Musings on creativity for photographers and artists by Rob Hudson
Showing posts with label art. Show all posts
Showing posts with label art. Show all posts

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Singing the world into existence.

Introducing a new series: Songlines. 

By some remarkable coincidences things just seemed to fall into place on Friday. Reading, conversations, seeing and photography combining to create new thinking and a new series that I suspect I will be pursuing for a long period of time. 

The first element was seeing. While wandering through my local beech woods, and looking (vaguely) for something that will progress onwards from my Mametz Wood series, I started to notice something new to me. There were strange patterns, shapes and forms in those trees that could if we recognise them as such be called simply ’art’. What struck me was that it needed a person to not only see that art, but to recognise it as such. In short, there's art out there and it's growing on trees! 

The second element was reading ColinPantall's blog about Robert Macfarlane’s new book ’Landmarks' and how important the naming of things can be to the recognition of their existence. He used the example of the ’Missing Buildings’ project by Thom and Beth Atkinson. Those missing building are all around us, but it's only in their naming that they become significant. To quote Colin “Experience leads to language and language leads to seeing. And seeing leads to photography.” And I still needed a name for the tree art I'd discovered. 

The third and final element was a Twitter conversation with John MacPherson about my Songs of Travel series. He asked if the title came from Bruce Chatwin’s book Songlines. I responded, without realising the significance at the time, that it, in fact, came from a Robert Louis Stevenson poem. And thought nothing more of it, for a while... 

It was a couple of hours later that I realised that there was a name for this tree art, one that was already in existence and that the Songlines that John had spoken of would be perfect. Naming equals significance. 

Songlines are a creation myth held by the indigenous peoples of Australia that, to quote Bruce Chatwin “...tell of the legendary totemic being who wandered over the continent in the Dreamtime, singing out the name of everything that crossed their path - birds, animals, plants, rocks, waterholes - and so singing the world into existence." 

“In some cases, the paths of the creator-beings are said to be evident from their marks, or petrosomatoglyphs, on the land, such as large depressions in the land which are said to be their footprints.” Wikipedia. 

I can't claim to share such animist beliefs, but I do feel a close affinity with trees and forests. Indeed, I wrote a poem a few years ago with the simple line “Tall trees temple” attempting to express that feeling of otherworldliness we sometimes get from being in the forest, the analogy being with a similar feeling we might experience in a church. The belief I can happily share is the need to ’sing the world into existence’ or that naming things gives them a power and maybe an existence they could not possess unnamed. 

The images are presented as negatives. As any film photographer will know the negative image can have a beauty and otherworldliness all of their own. And to me that encapsulates what I'm seeing, the otherness and the requirement for us to see in new ways. To recognise art when it's before us. What a wonderful world!

Sunday, 26 October 2014

New directions: Cwm Blaen Taf Fechen.

Cwm Blaen Taf Fechen is my new long term project. If you don't know the area it's the valley immediately below the peaks of the Brecon Beacons above the Neuadd Reservoirs. After the tight, claustrophobic confines of ’Mametz Wood’ it feels vast and empty, it is a wind-blasted wilderness and I'm finding freedom there.

It's an area I know well; I visited it frequently many years ago for what was probably my first ’proper’ series, the Islands Project. This, though, will be different.

I learnt many things from Mametz, not least the limitations of social media - how dare I share art that's dark, difficult and metaphorical. Art has no more reason to be uplifting and cheerful than TV should always be Downton Abbey.

So I'm thinking yet again of changing my relationship with social media; people there, for the most part, don't want to be challenged, it's leisure time and they'd prefer cat videos thank you very much. I'm not yet sure how this will pan out, but you can expect more posts to be in the form of blogs and less of them.

The second, and perhaps more pertinent thing, I learned from Mametz was the value of photographing a small area, repeatedly over a long period of time. It's not exactly the first time I've approached my work like that, but it was perhaps the first time it really sank in -just how valuable it is to an artist.

Also, if we listen to the advice of Mike Jackson
 and Chris Tancock who are in my humble estimation both producing ground breaking work in landscape photography (if you'll forgive the pun), then long term devotion to a place is the way forward for the more serious landscape artist.

I'm disinterested in the ’low hanging fruit’ of new locations that barely scratch the surface. They tell me nothing about the place, the photographer or the way we interact with our surroundings.

If we stop to think about how many (perhaps the majority) of us first became interested in landscape photography - by recording the places we've visited or hiked past - then perhaps it's unsurprising that so few stop to question this approach. It feels entirely natural, organic and of course easy.

