Musings on creativity for photographers and artists by Rob Hudson

Friday, 16 November 2012

My views on landscape photography

Below is a series of Tweets I posted on Friday 16th of November outlining my opinions about landscape photography.
As these will inevitably become mangled by the Chinese whispers of the Twittersphere, here they are in full.

As some people seem determined to misrepresent my opinions, here is a clarification.

90% of landscape photography I see is dull, regurgitated, amateurish and shallow.

Which is fine if you're a beginner, I've been there, I understand.

But part of the problem is the clubbish, unchallenging attitude that surrounds the scene.

Which is tolerant of an artless, simplistic ’hobbyist’ approach.

Part of my artistic progression is to criticise both where I came from and the work of others.

It is essential. We cannot do anything worthwhile without having opinions.

A very small minority of landscape photography impresses me.

Anyone who tells you otherwise is either patronising, naive, lying or bought.

My approach is 'wake up people, smell the coffee'.

Most are missing out on a wonderful opportunities for personal expression.

When we describe ourselves as artists it is simply to say that we believe meaning can extend beyond the surface.

It is not self aggrandising or setting ourselves apart as ’other’. It is sharing the journey.

I wish someone had told my past self this. I would have felt more supported in my progress and less alone.

If you find that patronising, superior or offensive, please feel free to unfollow me.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

A poem on a misty morning

I guess the landscape chums are out there
shooting in their quarries
wandering like ghosts in the half morning light.
Big-game hunters of the seasons, capturing
artificial recollections
with artifice and guile, the pursuit
of a freeze frame memory.

They follow with a religious fervour
a self deception
that they believe will set them free;
a collective pursuit of trophies
to fade upon the wall.
To be replaced like old clothes,
tattered and neglected
by newer, bigger, better
more perfected pictures
to fade upon the wall.

In a world of aperture, film stock and memory cards
they neglect to open their hearts and minds.
They craft memories from what they have seen before.

And yet in their constructed worlds
they fail to see
that memories are only part of what mankind be.
Missing the complexity of who we are,
how we connect
with this world of possibility.

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Some thoughts on the artistic implications of LOPTY 2012.

When I first caught glimpse of what was the original winner of this year's Landscape Photographer of the Year - admittedly a small image on my phone - I was quietly impressed, it seemed to have many qualities I would look for in a landscape photograph and in my naïveté not the least of these was an unusual degree of originality and passion.

Now David Byrne has been disqualified for breaking the rules of LPOTY. His sin? Overt digital manipulation, which is explicitly against the rules of the competition. While everyone seems to think this process should be banned I have some thoughts on this which may go a little way to widening the discussion from the purely technical issues and the obvious dishonesty of the entry.

A digitally created image is no less a piece of art than a painting. Digital art has been around for years and is even gaining some degree of acceptance in the art world, painting after all has little relationship with reality either. They both spring (to a greater or lesser degree) from the imagination of the creator. A little manipulation to prettify a scene strikes me as a minor sin in this context, except, of course, where competitions explicitly forbid it. It's not a bad thing intrinsically if the creator is open and honest about it. But if he/she is denying its existence and using it as a lie to make their photography look better, then it is rather more questionable.

On top of this is the question of degrees of separation. How many purists use use no photoshop at all I wonder, if not with an actual intent to deceive? At the end of the day and outside the realms of this competition it's always a personal decision as to how much we use. For the most part that for me the digital equivalent of darkroom techniques, but let's not forget how even they can be extreme and transformative to the finished image. This question of the 'photographic’ representation of a scene is just not as simple as many seem to think. And let's not forget that compositing images is as valid a darkroom technique as any other. It has a long and honourable history and tradition and has produced significant works of art. One only has to look at the work of Jerry Uelsmann to realise this.

Stepping back from the arguments that have been raging around this (I can't but help think that nobody has stopped to think about the broader context) as with all things artistic we should be open to the question of its value as art, it's purpose or intent.

All photography is manipulation, whether you choose film or digital, are a technical wizard or a master of craft. We all edit the real world simply by pointing our camera at a tiny part of it. Not to mention your choice of lens, film, exposure time, aperture etc, etc. When it's printed or seen on a screen it's not real anymore it has been transformed by the hands of the photographer. That for me is why I love photography, it is it's transformative potential that excites me. Even just choosing where we point the camera can reveal much more about the subject and the photographer.

