thoughts

Dark Beauty

Gold, Thurstaston Beach

Sometimes you can spend a long time grasping for a truth that you sense, but find impossible to put into words. I’ve tried many times before to write something sensible about beauty in art but have never managed to say quite what I wanted to say, mostly because I wasn’t clear on it myself.  I’ve been reading Thomas Moore’s Dark Nights of the Soul recently, a book I can recommend if you ever find yourself in your own particular dark night, and it’s clarified something for me that makes me feel I can now express some of my thoughts a little better.

I’ve felt for a long time that a large proportion of contemporary art is focussed on what I think of as the ‘nasties’ – the downright ugly, the negative, the anguished, the cruel – and all of this seems to go hand in hand with a view of life that’s cynical and pessimistic and without hope.  But when you argue against this and in favour of something more uplifting, you lay yourself open to accusations of sentimentality and an unrealistic Pollyanna-ish view of the world, as if it’s a wonderfully happy place – which it patently isn’t.  As ever, the truth lies somewhere between, but many folk like to assume that if you reject one of these views then you have to be in favour of the other.

I’m not drawn towards what I heard described recently as the ‘miserable bastard’ school of photography (a term I shall be using with great delight in the future), but I also dislike the kind of pretty-pretty, isn’t-everything-wonderful school either – the kind that’s full of frolicking children, dreamy sunflare , pretty girls drifting about in long white dresses, and ‘lifestyle’ interior shots.  And I realise, now, that one of the things that’s significant here is the difference between pretty and beautiful.  Pretty satisfies briefly but quickly becomes tiresome and dull – it’s the junk food of art.  Beauty satisfies for a long time, offering more each time you see it, and has great depth.  Beauty doesn’t have to be the obvious sort of beauty, but can be found in things the unperceptive might dismiss as ugly or unimportant.  It’s the difference between the smoothly polished and idealised celebrity actress and the elderly woman whose whole life is mapped onto her face – just look at this wonderful portrait of Jane Goodall to see what I mean.

Moore has a lot to say about what he calls ‘dark beauty’. This is a beauty that’s found in pain – a kind of sublime suffering.  Every life has both pain and joy in it, and that’s why an image of an elderly face, or any face that’s allowed to be ‘real’, gives us so much more than the air-brushed perfection we see everywhere.  Both the sorrow and the joy are there to see.  Moore argues that beauty and suffering are inextricably linked together, and that much of what we regard as great art has this pairing.

This is how I have experienced it. When I feel low, I often listen to Bach’s Mass in B Minor – most particularly the first and the last sections.  To me it holds immense beauty while at the same time being totally heartbreaking – listening to it, I have sometimes howled with pain while at the same time feeling hugely comforted by its beauty.  It offers me something that’s bigger than me and my problems – the kind of feeling I get when I look up at the stars in the night sky and realise how small I am in the total scheme of things. It manages to match my pain and recognise it, while also lifting me above it.  More than that, it also satisfies when I feel good, and at those times I find great joy in it.

Turning to photography, I saw this same mix of emotion in Joel Meyerowitz’s images of Ground Zero – interestingly, Meyerowitz himself referred to the ‘awful beauty’ of the scene. The devastation is shown in all its fullness, and with all its implications, but a kind of sublime beauty permeates these pictures.  In many of the images there is beautiful light coming from a directional source.  In one image, the light comes from above and although its source is actually an out-of-shot spotlight used to facilitate work on the site, it has the look of something much more metaphysical.  The wrecked but still-standing walls almost resemble cathedral ruins and in the background there are lights on in the surrounding office buildings – life goes on; there is hope.  Many of the images are of workers – rebuilding, clearing and restoring.  One worker, in a statement that’s almost poetic, was heard to say ‘we are gardeners in the garden of the dead’.  Meyerowitz’s work clearly shows the pain and devastation of a terrible event, but also allows us hope for the future and the possibility of transcending this awful thing.  In other hands this might only have been a depiction of horror and brutality – in Meyerowitz’s hands it offers layers of conflicting emotion that deeply satisfy and don’t offer pat or easy answers.