Yet what if there was a way to not only improve the depth and originality of our photography, but also find it more satisfying? For that to happen we have to question our assumptions and ourselves. It won't be found on the ’well trodden path’. Art has the potential to tell us something about ourselves, those tiny insights can be a great nourishment to the mind, something no end of pretty sunsets can ever hope to accomplish.

Cwm Blaen Taf Fechen is (for now at least) conceptually free. That's a major challenge to someone who's worked for many years within the bountiful confines of conceptual ideas. I'm going there without preconceptions, ideas or external motivations, but to explore through the artistic space of not knowing. Of course, you'd be right to say that is, in itself a concept! It's something I feel I need after 13 months of exploring the psychological trauma of war and it is something I need to do for the furtherance of myself as a landscape artist.

The artist and writer Emma Coker in Tactics for Not knowing: Preparing for the Unexpected (2013), wrote
‘Artistic practice recognises the practice of not knowing, less as the preliminary state (of ignorance) preceding knowledge, but as a field of desirable indeterminacy within which to work. Not knowing is an active space within practice, wherein an artist hopes for an encounter with something new or unfamiliar, unrecognisable or unknown’.
(Emma Bolland has written a great piece on this.)

One of the difficulties with finding that “field of desirable indeterminacy” is breaking down the barriers of received perception. Breaking out of the way of seeing and expressing ourselves through what we've seen, made or been told previously. The feeling freedom of that vast area is one of the hindrances; it's so easy to stride purposefully onwards ignoring the detail of what is there. Repeated visits are the key here, to break that mindset, to get the clichés, assumptions and received wisdoms out of my head.

I've been visiting the area now for about a month, and haven't shared any images because they felt stale, uninspiring and from someone other than myself. Finally I feel I'm starting to find that space where I can start to think afresh, and more critically see afresh.

I've been delving deeply into the art of not knowing and there is light at the end of the tunnel - just barely glimpsed. I've no idea how this will progress (which I should think of as a good thing) it may falter at this one image, it may take a wholly divergent path or I may find images to complement this one. The one thing I do know is that after a month I've barely scratched the surface. So for now, here is my first image from Cwm Blaen Taf Fechen.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Mametz Wood.

’So many men, so beautiful.’

David Jones described the rationale for the title ’In Parenthesis’, his long, modernist poem about the First World War, as ’being in the space between’. In many ways I want my photographs to inhabit that same space; the space between day and night, the space between life and death, the space between sanity and madness, the space between sleep and awake. Most of all the space between love and loss. 

They aren't about war - or this particular battle of Mametz Wood - but the imagined effects of war upon the mind. When our subjectivity is overtaken by a darkness so all encompassingly, unimaginably dreadful that our very vision of the world becomes skewed. 

Mametz Wood


I started work on this with some very vague ideas indeed. I went to one of my favourite woods with the idea of looking for some equivalent of abstract expressionist composition on the forest floor. That is the more complex, gestural forms of Pollack for example not the simple forms of Rothko. The environment is quite sufficiently complex to say the least! So I came home with a range of images of leaves, tree stumps, grasses and bushes. It wasn't until I began to process them that I realised they reminded me of some previous work I produced for Owen Sheers’ Skirrid Hill poem Mametz Wood. In this he describes the shock of seeing, in a newly discovered grave, skulls, their jaws ajar as if they'd just breathed their last breath. 

"As if the notes they had sung have only now, 
with this unearthing, 
slipped from their absent tongues."

Mametz Wood, Skirrid Hill.

In this picture I re-imagined that event as both the last breath - the last song as Sheers put it - and the last, dying vision of the soldier as his sight began to fade and his hold on life slipped away. His eyes slipping to the last light of the horizon. 

Of course it wouldn't be long before I tried experimenting with double exposures - combining these images - and I was astonished that the combined results could create a whole new reality. Simply putting two well chosen images together completely changed the feeling and emphasis of the images. The bodies of men emerged from twigs when combined with grasses, a snake like stump became enraged and explosive when combined with another clump of grass. There emerged a dreamlike magic realism, combined with the nightmare like distorted figures, that reminded me in some ways of a picture that has long occupied my subconscious; Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. 

Mametz Wood 2


In my new Mametz Wood series the pictures are half caught visions in the half light, memories, nightmares and the twisted trees intermingling and playing off one another to deceive an exhausted mind. 

