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.



Only as good as your worst shots?

Nature's barcode, Clumber park, NottsOne of my one-hit wonders – the only decent image I produced that particular day, taken in Clumber Park, Nottinghamshire

Geoff has been a squash player for years, and in his heyday won loads of shields and trophies and was very, very good at it, but a bad knee combined with age and a steady increase in weight has meant that he’s now limited to the less physically stressful game of racketball.  This is not a thriving area for racketball, but he has managed to find two or three people to play with.  They’re of varying standards and he gets a better game from some of them than he does others.

He came back one evening, having won his game easily that night, and said ‘you know, he delivers some very good shots sometimes, and his good shots are as good as my good shots, but my bad shots are a whole lot better than his are, and that’s why I win.’  It got me thinking that this definitely applies to photography and probably many other things besides.  Looking back at the images I took when I started out with photography, I can see that the best of them still look pretty good.  However, the bad ones – and there are a lot of bad ones – are very bad indeed and the mediocre ones aren’t far behind.

As time has gone by, my bad shots have got a whole lot better and I think this might be one way of indicating progress.  Photography is a strange pursuit in that, even when you don’t really know what you’re doing, it’s still quite possible to get a wonderful shot – that’s something that’s a lot less likely to happen in other art forms.  The measure of a good photographer, however, might lie in the proportion of excellent shots they regularly manage to achieve, combined with the calibre of their worst shots.

One approach that photographers use much more than other visual artists is to work in series linked by a concept or theme. There are some obvious examples of painters who’ve done this too – eg, Monet, with his series of canvases showing haystacks, Rouen Cathedral, and waterlilies (not all at once, of course) or Hogarth with his prints of the Rake’s Progress.  On the whole, though, I believe work that’s consistently presented as sets of linked images is largely peculiar to photographers.

There are a lot of reasons for this, not least the tradition of photo journalism where one picture might tell a story, but several will tell it better.  Another reason – and one which sets them apart from a lot of amateur photographers – is that being able to produce a set of images that are consistently good, hold together in terms of tones and colours and so on, and are presented in a coherent way, is the mark of someone who didn’t just get lucky.

It’s surprisingly difficult to do. My first set of images for my first OCA assignment were mostly random shots that just about fitted the brief.  On putting together later and better-considered assignments, it was immensely tricky to get all the images looking as if they belong together and frequently led to the heartbreaking situation of having to leave out my best shot because it just didn’t fit. I think this is one reason why producing a coherent group of images on a theme is one of the best ways of improving your photography.

It’s natural to track progress photographically by looking at how much better our best shots have become. Perhaps, though, the time to get excited is when our worst shots show signs of getting lots better.


If a thing’s worth doing……

Eric Kessels, 24 Hours in Photos,

Image copyright Eileen Rafferty and used with photographer’s permission

I’ve been thinking, recently, about an exhibition by Eric Kessels called 24 Hours in Photos. (Eileen has written about it, here). It’s a simple idea – Kessels printed out every photograph uploaded to Flickr in 24 hours and put them in a great big pile, in an even bigger room. I haven’t seen the exhibition, but just looking at the images of it is shocking – the sheer excess and superfluity quickly leads to a feeling that adding to the numbers of pictures already out there is a bit pointless. What’s it all for?

It started me thinking about the value, or lack of it, in the plethora of mediocre and sometimes downright terrible photographs that surround us online. The ability to take and share photographs easily and effortlessly has led to a situation where everyone is a photographer. This often gives rise to some disparagement, and even on occasion sneering, from those who think of themselves as ‘real’ photographers. There’s a sense that they’d prefer a situation where only those who’d taken time to acquire the requisite skills could produce photographic images.

It’s easy to feel that there’s just too much photography taking place – or perhaps more accurately, being ‘shared’ – and that we’re being so overwhelmed by images that it becomes harder and harder to sift through them to find something above the mediocre, something worth looking at. And there’s some truth in that, for sure. But actually I’m glad that photography has become something that just about everyone participates in, even if the result is too much sharing of too many poor photos.

Before the advent of largely passive entertainment in the form of TV, video, internet, and so on, people used to do stuff. They sang or played an instrument, they took part in sport, they danced, drew, wrote, crafted and made things. They did it because there wasn’t much ready-made entertainment to hand, but also because there’s a satisfaction to be found in the doing even if the result isn’t that great.

