‘Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness’ – Samuel Beckett
I’ve been absent for a while – my energy levels are low, there have been numbers of small but distressing events to deal with, and the ability to write seemed to have deserted me.
It’s election day in the UK today, and this morning I realised that even though my friends and I may vote very differently, what motivates us is the same thing – a desire for things to be better – and our differences lie only in how we believe that might be achieved. On a day that often leads to arguments and opposed views, it’s worth remembering our shared humanity.
In here, I am tired and the clock ticks slowly.
Pillows are piled high under my head
and I cannot straighten my legs because two cats are arced across the blankets.
The hot water bottle is unnecessary, but comforting nonetheless.
Out there, in a cold June wind, people are voting for a better world,
making their mark beside those names they hope will provide it.
The worlds they yearn for are not the same,
but an identical longing moves through them all, like the cool summer wind.
Every so often I go through a spell of not being able to do any photography – something in me just dries up and doesn’t want to know. It’s happened often enough now that I don’t worry (much) any more, as it usually leads (eventually) to a leap forward of some kind. I’m in the midst of one of these dry spells at the moment, and finding it hard to know what to write about because of that.
Sometimes I find I’m quite happy processing or re-processing old images even if I don’t feel like taking new ones, but this time I’ve found I don’t even want to do that. I think it’s because that’s what’s actually the problem – no matter what I do, I’m not liking my processed images. I’d be hard pushed to say exactly what it is that’s wrong, but I do know I’m not achieving the look that I want. And worse, I don’t know what to do to make things better. All I know is that when I see the finished work of other photographers that I admire, it looks so much better than mine. And I don’t mean by this the composition or anything like that, just certain qualities that the image itself possesses. It’s possible that this is due to the camera or lens that they’re using, but I think most of it is down to the processing. Their images just look so much more polished and they have a look about them that mine don’t have..
For most images, I know I want a certain softness married to a degree of clarity, and some photos I’ve seen have a kind of glow about them that I’d like to emulate.. Sometimes I get close to this, but then I look and wonder if they’re actually a bit over-processed. The problem is that the more I look at them, the less objective and discriminating I’m able to be, and then I begin to disappear up my own tutu (as a previous mother-in-law used to say). It’s hellishly frustrating, so I end up not even wanting to try.
I thought perhaps I needed to expand my Photoshop skills so I subscribed to Scott Kelby’s training website. It’s very good, and I did learn quite a few little bits and pieces that I didn’t know, but it still wasn’t giving me what I want. Kelby himself has a certain processing style that’s totally at odds with my own desired result, so although it was very useful to see how he does what he does, and the techniques can obviously be applied in different ways, it didn’t really help me do what I want to do. I’m thinking now that I need to start talking to some photographers whose work has the look that I want and ask them how they go about things.
It always strikes me as odd that the person in the street doesn’t realise how vitally important post-processing is, and how much you can change the outcome by using it. I think until you’ve seen before and after shots of the same image, you don’t realise what a difference it can make. And photography must be one of the only arts where a lot of people expect you to get it spot on without doing anything beyond the first pass. A composer will go on tweaking or even drastically changing his original composition until it sounds right; a writer will do revision after revision until she gets what she wants; an actor wouldn’t expect to be ready for a finished performance after the first rehearsal. The initial RAW file is really a first draft rather than a finished product.
Having said all this, in the midst of a grey winter I’m finding a set of photos I took in late autumn last year quite appealing, simply because they’re so colourful. Some had already been processed and I’ve done some work on the rest. These were taken at Winkworth Arboretum in late autumn last year, and the colours were incredible. You’d think I’d bumped up the saturation, but in some cases I actually had to tone it down because it looked so unreal. It’s energising and refreshing to see a bit of colour at a time of year when things are grey and bleak.
For a look at what a bit of processing can do – with lots of before and after shots – plus an argument for why professional photographers shouldn’t let people have their unedited photos, this article by Caleb Kerr is interesting and enlightening.
