I’m struggling with the tree project at the moment, hence the lack of a post last week. I feel as if I’m stuck, and not coming up with anything new and I’m not sure how I’m going to break free from that. I’ve got lots of shots I could use, but nothing with which I feel particularly happy and I don’t like posting something that ‘will do’ – I want to feel pleased with it. On the other hand, if I don’t post something this week I’ll lose my momentum and probably end up not coming back to it at all and I don’t want that to happen either.
I guess we all suffer from creative block at times, and we just have to persevere, keep pressing the shutter, and wait for inspiration to come back – it always does, eventually. I’m planning a little trip to Canterbury (where I lived for many years) in the near future and I think that might just spark off some new Ideas. At the very least, it will give me some welcome new subject matter.
This is my favourite shot of the week, although there are aspects of it I’m not happy with. I think the empty area at the right makes it feel slightly unbalanced, and I think there was probably a better composition to be had. I’d also like to be using more colour in my shots, but the weather just hasn’t been conducive to this. This is actually a colour shot, even though it looks black and white – it was taken on one of the grey, overcast days we seem to be having so many of at the moment. But I do like the circular ripple, and the contrast it makes with the softer reflection of the tree foliage.
Another shot from Sconce and Devon park. Obviously, it’s a reflection, but I’ve turned it topsy-turvy to give it a slightly disconcerting, slightly surreal, feel. I never can resist a good reflection and I never get tired of them – I doubt I ever will.
This set me wondering why so many of us like water reflections so much. I did a bit of Googling, with the first result being an academic paper which came to the conclusion that people like reflections in water better than they do in glass, and they like reflective water better than they do clear water, and so it’s probably a good idea to incorporate ponds into garden design. That really didn’t help much.
Maybe I wasn’t using the best search terms, but I couldn’t find anything much on this topic at all. There was quite a lot on mirrors and their symbolism, and lots of stuff on the symbolism of water, but nothing on the psychology of why we’re drawn to reflections in water. Even John Suler’s online book Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche, which is my go-to place for this sort of thing, had very little to say on the subject. However, he did point out that reflections in water span the boundaries between what our brain recognises as real or unreal – perhaps there’s some kind of attraction in that liminal space: a dreaminess, an other-worldliness. It seems strange to me that so little is known about something so widespread.
Cheating slightly again this week, as this photo was taken while I was away in the New Forest a couple of weeks ago. It’s been an unusually busy week, so I’ve had no chance to get out and about. Among other things, I had a photography job to do for the Newark Town Hall Museum which I was rather dreading – quite rightly, as it turned out. I had to photograph forty-five, mostly glass-fronted, prints and drawings, in a storeroom with a mixture of lighting sources and hardly any space to move or set anything up.
The problem, of course, was reflections in the glass, and it took an hour and a half just to find a set-up that minimised the reflections. I would have much preferred to scan them, as that works brilliantly, but most of them were too big to fit the scanner. In the end, the pictures were hung, one at a time, on a metal grid that divided one part of the room from another, my tripod was wedged into the space between that and a metal shelving unit behind, so tightly that the legs wouldn’t fully expand. I had to drape the metal shelving with a large navy-blue fleece throw to prevent reflections coming from it and there wasn’t room for me to get behind the camera so I had to use the LCD screen to shoot, peering into it from the side.
Every image is going to need serious straightening out in post-processing, but it was impossible to frame accurately in that situation so I just left a wide margin around the edges so that I have some leeway to crop and straighten I can honestly say I never want to have to work in those sorts of conditions again! However, I did get the shots and there’s only the tiniest bit of reflected light showing in one or two of them.
I felt rather fraught when I got home, and was cursing the whole reflection problem, but reflections are normally something I like very much and the kind found in the image above calms me down rather than winds me up – evening light on the little stream just down the road from our holiday barn.
A strange one this week, and one that I have to admit I’m not sure about – is it too ambiguous, too messy, too unformed? But there’s something about the way the tree branches seem to drape themselves over what could be boulders but are actually seats inside the car that I find interesting, and I keep coming back to it to have another look. Does it have something, or am I fooling myself? That’s always a tricky one to answer.