The pictures aren’t taken at Mametz Wood itself, they are an imagination, an idea, an illustration. I have no desire to document a place and I have no personal connection with the place to draw me there. Just the same way as a writer has no need to be in a place to describe it, photographers have no need to be in a place to describe an idea about it. Mike Jackson creates whole new worlds in a fish tank, so I don't feel I'm taking a liberty by creating them in another woodland. There's also a sort of unity, taking them in a Welsh wood when so many Welshmen died at Mametz. 

I've long said that landscape photography is capable of far more than illustration, but here I want to show that it can be as creative and imaginative as any other form of art, that we can imagine small worlds from within the landscape and that we can take ideas and make them new by expressing them in a visual form. 


As I'm sure you are all aware there are plans next year for a national commemoration of the outbreak of the First World War. There's been much debate around this particularly from those who accuse the government of being too celebratory in its approach. I tend to agree with that argument, but I disagree with the way the debate has split between those who wish to concentrate on why the war started and those who say we should concentrate on the personal stories. I have no problem with personal stories, I do have a problem with the concentration of them being on heroism. There are plans to lay stones in the towns where Victoria Cross awardees were born, for example. I don't doubt that there was heroism, but feel I must assert that the common experience of war and this war in particular was not one of jingoistic pride, but of terror, misery and loss. If in some way I can begin to redress that balance and allow even a tiny insight into the genuine experience of the horrors and madness of war, then I will allow myself a small measure of satisfaction. 

Mametz Wood 3

Friday, 22 February 2013

Lucy Telford's 'Self 1'

Lucy Telford's 'Self 1'. You can find the original by linking here

So here we have a photogram of a doll, it is on the surface a simple picture, sure it's slightly distorted, but we shouldn't dismiss it lightly as some wilful abstraction. It's the kind of photograph within which we have to make our own associations based on sparse clues, not a simple story and certainly beyond mere illustration. It is thankfully one of the few photographs (as are many of her's) that I'd want to spend time living with, pondering and thinking and being moved.

There is something profound at foot here, but what exactly, is to some extent a matter of personal interpretation. Lucy is not the kind of artist to preach on high with simple tales that are easily grasped in the short time frames of mass consumption engendered by social media. They stop me in my tracks and challenge me to think and engage. To wrestle with disentangling its meaning. The most obvious is the title ’Self 1’, this is meant to be seen as a self portrait.

Why a doll? There's an element of the shared experience here - we all had dolls of some description as children and our children still play with them now, even in the modern electronic age. There's something profound about a doll, something Jungian even in that depiction of a tiny, plastic, fragile person. But more than that: does the choice of a doll depict in some ways the objectification of women? There's certainly an element of physical idealism in the slim, long legged fragility here. It's as women are expected to look if they are to conform to the social forces that surround us in our everyday lives. From billboard models to ’pop princess’ we are constantly barraged with this imagery. Plus there's the fact of us looking, it's a knowing reference to the visual consumption of the image. It's as if we are complicit in a guilty secret more so because it is deeply personal and to some extent revelatory.

What other clues are there?
Perhaps the most striking is the blue haze surrounding the doll. This is not as far as I know a normal result of the process when laying objects on photographic paper. Again there’s deliberateness here.  It doesn't take a great deal of imagination to see the ’doll’ as if it's trapped in sadness. A shroud of pain, whilst the light exists beyond.

Then there are the apparent stigmata on the upturned hands. That position is deliberate, unnatural and asking us to look. Again it's a symbol of suffering, but perhaps a willing suffering as Christ being crucified to cleanse mankind of sin. Does this perhaps represent her role as mother and carer? Or does it hint at something deeper, darker something from the past that is carried with her? We cannot say for sure, it is one more element to ponder.

And yet this doll is faceless, again this references the objectification of women where bodies are considered above the person. Where women are seen as objects of consumption by men. Not as real people with personalities, histories and emotional lives of their own. But this is both faceless and distorted, perhaps forced by some pressure of life, squeezed in an unwilling direction.

Finally there is the process - the image wasn't fixed it has been allowed to fade naturally. This electronic record is all we have remaining. This is the artist engaging with process on a far more profound level than many can conceive. Quite what allowing oneself to disappear means to Lucy I don't know for certain. Perhaps it's a wish for release, perhaps even death. Or maybe a simple putting behind her the past or present, a time to move on, forge ahead and look forward hopefully?

We are dealing with allegory here, symbolism, metaphor, surrealism and the archetype.  A story is being told, we are allowed glimpses, but not the full story. Perhaps more will be revealed in later works in the series? Maybe, but we will always need to examine the clues in her work and to an extent we are given liberty to find our own associations and meanings, to engage on our own terms. This is after all a work of art. Art in the truest sense, that is about engaging ourselves.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Art that matters.