It is not expected that you go somewhere exotic, grand, or far-flung in order to write a poem. You can make one anywhere, about anything. It will not be seen as a worse poem for being about your toddler looking at the moon (Ted Hughes), a fork in a woodland path (Robert Frost), a blade of grass (Brian Patten), or a haggis (Robert Burns). It is recognised that something big can be said by writing about something small.
A poem is not thought to be better because you climbed a mountain and trekked through thigh-deep snow for hours in order to write it, nor because you had to get up before dawn or risk your life on the edge of a slippery precipice. It is not thought better because you hefted several kilos of pens and notepads to the location where you wrote it.
It is not necessary to keep upgrading your pen and paper to be any good. Nobody will think any the less of you, nor judge your poems according to whether you write them with a biro or a Parker pen.
Nobody ever asks what kind of poet you are and expects you to define yourself as a landscape poet, or a street poet, or to say you specialise in sonnets or villanelles. It is enough to say that you write poetry.
A poem is not thought to be good because its grammar is exact and perfect, and its spelling exemplary. A good poem breaks as many rules as it keeps and it needn’t be instantly clear and obvious. It is recognised that there are many ways of creating a good poem and that all good poems do not have to conform to a single ideal, but are allowed to be good in their own way.
A poem is not expected to describe exactly, but to distill its subject down to its essence and, by changing it, show it as it is.
It is expected that a poem be edited and polished before it is released. It is not regarded as some sort of cheating if you change the words of the first draft and crop out superfluous phrases.
Finally, nobody ever says: ‘that’s a great poem, you must have a really good pen. Oh, and what sort of notepad do you use?’
As someone who’s not the best at dealing with rejection, I was drawn to a book I saw in the library called ‘Rejection Proof’ by Jia Jiang. Jiang set out to conquer his fear of rejection by deliberately getting himself rejected once a day for 100 days, usually by making somewhat outrageous requests of complete strangers. His ensuing adventures make for a great read in themselves, but there are other more solid things to take away from it.
The first thing that struck me was that he differentiates between rejection and failure. The minute I read it, I knew exactly what he meant, but I hadn’t articulated the thought to myself before. Whilst failure can be a stepping stone to doing better, rejection tends to stop us in our tracks.
“Rejection means that we wanted someone to believe in us but they didn’t; we wanted them to see what we see and to think how we think – and instead they disagreed and judged our way of looking at the world as inferior. That feels deeply personal to a lot of us. It doesn’t just feel like a rejection of our request, but also of our character, looks, ability, intelligence, personality, culture, or beliefs. Even if the person rejecting our request doesn’t mean for his or her no to feel personal, it’s going to. Rejection is an inherently unequal exchange between the rejector and the rejectee……..”
I know this is a big issue for myself in my life in general, but more specifically in my photographic life. I was stopped in my own tracks for about six months after a particularly damning bit of feedback from a tutor. I could recognise that the comments about my work were mostly quite valid – I cringe a bit when I look at the work now – but what felt devastating at the time was that the criticism was presented extremely unkindly and very judgmentally, and it seemed to me to imply that there was something very wrong with me, not just my photography.
And this is the bottom line. Had our primitive selves been rejected by the group we lived in, we would most likely have been outcast and subsequently died. That’s not the case now, of course, but it takes a long, long time for our biology to catch up with our culture, and our primitive brain’s perception that rejection contains the threat of death is quite enough to strike alarm into anyone.
We can rationalise our way out of this to a certain extent, but what some of us also have to deal with is an upbringing that reinforced the idea that we were worthless, and that our ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and even character, had no value. This packs a huge double whammy of self-doubt. Society will also work to reinforce those doubts if you’re not a white, middle-class male, adding another trickle of poison to thread through the glass.