Things have changed. Now, if you’re heavily into music it most often means you listen to it rather than play an instrument or sing; many sports enthusiasts sit and watch rather than play; people who love art go and look at it in galleries but don’t produce any themselves; film buffs have never had a go at actually making a short film. People go shopping to buy hand-made crafts but don’t try learning a craft themselves. Entertainment has become something that’s done to us and for us and not something we create for ourselves.

If you ask a room full of adults if they can sing, dance, or draw, very few hands will go up – there’s an assumption that in order to qualify you have to be able to do these things well. Young children, on the other hand, know they can do all these things and they do do them with a total absence of self-censorship and no assumption that they have to be good at it. Somewhere along the line we absorb the idea that if we can’t do something well we shouldn’t be doing it at all, and the easy solution is to opt out and become a consumer rather than a producer.

When did it get to the point where we feel ashamed to sing or dance or paint unless we’re good at it? Some of my fondest memories of my dad were listening to him play the clarinet. He was a really poor player, but the pride and pleasure on his face when he was giving us his rendition of ‘Stranger on the Shore’ means that that particular song can still bring tears to my eyes. I loved to watch him play, not for the music, but for the joy it gave him to perform it. I’m glad he played anyway even if he played badly, and it was part of what made him the person he was.

My dad also painted. He never did anything original, just made very accurate copies of anything he liked the look of that was contained within a book-sized catalogue of art prints called The Homelover’s Companion. He was good at copying, and he enjoyed it, and many people got pleasure from the resulting pictures. I still have one of them – an oil painting copy of Constable’s Salisbury Cathedral. You could never say my dad was an accomplished artist, but I don’t think the time he spent painting was in any way wasted.

Photography is the one area where people haven’t yet lost their joy in participation, or given up because they’re ‘no good’. One of our removal men took ten minutes to show me every single photo of his two cats that he had on his phone. They were technically awful photos – blurred, focus in the wrong place, all of that and more – but I liked that he’d taken them himself and wanted to show them off. They really meant something to him and I was touched by that.

So when I find myself cringing a bit at some of the stuff I see on online photo sharing sites, I choose instead to be pleased that there’s still one art form that everyone takes part in without embarrassment. Yes, I get tired of the endless, dull, and usually meaningless (to me) photos that we’re surrounded by, and I do think there are too many of them – perhaps we don’t need to share quite as many photographs as we do. But I don’t want to hear someone say, someday, ‘oh no, I can’t take photos – I’m really bad at it – I’d rather just look at other people’s.’



Announcing our new collaborative project!

Colour and Light 1, Lincoln Cathedral

Colour and light 2, Lincoln Cathedral

I’m starting something very new, and quite challenging. My good friend Eileen suggested to me that we do a collaborative project, something I’ve had thoughts about doing for quite a while. We wanted something very thought-provoking and it’s taken us a little while to come up with a plan, but here’s where we are right now.

We’ve been inspired by the idea of Socratic dialogue. Socrates taught his students not by feeding them information or telling them what they should think, but by asking questions of them. By asking the right questions and getting them to examine their own replies, he helped them clarify the issues and work out why they thought what they thought, quite often leading them to change their minds of their own accord. Socratic questions don’t have any right or wrong answers, and often there are no absolute answers at all – the important thing is the questioning process and the deeper understanding it leads to. This is what we’re aiming to achieve with our new project, but with images being as important as words (or maybe more so).

We’re going to choose a piece of text – or it could even be a photograph, an audio recording, or a video – and exchange images that show some kind of response to it, along with some explanation and thoughts as well. We’ll probably keep going with the text until we feel we’ve exhausted the possibilities and then change it for something else. We’re hoping that it will give us – and perhaps anyone who’s reading our blogs – some food for thought. We’re also hoping that other people might like to join in the discussion, and perhaps even leave links in the comments to their own photographic responses to the text.

