Musings on creativity for photographers and artists by Rob Hudson

Friday, 30 May 2014

So many men, so beautiful: Mametz Wood, In Parenthesis and PTSD.

In the preface to his poem In Parenthesis about his experiences as a private during the Battle of the Somme, David Jones writes “...the sudden violences and the long stillnesses, the sharp contours and unformed voids of that mysterious existence, profoundly affected the imagination of those who suffered it.”...“It was a place of enchantment.”

How strange you may think for a poet of the First World War to describe it as “a place of enchantment”. It does appear strange, but enchantment has a number of definitions and I'm sure David a Jones, as a poet, was more than aware of them. The root is from the Latin incantāre to sing a magic formula over. It, in essence cast a spell upon those involved, it “profoundly affected the imagination”. In extremis it caused what was then known as ’shell shock’, what today we would call post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

It is that profound effect on the imagination that is the focus for my photographic series. It is a lens through which to see. It is a perspective or a vision of the landscape caused by the psychological damage of war.

Jones also described the title In Parenthesis as “the spaces between.” The war itself was of course a parenthetical episode in Jones’ life and the lives of all who fought, but also there is another reading of those ’spaces between’ which is more than apparent in his poetry and that is the space between imagination and reality or sanity and madness.

And so to midnight and into the ebb-time when the spirit slips lightly from sick men and when it's like no-mans-land between yesterday and tomorrow and material things are loosely integrated and barely tacked together.

My series Mametz Wood also questions the limits of photography, both in terms of how we can say things and the limitations of the visual narrative. I make no attempt to address the causes of the war in the work itself, simply the effect - the effect on individual human beings. I have no doubt in my mind that the root causes of the war were directly related to imperialism and that applies equally to the leaders of both sides. But I doubt that had much meaning to the foot soldiers involved. If there was ever a bigger picture it was soon lost amongst the horrors and struggles and bitter existence of those involved. I know photography can do narrative and political narrative, but equally we need to consider the form that this takes. Trying to convey the big picture in little pictures can at best seem remote and worst simplistic and patronising.

For me it's far better to try to convey what I know, what I can understand of the human scale of the suffering it caused. I'm no historian, yet you'd be quite right to question my insight into these particular themes. Like most of us my main experience of war has been from TV news or the work of war photographers, I've never been to a conflict zone - and have no desire to do so. Some years ago, however I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder with associated depression. I won't go into the causes here, this isn't a place for self-revelation. Save to say it didn't come from one of the assumed ’normal’ causes of: war, natural disaster or terrorism etc. I do though feel I have some insight into the darkness (“the ebb time”), the continual anxiety that overwhelms everything and the broken understanding of the world (“that mysterious existence, profoundly affected the imagination of those who suffered it..”). And perhaps, most pertinently and most frightening, the inability to escape one’s fears through the constant reliving of those experiences that got me there in the first place. (“A place of enchantment”).

It is in many ways “a place of enchantment” if only you assume it's an ’evil magic’ that sent you there. That's what it feels like; like you’ve suddenly been transported to a whole other world where the main preoccupation is staring into the deepest, darkest pit imaginable. (“His eyes set on the hollow night beyond.”). Actually ’imaginable’ is the wrong word, because you can't imagine it unless you've been there. It's far more terrible than our daily existences could ever have hinted.

So I have ’some’ insight into those effects on the minds of those involved. And I also have a greater appreciation for David Jones’ poem. It's there in the words for all to see if you open your imagination. He may have been invalided out with a leg injury after Mametz Wood, but the scars go deeper. He suffered two breakdowns, divorced and converted to Roman Catholicism. Not that I attribute the latter to ’madness’, just that it illustrates his search for ’another’ way. Perhaps most pertinently is that he didn't complete In Parenthesis until 1937 (sadly on the eve of another Great War), which illustrates the need for space that time gives us before we can confront these things properly.

I’m now preparing to complete the series, I have maybe 12 more images to add, in addition to a few that you’ve not yet seen. I hope this will give you a greater appreciation of the work as it is and as it proceeds to a close. I shan't apologise for the catharsis of my work, any more than David Jones should for his. I am, for the most part, better now, but I do know what Jones means when he says:
“When men sense how they stand so perilous and transitory in this world.”

