the result.
First page – the lace lining is part of a curtain that used to be in the cottage
Let me explain something of how it was put together. The leather cover is lined in lace and the lace came from a small curtain in the bedroom of the cottage. One day when we were out, there was a sudden summer storm and when we got back we found the bedroom window (which we’d left open) had been banging back and forth in the wind, trapping the curtain and tearing it. When we left, I took the torn curtain with me thinking I’d use it in some way for the book. Part of it made the lining, and I used the piece that was left as a kind of stencil.
Because the images aren’t hugely interesting in themselves, being meaningful only if you know the cottage, I felt that some of the pages needed jazzing up a little. I had the idea of spraying gold paint through sections of the curtain lace, and tried to link up the pattern with the photograph – eg, on the opposite page of a photo of the brick kitchen floor, I used a section of curtain that looked a little like a brick pattern.
Sewing the pages in wasn’t easy. I had some thin cord that I wanted to use, but then found I didn’t have a needle with a big enough eye in it to get the cord through it. With a bit of help from Geoff, I did manage to thread it in the end, and then found that I had to make what seemed like enormous holes in the spine to get it through. I was worried about the lace inside tearing, but fortunately it didn’t.
The cover needed decoration too, and some kind of fastening. Eventually I found some outsize decorative wooden buttons on Ebay, and some fancy string-like trimming in a local shop. I had planned to sew the button on, but it would have spoiled the effect of the lace inside as the stitching would have shown on it. In the end, I glued it on with fabric glue after creating some fake stitching to make it look sewn. I also glued the trim to the underside of it, and the trimming then wrapped round the book and was held in place by the edge of the button. Surprisingly, it all worked out very well.
I finished it yesterday, and handed it over, wrapped in Christmas paper, to Maria. She won’t open it till Christmas day, and I really, really hope she likes it – but more than that, I’m just so relieved to have it finished at last. And for those of a worried disposition, she doesn’t read my blog so I think it’s safe to post……
A little bit of research on Google produced this map from 1906, with the cottage marked on it
The Welcome sign on the outside of the cottage, plus a view from outside, looking into the kitchen
The original brick floor in the Victorian kitchen extension. The gold stencil on the left page echoes the brick pattern of the floor.
The beam above this wall light in an upstairs corridor is covered with 1950s newspaper, announcing Queen Elizabeth the second’s coronation
Close-up of the stencilling, created with gold paint sprayed through part of the lace curtain
The stairs to the attic master bedroom were all of uneven heights and sizes and twisted round in a curve. The door at the bottom warned you to Mind the Stairs.
I got rather gloomy after writing the last post. I’d forgotten how conflicted I was about studying degree level photography, how it felt so constraining, and how I constantly had the sensation of being torn in two different directions – what I wanted to do, and what I felt I had to do. What really prompted me to write about this at all, however, was that I’ve since realised that doing these courses also had many positive effects, some of them long-term. What follows is a summary of the main ones.
A structure to work within – when I started studying I was doing what most people do when they’re new to photography and wildly excited about it: taking random shots of everything and anything that caught my eye without making any kind of sustained progress. It was good to have interesting assignments that made me think harder about what I was doing and what I wanted to achieve. I can create my own structure now, but I wouldn’t have known how to at the time or had the discipline to stick with it without some external promptings. The assignments were interesting and challenging and allowed a lot of scope for personal interpretation, and most of the courses were well-written, thoughtfully put together, and stimulating.
Encouragement to work in themes – working in series, or themes, was new to me when I started. I came to realise quite quickly that it’s much more fulfilling to work this way and it produces a more coherent, thoughtful body of work than the one-shot wonders I’d been producing. I still take one-off shots of things that catch my eye, and I enjoy that, but what I really love to do is to explore something thoroughly, seeing more and more of its nuances and depths. Working on projects like this has moved my photography forward in a way that nothing else has, and has made it much more worthwhile and satisfying. This is one of the best things I got from the experience.
Background knowledge – I learned a lot about the contemporary and historical photography world, and a little about photographic/art theory. I don’t think I would done so much of this on my own. It’s given me a good foundation from which to discuss photography and photographers, and it’s knowledge I take pleasure in having. It makes viewing exhibitions much more meaningful and enjoyable, too.
A more open mind – I had to look at the work of photographers that I would have otherwise avoided. While not particularly pleasurable, this was really good for me and made me work to understand what was behind the images and what made them notable. Over time I came to appreciate photography that I would previously have dismissed. I learned to spend longer looking and avoid the knee-jerk ‘like/don’t like’ reaction I might have had before.
