It’s been a busy week and it took quite a while to shift the worst of my cold, but I did manage to get out for a short time with my camera. I didn’t feel like going far, so it was the cemetery that called to me again, and most particularly, this little tree arrayed in its party dress of bright colours. I liked the contrast between the sobriety of the old and twisted tree in the background, and the flirty youthfulness of this little sapling.
For those of you who might be wondering if I’ve given up writing posts on anything but trees, the answer is no, but I am finding it difficult to create the mental space to ponder on things at the moment. I hope that’ll change soon, and I can get back to writing in more depth, but in the meantime let’s talk about trees.
And since we are, I thought I’d include a few tree-related links. First off, in Improvised Life’s article, Jane Goodall: Trees as Shaman and Guide, you can read the moving story of the very special tree that survived 9/11. The story is touching in itself, but what really brought the tears to my eyes was the last paragraph:
In the aftermath of the horrifying tsunami and Fukushima nuclear plant disaster in Japan, a TV crew went to document the situation. They interviewed a man who had just lost everything, not only his house and all his belongings, but his family also. The reporter asked him if he had any hope. He turned and pointed to a cherry tree beginning to bloom. “Look there,” he said, pointing toward the new blossoms. “That’s what gives me hope.”
One photo a week, of a tree – how hard can that be, I thought, when I started this. Unfortunately it’s coincided with me catching the worst cold I’ve had for a long while, leaving me with a brain that feels like cotton wool and no desire to do anything but lounge on the sofa with a hot water bottle, catching up on back episodes of Downton Abbey. I did force myself out for an hour, but my heart wasn’t in it, and the resulting shots showed it. So I’m settling for something taken very recently, even if not actually this week, and at least something that I haven’t posted anywhere before.
Newark Cemetery is long and relatively narrow and a wide path, lined with Lime trees, runs dead centre down the full length of it. (I think they’re Lime trees – I’m not very good at identifying trees, but the road parallel to it is called Lime Walk and I’m taking that as a clue.) In the middle is an old stone chapel with an archway through the centre of it and the whole thing just cried out to be framed perfectly symmetrically.
It’s a beautiful walk, down this path. I’ve realised lately that I’ve spent too long wishing for what doesn’t exist in this area and not fully appreciating what’s actually here. I’ve taken a walk every day this week – the same walk – that takes me down this avenue of trees, then around a small, tree-lined lake full of waterbirds, and back again. And yes, the lake has houses built close to it all the way round, but it’s no less lovely for that, and the cemetery is often full of people, but it’s no less peaceful. Time, I think, to give thanks for what’s on my own doorstep.
I’ve been busy, this past week, with a little job I’m doing for Newark Town Hall Museum. They need a small stock of photos to use in brochures and banners and other publicity material, and one of my lovely friends put my name in front of the relevant person and I was duly appointed Photographer.
What I hadn’t realised was that I’d have the bonus of getting to see parts of this amazing building to which you don’t normally get access. It’s quite a thrill to be in a room full of old silver artifacts that are worth – literally – millions, with some of them dating back to the 1600s. And then, even better, they unlocked the cabinets and lifted out solid silver bowls and jugs and a huge golden mace and placed them on the table for me to photograph.
This Mace is about 3-4 feet in length; I had to stand on a chair (a rather delicate antique one) to get high enough to fit it all in the viewfinder.
This Monteith punch bowl is solid silver, and the notches are for holding punch cups. The problem here is that the dado rail in the background isn’t straight, but if it’s straightened up then the bowl becomes angled. Mmm….need to think what to do about this.
Thrills aside, I was a bit anxious about this particular assignment because it’s far outside my comfort zone – in fact, quite the opposite of my normal approach. Instead of going all arty and abstract, I had to depict reality as it is (so to speak) and make things look the way they look. The interior of the museum is quite dark, and some of the images will be blown up big and used on a banner, so a tripod was an absolute necessity (and if you know me at all, you’ll know how much I hate tripods……..). However, it was interesting having to work this way and I do admit that my photos are quite a bit sharper than they normally are.
