I’ve had some conversations with friends lately in which I’ve tried to explain why I feel a need to put my photographs and my writing ‘out there’, and why I get discouraged when there’s no subsequent response or interaction with people who’ve read or seen them.
Their reaction is to tell me – usually fairly vehemently – that it shouldn’t bother me, I should take pictures purely for myself, I shouldn’t care whether anyone else likes them or not, and so forth. There’s quite a bit of truth in this, and for a while it made me question my own motives – am I really so insecure that I need some kind of ‘applause’? Perhaps I am, I thought. And then I thought, but I don’t give much significance to getting ‘likes’ on Instagram or Facebook, and have long realised it’s all a big popularity game with no substance. Obviously I’d rather have likes than no response, but it doesn’t mean a whole lot to me.
What it means to me, I suddenly realised, is that someone has looked at them. Or if it’s a comment on a blog post or article, that someone has read it. And what I most want, it came to me, is to share what I’ve done with other people. If something really good happens to me, my first reaction is usually to get on the phone to a friend or to Geoff to tell them all about it. I have a strong urge to share it with someone else. So when I take a shot that I’m pleased with, I want to say the equivalent of ‘Look! Look what I saw!’ A joy shared is a joy doubled for me, and I always hope that it works the other way round too, just as I get happy when I hear some good news from a friend. And a sorrow shared is a sorrow halved, if that’s the way it’s worked out.
It also seems to me that creativity is a lot about communicating. All artists with integrity do the work for themselves and their own fulfilment, but if they chose to keep it to themselves then the world would be deprived of a lot of pleasure, insight, and satisfaction. A lot of issues wouldn’t be raised, or beauty made available. A lot of great art would have been lost to the world. If Vivian Maier’s photographs hadn’t been discovered in a storage locker, wouldn’t the world have been deprived of something valuable?
Art is a kind of communication – yes, there is a point in writing for one’s own satisfaction only, but if you have something to say then wouldn’t you like to open it up to conversation? Make it available to others? There is a point in taking photos purely for your own pleasure, but isn’t looking at other people’s photography and sharing your own with them part of what makes it good? For me, it would be like living my life without ever talking to anyone.
But I can hear a whisper in the background – a lot of art is banal, derivative, awful,crude. There’s no denying this, but whatever sort of art it is, it still gives pleasure to a lot of people. You may think they have terrible taste, but this kind of art serves them, just as your kind of art serves you, and you can choose not to engage with what doesn’t work for you. And who’s to tell, in the moment, what’s good and what’s bad? Van Gogh was derided for his ‘amateurish’ work in his day, and Monet, Duchamp, Turner, El Greco, and a host of others were severely criticised and not taken seriously in their lifetimes. There are always diamonds to be found in the dross, but no dross, no diamonds.
On that note, I offer you some beach huts, taken last year in a wintry North Berwick, near Edinburgh. I hope you like them, but it doesn’t matter if you don’t – I’m just pleased that I’m able to share my moment of seeing with you.
I had to write an artist’s statement recently, about the images you see on this post. I don’t like these things and always struggle to word them. The truth of it is – I notice something that interests me, I photograph it, I take it home, and I play with it on a screen until it looks the way I like it. That’s it. No great thoughts, concepts or ideas lurk in my head to be turned into meaningful words. I make photos purely on instinct even if I have to, or choose to, rationalise about them afterwards.
The statement I had to write this time was for a competition, and my husband Geoff – in the voice of a five-year-old – suggested this:
Here are my pictures. I quite like them. I hope you do too. Love and kisses, Gilly
After I’d stopped laughing, it seemed to me there was a certain sort of honesty in this that couldn’t be denied. It surely is the five-year-old in us that likes to take the pictures and just wants others to like them too. Simple.
A couple of weeks ago I met up with a friend in Lincoln. We became friends many years ago when she was a student in one of my classes, and she was saying that she felt she’d learned a lot while doing the class, but hasn’t retained that learning because she hasn’t kept practicing. That got us on to talking about the whole business of practice, and I had a few thoughts that I felt might be worth sharing, especially for anyone just starting out.
