Self-delusion, tall poppies, and other creative nightmares

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.

Twyla Tharp: The Creative HabitEarly 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. 

Tall poppy

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. 

No Entry, happinessHappiness – 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.


Are you a discoverer or a designer?

 Blossom through bathroom windowBlossom through the bathroom window – one morning’s discovery

You might know that I’ve been doing the 12 x 12 photo challenges for the last couple of months.  I’ve completed two of them, and the third is coming to an end now and, after a bit of thought, I’ve decided not to do this one.  Before I go into why, let me give you a bit of background.  The third challenge goes like this:

Build something with the intention of photographing it. After you have photographed it disassemble whatever it is that you created.
— Dan Winters

Dan adds…“Create whatever type of object that you want. It could be as ambitious as a house or as simple as a house of cards. The photographs will be the evidence of your efforts.”

My mind began busying itself with the possibilities, and there were many of them.  I wasn’t short of ideas.  My first thought was something along the lines of Andy Goldsworthy’s work – for those of you not familiar with him, he creates wonderful structures, usually in wild places, made out of natural materials like brightly coloured flowers, icicles, leaves, mud, pinecones, snow, stone, twigs, and thorns.  He photographs them, and then they’re left to decay, melt, be blown apart, or drift away.  His work is transient, and very lovely.

I had plenty of other ideas as well, from building something from coloured ice cubes and watching it melt, to making a drawing with watercolour pencils and then spraying it with water to dissolve it, to building a sandcastle and watching the sea take it away.

After a while, though, I felt a definite lack of enthusiasm when it came to making any of these projects actually happen.  And then I began to think about why that was.  Here it is: I’m a discoverer, not a designer.  I like to stumble on subjects and allow them to present themselves to me. I’m not so good with creating things from scratch, or with planning, except in a very loose sort of way.

Twyla Tharp, in her book The Creative Habit, talks about the blank page, the empty room, the white canvas, and how every artist of any kind is constantly presented with the daunting challenge of making the first mark or its equivalent.  My immediate thought was that photography is possibly the one art where you don’t have to face the blankness unless you choose to. There’s always something there to make a photograph from, and it’s only a question of being open to noticing it.

For me, this has always felt easy.  My brand of creativity lies in building on something that’s already there.  When I cook, I like to have a recipe to give me a kick start, but the end result will be my own take on the original and is often very different.  And I’ve always loved programmes about makeovers, because I delight in the idea of taking something unpromising and doing something wonderful with it.

This is one reason why contemplative photography suits me so well – it simply asks you to be open to what’s there and to see it in a new way.  (I do also like to transform what’s there into something different, which is not really part of contemplative photography – but then I treat the contemplative approach like I treat a recipe: take from it whatever I find useful, and play around with the mix.)

There are numbers of photographers who take the opposite approach and go in for meticulous planning.  People like Gregory Crewdson, for example, who builds the most elaborate sets and lighting to produce haunting, unnerving tableaus that require a whole film set full of people to produce.  And Ori Gerscht – who would have fitted perfectly into this 12 x 12 challenge – who cryo-freezes elaborate flower arrangements, blows them up, and photographs the resulting gorgeous explosions.  These photographers are designers, not discoverers, and I really like their work but I’ve got no desire to emulate how they do it.

Twyla Tharp also talks about what she calls our ‘creative DNA’ – a creative style of our own that’s intrinsic to us and comes easily to us.  We can work in other ways, and it can be good for us to do that, but our work is never going to be as strong and effective as it will be if it’s aligned with our authentic creative instincts.

For me, the planning involved in coming up with an idea and building it from nothing takes away what I most enjoy about photography.  The fun for me lies in discovery and serendipity – it’s like a treasure hunt, where I go out never quite knowing what I’m going to get.  I lost my enjoyment of photography once before, when I was in a learning environment that was taking away the aspects of it that gave me pleasure and forcing me to work in ways that didn’t.  I don’t want to go there again.  Being a designer isn’t for me, and that’s why I’m not doing this month’s challenge.


Filling the well

Sandbanks, Margate Bay

I’ve struggled to write anything this week, because I simply can’t write in the way I usually do. If I’m to write anything at all, then it has to be about what’s going on for me right now, and that means a much more personal post than normal. The truth is, I’ve been feeling very, very low, to the extent of having prolonged crying sessions most days that do very little to make me feel any better.  There are lots of things to feel stressed about, it’s true, but things have been worse before this and I’ve held it together far better.