One of the most touching art installations I’ve come across formed part of the Folkestone Biennial several years ago.  Loudspeakers were fixed to the wooden benches that look out from high on the cliffs, over the English Channel, and a recording was triggered as you sat down.  The recording consisted of readings of letters written by soldiers during WW2 who died in France, on the coast you can just make out in the distance across the water.  The beauty of the scene, the love and pain expressed in the letters, and the poignancy of knowing the men who wrote them had died, and in what conditions, all combined to create a mixture of beauty and pain that left a memorable impression.

For me, this is what’s missing in a lot of contemporary art. Only the bad is shown, in as ugly a way as possible, with no room for an understanding of the complex layers of emotion and story that surround it, or a more nuanced interpretation.  The best art – in my view – says ‘this is the human condition, and it has many aspects to it’ and it connects us rather than isolates us. But of course, to welcome art like this you have to recognise these feelings in yourself.  If you’ve grown a hardened shell of cynical dismissiveness, then it can be threatening to encounter something that might crack you wide open, and it’s a lot safer to stick with the coolly intellectual and to sneer at or dismiss as sentimentalists those who think differently.  What troubles me sometimes is that the most feted of contemporary art seems to have at its centre only the aim of shocking and disgusting its audience, at the expense of looking for a deeper truth.

I would never want to be prescriptive about what consitutes good art, and I’m glad that there’s a whole smorgasbord of art out there, of all types, to suit everyone.  But for myself, I’m looking for art that does more than diminish me and leave me feeling troubled.  I’m looking for something that fully acknowledges life’s pain, while also celebrating the beauty and the wonder that can be found on the other side of it.  I was accused once, by a tutor, of having ‘old-fashioned values’, which only made me wonder why anyone would believe that values should be something that are a matter of what happens to be on-trend at the time.  The human condition is timeless, and I don’t think the values that support us as human beings are subject to much in the way of change.

 

Creativity – sometimes it’s obvious

Ceiling detail

I often find that books I read on subjects other than photography are more helpful to me than books that are directly about it. One I go back to frequently is ‘Impro’ by Keith Johnstone, which is about theatrical improvisation. I have little or no interest in theatrical improvisation itself, but what fascinates me about the content is how easily it can be applied to any aspect of life, including photography.

One of the most interesting sections is on spontaneity and originality. As artists, we all aspire to be original but so much of the time our work is lacking in it. Johnstone’s view is that the more we strive to be original, the more likely we are to fail, and that’s usually because it leads us to constantly censor how we respond. When he teaches students to come up with successful improvisations, he asks them to do or say the very first thing that comes into their heads. When they do this the improvisation works but when they hesitate slightly and substitute something they think is more acceptable or more interesting or more original, it kills the whole thing. We all know how it feels to see someone try too hard – it’s never effective.

The worst possible thing improvisers can do, according to Johnstone, is to make a deliberate effort to be original. This always falls flat anyway, and usually they think they’re being original when in fact their ‘originality’ is the same as everyone else’s – a bit like punks rebelling against authority and the pressure to conform, but all doing it in the same way so that it becomes just a different way of conforming. ‘I gave up asking London audiences to suggest where scenes should take place’, says Johnstone, ‘Some idiot would always shout out either “Leicester Square public lavatories” or “outside Buckingham Palace”. People trying to be original always arrive at the same boring old answers‘.

Ceiling detail 2

Thinking too much before you shoot is a certain way to produce photographer’s block. For a while, due to some tactlessly delivered criticism from a tutor, I kept hearing the word ‘trite’ in my head every time I went to take a shot. No doubt most – perhaps all – of the resulting images would have been trite, but to censor myself like this meant I froze so much I couldn’t take anything at all. And maybe, just maybe, had I let myself take without judgement what presented itself to me then there may have appeared the germ of a good idea in there. And even if it hadn’t, if I’d continued to shoot for long enough then the odds would have got higher that something would appear – creativity can often be a numbers game. The first shots anyone takes are frequently trite and obvious, but if they do what’s obvious and get it out of the way, they make space for something more interesting to develop.