I’ve long had a suspicion that part of my hatred of tripods rests in the fact that I have a relatively cheap and nasty one, and that if I were to invest in a higher-end model then I might establish an agreeable acquaintance with it, although I can never see us becoming fast friends. It’s one of those Catch-22 things, though – until I spend the money, I don’t know if I’d be any happier with a good one, and I don’t want to spend the money and find out that I’m not.
The Committee Room, Newark Town Hall Museum; the paintings are of Newark, but painted by someone who’d never actually been there!
The Twinning Room, Newark Town Hall Museum
Main Art Gallery view
The assignment threw up a number of technical problems, not least of them reflections. Someone who does this sort of thing all the time would no doubt come with extra lighting and be able to sort it all out, smartish, but I don’t own any studio lighting and had to do the best I could with what I’ve got. One framed, glass-fronted print defeated me, however. They didn’t want to have the hassle of taking it off the wall, but I don’t think there’s any other way and it’s not going to be easy, even so. I’ve discovered you can buy a very reasonably priced – and large – lightbox on Amazon, so I think the way forward is to get one of these and place the print inside it.
Colour balance was a bit of a nightmare as well, with a mixture of daylight and artificial light in most rooms. Shooting in RAW means – thank heavens – that decisions can be made afterwards rather than at the time, but it’s still hard to get it looking right, with the colours as they are in real life. It’s even harder to get consistency of colour balance between shots, and I think I still have a bit of work to do there.
The part I most enjoyed was taking the shots of the Georgian ballroom. It’s a stunning room, with an even more amazing ceiling, and one of Newark’s hidden gems. The Museum is tucked away inside the Buttermarket building, and it’s easy to miss. Even if you know the Museum’s there, there’s nothing that tells you about the ballroom. This is all going to change, apparently, as the second part of this assignment is to take a full-length portrait of an attractive lady in full Georgian dress. Have you seen those life-size cut-outs of policemen they have in the supermarkets these days? Well, that’s what’s going to happen to this, and in due course there will be a life-size cut-out Georgian Lady strategically placed to bring the people in. Taken by me.
I go back in a week or so to take some people shots – the Georgian Lady, children playing dress-up in Georgian clothing, visitors to the Museum, and so on. This part is equally challenging, because I don’t normally do people shots, and I certainly don’t do them while using a tripod. Watch this space for part two, and in the meantime prayers, crossed fingers, four-leafed clovers, and lucky horseshoes will all be received with gratitude.
This is the tree I see from my study window. It’s huge, and it belongs to the garden two doors along, but its branches span the width of three of these narrow Victorian plots, including our own. I’ve learned from heartbreaking experience that where there’s a wonderful tree growing in an urban area, it’s more than likely to be felled at some point, so when the tree surgeons moved in earlier this summer I was alarmed. I watched from my window as they worked their way up the trunk, lopping off huge branches from the lower part of the tree. I wasn’t sure if it was simply being trimmed or actually taken down, and I was terrified it was going to be the latter. I could hardly bear to watch.
I’ve loved this tree since we moved in here – I’ve photographed it repeatedly, watched it change with every season, looked out at it through rain, sun, mist and hail, stood under its cool umbrella of leaves on hot days, raked up its leaves in autumn, and pulled out the hundreds of tiny seedlings that grow from its seeds in spring. I was desperately trying to be alright with losing it and I kept thinking of the haiku by Mizuta Hasahide:
Barn’s burnt down – now I can see the moon.
It was helping, but only a little. However, just when I thought things were going too far for it to be just a pruning operation, they stopped, and I felt the tension drain away. The tree isn’t quite as lovely a shape as it was before, but it’s still stunningly beautiful, and the bonus is that there’s now so much more light in that part of the garden than there was before. My tree wasn’t chopped down in the end, but I can see the moon a little better now.