And we’re not starting easy – oh, no! We’ve chosen our text and this is it:

Ultimately – or at the limit – in order to see a photograph well, it is best to look away or close your eyes. ‘The necessary condition for an image is sight’ Janouch told Kafka; and Kafka smiled and replied: ‘We photograph things in order to drive them out of our minds. My stories are a way of shutting my eyes.’
Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida

Before we came up with this text – well, it was actually Eileen who came up with it – we’d already exchanged a set of images each. She’s now emailed me her interpretation of our pictures, with reference to the quote above. First of all, here are Eileen’s photos:

Bognor ceiling butterfly 532 ecopy 650(c) Eileen Rafferty

Bognor new estate 207 ecopy 650(c) Eileen Rafferty

And you can see the ones I sent to her at the top of the post. I was feeling very mentally and creatively blank at the time, and wasn’t sure why I’d picked these ones out specially – I was just drawn to the colour and light in them.

Here’s what Eileen had to say:

My pictures are very much about space and perhaps absence – large pictures with limited information across most of the picture plane. Yours in contrast are small images, and have a slight feeling of enclosure. When reflecting on them, it seemed to me that where my images are in part about absence, yours are very much about presence. The light that falls across the scene feels to me like a very definite presence, almost physically palpable. It’s a warm, comforting presence and the more I look at them the more I imagine it as personified. Light as God, or the ultimate parent, or some form of spirit or benign being. It was reflecting on that presence, and the role these pictures might play in your life, that drew me back again and again to the quote above. I think I am making expansive and peaceful images at least in part because my life feels so busy and unpeaceful just now. Who or what is this presence that is calling to you in these images?

Does making these pictures drive them out of our minds, not to help us avoid them, but to give them some form of incorporation, to make them more real, to comfort us and to seek to share that with others? To what extent are they about things you can’t see, and how necessary are words to deepen understanding and explore more complex points?

Whew……some big questions there. I’ll do my best to respond to at least some of them – as this is an ongoing kind of thing, I’m not even going to try and answer everything at once.

First of all, these two images are very typical of my work. Sometimes I make images that are about emptiness and absence and involve a lot of space, but it’s more like me to produce smaller, intimate pictures like these ones.  Something comes over me when I see beautiful light or amazing colours, and it’s something that lifts me out of myself and my petty concerns and makes me forget about myself for a while.  In that sense there’s a transcendent element that kicks in when I shoot these things – it’s no longer me capturing the pictures, but the pictures capturing me, and that’s when I feel I do my best work.

As for a kind of presence, I don’t believe in any kind of orthodox god – if I were pushed to say what I believe in, it would be that there’s something like a benevolent but impersonal positive force or energy that we can draw on and tap into. Some people might call that ‘god’ but I don’t like the connotations that hang around the word. However, if I had to give this thing a physical presence, that presence would be something that trailed clouds of light and colour – very like what I’ve attempted to show in these images, in fact. It’s coincidental that these pictures were taken in a cathedral, but perhaps the space lent itself to the expression of this kind of thing.  My beliefs are very personal to me, and not something I want to go into here, but it’s interesting to me that Eileen has seen something in my images that expresses them rather well.

But let’s go back to the text again. – why the need to ‘drive them out of [my] mind’ and give them tangible form? I think this is a question that’s relevant to all photography – why do we need to give the things we see a physical form? Why is not enough to simply experience them? I don’t think I have any answers right now, but the question is interesting.  Garry Winogrand once said that he took photos to see what things looked like when they were photographed, and I think there’s something in that that resonates with me. But what is it that makes that an interesting thing to do?  And isn’t there more to it than that?

‘The necessary condition for an image is sight’, quotes Barthes. But there are quite a number of blind photographers out there who get something from creating images that they can’t see. Some of them do have some residual sight, others are completely blind but did see at one time, so they’re ‘seeing’ the image in their minds, but it still puzzles me why someone would get anything out of doing this. Turning to a different sense, there’s also the example of Beethoven, who continued to compose music he’d never hear except in his own mind. It seems, then, that we have some kind of need to ‘drive them [our images] out of our minds’ and put them into tangible form, but it’s not clear why. Is it the process that’s important rather than the result, and why is this process important even when you can’t see what you’re taking?