Johnstone emphasises that there are two points to consider here. The first is that we must let go of that hesitation, that self-censorship, and allow the first impulse to emerge even if we think it’s too obvious or too dull. The second is that when we do this, what starts out as objectively obvious and dull can actually become original and intriguing to others in no time at all. It still feels obvious to the person doing it, but they’ve moved away from the obviousness that comes from conformity, to the uniquely obvious that comes from deep within them.  ‘An artist who is inspired is being obvious’, says Johnstone, ‘He’s not making any decisions, he’s not weighing one idea against another. He’s accepting his first thoughts.’ Johnstone goes on to say: ‘No two people are exactly alike, and the more obvious an improvisor is, the more himself he appears’.

When we’re inspired, we’re being truly ourselves. This sounds easy but is one of the hardest things to achieve and most of us never manage it. I think that’s why great artists often appear a little crazy or eccentric or just very different to the rest of us, who’re too busy trying to appear sane to other people to allow our real thoughts and feelings to emerge. Being ourselves means ignoring the influence of what we think is acceptable, or clever, or on trend, and allowing our own uniqueness to emerge. Since we’ve been trained since babyhood not to let this happen, it’s pretty difficult for most of us to reverse the process.  It can also make us feel extremely vulnerable, and that’s scary.

To a very few, this comes more easily. People like Mozart and Van Gogh weren’t trying to be original, they were just being themselves. Mozart had some success in material terms, while Van Gogh struggled in poverty, but both of them were doing what seemed ‘obvious’ to them. Van Gogh probably had one of the most original visions in art history, but he wasn’t trying to be original – he simply did what presented itself to him without self-censoring. And he didn’t realise his unique vision overnight – much of his early work is quite dull and poorly executed.

Mozart wasn’t trying to be original either – he said:

‘Why my productions take from my hand that particular form and style that makes them Mozartish, and different from the works of other composers, is probably owing to the same cause that renders my nose so large or so aquiline, or in short, makes it Mozart’s, and different from other people. For I really do not study or aim at any originality.’

If we allow our fear of being dull and unoriginal, or our awareness of other people’s opinions, or our own self-censorship to stop us doing what might seem ordinary and obvious, then we could be smothering our creativity at its very source. We need to give ourselves permission to be boringly obvious, in order to cultivate the ability to be obvious in our own unique way.

Ceiling reflection black and white

Photographers call it ‘working a scene’ –

keep going, move past the obvious shots, and you will eventually come up with something more interesting

Home truths

 

View from bedroomThe view from my bedroom window

After some wrangling over the final price, we’re exchanging contracts on our old house tomorrow. As you can imagine, houses – or more accurately, homes – have been on my mind a lot lately. We’ve been viewing large numbers of them and discovering it’s very hard to find anything we like that also suits our needs. I’m finding that no matter how firmly I put on my rational hat, in the end it’s the feel of the place that decides the matter. It’s made me think about what ‘home’ means, and what I need and want from it.

I’ve discovered a few things about myself that I hadn’t been fully aware of. It seems my need for privacy is almost overwhelming and is also coupled with a craving for green and natural spaces. The privacy thing is a big issue, both inside and outside the house. Starting with outside: I hate, hate, hate houses that are all crammed in close to each other with no space around them – they make me feel claustrophobic; I can’t bear people being able to look in through the windows but I do want to be able to look out, so nets at the window are not a solution; I need a garden that’s not overlooked so that I can potter about in a bikini (a somewhat alarming sight these days) or do yoga on the lawn without being observable; and while I’d love to have nice friendly neighbours – and to be one – my idea of a nightmare is someone constantly turning up on my doorstep wanting to come in for coffee.