It seems to me that learning photography involves two things – learning to use the camera, and learning to see – and that these two things are not immediately compatible. Learning about f-stops and white balance and so forth is very much a ‘left-brain’ activity, requiring rational thought and extensive use of language and even a little bit of maths. Learning to see, on the other hand, is very much a ‘right-brain’ activity, requiring that you switch off rational thinking as much as possible and feel and sense your way into the image. (Incidentally, I use ‘left-brain’ and ‘right-brain’ as handy labels for a certain kind of thinking – I’m aware that the way the brain functions can’t be neatly divided into hemispheric activity as this suggests.)
As beginner students we often try to do both at once. We don’t start thinking about the technical aspects until we have something in front of us that inspires us to take a picture, and then find it impossible to have to switch back and forth between the two thinking modes. At this point it’s all too easy to get demotivated and turn the mode dial back to Auto.
The secret – I believe – to learning photography is to separate each process out until you can synthesise them into one. If you practice using the camera controls often enough until they become second nature and you don’t have to think about it, then the technical element is no longer something your ‘left brain’ has to cope with and becomes automatic. That then leaves your ‘right-brain’ thinking free to get on with things.
What this means in reality is that it’s best to practice camera use on subjects that don’t get you all excited. When your primary purpose is to learn to use the camera, it really doesn’t matter a bit what your subject matter is, and it’s actually better if you find it quite dull because then you won’t get distracted from the matter in hand, or frustrated because your images aren’t coming out quite the way you’d like.
Where beginners often lose their way is when they don’t practice using the camera until there’s a subject in front of them that interests them. Compare it to learning to play a musical instrument – you have to practice your scales and learn your fingerwork before you can expect to launch confidently – and expressively – into that glorious melody which is what fired you up to learn to play in the first place.
This doesn’t mean that you can’t have fun taking photographs until you can use your camera confidently. The other half of photography lies in learning to see, and you can do that on Auto (you can even do that without a camera!). Yes, you will end up in situations where you can’t get the result you want because you don’t have the necessary camera knowledge, but this is a great motivator to go home and do your photographic scales.
It will also help throw into relief what you most want to know. For instance, if what you wished you’d been able to do was get a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the action, then that’s what you go home and practice. If you wish you’d been able to softly blur the background, then that’s what you go home and practice. You’ll be far more motivated to learn the things you actually want to know than things you don’t have a use for. You can learn those later.
And just concentrate on one thing at a time – you don’t have to learn everything at once. Practice one control at a time until you’ve got it, and then move to another one. Leave every control, other than the one you’re practising, on Auto (or whatever its default setting is), leaving you free to concentrate on that one thing. It’s enough to grapple with Aperture priority without wondering what to do with White Balance – oh, and should you be changing the ISO and if so, what to?
So here’s my recipe – gained from hard experience – for learning photography:
it’s best to start with some kind of overview, perhaps gained from a workshop or a book, that will give you the big picture (no pun intended!)
regard the technical aspects and the ‘seeing’ as two separate things and learn them independently of each other, at least to begin with
practise using your camera every day, even if only for two minutes, and don’t try to take ‘good’ photos – the photos aren’t the point, the practice is
learn one thing at a time until you’ve got it, then move on to another
the first thing to learn is how to focus on your subject and hold the camera steady, because nothing else will matter if you don’t get these right – after that, it’s up to you where you want to take it.
The conditions that favour poppy seeds are simple – the seeds lie dormant, deep in the soil, until something comes along to plough and break that soil up, allowing sunshine, warmth and moisture to reach them so that they spring into vibrant, astonishing life.
Their overwhelming association with the trenches of WW1 is because, in land that had been ripped apart by shells and fighting, they were the first sign of life to reappear. It must have been a poignant sight – the blood of the fallen springing up as dancing red flowers. The poppies symbolised both the huge loss of life and shedding of blood, but also the triumph of life over death, of beauty over man-made devastation.