Somehow, we have to learn to separate failure from rejection. Recently I’ve been sending images off to various places, some in the hope of publication, others as entries in competitions. I’ve had one success, and numerous failures. There was a time when I would have taken the failures to mean that my photos were no good, when the reality of it is that luck and the personal taste of whoever’s making the judgements play a large part in it. Moreover, I would also have taken it that there was something wrong with me and started berating myself for having the temerity to think that I was worthy of the prize. One of the true joys of getting older is that you gain some ability to move past these self-defeating beliefs.
It’s noticeable that women are particularly bad at putting themselves forwards when it comes to photography. Have a look at the winning entries in most photographic competitions and you’ll see that they’re mostly male. Have a look at the books on photography, the articles in photography magazines, and the photography blogs online, and you’ll see that they’re mostly written by men. The impression it leaves is that there either aren’t many women in photography, or they’re not very good, but both of these are far from the truth. For many of us, we’re just very, very bad at putting ourselves out there.
Obviously this applies to some men as well, but I think women are more prone to a lack of self-belief and a fear of blowing their own trumpets, largely because of deeply-ingrained societal attitudes around what it means to be female. So I’m proposing a challenge – whether you’re male or female, show your work in a way that scares you a little. That might just be showing it to a friend or posting it on Facebook or Flickr, if that’s your personal challenge, or it might be submitting your work to a gallery or a competition, or trying for a merit award. Let’s take a risk, accept the possibility of failure, and if it comes, remember not to see it as a rejection of our selves.
Strobe lights at Southwell Folk Festival – this has absolutely nothing to do with the text but it needed a picture
There’s been a lot of talk lately about whether or not photographers – and other creative types – should ever work for nothing. I’ve had a recent experience that has made me think about this a lot, and would like to share it here.
I’ve always given my photographs away freely. My images on Flickr are offered under the Creative Commons licence, which means that anyone can use them for free, provided they attribute them to me with a link back to the source. I only put low resolution images on there, so that they’re really only suitable for web use and wouldn’t make good prints.
I’ve had a number of people contact me over the years to ask if they could use a photo – nice of them, considering the ‘permission’ is already in place – and I’ve always said yes. Sometimes I get a thank you, sometimes I don’t. It always surprises me what people ask for – one woman wanted to use a picture of some rusty corrugated iron on her business card, as she dealt in scrap metal. On a couple of occasions I’ve been offered payment for the higher-res version – once for an image that was to be used in a TV documentary, and the other time for a photo of a chicken that was to be included in a free poster given away with a magazine for nursery nurses.
But these are images that I’ve already taken, and these are also images that are not of any importance to me. Also, I do like to think of my pictures being used and enjoyed, so it gives me pleasure to let people have them. It’s another matter, however, when you’re asked to do a specific photography job, shooting the kind of thing you’d never normally photograph, and to do it for nothing.
I have a colleague who recently got married. We’ve met her and her now husband outside of work a few times, but I don’t regard her as a close friend or even as someone that I’d be likely to keep in touch with should I stop working for the library. A few months ago she asked if I might be interested in taking the photographs at their wedding. It was to be a small affair, and it seemed that they mostly wanted informal, candid shots of guests. In no way am I a wedding photographer, or even much of a people photographer, but the informality of it appealed and I thought it might be an interesting challenge.
No mention was made of money. I knew that they didn’t have a lot to spend, and I was willing to do it extremely cheaply, but it became more and more obvious over the next couple of months that it might be expected for free. I wasn’t happy with this, but it felt too difficult by then to say that I would like to be paid something, however little, especially as she’d already managed to get her flowers and her cake done for nothing by other friends. I resigned myself to the fact that I’d be working for nothing.
About three weeks before the wedding we met for lunch to discuss the photography. At that point it became obvious that I was indeed expected to work for nothing, and that the extent of what was wanted was far greater than I had thought. Instead of just attending the wedding breakfast, I was now wanted at the afternoon ‘do’ as well, and it would be nice, wouldn’t it, if I were to follow them home at the end of the day and take a shot of them outside their house. The number of formal shots increased dramatically, and I was also asked to do a number of family group shots – other families, people I don’t even know – so that they could be given prints afterwards. It went on getting worse, and my cracking point came when it was suggested that I pick up the bride’s mother on my way past and give her a lift to the wedding. Finally, as we parted, the bride-to-be’s parting remark was that ‘it would be fun for me’! I walked home with steam coming out my ears.