These photographers will never be able to see prints or screenshots of what they’ve taken, so the end result is presumably not the driving force.  Talking to another friend of mine a few weeks ago, we were pondering the problem of what you actually do with your photos or artwork once you’ve created them.  If you aren’t going to sell or display them, why produce them?  I could argue that it’s the process that’s the important thing, but would I still take pictures if I knew no-one but me would ever see them?  I think not, so it can’t just be about the process for me.  I think I feel a need to communicate what I’m seeing, perhaps to try and point out something that I’ve noticed but that you might not have.  Or if you did, you might have seen it in a different way.  It works as both expression and communication, and if someone resonates with something I do, then some small connection is created between us and that’s a very satisfying thing.

There’s a lot more to say, and in true Socratic style I’ve asked far more questions than I can ever hope to answer, but there’s an alarmingly high word count appearing at the bottom of my screen.  I’m going to leave it here for now, except to return briefly to Eileen’s pictures.  For me, they’re all about space to breathe.  When I look at them I feel as if I can take a big deep breath and let go of my problems – which is exactly what I’m going to do now.


Where is home? – Pico Iyer

‘Where or what is home?’ is a question that’s been occupying me for some time – for obvious reasons – so when I came across this TED talk by Pico Iyer I stopped everything to watch it. If the question interests you, then I recommend you watch it too – it’s fourteen minutes well spent.  (I’ve had terrible trouble getting the video to embed, so if it’s disappeared again you can link to it here:

Iyer points out that ethnic origins no longer define where home is – he’s Indian by ethnicity, but has never lived there nor can he speak any of its languages.  For myself, I’m Scottish by ethnicity and birth, but although I identify to a great extent with Scottish culture and I have a great deal of love for the landscape, I’ve never actually felt at home there.  Even at a young age, growing up in the west of Scotland, I never felt as if I belonged.  As time went past I managed to forget that, and a few years ago I went back there to live, expecting it to be a permanent move.  I was miserable.  That whole feeling of not fitting in and not belonging came back in a huge rush.  Scotland is where I come from, and a place I love to visit, but it isn’t home.

There’s a problem with linking home to a physical place – what happens if that place disappears?  Iyer had the misfortune to have his house burnt down in a Californian bush fire and was left with nothing but the clothes he was wearing and a toothbrush.  That’s an extreme example, thank goodness, but most of us have lost a place that represents home in some much less dramatic way.  Leaving Canterbury felt like losing my home.  I was back there for a week recently, and it really did feel  like going home even though I no longer have any physical roots there.   But the latter isn’t really what home is about:

“…for more and more of us, home has really less to do with a piece of soil than, you could say, with a piece of soul.”  Pico Iyer

That piece of soil may be strongly linked to a piece of our soul, but the soil itself isn’t home.

If home isn’t synonymous with place, we could think of home as being where the people we love are, which is fine if we’re thinking about spouses and pets, but what if your children, parents, and friends all live far away from you?   And what if they all live in different places?  No, home is something far more nebulous and much harder to pin down.  And perhaps it’s something that’s different for different people.

Part of my feeling that Canterbury is still home lies in its familiarity. For the first time in a year and a half, I knew how to get to places, I knew where the best places were to go, I knew where to buy the things I wanted – it was all so easy and reassuringly familiar.  New places are exciting, it’s true, but when you have to actively remember where the light switch is each time you want to put it on, novelty can get a bit wearing.  I know some people thrive on it – they’re the travellers, the adventurers.  I’ve never been like that.  My taste for adventure lies in new ideas, different ways of thinking and being, and to travel effectively in my mind, I find I need a familiar, reliable, physical base.  You may be quite different.

Home is more like a feeling than something that you can point to. I still find it difficult to understand why I feel at home in one place, but not in another, which doesn’t help when I have to make choices about where to live.  I never felt at home when we were living in Cheshire, although it isn’t obvious to me why that was.  And I already feel much more at home where I’m living now, even though I’ve been here less than two months.  It isn’t exactly ‘home’ yet, but I can see that it might become it in time.  Home, for me, feels something like having a familiar, stable base – a metaphorical and physical fixed point from where I can venture out and explore.  It’s a mixture of familiarity, proximity to people I love, and perhaps most of all,  a feeling of belonging. The first and last of these take time to develop, and sometimes never do.  I wonder if there are places where we simply never can feel at home?  I think it’s possible.




Desperately seeking a Wabi Sabi house

Steep Hill, LincolnSteep Hill, Lincoln – perfect in its imperfection?