I wish the link with war wasn’t so strong. The poppy is the most joyful of flowers – to come across fields like the ones in these images is something that lifts the heart. But then – for me, at least – the symbolism kicks in and it’s impossible not to think of Flanders fields, in the same way that I can no longer see a plane flying towards some skyscrapers without thinking of 9/11.
However, these poppies were busily creating their own little pocket of joy – the small layby next to the fields housed an ever-changing parade of cars whose occupants had stopped to gaze in awe at the poppies stretching into the distance, and more often than not, to get out and take pictures. Everyone was smiling at everyone else, and exclaiming how wonderful and amazing it was. These poppies were bringing people together.
I searched the web for quotes about poppies that didn’t refer to war. It’s almost impossible to find any, so this one stood out:
‘That we find a crystal or a poppy beautiful means that we are less alone, that we are more deeply inserted into existence than the course of a single life would lead us to believe.’
The quote is from John Berger who – coincidentally – wrote extensively about the theory of photography. I do believe that there’s something about nature’s spectacular beauty that connects us more strongly to the world, puts our problems into perspective, and opens our hearts to the simple pleasures that lie in looking at something as gorgeous as this.
I have very little gear. My camera – the first and only DSLR I’ve ever owned – is about seven years old now, which in digital photography terms is positively antiquated. I own one 18-250mm zoom lens, and a Lensbaby (plus bits for it), and those are my only lenses. I do my processing using Photoshop Elements 9 – several versions old – and I have, but don’t tend to use, Lightroom 3 (I think there are two newer versions).
One reason I own so little equipment compared to most photographers is that money has been very tight for quite a few years now. I’ve never earned much myself, and Geoff has lost three jobs in the last 3-4 years, and is looking for work at the moment. We’ve moved house three times, two of them involving major and very expensive relocations, and now that we finally own a home again we’re not sure just how long we’re going to be able to afford to hold onto it, so buying photography gear is way down the list of priorities.
But would I buy more equipment if money wasn’t an issue? I would buy a new camera, but for one reason and only one reason. My personal photography style is spontaneous and serendipitous and I like to handhold when I take the shot. I loathe tripods, and using them makes me feel frustrated and constrained. Because of that, I need a camera that has the highest possible ISO settings with good control of noise. My own camera only goes to 1600 ISO, and 800 is the limit if I don’t want digital noise problems to render the images almost unusable – compare that to recently manufactured DSLRs where an upper figure of 25,000+ ISO is quite common and noise is well-controlled throughout most of the range.
A camera with better ISO would allow me to handhold in lots of situations where it’s impossible with my existing one. It’s the one thing that would make a huge difference to my enjoyment of photography and my ability to produce better shots. So, yes, I’d buy a new camera although if it wasn’t for the ISO factor I wouldn’t feel any great need to improve on what I’ve got.
But as for the rest, I’m not too bothered. There are things it would be nice to have – a macro lens, for example – but I can do pretty much all I want to do with the equipment I’ve got. My lens has a huge range and produces good quality images, and I can do macro with the Lensbaby plus attachment. I’d probably upgrade my software given the chance but, again, it does the job. And I’ve found in the past that when I do buy a new piece of equipment or software, it often sits there for a long time before I do much with it. The anticipation of buying something new often turns out to be more exciting than the reality of having it, in my experience.
I do find it somewhat embarrassing when I’m teaching and my students have far better cameras than I have, which is very often the case. I begin to see myself through their eyes with their expectation that, because I’m ‘teacher’, I’m going to have something super-duper, fancier and more impressive than their own. They talk to me about Photoshop, and I have to admit that I only use Elements. I can see them looking bemused.