"Nowhere is it inscribed on stone tablets that art made even in the service of God reveals larger truths, or adds greater authenticity, than what is captured in honest work of any flavour. Over the course of our lives, the need repeatedly arises in each of us to make peace with the world with our work, and with ourselves. When that happens, our internal compass directs us naturally to the course we are meant to take, and "art" issues simply fall away. Coming amid the usual turbulence of life, such periods of grace and clarity (however fleeting) bring as well the realisation that making art matter, and making art that matters, are two sides of the same coin. Art will matter when it once again concerns itself with issues that matter, when it once again arises naturally at the points where art and life intersect, when it once again demonstrates that making art is the way we manifest being human."
Ted Orland, The View from the Studio Door.
(Ted was a former teacher on Ansel Adams' workshops and used to produce mostly "fine art" black and white landscapes. He is also the co-author of Art & Fear with David Bayles)

Sunday, 21 March 2010

The Past: What other home do I have?

Know thy self. That's the impossible goal we set ourselves, not just in creative realms, but in just about every piece of psychoanalysis, religion and even wardrobe shopping for crying out loud! But just how do you set out to "know yourself"? What the hell is it that defines "you", what is it that makes "you" unique and separates "you" from the guy next door? And once that is answered, how can we harness it to creative ends.

Some time ago I wrote a piece over on my Flickr site about how who I am can influence my creative output. The difficulty was “the elusive ‘I’ shows an alarming tendency to disappear when we try to examine it”. Well I've had 9 months to ponder that little conundrum and I think it's time I shared some thoughts, but this time in a proper blog form.

The simple answer is of course the past. If there is anything that is unique it is your history. Fingerprints pale into insignificance, retinal scans are mere snapshots, your history is the building blocks of you. Friends, relatives, relationships, experiences, health (or lack of it), travel, politics, education etc are not just of the now, they are of a sequence of interconnecting stimuli to existence.

You'll notice I haven't mentioned art in the list above. I don't mean art can't influence your work, but that you're treading dangerous waters there, the possibilities of becoming over influenced or plagiarism are obvious, but more so it isn't part of YOU, it is somebody else's self expression, their way of seeing, their past. Learn from fellow artists more a way of thinking than a way of seeing.That was the big mistake on my Flickr site, misinterpreting artistic influence as an element of myself and worse failing to see the personal in my interpretation.

"We see with memory, which is why none of us sees the same thing, even when we're looking at the same thing"
David Hockney

The past is all we have, there isn't anything else that makes us "us", it is our sole point of reference and our only route into self awareness. It is worth thinking in terms of two different (but interconnected) pasts for the creative artist, the personal and the creative influence. For the latter it is essential to become aware of the past creative influences, including your own. Think of it as expanding your artistic vocabulary in a visual language. Most obviously you need to study art and photographic history so that you don't end up unknowingly repeating what has already been done. But you'll really need to get under that creative skin, to read around your subjects work and inform yourself of the reasoning and rational behind the works, while of course keeping a weather eye open for the pretensions, platitudes and frankly lies of which  many visual artists are guilty. Find those "ways of thinking" that inspire you and apply them to yourself and your work, adding, multiplying, deleting and minimising as you go, there's a huge amount of thought and creative endeavour that has been put into the creation of art over centuries and you can't afford to ignore it. Much less expect to produce anything near originality. 

This study shouldn't though be a vacuous exercise in knowledge, you have to study the creative past in order to know as Martin Scorsese put it in a recent interview what you "accept, reject, complain about. hate, love, whatever!" You Tube It's all going to add up to be a a vital part of the "structural engineering" of your work. 

But for the façade, you'll need to be referring back to yourself. You may think you've led an unremarkable life and therefore nothing is worth sharing, well in truth nearly everyone leads unremarkable lives (including me), it is that which is our common experience which means your and my experiences will share a common bond. It is this very commonality which will be the touchstone of personal reference which is the hallmark of great art. Have you ever noticed how much of contemporary late twentieth century photography focusses on the mundane? That is surely because the mundane is a shared experience, it would be hard not to avoid it, but they take it further, expressing the wish for the mundane to be seen as beauty. If we all bought that concept, then wouldn't life be a richer experience? The trouble is most people don't buy it, it is just too bland and facile to be seen as art, perhaps we should strive just a little harder to look into ourselves and find those commonalities and maybe the dividing lines between us, no matter how small - they are what makes us interesting!

In my next post I'll try to show you a route to expressing the knowledge and individuality through the example of my recent Memories, Dreams and Reflections project.