A supportive community of other students – this was a huge advantage, which I found far more valuable than anything else. I made a number of good friends, many of whom I’m still in touch with, and a few whom I meet up with face to face. I knew that I could get considered and thoughtful feedback from peers any time I wanted it, and I received immense support and encouragement from other students, particularly during a time when it was singularly lacking from official OCA sources.
Study visits – latterly, OCA began to hold study visits to significant exhibitions. These offered more opportunities to meet and talk to other students, and hear tutors talk about the work we were viewing, giving us additional insight into it. I also went on a residential weekend, which was arranged by the students themselves (in conjunction with OCA), and that was an amazing and thoroughly enjoyable experience.
It included the opportunity to bring some work and have it critiqued by both a tutor and a group of students. I was apprehensive about this to begin with, but having a variety of people contribute their thoughts resulted in a more rounded feedback that was less open to the bias one person might show. It also increased my confidence to have another tutor say some very positive things about my work – I’d accepted by this time that I was never going to do very well within OCA, so this gave me a bit of a boost. Of course, it could equally well have gone the other way……….
Greater self-awareness – one good thing about identifying what you don’t want is that it points the way to what you do want. All the angst I went through at times had the effect of throwing some light on what it was I most wanted from photography. It made me question myself, in a good way.
Increased self-confidence – this may seem unlikely given what I said in my previous post, but it’s a matter of ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’. I certainly lost a lot of confidence while I was doing the courses, but ultimately I realised that if I wanted to continue doing photography I couldn’t place too much importance on what any one tutor – or anyone else for that matter – said to me about my work. I once had the same assignment marked by two different tutors and, although the overall mark was similar, the individual feedback on each image was markedly different. Assessing any kind of art is unavoidably subjective and I stopped taking any of it very seriously – good or bad. Of course, I then asked myself if there was a point to doing the course at all and I came to the conclusion that there wasn’t. By that time, I had structures in place that gave me the other things I’d gained from studying, and if all that was left was course material, assignments and tutor feedback then it wasn’t enough to justify the costs involved in carrying on (both financial and emotional).
Were I to go back to degree study again, I’m sure all the old feelings of inadequacy would resurface – I was always a square peg trying to fit myself into a round hole and that makes it very difficult to hold on to confidence in your work. But now I’m beginning to feel I’ve found my niche and my voice, and that I’ve made a solid foundation from which to move forward. In a strange, and often indirect way, studying brought me to this place.
At first, once I’d removed myself from the college I felt a little bit lost for a while, unsure of what I wanted to do or what I was aiming for. Slowly I returned to the approach I had when I first started, albeit augmented by the positive things I’d taken from my period of study. When I came across contemplative photography I realised that this is how I naturally work and suddenly I felt as if I’d come home. College work was supposed to involve a lot of planning and research before you even got the camera out, and although I did go about things this way sometimes, it never felt right and never produced my best work. At other times, I went back to working in a way that felt natural to me and added in the ‘planning’ and research afterwards to keep everybody happy.
And that was the real problem – when you do something with the end in mind, whether that’s a certificate, good marks, approval from peers/tutors, or whatever, there’s a real danger that you lose your way. Some people are strong-minded enough to avoid this – I’m not always one of them. To be truly creative you have to spend time in play, and feel free to make mistakes, and this wasn’t a culture where mistakes were well-received. I became less and less adventurous and played it more and more safe. And as I did, my marks got lower and lower, which in turn made me lose confidence, and the whole thing went spiralling downwards. Looking back at some of the work I did for assignments, I can see that while it was perfectly OK, a lot of it didn’t reflect or express who I was. I’m glad to have left it all behind, and grateful for the benefits I’ve brought with me.
Images are of St Dunstan’s Church in London and form part of an early assignment for the Landscape course. I’ve pulled out the ones that feel most like ‘me’ – the others in the set never did.
It’s been two years now since I stopped studying with Open College of the Arts, and I miss it a lot less than I feared I might. Anyone who’s known me for any length of time will know of my very mixed feelings towards higher level arts education, and I thought it might be timely to take a balanced look at the whole thing, now that I’ve been away from it for a while. Here’s my attempt to explain what I feel I lost and gained from the process – I’m aware that it’s a very personal take on it.
