Musings on creativity for photographers and artists by Rob Hudson

Friday, 20 July 2012

Songs of Travel: A new project in the making

Songs of Travel is a new project in the making, it was conceived as a project specifically for film photography, rather than digital, something that would utilise films' serendipitous nature in double exposures. The idea is to celebrate the joys of walking aimlessly along our myriad footpaths, the title comes from a Robert Louis Stephenson poem that was adapted musically by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Unlike my Skirrid Hill project it isn't directly influenced by the words or the music (if I'm honest I dislike both) but I have taken the idea of an almost plodding rhythmic romanticism that infused the text and musical sequence, it is after all a eulogy to an almost mystical experience rather than a translation into pictures.

I haven't used film for nigh on 20 years and before the day I'd made the images below I hadn't been out for any landscape photography for three whole months, I just knew I'd be a bit rusty, so like a coward I just took the digital and experimented, as a way of piecing together my somewhat fragmented ideas and expectation. I'm starting to get a clearer idea of what I want now, so may be ready to actually commit some images to emulsion. But the freedom of playing around in digital  has helped frame the finished look more in a way that I think will alter my approach in the use of film.

What I found in the digital edit was a combination of black and white and colour (digital layers rather than double exposure) had a dramatic effect. The ghostlike black and white seemed entirely in keeping with the metaphorical past, the sensory retreat of a long walk and yet the colours, even if subdued stand out like flashes in a dream or memory. Footpaths, like all long journeys are remembered piecemeal, certain aspects come to predominate while others shrink into the background. It is this memory like effect that I'm seeking to replicate, something transient, where one image in the mind sparks or leads strangely into another. It's something that is honestly quite difficult to put into words which I suppose is where the images come to find a purpose.

So instead of a traditional film double exposure I am considering a mixed media approach (sorry!) of digitally combining a black and white film image with a colour film image. This allows greater control over which image to combine with which and the relative density of the layers. I guess I'm still too driven by my digital workflow to see any other way. Although I'll admit it lacks the serendipity of a direct film double exposure, you'll have to allow me my 'breaking in' period with film.

John Berger quote

"The aim must be to construct a context for a photograph, to construct it with words, to construct it with other photographs, to construct it by its place in an ongoing text of photographs and images." John Berger Ways of Remembering.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Why Tree Line should come to a natural conclusion

It is cold, for the past few hours I have been completely absorbed in photographing one remarkable tree. I hadn't noticed the growing chill of evening. Throwing on my coat, I turn to retrace my steps, wading through knee high bracken, clouds touching the hills, the valleys a fading blue. I am alone on the hillside and in a contemplative mood, in a land of sheepsong and thickening light. As I head over the protecting hill that shelter these last few high trees from exposure I begin to realise that in the two year gap since my last visit to the tree line something has changed within me, I suspect it's a profound realisation about my motivations as an artist, but not really fully formed until days later when I sit down to write and examine my thoughts more closely and the consider work I'd produced that evening.

Before I'd even stepped out that day I'd been thinking back almost two years to what my motivations were in undertaking the Tree Line project and why it needs to find a natural conclusion. Some of you may realise that Tree Line sprang directly from the Memories, Dreams and Reflections project which was an artistic response to the death of my mother. MDR was all about grieving, it was revisiting the haunts of mine and my mother's childhood. It was an exploration of memory and time - intentional camera movement indicating the blurring of these strange functions of our consciousness, the passing of an epoch and the importance of place in our development and perceptions of self.

Tree Line was about emerging out of that shadow, coming both emotionally and metaphorically from the dark into the light, it was direct in both time and in geography. MDR was predominantly set in the foot hills of Abergavenny and Tree Line on the higher slopes of Sugar Loaf mountain. It's not quite that geographically clear cut if I'm honest, in fact many of the images in TL were taken within view of the tree which makes up the final image in MDR; the last tree, alone on the slopes, looking out from on high over Abergavenny and where I scattered my mothers' ashes. 

Incidentally, I don't believe in an afterlife, heaven, hell or all those trappings of traditional religion, but it was even now a peculiar experience seeing that tree. I felt an acute confusion. How should respond? Do I wave? Say hello? Go through some sort of confessional? That's not for me, practicing my creativity would be the one thing that would have made my mother proud and happy, so that is what I do, not just for her, but also for myself. I find it completely satisfying to be immersed in the "zone" creating images, forgetting time and place and not noticing the growing cold of dusk.