I’ve been playing this week, which is something I don’t do nearly often enough. I’ve tried taking photos using intentional camera movement before, but always as a bit of an afterthought. They’re not easy to do well, but I got one or two that I liked one day, by chance, and that gave me the idea to try this technique in a more deliberate way. This is the image that started the whole thing:
The flower beds at the entrance to Newark Cemetery are a riot of colour, but too regimented to be interesting to me in their natural state. I moved the camera horizontally for this shot, and it worked pretty well. When I converted the RAW file, I remembered that I could move the Clarity slider in the opposite direction to normal, to smooth and blend the colours, and this turned out to be surprisingly effective.
Using the same technique transformed this image into an abstract blaze of summer colour:
Today I took a walk round the garden to see what else I could come up with. The two previous images were created just by using a small aperture/slow shutter speed, but this time I armed myself with a Polaroid filter, which cuts down quite a bit of light (therefore giving a slower shutter speed), and intensifies colours. Although not a sunny day, the light proved too bright for even this to give me long enough shutter speeds so I dug out something I’ve had for ages but never really used – a ten-stop filter. It’s quite nifty – it screws onto the end of the lens and you can then twist it to increase or decrease the light coming in.
The results were pretty mixed and I deleted lots of the resulting pics. It’s not easy to get this right and it takes quite a bit of experimentation to find just the right shutter speed and movement to give a good result. I’ll put some of the more successful images at the end, but before I do that let me pass on what I learned:
Movement: generally speaking it’s best to move the camera in the direction of the dominant lines in the image. Eg, trees usually look best when you move the camera vertically up or down, and sea or open country if you move horizontally. However, I found that the flowers in close up demanded something different. Straight lines didn’t work very well, even diagonal ones, so I tried moving in circles – you can see the effect in one of the images underneath. This was better but still not quite what I wanted. In the end I found that jiggling the camera had the best effect – imagine you’re freezing cold and shaking and shivering and that’s the movement you make.
Shutter speed: it’s impossible to give hard and fast rules on this because it will vary so much depending on the lighting, but most things seemed to come out best at around 1.5 seconds. If your shutter speed is longer and you move more, you risk losing all shape and form and ending up with pure colour – it can be nice, but I wanted a little more definition. If your shutter speed is too fast, there isn’t enough time to make sufficient movement. The best combination was a longish shutter speed (approx 1.5 secs) combined with quite slow but definite movements. Moving slowly worked much better than moving fast.
Aperture/ISO: obviously the aperture needs to be small to increase the shutter speed. Most of the time I found f22-f29 about right and because this gives you considerable depth of field, it allows for some definition in the image, too. ISO was kept as low as possible – ie, ISO 100 – again, to reduce shutter speed.
Filters: to get the shutter speed slow enough, I first tried a Polaroid filter – which reduces the light by two stops – and then a 10-stop filter. The 10-stop filter was much better for this as I could simply twist it to increase/decrease the effect and watch the shutter speed change till it hit the right number.
Composition: this was quite difficult – probably the most difficult part of the whole thing. I cropped most of these images into squares because at full size they included areas that spoiled the overall effect. To get enough movement blur, you need to move beyond the edge of your normal framing and that means you tend to end up with bits you don’t want.
Colour: these images are all about colour – none of them would work at all if you took the colour away. That’s not surprising, really, as colour is always what interests me most. However, I think you could work this technique by concentrating on texture rather than colour if you wanted to go down that route.
Post-processing: I didn’t do much post-processing – the thing I did most of was cropping, and cloning out sensor dirt (but you shouldn’t have to do that if you keep a clean sensor). The one thing that made a huge difference was the Clarity slider in Elements’ Raw Converter – moving this the ‘wrong’ way (ie, to make it less sharp) improved more than a few of these, and saved one which I would have otherwise discarded. The colours are as they came out of the camera – I haven’t enhanced them in any way.
Success rate: abysmal – be prepared to delete most of what you take! But it’s a lot of fun to do something with an element of uncertainty and serendipity.
And lastly: when you’re shooting with a tiny aperture it really shows up any dirt on your sensor. Because I normally shoot with quite large apertures (which hide sensor dirt) I didn’t realise I had several huge lumps of the stuff stuck to my sensor and I had to spend ages cloning them out. Probably a good idea to clean the sensor before you start.