Today I suddenly realised what’s wrong with me – I need to fill the well.  I feel overwhelmed and at the end of my rope with nothing left in me to give, am totally drained and exhausted and, because of it, swing back and forth between numbness and over-emotional outbursts.  Normally I don’t get to this state because when I see myself headed there I make sure to do things that help restore my self to me – things that fill the well.

The problem has been that most of those things are no longer available, or at least not easily available.  The first of these I’ve written at length about before – there’s nowhere round here (or nowhere I’ve discovered, anyway) where I can be alone in a wild and natural place.  I’m miles and miles from the sea, and there are no woods that haven’t been turned into Center Parc-style commodities.  Nature has always been my solace, but it has to be fairly empty of people and full of silence and peace for it to work.

My garden is a consolation, and sitting in the sun always helps, but it hasn’t been warm enough lately to be able to do that.  On top of that, we took on an allotment late last year which we never got round to doing anything with, and instead of being able to enjoy gardening in our own garden, I’ve felt the pressure to get it sorted out quickly so that we can get on with the allotment.  This week I decided, reluctantly, that we have to let it go.  Geoff likes the idea of it but not the reality of what’s involved, and I simply can’t manage a very large garden of our own plus a large allotment.  It’s really too much.

Usually the well fills up regularly through the joy I get from having pets.  However, one of my cats died last year and my remaining cat is eighteen years old, and going slowly downhill – she’s unlikely to last more than another few months, I think.  It’s my turn to give to her and I’m glad to be able to do that, but there’s little coming back now to sustain me, and all the sadness of seeing her slow decline.  I’m longing for a kitten, or a dog, or preferably both, but it would upset her and I can’t do that to her.  It will have to wait.

Much of my well-filling comes through having time alone, but even this hasn’t been an option.  With Geoff unemployed, he’s at home 24/7 and I hardly ever get the house to myself, with that blissful feeling of peace and the knowledge that I can do whatever I like for the day without having to consider anyone else.

And finally, what has proved to be the last straw is the loss of my reading time.  I wake up early, usually about 6.00ish, and I like to spend an hour or two absorbed and lost in a book before starting my day.  I love to read and this is the only time of day that I do it.  I love the bedroom in the early morning, with the sun streaming in and the crystal in the window creating rainbows on the wall.  I love the quiet at that time of day, the only sound being birdsong coming through the open window, and it’s often when I get my best ideas.

Of course, Geoff no longer has to get up early and is there with me now.  Although it’s companionable to drink tea together and chat, it’s not what I most need and I long for my hour of solitude.  I feel so ungrateful as I write this, because I couldn’t ask for anyone better to share my life with.  I know I’m lucky – but the need to be alone for a while goes deep and demands to be satisfied.

The loss of that quiet early morning time has led to me breaking down twice in the past.  The first time was after my parents were killed in an accident many years ago and I had to stay in their house for a while afterwards, with my brother and my grandmother.  I was never able to get any time alone, and I needed it to grieve and to just be me, without all the sudden responsibility that had been thrust on me.  One day it all got too much and I ran out of the house, walking the ten miles back to my own home where I could find the personal space that I needed.

The second time was when I was teaching IT at a college outreach centre.  My habit was to get to where I worked before 8.00am, let myself into the building, make a cup of tea, do my photocopying for the day, and take some quiet time to myself before a demanding day full of teaching.  Then we got a new manager, who also turned up at this time, and wouldn’t leave me alone.  She spent most of the time complaining to me about all the things that she wasn’t happy about.  The rest of the time she’d ask me to do some little job (‘since I was there’), which meant that my teaching prep didn’t get fully done and I had to spend my lunch break on it.  I’d held down this full-time teaching job for a year without problem, but when I lost this morning time I burnt out within a few months, went on sick leave for six weeks, and ended up resigning.

It’s clear that I have to reclaim my early mornings and also find some new ways of filling the well, or somehow manage to reinstate some of the old ones.  I’m not sure how I’m going to do that right now, but I’m looking for ways.  Awareness of the problem is a good start.