I may be getting a little hooked on ‘tree in car window’ reflections right now, and have been taking rather a lot of them. The more I look, the more I see, and of course they’re everywhere. It’s the multi-layered, ‘double exposure’ effect that appeals to me, where you see both the reflection of what’s outside the car and also through the window to what’s inside it. I tend to like images that are either very simple and minimalist or very complicated – complicated in the sense of creating ambiguity and mystery and with that idea of different layers in the image. This one definitely falls into the second camp.
I have another, similar, image that’s easier to ‘read’ and had intended to use that one for this week’s post, but sometimes it’s good to be a little controversial. However, just in case you really hate the one above, here’s the other one below.
Although I’ve only once posted some of my ripple reflection pictures on the blog, I’ve been working on them for the last little while behind the scenes and now have quite a collection of them. This reflected tree, however, is a little different due to the inclusion of some colour and the hint of sun. It’s one of my favourites so far, and I’m hoping to be able to go on developing this theme as the trees come into leaf, although the lines formed by the bare branches are not going to be there. As always, though, there will be something else to take their place and I’m interested to see what that might be.
Something about this group of trees intrigues me -the way they’re grouped and the various angles at which they lean. You might well be seeing more of these, especially if it snows this winter (I’d love to see these with a covering of white on them). This time, though, it was the perfect reflections that made me press the shutter.
One of the joys of photography for me lies in the post-processing. I know lots of people hate that part, but I often get into ‘flow’ while doing it and hours can go by. I like trying out different ways of processing to see how many versions I can get of one photo, and how they compare and differ in terms of their emotional and visual impact. I don’t do it with every image, but some seem to lend themselves to different interpretations.
This view of the lake is one example. It was one of those perfect, soft autumn days with hazy golden light, when pictures just hand themselves to you and it’s hard to go completely wrong whatever you do because the light is so damn perfect. I took a lot of shots, many of which only had the perfect light to recommend them, but there were a few others I was quite pleased with.
My first processing of this lake view was a straightforward one, with some sharpening and a small crop to improve the proportions. I also slightly enhanced the cyan of the sky and lake, as it was a little weak compared to the strong oranges of the trees. The result is at the top of the post.
I was fairly happy with this, but with some reservations. First off, it didn’t really capture for me the way the day felt. Probably because of that, it also seemed to me like a pretty, but generic, postcard-style view. I started playing with it to see what I could do to bring out more of the feeling I had when I shot it, and ended up moving the RAW converter Clarity slider in the ‘wrong’ direction to give a very soft focus effect, as you can see below.
This feels much better to me, as the day had a very soft, quiet feel to it and the image now matched that more accurately. However, I started wondering about the composition – it’s a little unbalanced, with the dominant orange trees and reflections on the right. I tried cropping it to a square to see what that would do. This puts the emphasis on the birds, placing them at the centre and giving more of a focal point, and losing some of the background trees seems to produce a better balance overall.
Another choice of crop – perhaps a more obvious one – would be a letterbox format like this:
While I think this works OK, it somehow doesn’t give me the same feeling that the square crop does and I prefer that one.
In the end it always comes down to personal choice – some will loathe the soft-focus effect, some will think the rectangular or letterbox format works better. However, what I’m always trying to do is to get the image to express what I felt when I took it, and so the first person I have to satisfy is me. I’d like to think that at least some people will get the same feeling from it that I do, but this is more of a lottery. We all bring our personal preferences and pre-conceptions to the viewing of photographs, and the filters you look through will be different to the ones I have in place.
There are other things I sometimes experiment with – converting to black and white is one of them, but the colours and warm light were important to me in this shot so I wouldn’t normally have considered that. However, I thought I’d give it a go for the purposes of this post and I got a pleasant surprise. The shot below is a black and white conversion of the ‘straight’ version of the image at the top of the post, and has little to recommend it – it’s pleasant, that’s all, and otherwise unremarkable.
But look what happened when I converted the soft focus, square-cropped version:
Now this I really like, and I never would have tried it had I not been writing this post. The black and white conversion has a look of infra-red photography about it, and I like the dreamy, ethereal effect. I still prefer the colour version, but I think this one is interesting and it’s encouraged me to try this again in the future. (Oddly enough, the black and white conversion of the letterbox shape didn’t work at all well – strange!)