I had a lot of fun with these, even when restricted to my own back yard. I’d like to find some more open, panoramic shots to try and also some urban street shots with people in them. I’m thinking I might make a little project of it. I’d also like to do a series spread over a year, where I concentrate on showing the changing colours of the seasons in abstract form. It’s wakened me up a bit to try something different – feels like it’s been a while since I stepped out of my comfort zone.
This one didn’t work at all until I used the Clarity slider on the Raw file to soften it, as it looked rather harsh initially. I think it just about succeeds now, and I like the vibrant colours and the touch of red. The movement here was vertical, which I found didn’t work so well for flowers.
These two, plus the one at the top of the post are the most successful of anything I tried. The colours work well together – the blue gate, red/orange brick, magenta flowers and white stems add up to a very satisfying colour blend. I tried moving the camera in a variety of different directions, and found that either an up and down movement, or a kind of jiggle, were most successful.
I don’t feel this one quite makes the grade – the large pink geraniums dominate a bit too much.
I like the way the leaves have come out on this, but the composition could be better.
I really can’t make my mind up about this one. I look at it one minute and think it works, and then I look again and think it doesn’t! It looks like a double exposure but there are actually two pots of ivy.
I moved the camera in a circle for this one – no other kind of motion seemed to work very well. I do like the way that the small white flowers are still quite distinct, and I think the colours are great.
Finally, this is the same picture as above but with a duplicate layer added and Linear Burn blending mode applied, giving an altogether different effect.
Having decided against doing the last 12 x 12 Challenge I was determined to do this one, but the brief threw me a bit:
Take what you believe will be the final series of photographs before you die.
— Nick Brandt
Certainly wide scope for interpretation here, from the literal to the symbolic. Geoff’s contribution was to suggest a series of pictures showing a luscious meal slowly disappearing from the plate, followed by a picture of a hangman’s noose!
I pondered two approaches to it. One was to ask myself what I would most like to photograph – ie, if I looked back at the end of life, what would have had great meaning for me? – and the other was to show something that symbolised life itself – brief and transient. I asked myself what I’d want to photograph if they were the last photographs I could ever take, and the answer was the sea. That simply wasn’t going to be practical, however, so I had to think again.
I go on photographing the skies from my window because they’re just too amazing not to. Although it feels like doing more of the same, and what I really wanted from these challenges was to do something a little different, clouds do work well to symbolise a life – there for a short while, often glorious, sometimes ordinary, but each one different.
On a couple of occasions recently, there have been an unusual number of jet trails, and these too, could represent the journey through life. They are what remains of a real journey and the ‘memory’ of the plane’s passing hangs in the sky for a while before fading to nothing, as people live on in the memories of others, the trail becoming fainter as the years go past.
So these are my five photos for this challenge. I struggled a bit to find a way of making them hang together as a set. I wanted a sequence that roughly corresponded to the fading of the light, but as they were all taken on different evenings in different conditions, I wasn’t sure how to arrange them. Eventually I decided on this – the two ‘blue’ shots at the beginning, gold in the middle, followed by the two orange/pink/blue images. At each end and in the middle are the images with branches, while the two inbetween are just sky, but these two have jet trails while the others don’t. It gave the whole a satisfying symmetry. The final image has a quietness that I rather like compared to the drama of the others and seemed to make a fitting end-piece.
This week I’ve been inspired by Kim Manley Ort’s post, A Visual CV, to have a go myself. There are ten questions, to be answered visually, without words.
I’ve found it surprisingly difficult. The same image could have answered several different questions, and some of them don’t quite capture what I wanted to show. With others I felt I’d like to use more than one image to say what I want to say, and then there were all the ones I wanted to use but couldn’t. But I may be over-thinking it – probably the best way is to make quick decisions and let intuition decide. Taken as a whole, I think these probably represent me quite well.
If you feel like having a go yourself, leave a link to your own post in the comments.