Before this meeting, I’d talked at length to Geoff about the situation and we’d come to the conclusion that she simply didn’t appreciate what was involved. She’d told me they’d ‘ply me with food and drink’, obviously not realising that I wouldn’t have any chance to sit down, eat and chat, as I’d be working and so wouldn’t even get to enjoy the wedding as a social event. When we met I explained to her that all the photos would need to be processed, which would be about two days work, and then prepared for print and put onto a memory stick. ‘Yes, that’s fine’, she said, ‘but we might need some help with getting them printed’. Whatever I said, she was either oblivious to what she was asking of me, or she simply took it as her due. I still don’t know which.
I’d got myself into a real mess. I knew it was partly my own fault for not making it clear at the beginning that I would expect some payment, albeit a small one, but I a little incredulous that it was thought that I’d be happy to offer all this for no charge. I thought about whether or not I’d be willing to do this for my closest friends for free, and decided that I would, but I also knew that none of my close friends would ever expect it and would insist on paying me something. I came to the conclusion that I would have to back out. I didn’t reach this decision lightly, and felt very bad about it, but it felt necessary for my own self-respect and to stop the rising tide of resentment that was building inside me. In the event, she took it extremely well and quickly found another friend with an interest in photography to do the job instead. I assume for free.
I’ve learned a lot from this, not least of which is that I must make it clear straightaway, should the situation arise again, that I don’t do this sort of thing for nothing. But I think it also highlights a couple of issues that photographers – and creative people in general – are prone to experiencing. The first is that, because it’s something you’re passionate about, it’s fun for you and it can’t be counted as work. Anyone who has a vocation knows that even when you love what you do – perhaps especially when you love what you do – you put huge amounts of time and effort into doing it well, and that counts as work, by any standard.
Neither is it always fun. Sometimes it is, but sometimes it’s frustrating, challenging, worrying or any number of other things. The fact that overall it’s fulfilling and satisfying does not mean that it’s not also full of difficult moments. This is fine – this is what Aristotle meant when he talked about eudaimonia as a brand of happiness that might actually mean a life filled with difficulty and problems, but also one in which what you do feels absolutely ‘right’ for you. It’s the difference between the hobbyist taking ‘snaps’ and the photographer who’s constantly trying to grow and stretch themselves.
It would, in fact, have been very stressful for me – the pressure to get it right, the fear that you mess up on photographs that can’t be repeated, the struggle with lack of equipment, or equipment that isn’t ideally suited to the job. I haven’t felt particularly well since I had flu last Christmas, and really didn’t want that kind of stress – in the end this was the reason I gave for withdrawing. All of this, however, might have been worthwhile had I felt that it was valued and appreciated.
When someone else isn’t willing to give anything for what you offer, and you accept that, it tells you that neither they nor you value yourself or your work enough. In my colleague’s case, she’s not a very visual person and therefore doesn’t put much value on photography other than as a record of events – it’s unlikely that she’d see much difference between a good snapshot and a professional image. That she didn’t put any value on the time I was putting into it is somewhat to do with her and somewhat to do with me. From her side, there were small things that would have helped – like offering to buy me lunch while we talked about it. Also, her partner was supposed to be putting up some shelves in our kitchen, for which we were paying him, and had they offered to swap this for the photography I’d have gone with that. (In the event, I was texted shortly after backing out and told that he was ‘too busy’ to do the shelves for us.) Even a genuine show of gratitude and appreciation would have gone some way towards being a compensating factor. There are many ways to give back and they don’t all involve money.