I’m aware, though, that I know my way around what I do have inside out and back to front. I know exactly what my camera does, how it behaves in different situations, and I can operate it without giving it any conscious thought. My camera and I are good friends and have been together a long time. I also know that, because of what I’ve learned over the years, I produce consistently better images than the beginners with the fancy cameras. Still, I can’t help feeling I’ve disappointed them a little with my lack of impressive equipment.
And I would dearly like a new camera. The shot of Boris the cat at the beginning of this post was taken indoors in light that was OK but on the dim side. I took quite a lot of shots but this was the only one that came out sharp – I just couldn’t get a fast enough shutter speed to avoid either his movement or mine. You can see that the image below is soft because he was moving his head, and that’s such a shame because he has a great expression here and it would have been a terrific shot.
But putting aside my need for a camera upgrade, my innate preference is to have minimal gear. Having less makes me use and value what I have to the fullest, and take the time to fully explore what it does. It minimises decision making – after all, if you only have one lens you don’t have to decide which one to use. It reduces bulk and weight – if you only have one lens, you only have to carry one lens. If you only have one camera bag, then that’s the one you take. It simplifies things, and I like simplicity. Too many choices can be counter-productive.
Although I talk a lot about vision being more important than gear, and although I’m saying that minimal gear is fine for me, I wouldn’t want you to think I’m against acquiring equipment in general. I know some people thrive on lots of choice, and others take great delight in the gadgets themselves, and enjoy them for their technical sophistication and design, and that’s great. I’m not knocking that at all – I’m just not one of them. For me, the gear has always been a means to an end, and as long it does what I need it to do, I don’t have any desire to acquire more or to have the latest model.
However, having said that, there’s a little voice in the back of my head asking me if perhaps I protest too much, and that perhaps I’m trying to make a virtue out of a necessity. I think there may be a little bit of that going on and it’s true that if I did have more money to spend, I’d undoubtedly buy more stuff. I wouldn’t mind the opportunity to find out! But honestly? – I don’t think it would make me enjoy photography any better if I had more or newer gear. I find satisfaction in having just enough to do what I want, but without excess. I may be a minimalist photographer by dint of necessity, but I do believe I’m also one by nature. Which is probably just as well……..
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:
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.
Steep 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.
A while ago I had an idea for a project with a working title of ‘nature taking over’. It was prompted by some random shots I’d taken of man-made things being engulfed in plants and leaves. I’ve always liked the idea that, were humankind to vacate the planet, it wouldn’t take too long before plant and animal life began to reclaim it for themselves. And I like the idea, too, that no matter how clever we think we are, we aren’t separate from nature and don’t have dominion over it and it will always, always, have the last word. If I’d completed the project, I was going to call it ‘I saw some grass growing through the pavement today’ – a line from a Jethro Tull song called ‘Jack in the Green’:
It’s no fun being Jack-In-The-Green — no place to dance, no time for song. He wears the colours of the summer soldier — carries the green flag all the winter long.
Jack, do you never sleep — does the green still run deep in your heart? Or will these changing times, motorways, powerlines, keep us apart? Well, I don’t think so — I saw some grass growing through the pavements today.
The project was originally intended for one of my course assignments, but it just didn’t come together the way I’d hoped it would. The images didn’t sit together well or look part of a coherent set, and it was getting late in the season to take more so I did something different for my coursework. But I haven’t completely abandoned the idea and may go back to it – I find myself looking for these kinds of shots without really intending to.
A while ago I did a similar series of pictures but with a different slant, centred around the derelict house next door to us. Oddly enough, nature encroaching on this nice old house didn’t make me feel the same way – instead of an inner sense of satisfaction in its reclamation of the house, I felt a sadness that the house had been so neglected. Nothing we do is ever truly original so I wasn’t surprised when I came across a project on Flickr, by Julia M Cameron (no, not that Julia M Cameron – her namesake) that deals with the same kind of themes and, interestingly, some of the images in her project have as part of their title: ‘Neglect – nature taking over’. It got me wondering about the way you could take the same image, and by titling it differently express two very different viewpoints. The images in my ‘nature taking over’ and ‘derelict house’ are similar in many ways but express two different perspectives and motivations. And there’s yet another title involved – I called my house project ‘Abandoned’, which introduces different connotations again. I’m wondering how much influence the title of a work or series should have, or how much the viewer should be left to make up her own mind.