So, getting back into the point in hand, why do I feel Tree Line should come to a natural end? Most simply my motivations aren't the same today as they were 2 years ago. To put it bluntly I'm over it! (At least as far as we ever can be.) I'm no longer searching for the light, fighting through a strange world of ghostly forms. I returned this week and realised I had attained the light so to speak, it was the beauty of the tree in all its strange forms that entranced me, I found myself looking for a more balanced composition, like a "proper" visual artist, more of an abstract concept, more remote from the emotional force the was the green fuse for the projects' inception. In many ways it's a successful conclusion, I am back in the world of beauty, back to appreciating things for what they are, especially in nature and landscape, I have fought off the darkness.

Before you all jump to the conclusion that I'm rejecting a conceptual approach, that I'm going to go out and take saturated sunsets (the horror!) I can reassure you that I'm most certainly not! I do however feel my future work will have matured, the ideas will be less forced, more motivated by the art instinct. I have changed, I have grown artistically, my understanding of the world has developed, but one thing I now realise is that my art may in fact be beyond explanation, even to myself and it is that mystery that will provide a further motivation to create in the future, there's plenty to explore here. As I enter middle age I may just become more abstract in thought and deed.

It is good to remember, to examine the lie of the land, to realise that life contains good times and bad, for if nothing else they help contextualise where we are now. As I leave the tree line for good, knowing that my artistic and emotional aims have been realised I shall hold within myself the thought that I have come to know intimately two beautiful trees for two very different reasons. One from darkness and another from light. And yet as I conclude tears run down my face, art you see has meaning.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

The five laws of discussing landscape photography.

I have spent years participating in discussions about landscape photography, landscape photographers are some of the brightest people in the photography firmament, and that's what makes it so enjoyable. But, despite this, it never ceases to amaze me how much time and effort some photographers will put into telling others how to take photographs. Therefore I thought I would propose the following five laws for discussing landscape photography so that we may treat each other with respect, but above that learn from each other even if they don't do as you do.
  • All approaches and techniques and cameras are valid.
  • We should welcome diversity of approach as it stimulates creativity in all of us.
  • We will always have some photographers that value veracity uppermost and others that value interpretation uppermost. It is a debate we carry around in all of us and is one of the great defining elements of photography that separates it from other art forms. So lets celebrate it!
  • The most important thing is your vision. Cameras are a means to an end in representing that, nothing more.
  • Make up your own mind, but don’t reject what is ‘other’. Study it and learn from it as if it was your own. 

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Why golden hour photography isn't enough

I was going to write a separate piece here, but my thoughts were hijacked by a discussion in Flickr's Art of Landscape group

So here is my response to the question of orange and purple landscapes.

What do we all want out of photography? Whoever we are budding amateur, professional landscape photographer, artist? It is quite simply a form of self-satisfaction. Now that is inevitably a different thing for different people and different times or stages of their development. But in some people that may eventually turn into a desire to produce something that is (at least in relative terms) unique to themselves. For that to happen requires a degree of introspection to examine what about the landscape is important to them. 

Every photographer should be turned on by light; “photography” is after all Greek for writing with light. But, speaking from personal experience, this can lead to a limited response to the landscape. Just try a personal brain storming session about what the landscape really means to you, also remember that meanings haven’t always been static, I find it useful to think back to childhood responses. Throw some keywords onto the page. Here are some examples -

Exposed, intimate, polluted, clean, hot, cold, windy, still, fear, contentment, lost, dark, bright, joy, freedom, escape, ethereal, delicate, huge, private, enclosed, open. 

I could go on and on, but this is about you not me. 

Now just ask yourself if the Golden Hour alone is the right way to express many of those thoughts, ideas or emotions? I would argue that it’s unsuitable for many of them. It is a question of depth; art requires more than surface beauty, as we are both intellectual and emotional beings, satisfying only half our brains is a frustrating experience. The first step to getting deeper is to get away from the beach and sunsets. Landscape is about so much more than that. 

In the world of artistic expression technique becomes subordinate to ideas, it is something that can and should be harnessed to address the concept or theme. That doesn’t necessarily mean throwing out the rulebook, but giving consideration to how technique can be melded to purpose. The problem for me with many golden hour image-makers is that there is no room for manoeuvre; technique becomes a fixed method, a method that can only produce a certain type of image. 

Art isn’t so much nebulous, as an answer without a question. To paraphrase Douglas Adams “if that is the answer what is the question?” You’ll have to find your own answers to your own questions. To think in purely visual terms probably wont answer many questions, for that you’ll need to think more like a poet and then turn those thoughts into imagery. 

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 fa├žade, 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.