I’m afraid I get even weirder when it comes to the inside. My secret fantasy has always been to have a relationship where each spouse has their own house next door to each other, or they share a house that’s split into two flats, or some variation on that theme. I’m really not very good at sharing a space and I tend to spend nearly all my time in the one room that feels like mine – my study/office. I rarely use the living room, and only sit in the dining room when we’re eating together. I know where this comes from. My mother was a very difficult person and it was good policy not to be where she might notice you and decide you were doing something she didn’t like, or not doing something she thought you should be doing – out of sight, out of mind was the safest option. We were a bickering sort of family, too, and I didn’t like that, and my room became my safe place where I could hide and get some peace and quiet.  Most of my childhood was spent in my bedroom and even now I can only truly relax when I’m by myself in a non-shared space.

My husband comes from a (much happier) family of four children and is considerably more at ease sharing spaces than I am. Understandably, he doesn’t really ‘get’ my need to have my own exclusive territory. I was quite appalled with myself recently (and I’m sure he would be too if he knew about it) when I realised that the main appeal of one house we were considering was that I could have my own bathroom, my own sitting room, and my own bedroom as well as my study, as there were enough rooms to divide the house up between us. Oooops…..

The craving for nature has two prongs. The first ties in with the privacy thing – if you’re looking out onto fields and green spaces, then by definition you’re not overlooked by other buildings. The second is a little deeper. I’ve been reading a book called House as the Mirror of Self by Clare Cooper Marcus – a fascinating read about the psychology of home. One of the exercises asks you to tune in to where you feel most at home and my sense of belonging in the world – ie, feeling at home in it – only really kicks in when I’m in a green space that’s empty of people. The man-made world seems like a crazy kind of place to me most of the time and nature restores my faith in it all making some kind of sense. Walking through woods, or on the beach, I feel connected to the world and at peace with it. Given the choice, the only sounds I want to hear are birdsong or lapping waves or the wind in the trees or foxes barking. When I’m inside my home, I want to be able to see a lot of sky and at least a few trees and some greenery. If I had my way, I’d most like to live right out in the country down a narrow single-track lane. I did this once, for a while, and I loved it – my room looked out over fields full of cauliflowers to the sea on the horizon.

As you can imagine, unless you have an unlimited budget these kind of requirements make it hard work finding somewhere that fits, especially when the bulk of houses in this area are relative new-builds packed in to sprawling estates. Most of these houses are bland and box-like as well; I didn’t mention we’d also like our new home to have a bit of character. At the moment I’m despairing of ever finding somewhere that will work for us, and I feel as if I’m turning into a fussy, demanding, pain in the ass, to be honest. I really wish I wasn’t like this; I wish I loved being right in the middle of this messy, people-filled thing we call life, but I don’t think I’m going to change any time soon. And given that we’ll probably be living in our new home for the next fifteen years or more, I think we have to get it right.

“There should be at least one room, or some corner, where no-one will find you and disturb you or notice you.  You should be able to untether yourself from the world and set yourself free, loosing all the fine strings and strands of tension that bind you, by sight, by sound, by thought, to the presence of other [people].”

Thomas Merton

It would be a boring old world if we all thought the same…..

Mosse, Colonel Soleil's boysColonel Soleil’s boys, Richard Mosse

This rather startling magenta pink is the result of using infrared surveillance film to take ordinary photos. It’s the work of someone called Richard Mosse, and yesterday I was at a study day in which we saw two exhibitions that concerned themselves with the subject of war and genocide. This isn’t my usual cup of tea when it comes to photography; I don’t really need it pointed out to me that there’s a lot of misery out there in the world and I’d prefer to be reminded about the better qualities of humankind – it’s easy to forget about those.

But anyway, that’s what we went to see. Thing is, these images left me untouched and decidedly bored, which is not (I’m fairly sure) the effect they were supposed to have. Other people seemed to be getting a lot out of them, but after five minutes I was standing there wondering when the coffee was coming. We had a little discussion over the coffee when we eventually got some, and after some mild internal panic about whether or not I could think of anything sensible to say, I managed to pull something out of the hat. In case you’re interested, it went like this: the predominant pink colour is Barbie pink and reminds you of girls, and dolls, and toys and Walt Disney, and as this is so very opposite to the masculine world of war depicted in the images, it sets up a certain visual tension. I knew my philosophy degree would come in useful some day.