I have just added a new chapter containing five new images to the Mametz Wood website. Please take a look.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Cliché: The unacceptable face of photography.

I hadn't realised how much I needed to stretch my legs after the weekend's two days of train travel. So I was delighted to find my local bluebell woods still in good flower and a beautiful sunny day dappling the path before me. Of course I didn't take a camera, photos of bluebells aren't something that excite me remotely. I don't photograph things for what they are, but for what they represent, that is the essence of being a conceptualist for me. But something was troubling me, so much so, that I've ’purloined’ this bench and began writing on my phone, which was all I had to hand. The question is: why are photographic clichés so popular and acceptable (I'm talking here about social media, but that seems as good a measure as any) when originality has such a minority appeal? Someone needs to explain it to me, because, frankly, I’m stumped.

I realise that complete originality is as rare as hen’s teeth, but there are elements of it to be found in most work produced by those who can think and practice individuality. They aren't so rare I would say. So why value replication, what has been done before, probably countless times over and above something fresh, insightful, personal and maybe original? 

Equally it can be said that cliché is difficult to avoid. The first question I ask myself when I have a new idea for a series is ’have I seen this before?’. I want to be as sure as possible that it came from within and isn't from an external (even if forgotten) influence. Why? Because there's no point in me doing something that's been done before, it will in some minor way feel like it's not mine. All work will inevitably contain some elements of external influence; none of us work on Mars - at least yet! The point is that it is possible to see afresh even with those influences. Also as time passes our influences become, more and more, ourselves, we reference our previous work and experiences. It gets easier to avoid the impersonal of the cliché.

Originality is difficult to achieve, but surely not so much more difficult than that technically perfect representation of what everyone does, endlessly. It's maybe a question of approach - all that technique can be learned, in time, relatively easily, but equally, so can learning to think creatively be learned, with time. I guess it's something to do with the monstrous industry that is photography - cameras, lenses, popular magazines, etc - have no interest in originality because the truth may out - we don't need to spend the same as a small car every few years to achieve it. You can't monetize thinking and free expression. It might even be dangerous to contemplate.

Actually; I think that's too convenient and too forgiving. There's something more fundamental about photography that brings out the conformist in people. Maybe it's the technical side that appeals to some more than the inherent possibilities of meaning and expression? And they are two things that are better said through some form of individuality. Clichés are stripped bare of any meaning or individuality by their very definition. There is no ’why?’. Maybe that's what people are afraid of? That other people are different. Or are they more comfortable without that question, despite the huge pleasures to be had from its contemplation.

It’s not even that simple either. People actually celebrate this stuff, they gather around it like sheep (or should that be flies around the corpse of creativity?). Why is that even socially acceptable? We should be pitying the loss of mojo, of creativity and individuality. Cliché should be condemned more frequently and more thoroughly. I suppose people are frightened of criticising others or spoiling their innocent fun, or afraid of condemning what is popular. There's nothing wrong with a few clichés if you're developing (actually most new photographers are quite original - they haven't learnt to make clichés yet). Yet it is part of the learning process. Let’s fight the corner for something that is unquestionably better, that is a deeper and more satisfying experience for both those who look at, and make good photographic work.

Maybe I'm a photographic snob. I don't think of myself that way, I simply think of myself as someone who is fascinated by the possibilities of the photographic medium. I study and think about it endlessly - probably more than I practice it. That is a necessary prerequisite to practice for me. Thinking comes before action. Thinking doesn't preclude feeling, or responding to what's around us, but it does create a framework for our approach, something that says ’I made this’, not some photographic magazine or camera manufacturer.

You see I just don't get it. Maybe some people do prefer their TV dinners to something from a good restaurant? I'm not one of them. I think I’m concluding the problem lies in the absence of good critical writing about photography, especially in the popular, accessible realm. That's probably what I should have written about in my sunny bluebell wood.

The first image in my forthcoming series 'On Angel's Wings' which is about photography as a form of musical notation.