To talk about the best and the worst of it in one go threatened to make this an unreadably long blog post, so I’ve divided it into two parts. In this part, I want to explain why studying photography at higher education level didn’t work for me. In part two, I want to add some balance by talking about the very real benefits that also came out of it. First of all, the negatives:
The emphasis was too academic – despite the fact that this is a hands-on pursuit, I felt I was spending far too much time theorising about photography and discussing other photographers’ work. Being a philosophy graduate, I enjoy a bit of theory and I like that kind of discussion, but it wasn’t what made me take up photography. Quite the reverse – I wanted, for a change, to get out of my head and into my body. I wanted to do something rather than talk about it. Naively, I hadn’t understood that the act of taking photos would be turned into something quite so academic.
It was too concerned with the post-modern and the conceptual – the bias (certainly with the tutor I had for most of the time, and the course assessors) was towards post-modernist approaches to photography. I find post-modernism empty and cynical. My understanding of it is that it rejects everything and proposes nothing positive – its concerns are with tearing things down, without building something new up in its place. I’m not a cynical person and I simply couldn’t fit myself into this model – and actually, I didn’t want to. (For those of you not sure what post-modernism is exactly………..well, it’s not easy to explain and I’m not sure I’ve entirely got a handle on it myself yet. I do know enough to know that it’s not an approach that sits well with me.)
For me, much of the photography I was encouraged to look at, learn about, and aspire to, struck me as over-intellectualised and/or lacking in aesthetic satisfaction. I often felt like the little boy in The Emperor’s New Clothes, but was told (by one particular tutor) that my opinions arose out of ignorance and a closed mind. Perhaps there’s some truth there, but I felt that there wasn’t any room for me to voice my doubts, and I couldn’t help having those doubts.
The emphasis on the conceptual meant that ideas were regarded as more important than images – for me, photography is a visual art and I want it to provide some kind of visual satisfaction. This needn’t be pleasurable or pretty, but I believe there should be something there in the image that makes you want to look at it, that makes it interesting in itself even without knowing anything of the idea behind it. That attitude put me out of sync with many of the people I interacted with but no amount of wishing I felt differently was ever going to change something I felt so strongly about.
There was nowhere where students could go to talk among themselves – ie, the online equivalent of the student common room. There is a forum on Flickr which is student run, but it’s closely monitored by OCA and some tutors actively participate in it. This has its advantages, of course, but it’s a big disadvantage when at least one of the tutors in question had a tendency to steamroller over anyone who expressed an opinion not in line with his own. There was some discussion, around the time that I left, about whether students should be ‘allowed’ a space of their own, and this may have happened by now – I don’t know. As it was, open exchange of views and mutual support for many students was limited to occasional face to face contact, or behind the scenes emails, unless they felt confident enough to take the rough with the smooth on the forums – I know for a fact that many didn’t. For myself, well I did participate in the forums for a long while, but eventually I became tired of always feeling on the defensive.
I rarely felt that I understood what was wanted – the course assessors seemed to be looking for something that eluded me. It was made clear that I wasn’t producing the goods, but I was lost in terms of understanding what those might be and no-one seemed able to tell me. It pressed a lot of buttons for me – growing up, my mother would make it obvious that I’d seriously displeased her, but she’d make me play guessing games to try and figure out what I’d done, refusing to tell me. It took me right back to those frustrated, helpless, angry feelings of trying to please, and failing, that I had as a child.
I understand that some things can be intangible and hard to identify, and that it’s easier to know that something isn’t right than it is to identify whatever positive thing it’s lacking. I accept that, and maybe it just wasn’t possible to make this easier for me. However, what it encouraged in me was my need to please others at the expense of pleasing my self, and that’s a part of me that can get out of hand all too quickly. When I found myself worrying about other people’s reactions even as I was pressing the shutter, and when I stopped doing the kind of photography I enjoyed because it didn’t seem ‘acceptable’, then I knew I had to think seriously about whether this was right for me.
It badly damaged my confidence – I had a tutor who was known for his ascerbic dismissal of students work and opinions. He was active on the main forums where students interacted with each other, and although he was very knowledgeable and in many ways helpful, his attitude was – and these are his words – ‘me tutor, you student, I tell you’. I had had run-ins with him – as had many students – during discussions on the forums, but he had always seemed happy with my work and came across as much more amiable in private than he did in public.
That was, until I produced some work that he really didn’t like at all. I’m not disagreeing here with his criticisms of it – I’m aware that it wasn’t very good – but his sudden tearing apart of everything I’d done without giving me anything positive to hold onto was a tremendous shock. I quote here the words with which he concluded his feedback: “Well, reading all that back, it is a pretty good hatchet job on your assignment”. At the time, it felt like a hatchet job on my heart and soul. I didn’t pick up a camera for several months after that, and it took years before I regained any real confidence in my own work. I changed tutors, of course, and the next tutor was helpful and encouraging, but I lost something the day I read that feedback and it took a long, long time to get it back again. I almost didn’t.