This is my story at the moment, but filling the well is important for all of us in everything we do.  Creativity demands time and space to ponder and dream, along with the stimulation of new places and experiences.  If we don’t fill the well, it drains dry eventually and leaves us feeling blocked, flat, and uninspired at best, burnt out and depressed at worst.  Whatever it is we give out in life, we need to fill up again so that we have something still to give, and the greater the number of ways we can fill our well, the better.  What fills your well will be different to what fills mine, but whatever it is you need to do to top yours up, you owe it to yourself to do it.


The gasp of recognition

Water abstract

I’ve been following Joel Meyerowitz’s blog, Once More Around the Sun, for a little while now.  He and his wife are spending time living in Europe, at present in Italy, and Meyerowitz is posting one shot a day along with his thoughts about the image and what made him press the shutter.

One of the things I most like about the blog is that the pictures, while always having something of interest about them, aren’t polished and professional, as you might expect.  Meyerowitz uses the blog more as a kind of visual diary where he keeps rough notes, rather than somewhere to post finished pieces.  I find it rather reassuring to see work from a photographer of his calibre that shows these spontaneous shots rather the technically perfect finished images that we’re more used to seeing.

I’ve long admired Meyerowitz as a photographer, but hadn’t realised till recently how good a writer he is too.  In today’s post he talks about coming across a particular scene, ‘gasping’ when he saw it:

……..when I gasp I know I am in the right place, or the right moment.  I trust that gasp to be something from my source speaking without words.  Words come later, but in the moment there is only the intake of breath that means, Now!

I can relate to this totally.  Often I’ll suddenly notice something with a kind of flash of excitement, a gasping if you like, and I know I’m on to something good.  Contemplative photography instruction refers to this as the ‘flash of perception’.  I understood what this meant when I first came across the phrase, because it’s something I’ve always been aware of myself, but I’ve also wondered if it’s a meaningful way of putting it for people who haven’t yet recognised this as part of their experience.

In The Practice of Contemplative Photography, Andy Karr and Michael Wood identify the qualities of the flash of perception.  They say the perception arises suddenly, out of the blue, that it has a shocking quality due to this suddenness, and also because of this it feels disorienting.  They go on to say the perception has great clarity and richness, and the experience is joyful, relaxed and liberating.  I’d whole-heartedly recommend Karr and Wood’s book if you want to know more about contemplative photography, but I do sometimes think that greater explanation leads to greater confusion and that this is a very simple thing that’s more easily summed up by something as straightforward as a gasp.

As Meyeorwitz says, it’s something wordless coming from somewhere deep inside – the place deep inside that ‘knows’ and doesn’t have to explain why; the part of ourselves where intellect doesn’t get a look in and where words often just confuse the issue. The resulting image may be meaningful to other people or it may not be.  It doesn’t matter.  What it shows is the way that person saw something, in that moment – the gasp of recognition.


Joel Meyerowitz is a New York street photographer, perhaps best known for his images of Ground Zero.  If you’d like to know more about him, here are a few links: – his own web site (new version currently under construction) – Guardian article – Joel Meyerowitz: ‘brilliant mistakes…..amazing accidents’.   Excellent article, with a short video. – a selection of exhibition work, including some of the Ground Zero images

Cape Light – my personal favourite and quite different from his usual work.  Beautiful subtle colour and amazing light.



The sound of colour: music, photography and Kandinsky

Wet pavement with lights

Wet pavement with lightsThe two photos Andy used for his CD ‘Reflections’

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, 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 KandinskyComposizione 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?

Some links I found along the way:

Creative Harmony: Art + the music that inspired it: – the main article I talk about in this post.  There’s a lot to read and listen to, here.

25 Sonic Postcards inspired by Instagram:  – Personally these don’t do much for me, but they might be of interest to someone.  25 Instagram photos were used to inspire ‘soundscapes’ – I find some of them positively annoying, but maybe I’m missing something……….

Kandinsky’s Color Theory: – this post has a chart showing Kandinsky’s colour theory, ie, what each colour sounds like or feels like to him.  If you have a while to spare, you can use it to try and interpret the painting above.

The man who heard his paintbox hiss: – more about Kandinsky.

The Influence of Music on Painting and Animation: – a 38-page essay which looks in detail at synaesthesia, the artists Kandinsky and Fischinger, and Disney’s Fantasia.  It’s written in an academic style, so a little dry, but still very readable.  I only skimmed…….