However, the other side of it is somewhat to do with me. I’ve always given a bit too readily, because I like to help out and it makes me feel good. This is fine when there’s a bit of give and take and neither side is doing all of one and none of the other – I’ve often been on the receiving end as well as the giving one. However, nobody is going to respect your time and expertise unless you do so yourself – if you do, they sense that and are less likely to overstep the mark. I’m pleased that something in me responded to the feeling that my own value wasn’t being recognised, and was strong enough to make me do something about it. I’m not so pleased that I let it get so far, both giving myself a great deal of angst and then letting other people down at the last minute. I regret that.
I can think of some situations where I’d happily work for no pay – for a charity dear to my heart, for a good and close friend, in a situation where it would move my photographic career forwards – but in the end, it’s my profession and I have to put a value on that, on my time, and on whatever skills and expertise I’ve managed to develop over the years.
As time goes on I’m building myself a kind of creative manifesto: a set of fundamental principles that work to enhance my creativity. I think these principles are helpful to everyone, not just to me, and the idea came to me to bring them together in this space and explore them one by one. The first in this series was about cultivating boredom.
There’s a certain overlap between ‘restrict choices’ and ‘cultivate boredom’, but enough significant differences to make it a separate item. We’re inclined to think that it’s great to have lots of choices, and it does feel good, but in fact it works against our creativity. Too much choice can freeze us like a rabbit in the headlights, or perhaps more accurately, like Buridan’s Ass. Buridan’s Ass was hungry and was placed midway between two bales of hay, each of them equally tempting. He couldn’t decide which one to go for, as there was no obvious better choice, so he stood there in indecision until he eventually starved to death. I can relate to this.
Choice, in photography and other parts of life, is reasonably easy when one choice stands out as being better than the others. However, when faced with a number of choices that are equally appealing, it’s so much harder to decide and you can easily end up doing nothing, or trying to do it all. Which location should you visit, which lens should you use, which camera body should you take, which filters, which bag should you put it all into? Setting restrictions – ie, reducing choices – can eliminate a lot of the decision-making and release our creative spirit.
Not sure? How about this quote from Stephen Sondheim:
‘If you told me to write a love song tonight, I’d have a lot of trouble. But if you tell me to write a love song about a girl with a red dress who goes into a bar and is on her fifth martini and is falling off her chair, that’s a lot easier, and it makes me free to say anything I want.’ (Stephen Sondheim)
Paradoxically, less choice can actually make you more free. It gives you a starting place, a foundation on which to build, and then sets you free to do whatever you like with that. If I said to you ‘go and make a great photograph of anything you like’, you’d probably feel confused and lost. If I said ‘use a 50mm lens to take a great black and white photo of a tree’ you’d be far more likely to come up with the goods. And because these restrictions would be quite limiting, you’d end up looking for ways in which you could make it more interesting, and thereby get a lot more creative.
I’ve been lucky enough – and I do use that word deliberately – to have had a lot of restrictions enforced on me. Chronic financial problems have meant that for the past eight years I’ve had one camera body and one zoom lens, plus a Lensbaby. I haven’t had the money to travel to exotic places, or even anywhere different, and so I’ve mostly been restricted to what’s on my doorstep. I may have felt intensely frustrated by this at times, but I’ve come to realise that it’s worked in my favour. It’s forced me to really look at my surroundings and see them differently, and to use what equipment I have to its full capacity, and that’s been a real gift.
Many wonderful images and some new techniques have arisen out of limitations. Ernst Haas is known for being a forerunner in the area of intentional camera movement – see some of his ICM work here – but this happened because of the limitations of colour photography at that time. It was impossible to get a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the action, so instead of railing against this, or giving up on the idea, he went with it and explored the possibilities. The resulting pictures were radically different and original for their time.