We’re house hunting again, and it’s making me think a lot about what I like and don’t like and why that might be. What we really want is something old and characterful, but most of the housing stock is post 1960s and we’ve begun to consider other possibilities. Recently we thought about viewing a house I spotted on Rightmove – it was very modern, but it was light, bright, and beautifully decorated and finished.  It was immaculate. But therein lay the problem – we don’t live immaculate lives. We’re often messy and sometimes the housework goes un-done if there are more interesting things to do (and there are always more interesting things to do). I just couldn’t see myself in this house at all.

It was so perfectly presented that a few crumbs in the kitchen would have ruined its good looks. And then I thought – one reason I love this rental house so much is that it accommodates our lives and doesn’t ask too much of us. The kitchen has an ancient, broken brick floor that doesn’t show up all the little bits of food that get dropped on it, and the solid old pine of the units can take a few crumbs left lying and the kind of watermarks you get where it’s been wiped with too wet a cloth. I like to cook, and I want a kitchen I can cook in and really use, not a show place. The rest of the house is like this, too – this house supports us, we don’t support it.

I don’t really like perfection. It has an instant appeal, but I become bored with it quickly and it somehow pushes me away. This is ironic, given that I’ve spent much of my life trying (and failing) to be perfect, thinking somehow that it would make me more lovable. And yet that’s not how I respond myself. I’ve never found perfect faces and bodies very interesting – give me a quirky, individual sort of beauty any time. And I love the house we’re living in for its bumpy walls, sloping floors, uneven staircases, and all its glorious, imperfect idiosyncracies. It has immense character. Perfect faces don’t have much character, and neither do perfect houses – they tell you nothing about themselves.

Perfection both demands something of us and is untouchable in itself. If a thing is perfect, there’s nothing you can add to or subtract from it without messing it up – it gives us nowhere to go, no way of interacting with it and all we can do is worship at its feet. At the same time, its perfection can be like a reproach, by highlighting our own lack of it. Nobody much likes the person who seems to live an immaculate, perfect life (of course, they never do, and we’re only seeing what they want us to see, but it doesn’t endear them to us). And when we fall in love, it’s often someone’s vulnerabilities that open up our hearts.

I find this with photography, too. The perfect can have a kind of instant, ‘wow’ type appeal, but it doesn’t last. Technical perfection often has a soul-less quality and it leaves the viewer nowhere to go – it’s glossy and finished. When I started in photography I would sit gazing in awe at the immaculate, perfect landscape shots in the magazines, wishing I could produce such a thing myself. After I’d seen lots of these, though, they lost their appeal and now I don’t give them much more than a passing glance.

And another thing – I grew up in Scotland, and I can tell you that the much-photographed Highlands very rarely look the way they look in this kind of image. It’s a wilder, grimmer, wetter place, full of swarms of irritating midges, and cold, buffeting winds. The reality of it is not so immediately appealing but it touches the soul in a way these images never do. Those perfect, idealised photographs of it don’t capture what the place is really like – immensely beautiful, but also sometimes threatening, gloomy, timeless, untamed, and at times hostile.  This is what makes it what it is, and when I look at these photos I don’t see the Highlands I know.

The Japanese have a concept they call Wabi Sabi. It’s complex and not easy to translate, but put simply it’s about the beauty and nostalgia of age and imperfection. Perfection is controlling, Wabi Sabi is accepting. Perfection is an attempt to preserve, contain, and stop the ravages of time, Wabi Sabi embraces them.  Where perfection only sees entropy and disarray, Wabi Sabi sees beauty. When something is Wabi Sabi, it’s perfect in its imperfection.

I’m looking for a Wabi Sabi home.


Do big spaces make for big thoughts?

Talacre Beach, Flintshire

My constant yearning for the sea led to a trip to Talacre Beach last weekend. Of course, the tide was out – a long way out – but we walked the several miles to get to it (just kidding) and it was enough to keep me happy for a little while.  Unfortunately, at low tide there are pockets of quicksand/mud that you start sinking into very rapidly.  It’s impossible to know where they are – one moment everything’s nice and firm underneath you and the next you’re up to your ankles in it, as this picture of Geoff’s shoes will demonstrate – a bit like life, really.