The conclusion I came to, in the end, was that the College and I were simply a bad fit. Colleges are obliged to teach what’s current and to position themselves within the zeitgeist, and most of all to keep the funding bodies happy, and the fact that that didn’t happen to align with my own values and attitudes isn’t their fault. I was in the wrong place. I wish, though, that what talent I had could have been nurtured and encouraged, and that I could have been helped to find a path that suited me rather than feeling I had to walk down theirs. This is what I want from education, and it’s what I had hoped for.
I was also very unfortunate to find myself in the firing line of an unusually arrogant and opinionated tutor. I would like to point out that he did have many redeeming qualities – he worked hard, gave much more extensive feedback than many other tutors did, he was very knowledgeable about photography and art, and he did his best to be helpful and truly believed that he was. Again, however, we were a very bad fit – I tend towards being over-sensitive and he had all the sensitivity of a brick. I don’t feel I gained anything worthwhile from the contact I had with him over several years, and for a time I was very damaged by it. I’ve since met some great tutors with whom I feel I might have done much better.
I was never bothered about gaining a degree from my studies, as many of the other students were. I already have that, and what I wanted was something that would stretch me and motivate me and help me grow in a natural direction for me. It turned out that a degree course wasn’t the thing to do that. The problem with photography education – as I see it – is that it’s either focussed entirely on technical issues and compositional rules, or it’s heavily academic. At the time, I couldn’t find any alternatives. A better pathway for me, more in line with my beliefs and attitudes, might have been a contemplative photography course, but I wasn’t aware these existed till relatively recently.
Despite all of the above, I’m honestly not sorry to have done these courses, although I’m very pleased I’m not doing them any more – a sense of lightness and freedom has come back into my photography practice that I lost while I was involved with studying. However, it wasn’t all bad – in part two I’ll redress the balance and explain what I did get from the experience and how it continues to benefit me.
The two leaf images are from a lighting assignment completed in my early days studying with OCA.
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 each time and hope you’ll enjoy following the links and having a look round.
Linda Bembridge – Bembridge covers a wide range of styles, from the more traditional to the experimental, and although I’ve just said above that I’m not keen on wildlife photography, I do really like her Falkland penguins! There’s a lot of abstract work here, as well as more representational images.
Susan Brown – again, quite a mixture here ranging from representational to long exposure images. Brown has done a whole series on salt water pools, which I liked a lot, and in the Landscape gallery there are some images of beech trees in the fog that I found breathtakingly delicate and lovely. Her Other gallery contains quite a bit of street photography – I particularly enjoyed the skateboarders.
Kathleen Clemons – Kathleen is known primarily as a flower photographer, although her range is not limited to that. She’s also a Lensbaby aficionado, which makes her a little unusual. Her flower images are exquisite.
[Wo]men are only free when they’re doing what the deepest self likes. And there is getting down to the deepest self! It takes some diving.
D H Lawrence
I’m lucky enough to have spent most of my working life doing things that I like. This hasn’t made for the greatest career path, nor has it usually brought in much money, but for the most part I’ve enjoyed the work and have loved the variety. What I realised recently, though, was that I’ve seldom given myself permission to go for what my ‘deepest self’ wants.
As Lawrence says, ‘it takes some diving’ to get down that deep and, once down there, some courage to admit to what that self wants and an openness to believing that it might be possible to have it. It’s easy to fool yourself that you have indeed dived deep, when in fact you’ve only gone just under the surface and the real truth is waiting for discovery, on the ocean bed of who you really are.
I’ve been interested in art since I was a child, but it was never encouraged and, despite winning a couple of (very) small prizes in local competitions, I didn’t believe that I had any talent. As I did have talent academically, this was the route I was directed down and it wouldn’t even have occurred to me to think that I could have a career centred around art. If I’d understood it as a possibility at the time, I might have studied art history, but art itself? – not an option.
But that deep part of me that craved for artistic expression kept trying to come out. When I was first married it got channelled into interior design, sewing, knitting, and painting bits of furniture; it showed itself in creating displays when I worked in a bookshop; as a hypnotherapist it got expression through working with creative visualisation and metaphor; and I understand now that I trained as a colour and style consultant (I wasn’t cut out for it in any other way) largely because it offered an opportunity to be creative with clothes and colours.
