Musings on creativity for photographers and artists by Rob Hudson

Saturday, 18 May 2013

The trouble with bluebells.

By Rob Hudson.

“Come we to the summer, to the summer we will come,
For the woods are full of bluebells and the hedges full of bloom” John Clare.

John Clare reminds us that bluebells are one of those natural signs that summer is truly upon us; one of those reminders that the natural world gives us that the world is still turning and the seasons do actually change, even after what seemed to have been a never ending winter.

When I think back to my childhood, it's with a mixture of awe and horror that we thought nothing of filling a jar with bluebells. They grew in such profusion in the woods near our house that the thought never occurred to us that they might be endangered, becoming a rarity. We were both more innocent and naive back in the Seventies, if it's this that those who yearn for halcyon days of the past then I suspect we might be better off, if sadder in our modern knowledge and sophistication.

It was always a jar of bluebells though, I suppose vases weren't common amongst the lower middle class back then - or they certainly weren't amongst our slightly bohemian household - but there was something truly celebratory about filling a jar, about containing those bright stalks that contained the fuse of thrusting green life and the mop head of bluish-purple flowers atop, with a scent that spoke of the vibrancy of life.

And yet bluebells are in danger, both from climate change and from invasive alien or interbreeding varieties. Not to mention that they are now a protected species and it is illegal to pick them.  We should treasure them all the more so now for their precious fragility, although I will miss the ideal of a circular rebirth that is never ending, safe and secure in my halcyon days.

Even to my own eyes (as unscientific as my observations may be) the past few years have seen a disappointing crop of bluebells in the woods up on the hill, above the northern outskirts of the city. Whether this is simply a facet of short-term climactic variations or is likely to become a regular feature of the future, it is possibly too early to say, but one shouldn't easily dismiss the evidence before our eyes.

I sometimes wonder if the sheer pressure of visitors up there also does damage; I imagine most landscape photographers treat bluebells with a certain amount of reverence, but please god, don't ever let me catch one of you up there, treading on them in search of the perfect shot. I can assure you my language wouldn't be pretty!

Bluebells you see have become one of the “seasons” of landscape photography and one of those photographic challenges that it seems all need to set themselves. It's not hard to appreciate why anyone would want to photograph what is undeniably one of the great glories of the British countryside - drifts of blue stretching as far as the eye can see, almost mimicking the sky at times, making me feel a little bit dizzy with joy and upside-down perception. In many woods they are set-off by bright beech leaves, newly emerged and fizzing with green life. Who would not want to go and see that, to celebrate it in camera and create something to treasure on your walls for years to come?

It might surprise you to say that I'm not going to criticise that activity, it's no doubt rather less damaging than picking them as I did I my childish naïveté, it gets people out doors, to engaged with the rejuvenating effects of the natural world and experiencing the joy of photography.

Okay, I won't criticise it except to say (quell surprise!) that bluebell photos do have a massive tendency to look pretty much the same, baring a few variations, unlike almost any other sub genre of landscape photography. One has to wonder what has happened to create this disjoint between creativity and landscape photography? Perhaps it is (to paraphrase David Ward) the idea that a camera is simply a mechanical box that can't hope to achieve anything more than record what is in front of the lens? Yet, in the right hands a camera can be used to express narrative, parable, metaphor and therefore, something of what is inside us, something unique and personal. Although we have created the perfect tool for illustration in the camera, it is capable of far more than simply recording.

And it's not just bluebells; autumn, snow, ice, heather-flowers, whatever. Yes they are beautiful, yes they can be transformative, but they are just subjects and we need to see beyond the subject to the point where we are looking to interweave those natural elements into our narrative, to see through the lens of metaphor and illustrate our emotional response and our place within this world. Such seasonal changes after all serve to remind us of our place within the world, of our relationship with nature and the passing of time.

If we think of a simple definition of creativity as  “creating something original which has value”, then pretty much every photograph of bluebells I've seen fall down by that measure; although I'm sure they have value to their creator, on originality they are sadly lacking.  The problem is essentially that we go out to photograph bluebells themselves without giving a second thought to any wider ideas.

It's not so hard to see that if we are dealing in pictures then, because it is within a frame we can allude to something more. A frame and a still image give us opportunities to weave elements within the picture to have meaning (and value) above what is explicitly there.

We need to think beyond the literal. If I were to explain it in terms of the written word, perhaps it would become clearer where creativity lies. A literal description might go something like this “blue flowers for as far as the eye can see”; where as a more poetic and creative version may say “drifts of wild blue wave tossed mist, creating horizons of the mind”. You get the “drift”!

Words are no different to visual elements within the photographic frame, in many ways it’s the way we arrange them that lends them meaning, potency and gravity. Yes it's difficult to achieve by simply pointing the camera in a certain direction or at a certain angle, or with a certain light, but it's not impossible. And the satisfaction to be gained from creating something that is unique, personal and meaningful to us should never be underestimated. It is one of life’s great joys and is one way to find again our halcyon days.