Muddy boots

Even though the sea is mostly AWOL, I do like this beach – it’s such a huge, open expanse that seems to go on forever. It’s the very opposite of feeling trapped, claustrophobic, and limited, as I have been prone to doing recently.  Geoff’s temporary job comes to an end in a couple of weeks and he has no interviews lined up or any other prospects.  This situation we’re in can easily make us feel powerless, immobilised, stuck, and fearful for the future, so being in a place where the space is huge and horizons expanded can help bring back some balance.

My friend Eileen mentioned a book called The Old Ways, by Robert McFarlane recently, on her blog. She quoted something that stood out for her, and also intrigues me:  “The two questions we should ask of any strong landscape are these: firstly, what do I know when I am in this place that I can know nowhere else?  Secondly, what does this place know of me that I cannot know of myself?”  McFarlane has claimed elsewhere that cognition might be site specific” and that we think differently in different landscapes.  He even wonders whether it’s possible that “certain thoughts might be possible only in certain places”.  This idea took hold of my imagination when I read it, and I’ve always meant to go back and ponder on it a bit more.

I wouldn’t know how to answer these questions in any depth, but it does seem to me that we are enabled to think differently in different kinds of spaces.  Positive thoughts are harder to come by in miserable environments, and being in a huge open space like this beach helps get things into proportion – perhaps by making us realise how small and unimportant we are in the total scheme of things (in a good way, of course).  It also seems to me that being in a big space could naturally lead to bigger, more expansive thoughts.  Aesthetically-pleasing natural surroundings help us in some primitive, physiological way, too.  There have been numerous studies that show that hospital patients in rooms with a view of trees get better and are discharged more quickly than if they’re looking out onto concrete.  Seems obvious to me, but it’s nice to have it confirmed.

But now, on with the photographs – first off, I had a couple of Gursky moments (wish I could get paid as much as he does for them):

Blue puddles, Talacre Beach, Flintshire

Gursky moment, Talacre Beach, Flintshire

For the rest, I just wanted to capture the feeling of space and the wonderful clouds and sky and water.

Cloud reflection, Talacre Beach, Flintshire

Waves, Talacre Beach, Flintshire

Talacre Beach, Flintshire

Reflected clouds, Talacre Beach, Flintshire

Reflected clouds 2, Talacre Beach, Flintshire

And then there were these amazing ripple patterns in the sand:

Flow - sand ripples, Talacre Beach, Flintshire

Flow 2 - sand ripples, Talacre Beach, Flintshire

And finally, my favourite shot of the day.  Turned upside down, it takes on a rather surreal look:

Lighthouse reflection, Talacre Beach, Flintshire






In those spaces, you make your own voice

Justine Musk is talking about writing in this quote, but it applies equally well to photography.

Let yourself gravitate to the writers who attract you, pull you in, because their work is showing you something of yourself.  Let yourself imitate them, until you notice those spaces where you can’t help but do something different.  In those spaces, you start to make your own voice.

Sometimes we try so hard not to imitate other people that we leave ourselves nowhere to go – better to trust that in the imitation there will be spaces where our own voice insists on making itself known, and that if you’re drawn to someone’s work it’s because something of it already exists within you.

Quote from 11 Quick + Dirty Things About Writing


So where do I go from here, I wonder?

Horizon, West Kirby

The results of my assessment are in, and they’re not good. I’m too embarrassed to give the mark here, but let’s just say that, while it’s a clear pass, it’s at the low end of average.  The mark is divided into four sections, and under ‘Demonstration of Creativity’ I’ve been given 10 marks out of 25 – in other words, they see me as a definite creative failure.  Obviously I didn’t do too well in any of the others either, but this was the worst, and the biggest disappointment for me, since I believed that during the last year or two I’d made quite a bit of progress creatively.

A couple of years ago this would have devastated me but the one thing I’ve learnt while doing these courses is to shield myself against what anyone in authority says, good or bad.  Where once a good comment from a tutor would have thrilled me, now I shrug my shoulders and think, well, yes………maybe.   It’s obviously nicer to get good comments than bad ones, but I’ve stopped allowing either of them to impact on me.  Whether I’m as detached as this in truth I’m not sure – squashing one feeling down has the result of squashing them all and this might go some way to explaining why I’ve felt so little consistent enthusiasm for photography for quite a while.  I certainly feel very flat at the moment, and a bit lost as to where I go from here.