Andre Kertesz, another hero of mine, was confined most of the time by age and infirmity to his New York flat. His wife had died and he was heartbroken, lonely, and had given up photography. One day he bought a little glass bust that reminded him of his wife, and that coincided with the gift of a Polaroid camera from a friend. He began to photograph the bust on the window-ledge of his room and this ultimately led to a collection of small and very beautiful gem-like images which were later collected into the book Andre Kertesz: The Polaroids. Although he later introduced other elements into these images, he started with only three things: a Polaroid camera, a glass bust, and a window-ledge. And just to remind us of the therapeutic power of photography, this is what he had to say about it:
‘I began shooting slowly, slowly, slowly. But soon, going crazy. I worked mornings and late afternoons. With the morning light, the sky is nice, and in the later afternoon full of variations. I would come out in the morning and begin shooting, shooting, shooting; no time to eat. I discover the time has gone, and no breakfast. The same in the afternoon….I forget my medicine. Suddenly I’m losing myself, losing pain, losing hunger, and yes, losing the sadness.’
Kertesz continued to photograph until his death, six years later, leaving behind this one last powerful body of work, which I was lucky enough to see in person at the Royal Academy a few years ago.
Many years ago I read an article about photographers with physical disabilities, including one who had Parkinson’s and valiantly struggled to hold his camera still enough to get a sharp shot. The article was very touching, but I wondered at the time why he didn’t exploit the shakiness, which would have resulted in something original, instead of fighting it so that he could produce the same sort of thing as everybody else. Some limitations are thrust on us, and some we choose. Either way, it can be a very positive thing.
Accepting and working with limitations that you haven’t chosen yourself is very much in the ethos of contemplative photography. Accept them, open yourself to the possibilities, and wait for them to give you their gift – there will be one. Imposing limitations deliberately is a more calculated approach, but equally effective and perhaps a bit easier on the acceptance front – if it doesn’t work out for you you can always try something else and, whatever else, the experience will be valuable.
Exploit your natural limitations – where do you see yourself as lacking in your photographic practice? Is there some way in which you can work with this and make something of it? Personally I’m not good at sharpness, so I’ve gone down the route of softness and blur – something I tend to prefer, anyway. On the other hand, I have a photographer friend whom I’ve always envied because her images are so beautifully sharp and clear, only to find out that she felt unable to produce the kind of blurry stuff that comes easily to me. I’m also hopeless at getting horizons straight – no matter how hard I try it rarely works out – so I often leave them out and concentrate on more intimate shots.
Exploit your lack of gear – only got one lens? or an ancient camera? Push it to its limits and find out what you can do with it. There’s a reason why many people love Holgas and other ‘toy’ cameras – they’re among the worst and most technically limited cameras you can buy but they can also be the most fun and the most creative.
Exploit your neighbourhood – if you’re stuck where you are, look at where you live as if you’re a visitor to the area. How does that change the way you see it? For inspiration, read Alexandra Horowitz’ book, On Seeing, in which she takes a look at her own neighbourhood through the eyes of some very different people and begins to see things she never saw before. A simple exercise is to try various physical perspectives – what does it look like from a very low, or a high, viewpoint? How does it look driving through it? Or cycling? How would it look to a dog, a Martian, a baby in a pram, someone from another continent? What would they notice that you don’t?
Work with the weather and light – instead of waiting for what’s normally regarded as good light, work with whatever light you have and whatever weather happens. Rain, and grey flat light? – go out anyway and see what rain does to colours and surfaces. Harsh bright sunlight? – look at shadows, intentional lens flare, sparkles and bokeh. Wind? – try to capture the movement. The key is to accept whatever weather or light you’re presented with, and figure out how you can work with it.
Explore one subject or theme – this is my favourite sort of restriction. It’s too easy to get a great shot of something and then pass onto the next thing. Sticking with one theme forces you to explore, to stretch yourself, and to produce more creative work. It has to be something that interests you enough to keep you persevering, and it has to offer a lot of different options and ways of interpreting it. My 52 Trees project is one example of this.