But I wasn’t diving deep enough and these things only partially satisfied what my deep self wanted, which is one reason why I never stuck with anything for long. I was doing my best to give my deepest self what it wanted, but in a modified way that fitted with what I thought I could have and – sometimes – what the people around me thought it was OK for me to have. I would have said that I was doing what I really wanted to do, and in a sense I was, but I wasn’t going deep enough. Finally I acknowledged the deep me for long enough to sign up to some drawing and painting classes and got up the courage to ask my tutor if she thought I could get into an Access course for Art and Design. She said yes, I applied, I got in, and I discovered photography. That was the beginning of diving deep, and it only took me, oh, about fifty years to get to this stage. Never too late, of course, but I mourn a little for the lost years.
Even now, I don’t dive deep enough. Teaching has always been my vocation and when I started to teach photography I thought that finally I was doing what I most wanted to do. That might have been true for a short while, and it was certainly something I was very happy to do (although that’s true of most of the things I’ve done), but it wasn’t the aspect of photography I most wanted to teach.
Recently I’ve allowed myself to – at last! – give voice to my deepest desires, and that’s to work with contemplative photography. It suits me – it brings together my interests in art, philosophy and psychology, and my love of teaching. It also frightens the heck out of me, because it’s not like showing someone the way round a camera, which is nicely cut and dried – press this button, adjust this dial, and this is what you’ll get. The questions rise up – am I able to do this? how am I going to do this? where should I start? shouldn’t I just stick to what’s easy?
I was, like many of us, brought up to think not only that I couldn’t have what I most wanted, but to believe that I was wrong for wanting it at all. A recurring phrase from my childhood – one that horrifies me when I think about it – was ‘those that want don’t get‘. It’s a Catch-22 recipe for not allowing yourself to even acknowledge what it is that you want and I sincerely hope no-one ever says this to their children anymore. Over the years, after much self-therapy, I was willing to think that it was OK for me to want what I wanted, but still the habit sticks of only allowing myself to want what I think I can get – to dive just under the surface and fool myself that I’ve gone all the way down.
Those depths are scary places. You might find yourself unable to breathe, you don’t know exactly what you’ll find there, it’s dark down there on the ocean bed, and bringing what you find back up to the surface to have a better look at it makes you feel intensely vulnerable. And there’s the getting down………in real life, I’m rather buoyant and I have to use a lot of energy and strength to swim underwater. The deeper I try to go, the harder it is – I just bob right back up again. So true that the physical world often reflects the mental one.
I hope that many of you who read this have had the courage – and encouragement – to dive deep. For some of us it takes a lifetime, and some of us, sadly, die with our song still in us. And even diving deep takes us only so far – we still have to act on it. But that’s a whole other story……..
In the last month, our Airbnb bookings have really taken off. We’re in the middle, right now, of more than a fortnight’s worth of back to back bookings and that, plus my casual job in the local libraries, has taken up so much of my time and attention that this week’s blog post is only just scraping into what is still, technically, this week.
I’ve never done so much bed changing, house cleaning, and laundry. I’ve never waited for so many people to turn up at the door, rarely arriving anywhere close to the time that they say they will. I’ve never set so many breakfast tables or bought so much bread and toilet paper. But it’s been good – everyone who’s stayed so far has been lovely, it’s been interesting to meet and talk to so many people, and it’s producing a goodly amount of much needed income. The guest before the current ones also presented us with a freshly-caught trout, which was great but led to some consternation about which of us was going to gut it.
Out of all the people who’ve booked, there’s only been one awkward customer and he hasn’t even arrived yet. He’s booked in next week for five days, made the booking several days ago, and has been bombarding me with messages ever since. First off he wanted to know exactly how far we were from his place of work. This seemed to me like something he could have worked out for himself, but I duly found the website for his workplace, got the postcode, entered both postcodes into Google maps, hit Directions, got the info, and sent it back to him. Then he wanted to know if he could have a discount for a longish stay, so we took a bit off the usual fee. To do this, I had to send him a Special Offer, and he then wanted to know every step of the process – answer: I don’t know because no-one’s ever sent me one – and could he pay with this card or that card, and what did he have to click on, etc, etc – answer: click Accept and try following the instructions.
After he did this and booked, the next message I got asked how he could cancel and what the terms and conditions were. Not that he wanted to cancel, he pointed out, but he wanted to know. I didn’t say that perhaps it would have been a good idea to check this out before he booked. I suggested he clicked on the clearly marked link on our listing, where it says Cancellation: Moderate, which would take him straight to what he wanted to know.