If I accept the assessor’s opinion that I’m mediocre in the extreme, then I feel little incentive to carry on doing photography in any serious way.  I like to do things well – and I usually succeed in that – and I’m not really prepared to be that bad at something.  But photography has been my passion and is also my way of earning a living, so to give it up would be a huge loss to me.

When I did an Access to Art & Design course many years ago, I was told after a couple of months that I was likely to fail the drawing section of the course.  Since I’d only started drawing at all about three months before I started, I knew very well that I wasn’t much good.  My immediate reaction at that time was ‘what do I have to do to get better?’.  I was told simply to practice as much as possible, and I did just that, with the result that I ended up passing that part of the course with no problems at all.

That hasn’t been my reaction this time. Firstly, I honestly don’t think I’m that bad.  It’s easy to be self-deluding – anyone who’s watched the selection process in The X-Factor will be well aware how many people there are out there who have no idea how bad they are at something for which they think they have a talent.  It’s possible I fall into this group, but I do have a modicum of self-awareness and I don’t think I’m entirely fooling myself.  A more likely explanation is that I simply don’t fit into the parameters of what OCA considers ‘good’ photography.

A while ago, I talked about an article by Tara Sophia Mohr on the whole business of criticism, and I’ll quote a bit now:

Tara’s view is basically this: feedback/criticism doesn’t tell you about you, it tells you about the person giving the feedback. She says that when we seek out feedback, we shouldn’t see it in terms of our own merit or value, but as useful information that tells us whether we are reaching the people we want to reach in the way that we want to reach them (my emphasis). So if you want to win the camera club competition, feedback from the judges can tell you how to do that. Of course, you may not actually want to produce the sort of work that pleases camera club judges, or higher-level education tutors, or someone who likes ‘greeting card’ photography, or the people who buy for IKEA, and in that case feedback from those people is essentially useless to you and means very little, except whether or not you’re not giving them what they value. If you take on board what they say when you don’t actually want to compete in that field, then you’re going to end up becoming discouraged or untrue to yourself. Of course, if you have ambitions in the area in which they’re expert, then it would be sensible to consider their opinions.

So really, this mark is only important if I want to produce the kind of work that pleases OCA assessors and thereby gets me a good result, and I’m not sure I do.  I was never very bothered about getting a degree-level piece of paper out of this, but saw it as a way of being made to stretch myself and give myself a structure to work to.  I’m not great at self-discipline, so having the imposed discipline of  a deadline – albeit a very flexible one – was useful to me.  I’ve enjoyed the contact with other students and the feeling of belonging to a group of people with similar aspirations.  But you know, that feeling of belonging has been dwindling slowly over the last year or two, as I’ve become more and more disenchanted with institutionalised art education and feel myself less and less accepting of the group mentality.

You may be wondering what was in the feedback? They started by saying my assignment was very well presented – the one thing that means nothing since it has little to do with the work itself and is something that anybody can learn to do well.  They also liked my essay a lot, which is making me wonder if I should be putting down my camera and picking up my pen.  The main criticism of my photography seemed to be that I wasn’t showing ‘evidence of a conceptual progression‘.

Ask yourself, why would someone look at these images?  Are you conveying your interest and is it one that is likely to be shared with an audience?  One of the reasons for contextualising your work is that you will gain awareness of how others will perceive it.  We live in a shared culture, images that signify endlessly similar things to us become quickly meaningless, your audience will be very quick to dismiss work that either is not immediately striking or does not contain references or evidence that thought has taken place in the construction of the image.

It raises a number of thoughts, the first being that they’re assuming a certain sort of audience, probably one like themselves, and this is not the only kind of audience there is.  I guess it’s true that if I knew better where my work fitted in with the kind of work they rate highly, then I’d be able to tell how they would perceive it and modify it accordingly.  But do I want to do this?  The crux of the matter is that I’m not too interested in doing the kind of work they appear to value just so I get the mark, and I’d prefer to hold onto my integrity.  Much – although definitely not all – contemporary photography leaves me cold and seems contrived, over-intellectualised, and lacking in aesthetic satisfaction.  This is not ignorance speaking – I’ve looked at many people’s work and opened myself to finding what I could in it.  It might be my age (I’m getting on a bit), it might be that I’m too rigid in my opinions, it might be that I lack understanding. Whatever, in an era when the idea has become vastly more important than the image, I find myself far more interested in the image than I am in the idea and that puts me firmly at odds with the zeitgeist – never a comfortable place to be.