But you know, I don’t really think this; I don’t think these photos worked. Certainly not for me. I felt nothing looking at them, nothing at all, except a desire to move on to something more interesting. Janet made a good point over the coffee table – ‘why’, she said, ‘is this pink colour not just a gimmick? If we submitted something like this for an assignment, we’d get hammered and accused of just that.’ Gareth looked thoughtful. ‘Well’, he said carefully, ‘Richard Mosse is an established and famous photographer and doesn’t have to explain himself; you’re just a student.’ Those weren’t his words, you understand, and he’s considerably better at being tactful than this would suggest, but that was the gist. ‘And it’s not really a gimmick’, he went on, ‘because he’s making a point by using film that played a role in the conflict itself’. Ok, there’s a bit of cleverness there, I guess – but only a bit.

Upstairs was another exhibition by Simon Norfolk, called For Most of It I Have No Words – brilliant title. He was looking at various sites throughout the world where genocide had taken place, and photographing the traces left there. These images were stunning in themselves, but more than that, they made me feel something. One that touched me was a simple image of some stone steps, with the light coming down from above and highlighting the indentations in the steps made by thousands of feet over time. So what, you might think, until you read the caption and understood that these were prison steps at Auschwitz. Photographically, you’re at the bottom of the steps looking up; standing in darkness and seeing light above, but the tragedy is that you may move up into that light never to come down again. The history of the place is held in the stone of the steps, and it’s very moving.

Simon Norfolk, prison steps, AuschwitzAuschwitz: staircase in a prison block by Simon Norfolk

I’m hopelessly biased, I know. I’ve said before that I need an image to be visually satisfying in order to pull me in. This is something so fundamental to me that I know I’m never going to change in this respect, no matter how much art education I’m subjected to. I loved Simon Norfolk’s photos, loved them. I thought they were beautiful in themselves, and profoundly moving when read in conjunction with the captions. They’re quite old now, in art terms, and are much ‘safer’ than the Mosse images. I’m aware of this, and I like to be challenged, and I’ll do my best to appreciate something that doesn’t have immediate appeal. But Norfolk’s photos are what I relate to; they make me feel something while Mosse’s left me unmoved. Mosse’s had shock value and I sometimes think that a lot of modern art relies on this for any effect it has. Norfolk’s were quieter, subtler, and to my mind all the more powerful for that.  ‘Ah well’, said Fiona as we walked out, ‘it’d be a boring world if we all thought the same.’  And so it would.

Both Richard Mosse and Simon Norfolk are on exhibition at the Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool, until 10th June.

52 by 52 – photographing the un-photogenic

Brick wallBricks – yes, but look at those colours!

I stumbled across the 52 by 52 project recently, which is a weekly photography challenge set by a different ‘accomplished’ photographer each week.  You can join in at any point (it’s about halfway through now) and you can post photos in response to old challenges as well as the current one.  I’m not terribly good at sticking to this kind of thing, and I don’t think I’m going to try doing more than the occasional one, but the challenges seemed a lot more interesting than the usual ‘weekly theme’ that you see in other places.  They certainly require a lot more thinking about, to the extent that so far I’ve only thought about them and haven’t actually done any.  I’m not sure whether this is a good thing, but at least it’s engaging my brain cells.

I’m still pondering the one just gone: ‘take a photograph that is strong and necessary of something that is not photogenic’.  OK, ‘strong’ I get, but ‘necessary’?  Mmmm………not sure what that means.   More than that, though, it’s got me thinking about the question of what’s photogenic and what isn’t and why that might be.  If something is ‘photogenic’, my dictionary tells me, it means it looks good when photographed.  By this definition, anything that looks good when I photograph it is not going to be ‘not photogenic’.  I hope I haven’t lost you with all the double negatives here – what I mean is that if I photograph something and it looks good, I haven’t satisfied the brief.  Trouble is, I don’t want to photograph something without attempting to make it ‘look good’ in some sense; I can’t quite see the point.  And I could, of course, get horribly pedantic here and start disappearing up my own philosophical tutu by asking what it means to say that something ‘looks good’.