Then it was: could he cook his lunch and dinner in our kitchen? – he’d bring his own implements. Answer: No – because it clearly states in our listing that it’s light use of the kitchen only and not for serious cooking. I suggested various takeaways close by. OK, he said, could he put a week’s worth of frozen meals in our freezer? I gave him a yes on this one, because although our freezer is very small it’s fairly empty at the moment and I was getting tired of saying no.
After that it was: could he drop off his luggage early in the morning before he went to work, and if he couldn’t do that, could he bring it the night before and leave it here. Answer: No – because I’d already made it a condition of taking the booking that he couldn’t check in till after 5.30pm as we had other guests staying, I was going to be out for most of the day, and Geoff will be out the whole day into the evening. First thing in the morning I’ll be tending to our departing guests, running Geoff to the station, stripping the bed and getting the room and the house ready, and trying to get out the door and have the long and leisurely lunch with a friend that I had planned long before I knew he was coming. I also had the feeling he wouldn’t turn up when he said he would (hardly anyone does) and would probably keep me talking and be hard to get out the door.
Every day brings a new request, and he hasn’t even arrived yet. I’m rather dreading his stay. I’ve turned it into a game now – we try to guess what the next request is going to be, becoming more and more outlandish as we rather hysterically try to out-think him. Today I’m holding my breath because, so far, he hasn’t been in touch.
While all this has been going on, I’ve been offered more and more library work. I’m very grateful for the work – it’s pleasant, not terribly badly paid, and the people are nice. It’s just that I wouldn’t choose to do it if I didn’t have to. Integrating the Airbnb commitments with the library commitments can sometimes be a major exercise in logistical planning. Geoff is fantastic at doing lots of the practical stuff, like hoovering, but he doesn’t have the knack of making things look nice and dressing the room properly, so it has to me that does these things. One or other of us also has to be in to receive them, which can be difficult when they turn up much earlier or several hours later than they say they will.
Anyway, this a very long and rambling excuse as to why I haven’t written anything this week, till now. And I don’t have much to say this time. Nor have I managed to get out and do any photography. However, the skies as seen from my study window have been nothing short of spectacular, so I’m going to leave you with those. I hope you enjoy.
I’ve struggled to write anything this week, because I simply can’t write in the way I usually do. If I’m to write anything at all, then it has to be about what’s going on for me right now, and that means a much more personal post than normal. The truth is, I’ve been feeling very, very low, to the extent of having prolonged crying sessions most days that do very little to make me feel any better. There are lots of things to feel stressed about, it’s true, but things have been worse before this and I’ve held it together far better.
Today I suddenly realised what’s wrong with me – I need to fill the well. I feel overwhelmed and at the end of my rope with nothing left in me to give, am totally drained and exhausted and, because of it, swing back and forth between numbness and over-emotional outbursts. Normally I don’t get to this state because when I see myself headed there I make sure to do things that help restore my self to me – things that fill the well.
The problem has been that most of those things are no longer available, or at least not easily available. The first of these I’ve written at length about before – there’s nowhere round here (or nowhere I’ve discovered, anyway) where I can be alone in a wild and natural place. I’m miles and miles from the sea, and there are no woods that haven’t been turned into Center Parc-style commodities. Nature has always been my solace, but it has to be fairly empty of people and full of silence and peace for it to work.
My garden is a consolation, and sitting in the sun always helps, but it hasn’t been warm enough lately to be able to do that. On top of that, we took on an allotment late last year which we never got round to doing anything with, and instead of being able to enjoy gardening in our own garden, I’ve felt the pressure to get it sorted out quickly so that we can get on with the allotment. This week I decided, reluctantly, that we have to let it go. Geoff likes the idea of it but not the reality of what’s involved, and I simply can’t manage a very large garden of our own plus a large allotment. It’s really too much.
Usually the well fills up regularly through the joy I get from having pets. However, one of my cats died last year and my remaining cat is eighteen years old, and going slowly downhill – she’s unlikely to last more than another few months, I think. It’s my turn to give to her and I’m glad to be able to do that, but there’s little coming back now to sustain me, and all the sadness of seeing her slow decline. I’m longing for a kitten, or a dog, or preferably both, but it would upset her and I can’t do that to her. It will have to wait.
Much of my well-filling comes through having time alone, but even this hasn’t been an option. With Geoff unemployed, he’s at home 24/7 and I hardly ever get the house to myself, with that blissful feeling of peace and the knowledge that I can do whatever I like for the day without having to consider anyone else.
And finally, what has proved to be the last straw is the loss of my reading time. I wake up early, usually about 6.00ish, and I like to spend an hour or two absorbed and lost in a book before starting my day. I love to read and this is the only time of day that I do it. I love the bedroom in the early morning, with the sun streaming in and the crystal in the window creating rainbows on the wall. I love the quiet at that time of day, the only sound being birdsong coming through the open window, and it’s often when I get my best ideas.