Quite why digital manipulation is the reason he was excluded over the issue of copying someone else's work is perhaps the most shocking outcome of the whole episode for me. It reveals the empty nature of so much of landscape photography far more incisively than a mere clone tool.

I'm more than happy to allow that there is a stage in most of our creativity that involves copying the work of others, to a greater or lesser degree. I've been through it and I wouldn't mind betting the vast majority of the readers of this blog have too. It's part of the process of learning. And I'll also allow that the judges weren't aware of the original - I wasn't. But doesn't it seem odd that the judges should be rewarding someone still at that early level of their creative journey? Surely at the very least the winning image should be all their own work, should have come from some form of personal insight and vision? It is after all just one image they have to choose.

It seems to me that this reveals fundamental flaws in the structure of the competition. I know so many landscape photographers who are straining every sinew of their mind and body to achieve that grail of the personal vision, yet it seems the majority of them think this is no longer the competition for them and will not enter. That includes myself.

The problem is that the competition is essentially a commercial proposition - that they profit from the greatest numbers of entrants. We all know, inside, the only way to appreciate a photographer's art and craft is to follow their work, probably over many years. To see the slow incremental development of their vision, and to realise it has unique qualities not shared by others. That's a tough proposition if you have to sift through the work of thousands upon thousands of unknown entrants.

On a final note, if you despise digital manipulation then you should most probably despise my Songs of Travel series as well. It is created digitally, although mimicking the idea of multiple exposure in camera. But it just wouldn't be possible to take the numbers of exposures that I use if I was using film. I've had many people who seem to like the project asking how I create the images, yet very few who seek to understand why. Yet I developed the techniques to tell the story I wanted to tell, about how we really experience the landscape outside the artistic sphere; it is about travelling, time, remembering and forgetting. For me this illuminates the problem, if technique predominates it is style over substance, nothing more. What is most important is purpose, not style.

Just because a camera excels at doing one thing - capturing the scene before you - it doesn't mean that's all it can do. Most notably it can also be used to illustrate what is in your head, your thoughts, ideas and emotions. So don't tie one creative hand behind your back because of this. Creativity is potentially boundless, make your own decisions, but make them well.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

The dangers of genre photography

I had an interesting discussion online recently with Mike Jackson, Lucy Telford and Tim Parkin. Mike posed the question "why do I think of myself as a landscape photographer?". Mike expressed the opinion that the most successful photographers in landscape like Michael Kenna have their own unique style and are simply thought of as "photographers" rather than "landscape photographers". Tim's argument was that landscape is big enough to embrace everyone from the most creative to the most conventional.  At the time I thought this has considerable weight, but having had some time to ruminate over it, I'm no longer so sure and this is because of how genres work in practice. I shall explain...

In case you haven't noticed landscape is what I do, it's is my creative impetus, subject and something I have a very strong personal relationship with. But does that qualify me as a landscape photographer? I have also dabbled in street / social documentary, so obviously I already straddle a number of genres, but realistically the last 3-4 years have been purely landscape. There's still a nagging doubt though that I'm doing something which is mine alone, not really conforming to any particular genre anymore.

Photographers rarely start out as identifying themselves  with a particular genre, they probably don't even think of themselves as photographers in the early days. Most just think of themselves as people using cameras. For the vast majority this is enough, they don't progress any further. But it does seem that most of us who take photography seriously end up saying "this is me, this is what I want to do" at some stage in our photographic progression.

So why do we sign up to genres? Why do we choose to associate ourselves with particular genres, be they landscape, street, social documentary, portraiture or whatever? Obviously starting out as a photographer is a difficult place to be, there's a whole world of possibilities to choose from, subjects to choose and styles to be chosen. It's much more comfortable to focus our energies in one particular direction, or subject, once we've found what interests us the job becomes that much easier. The creative choices have narrowed and a great deal of creative energy is usually stimulated by having creative focus.

Often within each genre we find there is a community of like minded individuals who are happy to share their knowledge insights and passions. Choosing a genre is a good place to be, supportive, sometimes challenging and inspirational. We find other photographers doing things  we aspire to, we learn a great deal. As we progress further, deeper into our chosen area we may even begin to find something more personal to express, our own angle, our own take on that genre.