I’ve been working on finalising the images for April/May’s 12 x 12 Challenge, which goes like this:
Find a place where you live where history made its mark. Allow yourself to breathe, feel, contemplate and react with a photograph – Laura El-Tantawy
Newark is full of history, being an important player in the English Civil War, so there were lots of possibilities. The castle was an obvious one to choose, and I toyed for a while on doing a set on an old and gorgeous building that used to be a Temperance house and now holds a Zizzi restaurant. When it came down to it, however, these felt more like decisions made with my head than my heart. I needed somewhere that held some emotion for me, with the hope that that might come across in my photos.
I began to think about places that affected me emotionally, and recently that’s been the WW2 Polish war graves in the cemetery at the end of my road. There’s a serene beauty in the ranks of white stones marking these Polish boys’ graves – for they were boys, for the most part – which is at odds with lives cut short by hate and brutality. I like to think there’s some peace for them here.
The images in this post are the final five. I decided to convert them to black and white, because I felt it suited the subject matter and is also in keeping with the era. Most of them have been heavily post-processed, because without that they didn’t fully evoke the feeling that I wanted to get across. For instance, in the image above I wanted the white stones and white tree to really stand out without the rest of the cemetery behind them being too distracting, and I also wanted the other elements to look dark and foreboding – a symbol for the threat that hung over Europe during that time. It seemed to me, too, that the white stones look a little like soldiers in rank formation and I wanted to bring that out. Getting the effect I was aiming for involved a lot of layers and blending, but I’m happy with the result.
As soon as I saw the dead daffodil lying on the memorial in the next image, I had to include it. It is a little bit obvious in its symbolism, but I liked the way that the daffodil could be seen to represent those boys and men who died in the spring of their lives, when everything should have been opening up for them.
The next image is, I think, the least strong of the five, but it helps set the scene. What drew me to it was the lantern with the Polish insignia and the way the light glinted off the words engraved in the stone. I also liked the faint reflection of the trees overhead in the marble of the stone, which gives an indication of the surrounding environment.
One thing I wanted to do was to get a personal element into at least one image – something to show that these were real people who lived, and loved, and were loved. Leaning against one of the graves was a photograph of the 24-year-old Pole whose remains lay there so I took a shot of that, plus the grave, and then overlaid one on the other. This has been so hard to get right and I still don’t feel it fits well style-wise with the rest of the images. I did want a certain harshness in the images, to reflect the harshness of war, but this one is a little over the top. I may play with it a bit more before I submit it to see if I can improve on this version.
In the final image I wanted to go full circle and show a wider view again. The trees in the background of this one look ominous against the light coloured cross, again symbolising the darkness of the time, and perhaps – in the way they’re lined up in two rows – ranks of advancing soldiers.
I’ve really enjoyed working on the two 12 x 12 assignments I’ve completed so far. It’s given me a challenge, something to think about, and a structure to work within. These are all things I had when I was studying photography with OCA but this comes without the additional irritations and frustrations that went with that. I’m not at all sorry to have abandoned academic photography but there are some aspects of it that I do miss, such as the assignments and working to a structure.
One thing it’s done for me is to leave me with the desire to work in series. I think photographs work best in groups that tell a story – each image should be strong in its own right, but the whole together should be greater than the sum of its parts. Not many photo challenges allow you to submit a group of photos in response, so this challenge is a bit special. I’m aiming to do the full year’s worth of challenges, although I’m aware how bad I am at sticking to these things!
A little while ago, a musician called Andy wrote to me asking if he could use some of my photos as art for the cover of a CD he was producing. The CD is called Reflections, and the photos he asked for were the two shown above. Naturally I said yes, and we exchanged a few emails which ended in the suggestion that we might aim for some sort of collaboration between us – probably involving me responding photographically to his music.
This is quite a challenge for me and has got me doing a bit of research for ideas on how to go about it. It’s hard to find much about photography and music – if you Google it, you end up with articles about how to photograph bands or rather literal depictions of musical instruments – images of the music-making, rather than inspired by the music. However, after a bit of searching I did find this article from nonsensesociety.com, which featured an online community project that encouraged artists of all kinds to post a piece of music plus the personal art that it inspired.