Restrict your equipment – choose just one lens and keep it on your camera for a month. What happens when you have to take all your shots with it? If you have a zoom lens, pick a focal length and tape the lens so that it can’t be moved from that, and take every shot with that focal length. Rather than adapt the camera/lens to what you want to do, adapt yourself to what it’s able to do at that focal length. You could also choose just one camera – perhaps something you wouldn’t normally use, like a point-and-shoot compact, or a phone camera, and see what you can do with that. Something else that works for some people is to restrict the number of shots they can take – inserting a small memory card with limited space on it might make you think harder about what you choose to shoot, and work more slowly. I have to admit this one doesn’t work for me – I end up taking nothing at all because I’m so anxious about using up my limited space – but it might be different for you.
Stick to one area – it’s up to you how big or small you make it, but the biggest rewards often come from the biggest restrictions. You could choose a park, a small area of countryside, a river, the street your home is on, your garden, a city block, a building, a bridge, or anything else that takes your fancy. Having just come up with it, I rather like the idea of a bridge – so many possibilities, like the bridge itself, whatever runs underneath, the people and vehicles that use it, how it appears at different times of day, and so on. Another idea is to photograph out of one window – I’ve done this many times and found it surprisingly rewarding. If you really want to stretch yourself with a limited location, Freeman Patterson uses an exercise where he gets his workshop participants to throw a hoop at random, then photograph only what can be found within the hoop.
The images in this post were taken either while it was raining or shortly afterwards, in a small area in and around the market square in Newark.
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……..
I don’t read so many new books these days as I used to, because I spend quite a bit of my reading time revisiting books I’ve read before. Most recently I’ve been re-reading Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit. It’s a terrific book, rich with good advice and insight and I find something different in it every time.
Early in the book Tharp lists her own creative fears. We all have an assortment of these, and I knew I had them too, but I hadn’t clearly articulated them to myself and it struck me that this might be a worthwhile exercise. Then I thought that it might also be good to share them, because it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that everyone else is super-confident and it’s only ourselves that are shriveling up inside. So here goes – I’ll share my fears with you, and if you feel brave enough, maybe you’ll share yours with me in the comments.
Fear number 1: I’m deluding myself.
This is a big one for me – I think about all those people on X Factor who truly believe they can sing and have talent when in fact people are actually laughing at them because they’re so bad. Whenever a little fin of pride shimmies around inside, I get this awful thought that perhaps I’m deluding myself, perhaps – horrors! – people are amused that I think I can actually do this (whatever it is).
It’s a bit of a twist on imposter syndrome (feeling like a fraud, and that any day now people will discover that’s just what you are), but imposter syndrome is about feeling you’re fooling others, while mine is more about feeling that I’m fooling myself and that others aren’t fooled in the slightest. I find that a whole lot scarier.
Oddly, imposter syndrome doesn’t worry me so much – I’m a big fan of the ‘fake it till you make it’ school and there have been plenty of times in my life when I’ve had to wing it and have pulled it off. I know I pick things up fast and improve fast, so I also know I’ll actually be what I appear to be, given a little time and experience. We’ve all got to start somewhere.
It’s fear of self-delusion that stops me entering photography competitions or putting my work forward in any way that invites judgement. Although I have moments of it in all areas of my creative life, the fear is strongest in the areas where there’s least chance of objective feedback. There are methods of assessing art in a relatively objective way, but it’s fundamentally a subjective thing and so I don’t know how seriously to take criticism or praise. In the end, it’s up to me to decide whether or not my work has merit and I don’t entirely trust myself.
I think anyone who practises an art in any serious way has to be both supremely confident in their work (or they wouldn’t be able to keep going), and also full of doubts about it (or they might fall into the self-delusion trap). I’m comforted by this quote from the art critic, Robert Hughes:
‘The greater the artist, the greater the doubt. Perfect confidence is granted to the less talented as a consolation prize.’
And Bertrand Russell:
‘The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.’
Of course the mere act of doubting doesn’t mean you’re any good, but I guess it does mean that you’re less likely to suffer from self-delusion. Strange that doubt can be so reassuring.
Fear number 2: tall poppy syndrome.