On teaching photography

Impressionist trees

There’s not much information out there on how to teach photography.  Lots of us are doing it, but there seems to be little awareness that teaching well is a skill that has to be learned, and a lot of teaching is done by those who’re skilled at photography but perhaps not so skilled at helping other people learn it.

When I began to learn photography, I floundered for a long time.  I bought every magazine on the market, I read loads of books, and I thought each time I read something that I had it, that I now understood what I was doing.  And then I’d go out, there’d be something I saw to photograph, and my mind would go completely blank.  It seemed so complicated, somehow, and while I could understand each piece of the puzzle individually, I couldn’t understand how to put them together or how I’d ever remember it all at once.

What I realise now is that no-one was teaching it in a way that worked for me.  I’m fortunate enough to have been academically bright so I don’t tend to blame myself when I don’t get something – as many people do – because I know I’m capable of grasping most things when they’re presented to me in a way that makes sense to me.  I knew that there had to be a method of delivering this information that would suddenly make it come clear to me, and I was right.

When I was younger and living in Scotland with a ski-mad husband, we went ski-ing most winter weekends.  I struggled with it.  Everyone wanted to tell me what to do – move your hips this way, lean that way, place your sticks here, move your balance there.  When you’re sliding along a lot faster than you want to be, terrified you won’t be able to stop, and with multiple instructions running through your panicking brain, things are unlikely to go well.

After several years of enduring the slopes and getting down them in any way I could, a book with accompanying TV series was published.  I can’t remember the title or the author now, but he taught ski-ing in a completely different way.  Take traversing across a slope (ski-ing across the mountain rather than down it).  Instead of the usual talk of hips here, shoulders there, what he said was this: imagine you’re standing side-on to the hill and someone downhill from you has got hold of the end of your ski-pole and is trying use it to pull you towards them; if you imagine resisting and pulling back on it, you’ll automatically go into the right position for traverse ski-ing.  Brilliant!  So easy! This made total sense to me and next time we went to the ski-slopes I tried it, and it worked, as did his advice on all the other maneouvres – things I’d been trying to learn for years without much success.  After that, ski-ing became pleasurable and while I was never likely to be much good at it, I could get down a slope quite adequately.

Something very similar happened with photography.  This time round it’s Bryan Peterson I have to thank for it and I now include his way of explaining the relationship between aperture and shutter speed when I’m teaching.  I also added a little extra bit to it that explains how ISO fits in. (I’ll put a quick lesson on aperture/shutter speed relationships at the end of the post, just to demonstrate the difference in approach.)  What both the above examples have in common is that they use a more intuitive and metaphorical way of getting the message across.

I’m going to veer onto shaky ground now, because I’m going to talk about male and female approaches to learning photography.  There’s a lot of generalisation here because quite a few men respond better to the ‘female’ approach and some women are perfectly happy with the ‘male’ approach.  It’s just a shorthand way of describing learning styles and I could equally well refer to it as the left-brain and right-brain approaches, but that has its problems too.

My experience over many years of teaching both photography and IT is this – most men like a lot of facts and figures and they like it delivered in a linear, cut-and-dried fashion.  They’re also quite happy using jargon, and even seem to enjoy it.  The majority of books and magazines on photography expect you to learn like this.  Women, on the other hand, often prefer the information presented through metaphor and intuition, and like the jargon to be minimised.  Factual information for the sake of it doesn’t interest them much, and they mainly want to know whatever it is they need to know at that moment in order to do whatever it is they want to do.

Both approaches are perfectly valid in themselves, but you won’t do well if you’re only given the one that doesn’t work for you.  I’ve been sneered at (by a fellow tutor – male) for teaching photography the way I do, but I’ve seen the glazed eyes in his classes when people just aren’t getting it.  And I’ve successfully taught quite a few women (and men), who were previously struggling to understand f-stops and shutter speeds.  I don’t say this to boast – just to point out that it’s crucial that the teacher finds the right approach for the student, whatever that is.

There’s a tendency for students to blame themselves if they find it difficult to learn something, rather than conclude that the teacher simply hasn’t found a way of getting it across that works for them.  There’s also a tendency among some teachers to blame the student, rather than look more closely at their own part in the learning process.

Photography – particularly amateur photography – is a male-dominated sport.  There are just as many women photographers around, but the magazines, the gear, the clothing, everything, assumes that the consumer is male, and if you look in WH Smith’s, you’ll even find the photography magazines under Men’s Interests.  I think this has led to a situation where many women are trying to learn the craft in a way that’s been designed for a more male brain.  There are well-researched physiological differences in the ways that male and female brains function – neither is better, they’re just different.