I don’t like the post-modern habit of calling everything ‘untitled’. I like things to have a title, even if just to make identification easy. However, if you were to look at my images with the idea of ‘neglect’ in your mind, would you experience them differently than if you looked at them with the notion of nature triumphing? Would a rose by any other name really smell as sweet? Or should the photographic technique used be enough on its own to identify the photographer’s intention? I have no answers, I’m afraid – just posing the question.
A week or so ago I met up with my friend Corinna in Birmingham, and we went to the Focus on Imaging exhibition at the NEC. It’s basically a photographic equipment fair – not something that interests me overmuch, especially when I can’t have a spend, but it was a good opportunity to meet up for a long chat and a wander round.
The first thing we noticed – and it was hard not to – was that the place was full of men pretty much all of whom were wearing their cameras round their necks, longest lenses attached and lens hood on the end to make it even longer. Since there was absolutely nothing to photograph, these could only have been for the purposes of display – I hope you’re keeping up with the symbolism here. Just in case you’re not, Corinna started referring to them as ‘willy wavers’, a name that brought a nod of agreement and a broad smile to the people manning the stalls. Naturally, we had our cameras with us too, but they were stashed in our shopping bags like Jane Bown used to do when she went to posh London hotels to photograph the Beatles.
Seriously, there were hardly any women there at all (if you discount the heavily made-up, scantily dressed, pre-pubescent ones that tripped around the place wearing advertising signs). Moreover, none of the equipment or clothing was designed with women in mind and much of it was unusable if you were female. I was rather taken with a camera harness, for example, that carries your camera on the front of your body, but having my fair share of female curvature made it not only very uncomfortable but positively obscene – it’s got a solid metal plate on front that sort of divides and pushes things out the sides if you get my gist. Camera straps worn across the body do something very similar, but they are at least narrow enough to more or less go down the middle.
Weatherproof jackets and those vests you get with all the pouches on them were mostly available in men’s sizes only, and there were some photographer’s gloves that we’d have bought had they come in female sizes. (Just in case you’re wondering, the index finger and the thumb have little caps on them that push off, leaving you free to operate your camera with the two essential digits while keeping the rest warm.)
One stall had some very innovative products; the one I liked was a set of photographer’s spectacles. When you get to the stage I’m at with your eyesight, you find that you need your glasses on to see what you’re photographing but you need them off to be able to read the display screen or do anything else that requires looking closely. So you end up in the sort of scenario where you’re trying to change camera lens – which involves enough juggling about with various bits and pieces anyway – while adding a pair of glasses to the twenty-three other things you’re trying to hold onto all at the same time. The photographer’s glasses have lenses that tip up out of the way, and you can even tip one of them up and leave the other one down, making it a cinch to see whatever you need to see without any need to remove them. I tried them on: ‘these seem a bit big’ I said, and got the reply ‘yes, we only do them in men’s sizes, I’m afraid’. Oh well, I guess I should have known.
Not only do camera bags only come in dull, male, colours – black or khaki, anyone? – but they’re often too heavy (even empty) and too large to work well if you’re female. Now I know there are plenty of women who’re probably quite happy with black, and this is not even a particularly genderised thing – I’m married to a man whose work briefcase is bright turquoise, for goodness sake – but there are other issues here. Men have pockets in their clothes. They use those pockets to hold their wallets, their handkerchiefs, their spare keys, and basically all their little bits and pieces. Women’s clothes mostly don’t have pockets; that’s why we carry bags all the time. So we need room in a camera bag for things like purses, and keys, and a packet of tissues, and a hairbrush, and even, if you’re that way inclined, a lipstick. You may have noticed that camera bags don’t allow for this.