Of course, Geoff no longer has to get up early and is there with me now. Although it’s companionable to drink tea together and chat, it’s not what I most need and I long for my hour of solitude. I feel so ungrateful as I write this, because I couldn’t ask for anyone better to share my life with. I know I’m lucky – but the need to be alone for a while goes deep and demands to be satisfied.
The loss of that quiet early morning time has led to me breaking down twice in the past. The first time was after my parents were killed in an accident many years ago and I had to stay in their house for a while afterwards, with my brother and my grandmother. I was never able to get any time alone, and I needed it to grieve and to just be me, without all the sudden responsibility that had been thrust on me. One day it all got too much and I ran out of the house, walking the ten miles back to my own home where I could find the personal space that I needed.
The second time was when I was teaching IT at a college outreach centre. My habit was to get to where I worked before 8.00am, let myself into the building, make a cup of tea, do my photocopying for the day, and take some quiet time to myself before a demanding day full of teaching. Then we got a new manager, who also turned up at this time, and wouldn’t leave me alone. She spent most of the time complaining to me about all the things that she wasn’t happy about. The rest of the time she’d ask me to do some little job (‘since I was there’), which meant that my teaching prep didn’t get fully done and I had to spend my lunch break on it. I’d held down this full-time teaching job for a year without problem, but when I lost this morning time I burnt out within a few months, went on sick leave for six weeks, and ended up resigning.
It’s clear that I have to reclaim my early mornings and also find some new ways of filling the well, or somehow manage to reinstate some of the old ones. I’m not sure how I’m going to do that right now, but I’m looking for ways. Awareness of the problem is a good start.
This is my story at the moment, but filling the well is important for all of us in everything we do. Creativity demands time and space to ponder and dream, along with the stimulation of new places and experiences. If we don’t fill the well, it drains dry eventually and leaves us feeling blocked, flat, and uninspired at best, burnt out and depressed at worst. Whatever it is we give out in life, we need to fill up again so that we have something still to give, and the greater the number of ways we can fill our well, the better. What fills your well will be different to what fills mine, but whatever it is you need to do to top yours up, you owe it to yourself to do it.
Have you heard of Street Wisdom? It’s a non-profit venture that shows people how to use the streets around them to get intuitive answers to questions about their lives.
‘It’s a simple idea, based on the proposition that the environment and people around us are full of wisdom we largely overlook or ignore. Street Wisdom allows us to tune into the rich stimulus and learn. As our strap line says – answers are everywhere – you just have to ask.’
I’ve been intrigued by this since I first saw it, as it seems to me to have a lot in common with contemplative photography. The aims are somewhat different, but there’s a big overlap and the process is really very similar. So when I saw a London-based ‘train the trainer’ event on Street Wisdom’s site, I felt compelled to sign up for it, even if it did seem a bit premature to be training to run events when I hadn’t even been on one and didn’t really know what’s involved.
The format goes like this: the first hour is for ‘tuning up’ and getting you into the right space in your head to absorb what the street has to tell you. The second hour involves going off on your own on a wander round the streets, with a question in your mind that you’d like answered, and an openness to letting the answer come to you through what you see, hear and feel as you walk. The third hour is spent sharing experiences with the rest of the group.
You come prepared with a question to ask. It can be anything, but the more specific it is the better. You want to avoid anything too simple or prosaic, like ‘what shall I cook for dinner?’ and anything too deep and non-specific, such as ‘what’s the meaning of life?’. You aim for something somewhere in the middle for which you’d really like an answer.
I’ve been working recently on a change of direction, as some of you know. I want to move away from ‘how to work the camera’ courses and towards a contemplative, more creative approach that doesn’t depend on a knowledge of technology to allow you to participate meaningfully in photography. One thing that has bothered me about this is the question of finding the people I could offer this to. I know they’re out there, but I’m not sure how to attract them. This was my question, then: ‘how do I find my ideal clients?’.
We were a very large group so we were divided up into four smaller groups, each led by one of the Street Wisdom team. I’d been curious about the tune-up part of the day, and despite being incredibly simple it was amazingly effective. We were sent off on a series of roughly ten-minute walks, on our own, with a simple instruction to follow each time. These were: ‘Look for what attracts you‘, ‘Slow…..right……down‘, ‘Listen to the story‘, and ‘Find the beauty in everything‘.