Now and then I toy with the idea of a class just for women, but I’m reluctant to go down that road.  I prefer to include rather than separate, and in any case I use both styles of teaching in every class to make sure I cover all bases.  What I would like, though, is for students who’ve given it their best shot with limited success to ponder on whether it might just be the form of instruction that’s at fault, and not some failing on their part.  Teaching is a two-way deal – as students we have a responsibility to put the effort in; as teachers we have a responsibility to adapt to our students and make learning as easy as possible for them.


A little lesson on aperture and shutter speed

The sensor inside your digital camera gathers light and creates the photograph. The light gets in through the aperture, which you can open wide or make small, and the shutter speed is the length of time you allow the light to come in.

Now let’s imagine that instead of filling the sensor with light, you’re filling a bucket with water.  (Bear with me on this.) You’ve got a hose that you’re going to use to fill your bucket with and this particular hose is very thin, with a small circumference.  You won’t be able to get a huge amount of water running through your hose at any one time, so it will take quite a while to fill up your bucket.

Now imagine that the hose is like your aperture and the bucket is your sensor – a thin hose equals a small aperture and just as the hose needs a long time to fill the bucket, your aperture needs a long time – ie, a long shutter speed – to fill the sensor with light.

It’s the same the other way round.  This time you have a big fat hose.  Lots of water pours through it, so you only need to let the water run for a short time.  So, if you have a wide open aperture, the light comes through quickly and you only need a short shutter speed.

Bucket and hose metaphorThis explanation might work for you, it might not.  I include it here just to show that there are other ways of explaining things than the usual ones.




What the trees know

Tree branches with sunset behind

‘Trees are poems that the earth writes upon the sky’ – Kahlil Gibran

The spring skies outside my window never cease to astonish me.  In winter they were mostly white, pale grey, nothing to remark on or get excited about, but in other seasons they can take my breath away with their stunning beauty. As sophisticated and worldly photographers, we’re not supposed to love sunsets – that eternal cliche – but to turn to less obvious subjects, play it a little more cool.  But that’s the voice of cynicism speaking and anyone who doesn’t rejoice in the gobsmackingly gorgeous colours of the sky at dusk is surely lost to life’s simple pleasures.

Tree skeletons, too, are obsessing me.  Something about the complexity of the myriad overlapping branches and the challenge of framing them in a way that creates some kind of order out of their chaotic beauty, is behind it.  Something too, about the way they seem to reach into the sky, opening themselves up to it, not hiding themselves – as we might, as humans – because they’re bare and have temporarily lost the glory of their leaves.  Clothed in green they have a different sort of beauty, but this starkness is somehow more honest – they are able to show themselves as they are, knowing that what they are is enough, and to accept the gift of the sky’s light and warmth to enable them to flourish again.

We photograph ourselves, constantly – Minor White said that every photograph is a self-portrait.  Sometimes it isn’t until we write out our thoughts and feelings around what we photograph that we become aware of what it reflects to us, and we finally get the message.  The sky fulfills its purpose, which is simply to be the sky, and the trees flourish because of it.  The sky gives without expectation, and the tree receives without guilt.  The tree gives back to the sky by growing, its leaves pushing oxygen into the atmosphere.  It’s very simple, and quite perfect- the cycle of give and take, no keeping score, no feeling undeserving, no strings attached to the gift.  Why do we, as humans, complicate things so much?  Nature can teach us a lot about giving and receiving.

What do your photographs tell you?


Sunset with branches

sunset with branches

Sunset with branches

Sunset with branches

And finally, the palest sliver of a fingernail moon, almost lost in a pastel sky.

Fingernail moon

The longing for wild places

Stapleford Woods, Notts

There’s been a lot of talk lately about something called ‘nature deficit disorder’.  It’s not a disorder as such, but just a catchy name for something that we’ve so far failed to properly recognise – that people’s well-being depends on having a connection with nature.  I would phrase this differently, because talking about having a connection with nature supposes that we’re somehow separate from it, when in fact we’re natural beings and are part and parcel of the natural world.  It’s just that a lot of folk have forgotten this, and it’s not so much a case of connecting as it is of remembering.