There are times, too, when we’d rather it didn’t look as if we’re carrying a rather expensive piece of equipment around with us, especially if we’re walking around in the less salubrious parts of the inner city. (This may apply to men too, of course) So why can’t we have some colourful, attractive camera bags that have room for more than the camera and don’t make it too obvious that that’s what you’re carrying? We put this question to a variety of stall holders, none of whom seemed to know why, but more than one of whom mentioned that you can get these things in the US but not here. Seems to me there’s a gap in the market in this country.
I know from teaching workshops that there are at least as many women interested in photography as men, and women usually outnumber men on these courses. If I was being unkind, not to mention sexist, I might say that this could be because men don’t like admitting they don’t know something and would rather fumble around by themselves than actually go and get some instruction. But I’d never say anything like that. The fact remains, though, that there are vast numbers of women out there who like taking photographs and they’re not being catered for. Walking round this exhibition felt a little uncomfortable, almost as if we shouldn’t have been there, in this very male territory.
I’ve thought for a long time that photography is very male-centric. In our local newsagents, photography magazines are displayed under the heading of ‘Male Interest’. The content also has this bias, with portraiture articles only using young, slim, conventionally pretty girls as their models. I’d love to see something on photographing men, or ‘ordinary’ women, or old people, but you never do. Camera reviews assume you’re male, referring to things like the finger grips not being big enough – yes, they’re not big enough for large male hands, perhaps, but might suit some of us very well. A minor issue, true, but the whole impression if you’re female is that you’re not included in the gang.
All of this is true of the amateur photography market; it’s not nearly so true for the professional side of things, where you’ll find plenty of women in key positions. There were more women behind the stalls in the exhibition than there were in front of them, for example. But we all have to start somewhere, and I know from talking to them that many women are put off by the male emphasis on photographic technology and the sometimes condescending attitudes towards them of men with cameras. I’m really not saying all men are like this – I know some absolutely lovely male photographers – but the amateur, ‘camera club’ brigade do have a tendency to think you’re incapable if you’re female. Add that to the total lack of accommodation photographic manufacturers make for women and the impression is that this is not an area of life in which you’re welcome.
I’ve leave you with a little anecdote. When I was teaching regularly in London, I’d have to leave on a very early train on a Saturday or Sunday morning. The man who sold me my ticket asked if I was doing something nice that day. I replied that I was working, and he asked what I did. I said ‘photography’. An intense look of puzzlement came over his face for a moment and then (I could almost see the lightbulb going on) he said ‘oh!………you must be the model then?’ ‘No’, I spluttered, ‘I’m the tutor!’. Sigh………it can be hard to get taken seriously sometimes.
I’m doing a bit of research into Ernst Haas at the moment for a course essay I have to write, and I’ve been reading through some quotes from him, like this one:
“Ask yourself about the source of your artistic longings. Why is it so necessary that you want to do your thing? How strong is it? Would you do it if it were forbidden? Illegal, punishable? Every work of art has its necessity, find out your very own. Ask yourself if you would do it if nobody would ever see it, if you would never be compensated for it, if nobody ever wanted it. If you come to a clear ‘yes’ in spite of it, then go ahead and don’t doubt it anymore.”
Whew! This made me think a bit. I’ve always said photography is necessary to me in a very fundamental way, but I’ve never asked myself these sorts of questions.
Would I take photos if it were forbidden, illegal, punishable? I’m really not very brave in that sense, so to tell the truth I’d probably find another outlet for my creativity that didn’t put me in that position. The fact that it was illegal or forbidden wouldn’t stop me if I knew for sure I wouldn’t be caught, but I don’t think I’d risk my life, or even punishment, for it.