So what can possibly go wrong? Well as any truly creative, original visual artist will tell you (or should tell you!) the real value in art is having ideas of your own. For the very same reasons as we sign up to a genre - the comfort of finding something we associate with, the narrowing of creative focus and the choice of a subject area - we are discarding much of our artistic potential.

Most genuinely imaginative artists I talk to exist in very much the same state as the beginner, the constant doubt, self criticism, and wondering how to express themselves in a way that is both personally satisfying and reaches out to a potential audience. They don't have a ready made yardstick to measure themselves against, it is about their personal motivation and satisfaction. The act of questioning is perhaps the most important part of that journey, it's why they push boundaries and create unique work.

Genre photographers of all sorts, have to a large extent bought into a way of seeing and expressing, they find unwritten rules and codifications about how they should fit in, conform and what, why and how we take what we have chosen. This isn't to say there isn't potential for those working within genres to produce original, striking and creative work, but it is partly why the vast majority will always be derivative, sterile and lacking in creative weight.

The real problem in associating ourselves with a genre is that the intellectual heavy lifting has been done for us. By buying into a way seeing we are buying into a way of thinking. It's as if we don't have to think very deeply anymore, we have given up part of the struggle, and yet struggle and internal conflict are key to the creative process.  Unless we are willing to cross boundaries, stretch possibilities and be true to ourselves then our work will inevitably suffer.

I have often said and heard it said by people I admire that much of the creative possibilities lie in the "gaps between", exploring crossovers, combinations and ideas that others haven't yet found. I'm not really sure these days if I actually think like that as part of my creative process, but I will admit it has some weight in abstract intellectual terms. This is because even that way of thinking doesn't represent the motivations which drive me, the concepts that I develop are becoming far more personal and specific. Genres don't matter anymore.

Perhaps being a genre photographer should only be a stage we go through until we find ways of expressing ourselves, not others' perspectives? Could it be that after dabbling in genres the only true route to creativity is to return ourselves to the state of the beginner, albeit with a considerably high technical and creative skill set? To be able to see beyond the genre, to create work which is honest to our own imagination probably means we won't end up working within a genre anymore. We will become just photographers again.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Christopher Isherwood quote

"A few times in my life I've had moments of absolute clarity. When for a few seconds the silence drowns out the noise, and I can feel rather than think. And things feel so sharp and the world seems so fresh. It's as though it had all just come into existence. I can never make these moments last, I cling to them, but like everything they fade. I've lived my life on these moments, they pull me back to the present and I realise that everything is exactly the way it's meant to be." Christopher Isherwood.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Oh deary me! Another reply to Tim Parkin.

I've had another response from TP
so here goes!

This be my final word on the subject of Velvia, and why I shan't mourn it's demise, or else I'm going to end up straying into misrepresentative circles created by Tim Parkin who evidently has some difficulty thinking outside of the technical world where he is most comfortable. (that's sarcasm btw, not the truth!)

Sorry Tim, but I just don't recognise much of what you say about my post here, I suspect you're misrepresenting what I said. And you accuse me of having hidden agendas! :-)

I was going to leave it at the last post, feeling my point well enough made originally. But I can't sit silently by without at least pointing out a few fundamental misunderstandings.

1. It seems the majority of your argument is based around some sort of film/digital divide. That's not something I recognise personally, my point was around creativity. Hit me with as many digital bricks as you like, it's not countering what I said.

2. There's plenty of wonderful landscape photography that has no need of expressing ideas in words, it is quite possible to see this in the gestural trees of Dav Thomas as a single example I'm sure few will disagree with. Or the surreally beautiful strangely compelling compositions of Mike Jackson's Poppit Sands. That doesn't mean they aren't expressing ideas (if only as a way of seeing) however much they may protest! The truth is that visual mediums can and always have expressed ideas, well at least if the artist/ photographer has one to express. I have never said that this is a problem unique to LF, that assumption is just silly. However, I think it  does suffer, which given the claims of its users' superiority strikes me as somewhat sad. I didn't use the phrase representational in my original post, I used the word illustrative, which I hoped the average intelligent reader would realise implied an emptiness of approach. I like representational, it implies an artistic to and fro between viewer and photographer through the medium of imagery. Sadly I don't see much of it about. LF Velvia users are no more immune to this than anyone. So back to my original point which is lets hope moving on from Velvia helps move things along creatively as well. You see not a veiled attack, but a hope for the future.