I found the ‘slow right down’ instruction particularly effective. This isn’t usually something I have any problem with, and I’m used to doing it for photography purposes, but I hadn’t tried doing it in a busy, bustling space like Covent Garden. I was already moving pretty slowly by this time, but I slowed even more, eventually just sitting for a while and looking. It created a calm space within me, unaffected by the hustle and hurry going on all around. When you let go of trying to get somewhere or achieve anything, you’re able to stay in the moment, which is a very calming place to be.
Once we’d got ourselves all tuned up and in the zone, it was time to go out on an extended walkwith our question in mind. I wandered off towards some quieter streets as I was feeling a little tired by then. The temptation is to think too much and to actively look for answers, rather than just letting them come to you. Initially I had a sense of forcing it slightly, probably because I was worried I wouldn’t ‘get’ anything, so I had to let that worry go and simply walk and look and listen, letting it come to me rather than hunting it down. This is where the value of the tuning up exercises kicks in – they put you into a relaxed mental state that helps prevent your rational mind getting too much of a look in.
The first thing that struck me as having significance was this bridge. It connects two buildings, one old and one new, and my reaction was that this is what I’m trying to do – find a passageway that will take me from the old to the new. I’m also trying to move from a traditional (old) idea of how to teach photography to a new one. The new approach is very different and may take a little getting used to for participants, just like the bridge. The bridge was oddly twisted – almost like a strand of DNA. DNA is about life and the form it takes – was this telling me that my new direction is ‘in my genes’? what I’m meant to do? A new form of life? I feel there’s quite a lot to unpack in this symbol of connection, but it needs time to percolate in my mind before the full meaning becomes clear to me. What I do know is that it was an important symbol for me that stopped me in my tracks.
I’d noticed that I was looking up a lot and shortly after this became aware of several planes crossing the sky, prompting the thought that I should be aiming to fly high. I’ve always played it small in my life – one of my biggest issues – because it simply wasn’t safe to be visible as a child. If I was noticed, I was criticised, told off, put down, and the instinct to hide is still strong. The signs were telling me that it was time to let this go, aim higher and make myself visible.
The next sign reinforced this message. High up, a small tree was perched at the edge of a roof garden. It seemed to be thrusting towards the sky, climbing as high as it could. It was obviously out of its normal environment, and there was something a bit precarious about it, but I admired it for its courage to grow wherever it was placed and to reach for its full potential. Although it looked quite vulnerable, I realised that as long as it was well-rooted it was quite safe up there. The message doesn’t need spelling out!
There was also this tree, which stood there defiantly being itself. Despite only having the barest beginnings of new leaves, it looked totally confident in itself, willing to show its true, unadorned nature to the world.
Next were a row of telephone boxes – communicate, tell everybody about it.
Then this – DUMP, which I took to mean ‘dump the rubbish’ and get on with what I really want to do.
This was followed by ‘Building on your design’ – suggesting to me that I should build on what I’ve already established, and also that I could build on the design of the Street Wisdom event. There were a number of things they did that I could use as a foundation for my own work and adapt for my own purposes.
And finally, ‘Kickstart your day the rockstar way’. This really made me smile, and also reminded me that eating breakfast is a good idea – something I frequently don’t do.
We reconvened after this, and discussed our experiences in the group. Everybody had gained something valuable from it, and as it was a training event there was a lot to discuss around the business of how to do it ourselves. The thing that most surprised me was how very relaxed I felt. I’m not comfortable in busy, noisy environments and tend to be quite badly affected by the general hustle, bustle and impatience all around me. I like the stimulation of cities, but I find them hard to handle. At this point, though, I was chilled!
Even without the series of signs and messages, I’d have got a lot from this. Realising how it was possible to stay in a calm and quiet space even in the midst of crowds and noise was a revelation to me. As someone pointed out, this is meditation, although of a different kind to what we expect. As a kind of practical urban version of it, it avoids the sometimes off-putting connotations that go along with the word and more people are likely to be open to its benefits.
We were urged to run an event of our own in the next two weeks so as to consolidate our learning, even if we only do it with a couple of friends. I definitely intend to do this, although I’m not sure at the moment who I’m going to ask as most of my local friends are tied up right now with various life and family crises. So if you happen to be in the Newark/Lincoln area and you want to try this, please do get in touch.
I loved the day, the organisers were lovely people – thank you, Jim – and I thoroughly enjoyed meeting the other participants. Street Wisdom is a terrific concept, all the better for the fact that it’s offered free of charge. I urge you to give it a go – have a look on the website to see what’s happening in your area. And watch this space……….