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.


  1. So it's not only lichen we have trouble with !!

    I was shooting some bluebells today, in black and white. It's nice to get down to their level.

    1. Well Sandeha,I'm glad someone picked up the John Wyndham reference! My photo has bluebells in it too, but the subject as such was inside me.

  2. Great post Rob. I think when creativity is talked about it should be in the context of the photographer creating something original for themselves - i.e. a type of shot that they have never made before and is new to them, but the like of which can be seen in many places on Flickr for example, and then something that is original in a more general sense - a shot that they have thought through and visualised and have not seen the like of before. I would argue that a photographer can be creative within his or her own photographic journey but at the same time not be creating anything original in the photographic world. Whereas a photographer who creates images that have a body of thought behind them and are new to the photographic world - these are the truly creative photographers.
    Oh, and I also think that anyone who says that everything has already been photographed is talking crap! I can't think of any way of thinking that would stifle a creative mind more than this!

    1. Thanks so much Mike, yes indeed there are stages of originality, new to the photographer is the earliest realisation that there is a possibility of something other than recording the scene before us, or mimicking the work of others. I should also point out that I firmly believe that originality as an aim is not just for a select few, we can all strive to achieve it, but it does require a great deal of time, effort and reflection. That if course is something the average amateur may not even aspire to, and good luck to them enjoying the simple joys if photography. But I want to give some insight into the ways in which originality is achieved, a short cut in all that learning, practice and effort we all have to put in. It's payback time for all the help and insight I've received over the years and showing how I see the process of photography.

      Hopefully we learn that photography is as in so many other artforms a way of telling a story or communicating a personal reflection. It can be so much more humane and intimate than a record of what stood before us.

  3. Out of interest if bluebells are just a subject the isn't it just as valid as trees or rocks, etc. Given this surely there are works that use bluebells that are creative, and I don't just mean visually original. If that is so then can anybody suggest examples of bluebell photographs that go beyond the documentary?

    Or are some subjects impossible to use to evoke anything beyond what they are?

    1. Thanks for your comment Tim, it raises some interesting questions. I’m certainly not setting out to be proscriptive about any “subject”, but more making a challenge to photographers to examine their relationship to subjects and to step away from what Mark Tweedie memorably called the “attempt to possess the unpossessable”. It's not about the capture mentality it's about moving on from that to something more satisfyingly creative and personally resonant. I've looked quite hard to find images of bluebells which step away from the conventional hollow document, and failed, but it was during that search that I realised the remarkable similarity of so many bluebell images.

      Of course certain subjects lend themselves more easily to this form of approach, such as the trees and rocks that you mention. Trees in particular lend themselves to what Joe Cornish likes to call the ’gestural’, which in essence is the mimicking of the human body, emotion or thought. But I firmly believe that any “subject” can be made your own, given the time, effort and reflection required - bluebells included. Perhaps one of the issues here is that time required, bluebells are only about for a few weeks a year, so that's going to limit the time available to develop a personal response or approach.

      If I look around at some of the work being done currently then I'd look at Mike Jackson’s images of a single rock, where there's metaphor aplenty which is manifested through the simplicity of approach. I think it's important to remember that if we are to let viewers know that we are implying something ’other’ then the way we do that is to not be too obviously documentary or the viewer’s reaction will be the temptation not to engage beyond the surface. If we give them the two obvious clichés of wide angle, low down and pretty light or narrow depth of field close up, then they will see them for what they are and not engage the mind beyond a “wow that’s pretty” mentality.

      When I’m thinking of such things I'm often reminded of the Bechers’ photographs of factories - in essence they were exactly the same photo repeated, bar minor variations, same flat light, same composition, same tonality over and over again. But of course the joy is in those variations, maybe this is an approach that could work? Of course I can only suggest some ideas, but it's not for me to say, the personal will be just that, and that's what I'd like to see. Why not bluebells? Just remember to see beyond the what they are or what they look like.

  4. Rob, thanks for this amazingly thought provoking post. It was our brief Twitter exchange that sent me back out to our bluebell woods at the weekend, with a fresh perspective and good intentions. You can't turn a portrait photographer into a landscape photographer in an afternoon though, so I still have plenty of soul searching to do. I truly am inspired to try harder though, thank you for the prompt. I've documented my simultaneously lamentable, brave and frustrating efforts at creating an original bluebell photo here ( - but please feel free to edit out if you don't want links in your comments.

  5. With regards to creativity again Rob, I read some text from BLUR magazine about what they look for in the submissions they get from photographers. I hope they don't mind me reproducing what they say here -

    'We are talking about a photographer that is no longer an amateur, who no longer explores without control and who manages to crystallize his ambitions.This probably happens in the moment when we critically observe all of our photographs and find out that our gallery isn’t very homogeneous. We usually face this when creating our own web photo gallery and when we get stuck with how to divide links and themes.Dozens of our successful photographs suddenly seem as a work of a bunch of different authors. In other words, this is when we notice lack of our individual mark.
    After this revealing moment of truth, we start to think and photograph differently. Endless ‘clicking’ stops and there are no more numerous photographs of every single motive that seems nice and interesting. Hunting time starts. Goal – predefined theme.'

    They also say this -

    'One thing is sure – we do not want to follow the mainstream and become boring and predictable, both in the selection of photographers and their work and when it comes to magazine question itself. As a big supporter of individualism and uniqueness, it would be easiest to say that I prefer simplicity. Meaning, we look for those photographs that can easily be connected to a certain artist, as they carry their personal and recognizable mark.

    I could try presenting this uniqueness as a reflection of creativity, imagination, highly esthetic taste and intellect of the person that stands behind the camera. Therefore the attempt to capture something in an ordinary, unoriginal, unimaginative way that has been seen so many times before is not what impresses me.'

    Very interesting stuff!!


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