I grew up in Scotland, with spectacular – and wild – scenery on my doorstep.  I pretty much took this for granted until I moved ‘down south’ to Hertfordshire, and rather naively started asking people where they went when they wanted to get out into some wild and empty country.  It didn’t take long for me to realise that there was no such thing there, and that was a huge shock to me.  Eventually two things happened – the first was that we moved to Kent, which is generously endowed with lovely woods and beaches, some of them almost empty of people, and these filled the gap for me quite effectively.  The second was that, by then, I’d got used to the idea that I didn’t have access to the kind of wild spaces I grew up with.

But now we’re living in Nottinghamshire, and the problem has resurfaced.  The countryside round here is very pretty but it’s all been tamed and so far I’ve not been able to find anything that even approaches what I’m looking for.  Again I’m asking people to recommend places to go, and they send me to country parks with tarmac paths and toilets and gift shops and cafes, when what I want is mud and silence.  They don’t understand what it is I’m searching for.  They don’t know what it is that they’re missing.

Stapleford Woods, Notts

At one point I thought I’d found a place, a small wood only ten minutes drive away with no facilities at all other than a car park.  It wasn’t really big enough, but it was something.  And then I went there last summer and had a scary experience.  After I parked, I noticed a man in a white van looking at me very intently. Every time I looked up he was staring at me and I put off getting out of the car.  Eventually I got annoyed with myself, told myself I was imagining things, and left the car and headed off into the woods.  A bit foolish, but I wanted my walk.  I was wary enough to keep an eye on him through the trees, only to see him park his van next to my car and start walking into the woods behind me.

Major panic!  I ran, looping off the path into the undergrowth and doing a large circle that brought me back to the edge of the woods next to the car park.  Then I had a horrible thought – could he be waiting there for me?  So I stood there hidden by the trees for ten minutes until another car drove in and then I ran to my car.  He wasn’t there.  Later – quite a lot later – I found out that these woods are a notorious ‘dogging’ site, which at least explained what had happened and put a less frightening perspective on it.  It still meant I couldn’t go back there.

Stapleford Woods, Notts

I have never felt afraid in truly wild spaces.  Most of my female friends wouldn’t dream of going for a walk in an isolated spot by themselves, but truly wild places aren’t frightening at all to me.  My view is that anyone who wants to prey on women isn’t going to go there, because you could wait a long time to find a woman walking alone.  I feel less safe in busy places, and less still in what Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts refers to as the Edgelands – those no man’s lands where the town trails off and the countryside hasn’t yet begun.  Those places that are full of graffiti, and the plant life is strewn with broken bottles, empty beer cans and cigarettes.  These woods, although seemingly wild, were too easily accessed from a nearby major road.  They don’t look like edgelands, but they have the spirit of the edgelands rather than the spirit of the wild, and I didn’t know the area well enough to realise.

Most people’s relationship with the countryside is mediated.  The wild is managed, and turned into the tame.  Of course all land in this country is managed, but a lot of it doesn’t feel as if it is and still has the essence of wild space about it.  And we need it.  Peter Kahn, an ecopsychologist, writing in Psychologies magazine (July 2011), says this:

Connect to nature as much as you can.  But connect more to the wild side of nature.  Many people who talk about the importance of nature focus on what can be termed as domestic, nearby, everyday nature – a favourite tree in one’s neighbourhood, a local park or garden, or one’s pet.  Domestic nature is important, but it’s only half the story.  The other half is wild nature.  For as a species, we came of age in a natural world far wilder than today, and much of the need for wildness still exists within us.  Wildness in the natural world often involves that which is big, untamed, unmanaged.  We should interact more with the wild – forests, rivers and the like – as we are strengthened and nurtured by it.

So many people haven’t experienced the wild, and domestic nature is all that they know.  It might hurt me inside that I don’t have any wild spaces close by, I might feel the constant ache of longing for something to which there’s no easy access, but I’m grateful that at least I’ve experienced enough of the wild to know what it is I’m missing.

With thanks to Joanna, whose recent blog post By the Side of a River prompted this one.

The photos are of Stapleford Woods, near Newark.

Stapleford Wood, Notts



Rewilding the language of landscape

A dreich day on the Dingle PeninsulaA dreich day on the Dingle Peninsula

The most recent edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary excludes a large number of words that are no longer considered to be relevant to today’s children – such words as acorn, bluebell, buttercup, conker, catkin, cygnet, dandelion, fern, ivy, kingfisher, mistletoe and pasture.  It says it all that a selection of the words that take their place include celebrity, broadband, chatroom, blog and voice-mail.