I’m left with some very mixed thoughts and emotions – an inner battle between confidence in my own ability and the fear that perhaps I really am below-average; the acknowledgement  that the assessors may well be right from within their own context, but perhaps wrong from within mine; the immediate impulse to give it all up in disgust and the equally compelling impulse not to let ‘them’ win; the knowledge that photography has become less and less enjoyable for me since I started doing these courses, but also the understanding that I need to keep learning and to be part of something that will stretch me; the hurt and frustration that’s finally beginning to come through as I write this and the feeling of freedom that, were I to stop studying, I’d no longer have to care what ‘they’ think of my work and could avoid the depressing feedback that accompanies every assessment and tells me that my work is nowhere near good enough.

And finally the big question – why am I doing this, and where do I go from here?



Turquoise wave

I’ve been thinking lately about the whole business of being ‘influenced’ by other artists. Researching other photographers and putting our own work into that context is something that we’re supposed to do for our coursework. I’ve always found that a little bit strange – I mostly just do what I do without thinking about who else has done something similar first. Apart from helping us avoid the reinvention of the wheel, I’m not sure what the benefit to us is supposed to be. (And actually, even if we did reinvent the wheel photographically speaking, we’d almost certainly do it in a different way that had our own stamp on it – so it’s still worth doing.)

It might give us some inspiration, perhaps, or supply us with an idea that we could build on, or twist in some way to create something new.  The danger is, though, that it could also push our own ideas into the background or lead us to feel that we might as well not bother as someone else has done it better first.  It’s for these reasons that photographer Cole Thompson practices what he refers to as ‘photographic celibacy’ – he won’t look at anyone else’s work in case he’s influenced too much by it.  It’s a controversial approach and if you want to read what he has to say about it, you can find it in this interview (the bit about photographic abstinence comes right after the sixth image).

There are obviously situations where you have to relate your work to other photographers – for example, the assignment in which I attempted to produce work in the style of Ernst Haas involved a lot of research into Haas and some analysis of his work, followed by an attempt to see the world through his eyes. What struck me most while I was doing this was that the attempt didn’t involve much effort as I was already photographing ‘in the style of’ Haas before I even knew he existed – it’s what I’m drawn to doing anyway. (I’ll hurriedly add that I’m not claiming to be of the same standard – just that I see the world in a very similar way)

I took the picture at the top of this post years and years ago, before I’d even heard of Haas; compare it with After the Storm, by Ernst Haas, here: Not identical by any means, but there’s a similarity of approach.

Naturally, one of the reasons I chose Haas as my subject is that I love his photographs and his vision. While there are plenty of other people whose work I enjoy and who have very different ways of relating to the world, I knew it would be much harder for me to come close to working in their style. It might have been more interesting – it certainly would have been more challenging – and a part of me thinks it would have been very good for my learning to choose someone with a very different voice. However, I doubt I could have pulled it off very successfully because I’d have been working against my own style, and it would have been a lot more difficult for me and perhaps frustrating, too.

Oddly though, it’s just possible that if I had chosen someone very different to me, I could have ended up being more influenced by them than I am by someone whose work fits with what I’m doing anyway. Emulating Haas hasn’t made me change anything that I was already doing, but if I’d had to emulate someone very different, it might have given me cause to change some, at least, of what I usually do – and that would have been a very definite influence. Even if it hadn’t, it might have given me a better understanding of why I like to work in the way that I do, and that might have had a beneficial influence in its own way.

If anyone gives a list of their influences, you can always see elements of the work they do in the people they’re influenced by. My guess is that they’d have done work that was much like this anyway, and that their influences haven’t actually influenced them that much, although they may have encouraged or inspired them to continue on the same path (which I concede is also one kind of influence).  What you never see – well I haven’t, anyway – is someone claiming to be influenced by someone whose work is entirely different to theirs.  If you know of any examples, please post a link in the comments!