3. I'm quite happy to accept your point about the democratisation of the acme, if that's what you believe, but again you have introduced a spurious financial argument, when I was discussing creativity.

4. My original piece suggested that LF Velvia wasn't a format suitable for everyone. It's perhaps best at illustrating the real world, but some us aren't chasing that as a goal in our expression. In which case it's superiority is moot.

5. As for the tools mitigating approach, many film users say it helps them slow down their approach. Whether that's because they are terrified of exposing a frame of the fast dwindling stock of Velvia or not! I have long suspected that this may be as much about maturity of approach as the tools, that as one migrates up the ladder of tools one may hope the maturity grows too! I dunno I've happily spent a couple of hours refining a single composition with a DSLR in the past. I'm not really working with that sort of methodology at present though, so again, it's not for all.

6. Finally! You're entirely correct that almost all of my arguments could be equally applied to any other format of photography. If you claim to be the best, that should at least be a slight worry!

I'm not saying any of this to specifically accuse LF Velvia users of inferiority, I don't believe that for a moment (tools do not maketh a man!) but if I can equally level the accusations across the board, then please make it shake up your games, question your comfortable assertions and stop bloody whinging! 

Rob Hudson.

A reply to Tim Parkin's response.

Below is my response to Tim Parkin's comments made on my blog post Why I won't mourn the demise of Velvia: a counterblast. For those of you who aren't aware, I count Tim as a good friend, we have known each other for many, many years both online and in person. And we have frequently argued long into the night, but we do share an abiding passion for landscape and actually agree on far more than we disagree. As if I now need to point this out, this was not a personal attack on Tim, but an opportunity to give landscape photography an occasional and much needed proverbial kick up the arse. 