I find this depressing and worrying.  We name things that we think are important – the act of naming gives significance to a thing, says it’s worth paying attention to.  It seems to me that our current obsession with saving the planet and being eco-friendly means absolutely nothing if we’re not even interested in knowing the names of the things we say we want to save.

We’re all aware of that old classic that Eskimos have umpteen words for snow. If you click through the link to the article, you’ll see that this is slightly misleading, but it is true that language reflects distinctions that are important to us.  It’s not just the Inuits who make linguistic distinctions of natural features – every culture does or has done at some point.  A little bit of research into my own Scottish heritage threw up the fact that there are over 70 Gaelic words for hills and mountains – we have a lot of those in Scotland and it makes a difference whether it’s a small, flattish hill or a steep one with a ridge.

However, as we become more and more disconnected from the natural world, this area of language is rapidly falling into disuse.  Robert Macfarlane, in his new book ‘Landmarks‘, has catalogued as many of these words as he’s been able to discover.  There are some wonderful words here:

outshifts – the fringes and boundaries of a town (Cambridgeshire)

snow-bones – long thin patches of snow still lying after a thaw, often in dips or stream-cuts (Yorkshire)

muxy – sticky, miry, muddy ground (Exmoor)

smoored – smothered in snow (Scots)

grimlins – the night hours around midsummer when dusk blends into dawn (Orkney)

roarie-bummlers – fast-moving storm clouds (Scots)

Mud pattern 1Muxy – sticky, miry, muddy ground

I searched my memory for Scottish landscape words that I commonly heard used when growing up there.  Many of them are alternatives to already existing words – eg, glen (valley), loch (lake), burn (stream), gloaming (twilight), and bramble (blackberry) but there are some words that have no equivalent in ‘ordinary’ English and describe something quite specific:

lochan – a very small loch

dreich – wet, grey miserable, dull weather

corrie – a bowl-shaped hollow in a hillside

strath – a wide, flat glen

skerry – a small rocky island, too small for habitation

(My spell checker is going mad right now!)

The question is – if we lose these words, do we lose our awareness of what they describe?  We certainly lose a richness of vocabulary and that’s a sadness in itself, but does it affect us on a deeper level than this?  Is the loss of these words simply a reflection of our disconnection with nature (sobering enough), or does the loss of these words actually contribute to our disconnection with nature?  Or is it a bit of both?

The feminist movement has always believed that the language we use helps form our thoughts and attitudes.  They got a lot of flak for this, and often it was taken too far, but the point remains and has validity.  I’m not a linguist or a researcher, and I can’t answer these questions on anything other than a gut level, but I do find it very disturbing to think that dictionary compilers no longer think that children want or need words that identify a bluebell or an acorn.  That’s not a world I care to live in.  But now, over to you – what do you think?


Robert Macfarlane, Landmarks

Article by Robert Macfarlane, From Aquabob to Zawn, The Guardian, 28th February 2015





Alain de Botton – art as hope

It’s desperately frustrating when you’ve been trying to express something for a long time but have never quite managed to find the words that will pin down the thought or feeling.  Then one day, with a surge of relief, you read something that someone else has written and they’ve said exactly what you would have said could you have brought those words into consciousness.  I subscribe to Brain Pickings – something I can whole-heartedly recommend if you want in-depth reviews of extremely interesting books – and one of their latest posts covers Alain de Botton and John Armstrong’s book:  ‘Art as Therapy’.

I haven’t read the book yet, only the review (although I aim to rectify that as soon as I can), so I’ve drawn heavily on Brain Pickings’ account of it.  In the book De Botton and Armstrong propose seven core psychological functions of art, one of which they term ‘hope’.  I’ve long had a problem, which I keep coming back to, concerning the conflict between beauty or prettiness in art, and depth.  The two seem at odds with each other and art critics are frequently derogatory and dismissive of anything that might be regarded as primarily beautiful or pretty, seeing such things as ‘a failure of taste and intelligence’.  I’ve wanted to argue against this view many times, for it seems to me that art that gives pleasure must have something of worth about it and for the first time I’m seeing an account of this dilemma that makes sense.  This is the basic problem:

The love of prettiness is often deemed a low, even a “bad” response, but because it is so dominant and widespread it deserves attention, and may hold important clues about a key function of art. … The worries about prettiness are twofold. Firstly, pretty pictures are alleged to feed sentimentality. Sentimentality is a symptom of insufficient engagement with complexity, by which one really means problems. The pretty picture seems to suggest that in order to make life nice, one merely has to brighten up the apartment with a depiction of some flowers. If we were to ask the picture what is wrong with the world, it might be taken as saying ‘you don’t have enough Japanese water gardens’ — a response that appears to ignore all the more urgent problems that confront humanity. . . . . The very innocence and simplicity of the picture seems to militate against any attempt to improve life as a whole. Secondly, there is the related fear that prettiness will numb us and leave us insufficiently critical and alert to the injustices surrounding us.

De Botton and Armstrong go on to point out that neuroscientific research indicates that optimism makes both us and the world better:

If optimism is important, it’s because many outcomes are determined by how much of it we bring to the task. It is an important ingredient of success. This flies in the face of the elite view that talent is the primary requirement of a good life, but in many cases the difference between success and failure is determined by nothing more than our sense of what is possible and the energy we can muster to convince others of our due. We might be doomed not by a lack of skill, but by an absence of hope.

The Dance, Henri Matisse, 1909The Dance, Henri Matisse, 1909

The authors then refer to Matisse’s Dance (iii), 1909, saying that the dancers in the Matisse painting are able to put us in touch with a part of ourselves – a carefree, happy part of ourselves – that better equips us to cope with life’s problems.  Nevertheless, while looking at the painting helps us to access the happier, more optimistic parts of our psyche this should not be seen as a denial of the cares and troubles that beset ourselves and our world.

We should be able to enjoy an ideal image without regarding it as a false picture of how things usually are. A beautiful, though partial, vision can be all the more precious to us because we are so aware of how rarely life satisfies our desires.

This resonates very strongly with me. I’ve often had people say to me things such as ‘get real’ or ‘welcome to the real world’, as if the only reality we have is the bad stuff.  Reality  is a mixture of good and bad, of hope and despair, of joy and grief, of kindness and cruelty and I’ve had my share of all of them.  All these things are equally real, and dancers engaged in a carefree dance are no less real than people being starved, killed or tortured.  While art plays an important function in drawing attention to inequalities, catastrophes and inhumanities, surely we shouldn’t be restricting the function of ‘serious’ art to this one thing?

As things stand we’re bombarded from every side with depressing, troubling images. It’s important to know what’s happening in the world, but there’s plenty of research to show that an excess of these words and images are actually harmful to us both physiologically and psychologically.  The more time we spend looking at such images, the more our immune system is prone to damage and our psyche to depression and pessimism.

This isn’t a selfish exhortation to ignore the fate of others in order to keep ourselves OK – happy, healthy people are  in a much better position to help others than depressed, sick people, and are actually more likely to do so.  Like the safety instructions in the plane to put your own oxygen mask on first before helping anyone else, we can only help others effectively when we’re not struggling ourselves.  Art that can help us access the positive, optimistic and untroubled parts of our selves, can also set us up to be strong enough to tackle both our own and the world’s problems more effectively.

When it comes to the depiction of the positive in art, the trap lies – as De Botton and Armstrong say – in the tendency to lapse into a shallow sentimentality that lacks complexity and therefore depth.  This often does happen, but I don’t think it always has to.  Good, uplifting art has the potential to act as a counter-balance to an overdose of all that’s bad in the world, and to help us to transcend it.  This needn’t be its only function, but rather one of many equally valuable ones, and art that falls into this category deserves a lot more respect and validation than it gets these days.

I find it significant that De Botton and Armstrong have chosen as an example a painting that’s more than a century old – in this Post-Modernist age, uplifting art is hard to find.  It’s never been my view that art shouldn’t deal with misery and trouble – I think art should deal with everything that’s part of life – but it seems to me that we’ve concentrated on the angst at the expense of the joy and that that is harmful to us both personally and culturally.  The zeitgeist encourages us to act ‘cool’ – cynicism, irony and pessimism are applauded, while sincerity, authenticity and optimism are sneered at and derided, and that’s reflected in the art we have today.  De Botton and Armstrong, of course, are not writing for the rarefied world of the art critics, but for the layperson who’d like a better understanding of what meaning art might have for them.