I know there are a lot of purists out there who disapprove of extensive manipulation and post-processing. I’m not one of them, and I don’t really care what route people take to get the result they want. I could have done at least some of this in-camera – I could have used a soft-focus filter, a camera that would shoot in square format, and if I’d really wanted to I could have shot the whole thing on black and white film. But I can’t see the difference between manipulating in-camera or afterwards, and if I’d done everything in-camera I wouldn’t have the same options open to me afterwards to create variations on a theme.
By shooting in RAW format, it seems to me you get the best of all worlds and the greatest variety of options. I often feel I learn more from the processing I do after the fact than I do while photographing, and that that learning carries over and informs my subsequent practice. A lot of the finished images that most please me are ones where I’ve visualised what could be done with the raw material that’s actually in front of me. I’ve never been interested in simply reproducing what’s there, but more in creating the world as I’d like it to be or imagine that it could be. Sometimes that involves straightforward representation of something that’s not obvious to the casual viewer; sometimes it involves changing what’s there into something that more closely matches an inner vision or feeling.
Sometimes I’m just not in the right mood for photography, and I come home and look at the photos and think there’s nothing worth keeping. This is what happened about two years ago, when I was coming to the end of my photographic block, but hadn’t quite got into the creative flow of things as yet.
I went for a walk along the River Trent. I didn’t feel like taking my camera – couldn’t be bothered carrying its weight and didn’t think I’d feel like taking photos anyway – but I thought I should make the effort and so I compromised by taking my Fuji compact instead. It was a bad decision. I really hate taking photographs on a compact, mainly because it has no viewfinder and as far as I’m concerned a viewfinder is one of life’s essentials. Squinting to see the screen in bright daylight through spectacles designed for long distance vision makes me cross, and having to hold a lightweight camera away from my body makes it frustratingly difficult to get a steady shot. The compact doesn’t have an option for RAW shooting either, and since I discovered what a difference the extra data can make sometimes, I feel short-changed when I shoot jpegs.
It’s sod’s law that if you don’t have your chosen camera with you then that’s when you’ll see lots of things you want to shoot. Almost against my will I got fascinated by the reflections and patterns and little bits of floating weed in the river water and made lots of pictures, feeling frustrated all the while by knowing what my DSLR could do compared with the compact I was having to use. I didn’t quite make it into my usual creative flow state, where I get so absorbed that it’s like a meditation. I came home feeling mildly irritated, and when I put the images up on the screen I didn’t like them. I processed one or two but they seemed uninteresting and full of faults to me and I soon abandoned the exercise.
Now and again I go back through file folders full of old shots, and it always surprises me that I find what seem like perfectly OK images to me now, that I dismissed as lacking or simply didn’t notice at the time. Yesterday I revisited the pictures I took that day, and found a lot more merit in them than I did then. I processed the best of them, cropping them all into squares as it seemed to work well, and here they are. Not the best photos I’ve ever taken, but I like them now and find it fascinating that on one day, in one small stretch of river, there was such a multitude of variations in colour, light and pattern.
It seems to me that it pays to go back and reconsider old stuff. Sometimes being in a difficult mood when you take them can warp your perceptions, and sometimes – if you go back far enough – you find that your visual sophistication has increased during the time you’ve been away and you can see something in them that you simply weren’t capable of doing before. It’s a great argument against over zealous decluttering of photo files. Have you ever found buried treasure in your old files?
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?
Despite being here for three months now, and having thought for some time that Newark is a place with a lot of potential photographically, I’d never actually gone out with my camera here. I used to find this in Canterbury, too – if you live in a place there’s always shopping to do or errands to run, and juggling a heavy camera along with bags of food and library books just doesn’t work. One day last week, however, all I was planning to do in Newark was to meet someone for a quick coffee, so this time I took my camera with me.
I had no particular idea in mind, but thought a stroll along the river might be interesting. I’m drawn to water and I’m even more drawn to reflections so I began, rather idly and with no real purpose, to shoot the reflections in the river. I did my usual thing and created a number of abstract shots, but then I found myself shooting reflections of whole buildings. I’ve ended up with quite a few without really planning it that way (plus one of the river tour boat), and it’s given me an idea for a little project on Newark’s river frontage through the reflections of its buildings and other constructions on the banks.
Next time, I’d like to do it a bit more deliberately and get some more carefully thought-out images, but I’m quite pleased with the ones I’ve got so far. One thing I do like about them is that there was some interesting texture created by the huge amounts of duckweed that were floating downstream that day.