But there are many, many people who have risked their lives for photography. I know of two photographers, Henryk Ross and Mendel Grossman, both of whom lived in the Jewish ghetto in Lodz during the Nazi regime and who daily risked severe punishment or death in order to record the inhumanities that were taking place there. (You can find their stories on the links above.) And in more contemporary times, Tim Hetherington was recently killed in Libya while working there as a photojournalist – just one of many photographers who have died in war zones over the years. It seems to me, though, that the documentation of events or the message they wanted to communicate was as important – probably more so – than the act of photography itself. Photography happened to be their chosen medium for this, but I don’t think they’d have risked their lives to take flower macros.
I think a couple of Haas’ other questions are more telling. ‘Why is it so necessary that you want to do your thing?’ It’s tempting here to start a long biographical rambling about how I came to photography, but I’ll try and spare you by keeping it to essentials. Briefly, I was very creative as a young child but I was discouraged from exploring this and by my early teens I had stopped drawing, painting, writing, and most other things. What didn’t stop was the yearning to create, and as a grown-up I looked for many years for some way of fulfilling it. I dabbled in a lot of different things but it was only when I came to photography that I felt I’d found what I’d been looking for all those years. One reason for this is that I actually had some talent for it – something that I was dismally lacking in other media. All the same, if something were to happen that stopped me taking photographs, I know I’d find some other, satisfying, way of being creative. Photography does feel very necessary to me, and I’m passionate about it, but mainly because it fulfills a more basic need of giving me an outlet in which to express myself and I know there are other things that could do the same. I love writing as much as I love photography, for example, although it doesn’t satisfy the part of me that needs to create something visual. What is over-poweringly strong is the need to create, even if it’s only satisfied by cooking or putting interesting clothes colour combinations together.
Would I do it if nobody ever saw it, or I wasn’t compensated for it, or nobody wanted it? Well I can answer the middle one with certainty – I’m only minimally compensated for it and I still do it! The other two are more difficult. I know it’s important to me that I share what I do with other people, and of course I love it – who wouldn’t? – when people say they like my pictures. There’s no doubt it helps to keep me motivated, and I’d only see that as a problem if I stopped doing what I liked and started trying to please everyone else.
But there’s more to it than that. Knowing my images will be viewed and sometimes enjoyed, gives me a purpose for taking them – otherwise they would just languish sadly on my hard drive. I’ve always wanted what I create or learn to be for other people too; I doubt many of us could produce into a void for very long. I also believe that photos should be viewed and enjoyed. I find it really sad when I read about someone like Vivian Maier, who took such wonderful photos but which were never seen by anyone until after she died. (Now, there was someone who took photos without caring if they were ever viewed.)
I’m really not sure how I’d feel if no-one saw or wanted my photos. It would certainly be less rewarding, but I think I might still do it. Recently I came across some bits of writing I did many years ago, including some poetry. No-one has ever seen these except me, but I wrote them to express myself at a time when I needed to externalize what was going on inside me. It doesn’t bother me that no-one is likely ever to see these, so it may be that I’d feel the same way about my photos. I can’t be sure. Even so, these bits of writing only happened sporadically, and I sense I’d have written more, and more often, if they’d had some kind of purpose outside of myself. I think it would be the same with photography.
It’s an interesting question because art history is strewn with artists who weren’t accepted in their time and whose work few people wanted – the obvious one is Van Gogh, and he kept going regardless, though I wonder if he would/could have done without the brother who so totally believed in him. Even an enthusiastic audience of one can be enough to make it worthwhile. Although art is about self-expression, I think it’s also about communication and communication requires an audience.
I think what comes through to me clearly is that photography is my strongly preferred choice when it comes to visual self-expression and being creative, but that if I didn’t have it for some reason, then I’d find another outlet. Would it give me the same pleasure? I really don’t know, but I think it could.
Although I’m a huge fan of Haas, I think he might be coming on a little strong here; as far as I know he was never in a situation where photography was life or death, and he was successful with his photography at a very early stage, with many public accolades and prizes awarded to him. He never had to encounter these questions in reality, and I wonder how he would have reacted if he had.