Once I get past the fear of self-delusion, fear of tall poppy syndrome kicks in. The expression refers to ‘a social phenomenon in which people of genuine merit are resented, attacked, cut down, or criticised because their talents or achievements elevate them above or distinguish them from their peers.’ (Wikipedia)
While looking for quotes for a previous blog post, I came across this poem by Jane Taylor which encapsulates the rather petty sentiments of those who would cut down the tall poppy (or in Taylor’s case, all poppies):
High on a bright and sunny bed
A scarlet poppy grew
And up it held its staring head,
And thrust it full in view.
Yet no attention did it win,
By all these efforts made,
And less unwelcome had it been
In some retired shade.
Although within its scarlet breast
No sweet perfume was found,
It seemed to think itself the best
Of all the flowers round,
From this I may a hint obtain
And take great care indeed,
Lest I appear as pert and vain
As does this gaudy weed.
Well that puts it in its place, doesn’t it!! All those poppies should just crawl right back into the soil they came from lest they offend anyone by daring to think they’re worth attention!
I’ve never been successful enough to have suffered from tall poppy syndrome, but I’d like to be. Successful, that is, not a target of it. But in the lower recesses of my mind I think that if I become too noticeable then people will attack me, criticise me, or otherwise try to bring me down. I know exactly where this one comes from – if I got noticed as a child (primarily by my mother) it inevitably led to one or more of these, so I kept my head down and made myself invisible, and the habit has stuck.
This is one fear I simply have to ignore. I know it’s inevitable that the more visible you are, the more likely you are to attract the trolls, but continuing to hide is not a solution. Authentically putting yourself out there is always going to be scary, but it’s so much more worthwhile than becoming what Billy Connolly refers to as a ‘beige person’ – somebody who blends in so well that nothing distinguishes them or makes them interesting. He should know – he has a purple beard and is absolutely and totally himself at all times.
Fear number 3: people won’t want what I have to offer.
Happiness – No Entry sign – image by byronv2, used under Creative Commons licence, via Flickr
This is quite a biggie, as well, and something I’ve given into till recently. I tend to offer the kind of services that I think people will want, rather than what truly comes from my heart and soul. It doesn’t help that a lot of marketing advice tells you to do exactly this: find out what people want, and then give it to them. And how do you find out? – you ask them.
However, I think that often people don’t know what they want and that perhaps you can offer them something they didn’t know they wanted until you offered it to them. I often find I’m a year or two ahead of the norm – many years ago when I wrote my ebook I had to explain to just about everyone what ebooks were – and what seems suspiciously different now is what everyone’s going to want in due course, so why not go ahead and get in there first? Besides, by the time it’s the norm I’ll probably have lost interest and be onto something else.
It’s difficult to answer this one. I’m not sure why I don’t just get on with it. There are a number of negative thoughts that twist together in small strands to form the thick and sturdy rope of negativity that pulls me back – I’m not sure how to position myself in the market; I’m not sure how to explain or label what I want to do; I find it hard to handle the look of doubt on people’s faces when I explain what I want to do; I have to explain it for them to get it; I don’t know how to explain it for them to get it; I don’t know how to find the people who’ll want it; I’m scared no-one actually will want it; I’m scared of the pain of disappointment.
It’s the last one that has most emotional force. If you never try anything you won’t be disappointed and you can hold onto the hope that it would all work out if you gave it a try, rather than having to deal with the wrench of disappointment when it doesn’t. But I’ve been disappointed before. My life has been full of disappointments and I’ve survived. I’m still here, I’m still breathing, and I’m still doing things. And not everything turns out to be disappointing – heavens, sometimes things actually go well. So why should this fear be so strong? I don’t know, but it runs through me like the lettering in a stick of seaside rock. I have to get over it, that’s for sure.
I have lots more fears but none so disempowering as these ones. I think I’ll hold back on the rest in case you’re already thinking that I’m a bundle of fear-induced neuroses. (You’d be right, but I’d rather you didn’t think that.) Are you willing to reveal what scares you when it comes to putting your creative dreams into practice? – let’s share the fears and take their power away.