The results are fascinating. There’s a lot to read and listen to, so I’ve only skimmed for the most part but I noticed a few things as I went through the post. One of these was that a large number of people used music with words, and I wonder how much of their interpretation is about the words rather than the music? It’s hard not to be influenced by lyrics and I got to wondering if their art would have been at all similar had they only had the music to go on, especially as much of the resulting art showed quite a literal take on the lyrics. Interpreting the words is fine, of course, but to me this is a whole different ballgame to being inspired by the music and more on a par with using poetry as a creative source.
For me, the more interesting entries were ones where the music had been used to evoke a mood and the resulting artwork didn’t bear an obvious relation to it, such as Timothy Brearton’s painting inspired by Massive Attack’s Danny the Dog. Brearton says ‘the music was the “field” from which the ideas took form. There was something about music which freed me, and opened me up for the moment to manifest.’
I’ve never found this to be the case for myself. I don’t like to have music playing when I’m doing something else that needs a certain sort of concentration, such as the kind that writing demands – I want silence above all else. This is a bit discouraging in terms of any plans to use music as a creative tool, but I haven’t tried it with photography and that may be very different. To me, writing and music have more in common than photography and music – writing has sounds and rhythms and patterns which have the potential to clash with music. Drafting sentences in my head involves trying out different rhythms and sound patterns, which I ‘hear’ in my mind; music playing at the same time interferes with that.
However, photography is all about pictures and doesn’t rely on sound at all, so music is likely to be much more compatible with taking photos – I hope I’m right about this. In some ways I feel as if I’ve bitten off a little bit more than I can chew. I don’t want to do the obvious thing and interpret the titles of Andy’s recordings (they’re all instrumental) in a literal way. I’d like to find a way of working more directly with the music itself, but I’m at a bit of a loss as to how that might work for me.
Many artists over the years have used musical references in their work. Whistler, for instance, titled his paintings as harmonies, arrangements, symphonies, and nocturnes – all musical forms. I don’t think, though, that Whistler used any particular music as a starting point for his paintings, and the titles are simply metaphors.
Kandinsky is more interesting. He supposedly had synaesthesia, a condition that involves experiencing sense impressions with more than one sense at a time – for example, a colour triggers the person seeing it to simultaneously experience a sound or a taste or a smell. You might hear colour, taste words, or see music, and it’s supposed to arise from some kind of cross-wiring in the brain that’s found in about one in two thousand people. Kandinsky claimed to hear colours as sounds and see sounds as colours, and regarded his paintings as visible music (although not any particular piece of music).
Composizione VI, 1913, Kandinsky
It’s hard for me to imagine what synaesthesia must be like. It’s true that we use metaphor that suggests synaesthesia – we feel blue, we experience a sharp taste or a sweet voice, and it’s easy to understand what someone means when they say the sound of a trumpet is scarlet. But we don’t actually see scarlet when we hear the sound, which is what sets us apart from the synaesthetes.
While I’d love to be able to do something similar to what Kandinsky did, I’m not a synaesthete so this is probably beyond my capabilities. Perhaps the best way forward is to let the music evoke a feeling and look around me to see if that feeling is represented by something I see – a kind of matching up of emotional response to the thing I hear with the thing I see. One of photography’s limitations is that it relies on something that actually exists to form the basis of the image. Do I have to find the right place, the right environment, to get this to work? Or should I be able to find something in any environment that would do the job? I don’t know yet – I’ll report back when I do.
Any thoughts on this would be very welcome – how would you go about it?
This is another little photographic experiment. I got in the car one rainy day and thought the trees and shrubs looked rather interesting through the raindrops on the windscreen. – it was what the Irish call a ‘soft’ day, with a kind of grey drizzle and flat light. I spent half an hour driving round the – thankfully – empty car park, taking shots through the glass. I’m not sure how it looked to the CCTV cameras.
I like some of the results although it was hard to get it looking the way I visualised it, especially as my viewpoint was constrained by being in the driver’s seat and having to maneouvre the car into position to get the view I wanted. These are the three best ones. I don’t think I’m quite there yet with this, but I’ve stored it up as something to experiment with on wet days – and I’m sure there’ll be some of those soon.