You’ll be relieved to hear I’m not going to go there; greater minds than me have spent eons on that particular question.  All this pondering, though, has made me question my own need to make things ‘look good’.  (I’ll assume we all know what we mean by that)  There is a photographic trend at the moment for photographing the banal, and keeping the influence of the photographer out of the image as much as possible – that is, you try to leave things looking as banal in the photograph as they do in real life.  My problem with this is that it then becomes very boring to look at (certainly to me); the idea behind it might be interesting, but if there’s nothing to hold my attention visually then I think there may be better media to use to get the concept across.  Photography is a visual art, and I feel there needs to be something visually satisfying about a photograph in order to make you want to look at it.  (And when I say ‘visually satisfying’ I don’t mean it has to be beautiful – which is a word that strikes horror into the souls of art critics – just that there’s something in the purely visual aspect of it that makes you want to keep looking, even at an ugly or boring subject.)

I’m thinking as I say this about the photograph that won the Veolia Environment Wildlife Photographer of the Year prize for 2011.  (I should point out that the photo doesn’t look anything like as good in the small size online as it does when you see it huge on the wall.) The subject matter is some pelicans who’ve been caught in a an oil spill and are covered in black, sticky crude oil.  It’s a disturbing subject, and one that you want to turn away from.  But the photographer has documented the plight of these birds while also managing to create something so visually interesting that you can’t turn away even when you want to.   The colours, the tones, the composition, all pull you in and make you want to keep looking.  Suffering animals distress me a lot, and normally I don’t want to know, but I kept going back to look at this again and again because of its photographic appeal, and for me its emotional impact was heightened by this more than it would have been by a straighter, more journalistic, approach.

But I digress.  I’m aware that I have a strong need in my photography to make what I photograph look good, in this sense of visually satisfying. If I wasn’t allowed to do this – by the art police, say – then I’d give up photography.  It’s that simple; it just wouldn’t hold any interest for me.  I’m a lot out of line with the times in saying this, but that’s how it is.  And I don’t mean that all I want to photograph are sunsets and cute puppies and mountain landscapes, as some of the tutors I know rather condescendingly assume of someone in my position.  I like the mundane, the banal and the everyday, but I want to take them and make them visually interesting or satisfying in some way (and my definition of visual interest/satisfaction is a wide one).  If I can also give them a deeper meaning, one beyond their surface appearance, that would be a bonus.  But deliberately making something look as uninteresting as possible? – well it’s just not for me.  Should I see this as a flaw, or an obstruction to doing quality work?  I’d certainly like to think not, but I’m often given this impression and even start to feel some small sense of shame or embarassment when I know someone who thinks this way might be looking at my work.  Foolish, or what?

This has been an ongoing challenge in my landscape course – how can I work with my need for visual interest and satisfaction without slipping into the realm of the cliche and the chocolate box?  I’m still working on answering that one.  I think a number of students simply jump on the bandwagon of what’s currently approved of by the art establishment because you get a lot of ‘strokes’ for that, and it’s the easy option.  But perhaps I’m doing them a disservice.

Going back to my starting point, I rather suspect the key factor in this challenge is the word ‘necessary’. I include some pictures of very mundane things that I like to think are ‘strong’ in some sense.  However, I somehow don’t think they’re ‘necessary’ – even if I’m not very clear on what that means – and to reproduce them without any of the photographer’s artifice would simply make them dull pictures of dull things.

StringString

Bird on a wireBird on a wire

SunpatchSun patch

WheatWheat

Stacked chairsStacked chairs

Floor, with sunlightSunlight on floor