Tim: Blastproofing
Rob Hudson has recently posted a ‘counterblast’ to the demise of large format velvia film. In the post he declares that the death of Velvia is actually a boon to landscape photography. And whilst I respect his write not to mourn such a niche product, I thought I’d write a short rebuttal covering a few statements from the article.
“what it looks like should probably be driven by what you are trying to say, rather than because you happen to like strong colours or prefer a particular palette”
Hmm, agree… but this predicates on a dichotomy between saturation/colour and communication/art – surprisingly I think you can have one and other at the same time.
Rob: Of course you can, and no doubt should, I have done so myself. It is a pity that so few seem to realise its even a possibility. 
“Until very recently the chosen format for virtually all colour landscape photographers of any degree of seriousness has been a large format camera very probably loaded with Velvia.”
Tim:  from Stephen Shore, Charlie Waite, Galen Rowell, Art Wolfe, Ernst Haas, Saul Leiter, Jim Brandenburg, Philip Hyde, Paul Wakefield, Neil Armstrong, Christopher Burkett, Shinzo Maeda, Edward Burtynsky etc
Rob: Well I was commenting predominantly on British landscape photography which should remove a fair few of those, but whatever, I'm pretty sure that was Velvia in Charlie's Hasselblad. It does rather make me question if the UK isn't a bit backward in these things? 
“This hegemony has in turn bred an orthodoxy of approach.”
Tim: Hegemony is strong word – implying the threat of of some sort and the imposition of a universal world view. Large format may be my particular pleasure but considering I could only find a hundred or so large format landscape photographers online compared with, lets say a few more digital or MF/35mm film users, it’s difficult to say it has been enforced in any way.
Of course in every genre of photography and in every type of equipment or medium there will be good and bad. From wet plate to iphone there are creative genii and derivative idiots. And in large format landscape photography there is sometimes a difficulty getting past the representational and to experiment. However that is why all the large format photographers I know use big and small cameras, film and digital to ‘experiment’ with.
Rob: Of course if you'd read down a little further you will have noticed that I said "I'm not saying this as some sort of paranoid, conspiracy theory, I'm sure nobody set out to create such an environment, but does it exist as much by default, because of the structural investment in equipment and film itself?" See another reply below for what I mean by "structural investment" . 
“For the majority (but thankfully not exclusively) of these leaders in our community the illustrative is still their primary aim.”
Tim:  – being representational doesn’t correlate with being merely illustrative. Romantic does not mean lacking in a meaning or metaphor. etc.
Rob: Again - why is metaphor and meaning such a rarity? And when expressed often trivially and shallowly? I'm not waving a finger specifically at LF here, I know it's widespread throughout photography and the art world, but does the self perception of the format as perfecting representation photography not mean there is added entrenchment? 
“When in fact alternative approaches to the art exist, but as they don’t fit in with the orthodox view, they are dismissed as inferior.”
Tim: Oooh! You’d better back this one up Rob!! 
Rob: Again I'm not saying this as if its a conspiracy, simply that the constant reiteration of superiority will have the impact of dismissal of other formats and approaches. 
“but does it exist as much by default, because of the structural investment in equipment and film itself?”
Tim: … Me and Dav Thomas specced out a full large format system for under 1,000 pound including tripod and bag and two excellent L class lenses. I’d be interested in a digital set up that had just one L class lens that would cost the same. And the cost of film over a year would probably add up to the upgrade cost of most digital photographers (£600-1000 a year?).
I know of quite a few photographers who have recently moved from Canon to digital, selling all of their cameras and lenses (and a few who then went back again!). In comparison with that sort of burn rate large format – amortised – is not significantly costly
Rob: By "structural investment" I wasn't talking about money, but the edifice (some of which is economic) around LF in terms of sales, teaching, writing, promotion, books. It becomes a self fulfilling fantasy that is difficult to step away from without alienating fans, galleries, magazines etc.
“One thing is certain, as the price of colour film is on a seemingly never ending upward spiral, a more haphazard, playful, exploratory approach becomes increasingly inconceivable amongst LF film users.”
Tim:  is the one area where most people commenting on large format seem to get wrong. Just because you use large format doesn’t preclude the use of other cameras. In fact I would go as far to say that large format camera users tend to own and use a larger variety of cameras in different ways. They almost always own smaller compacts to ‘experiment’ with as well (sometimes transposing their experiments onto LF – sometimes not)
Yes film costs can be expensive but they can compare with the amount spent on digital camera upgrades, lens collections, etc. LF photographers don’t tend to replace lenses as nearly all of them out resolve the film they use.
A set of four lenses (a typical collection) can be bought for about £200-300 each – making a full collection of lenses add up to less than half the price of a 24mm Canon tilt shift.
And the cost of colour film is a minimal expense with large format photography – the biggest expense is time for each exposure. And large format itself is not a limitation on experimentation – take a look at the work of Brett Weston for example or Frank Gohlke (colour too!).
In summary I think Rob is right – Fuji Velvia exerts a magical influence on people and makes the mere representation of the world enough for many. And large format ends up attractive to magic bullet chasers – however in my experience most of the people who are just after resolution will have migrated back to digital by now – hence curing themselves of the Velvia virus.
However, Rob is also wrong – illustrative/artistic is not an either or. Large format doesn’t preclude experimentation – and large format cameras don’t preclude other cameras.
Fine art photography has a certain level of distaste for the vernacular and also has a soft spot for the experimental and ‘alternative’. Sometimes this produces interesting work but on occasion it ignores work that doesn’t fit with preconception. Like all walks of life,  the good and the bad live along side each other in various proportions, but no media or material dictates the message or lack of it.
I know Rob was being a little ‘Devil’s advocate’ so I know he won’t mind the strong response 
Rob: I don't mind the response at all! :-) As I said above, I wasn't talking about financial investment, so I'll happily accept your premise that the costs may be lower. However, the fantasy that upgrading will improve your photography is a common fallacy right across the photographic spectrum, indeed it seems to have taken on epidemic proportions. It is certainly another way of avoiding confronting the gaping hole in most people's photography, which is ideas, and concentrating on the technical and the artistic superficialities. I'm not expecting everyone to agree with me on that, but from a personal perspective I don't need to be in the toyshop before I play.  
There really needs to be a significant shift towards ideas and creativity in most photographer's time and energy. Having said that, if LF promotes itself as "the ultimate upgrade" then there is the risk that it will attract just these type of people disproportionately. Technical skill and creativity should not be confused, they are separate entities that with luck may combine successfully. The trick is finding the balance. Landscape photography in that context is unbalanced!