Musings on creativity for photographers and artists by Rob Hudson

Thursday, 20 March 2014

The creative process in photography.

There is generally a confusion in our minds between technique and creative process. Although the two are linked they are not one and the same thing.

It's particularly important to address this issue in photography, where all too often this confusion reigns supreme. One only has to look at the great majority of uninspiring (and often remarkably similar) alt-process genre images to realise that technique in itself adds little to the realisation of creativity. Similarly in my own genre of landscape photography the predominance of the F64 Group attitude still reigns supreme, as if getting everything in focus says something in itself. It does not. It says you have mastered a technique, but that is a long way from mastering the creative process.

It may be legitimate for the individual to pursue the mastery of technique so that it doesn't detract from the expression of his or her ideas, but it is equally legitimate to utilise technique in a more questioning frame of mind, where it becomes linked with the creative process itself.

Although the act of photographing something is itself transformative, in Gary Winogrand's words “To see what something looks like as a photograph” I find this a limiting perspective and a narrowing of the possibilities of the photographic medium. There are vastly greater possibilities for creative expression than that. It's little wonder the misunderstanding that everything has been photographed is repeated so often.

Are we really so limited in our expressive possibilities, as thinking, feeling, analytical human beings, to simply limit ourselves to photographing something to see what it looks like photographed? Or can we take ideas and run with them, pursue them through our complex, individual minds and find new ways of saying things or new things to be said? If we can’t then photography as an art form is dead, but I see plenty of evidence to the contrary on a regular basis.

Equally there are misunderstandings around conceptual art and conceptual photography. More often than not I hear people talking about conceptual modes of artistic expression in dismissive terms. There is ’good’ and ’bad’ conceptual art as much as there is ’good’ and ’bad’ art in any other form of expression. The truth being that ’concept’ is only one stage of the creative process. Starting and finishing with an idea is never a good thing, it's too simplistic for the viewer to engage with, or maybe too simplistic a perception on behalf of the viewer if they fail to see below the surface of an idea. To get beyond that stage we need to consider what the creative process is, how it enables us to reach deeper, to intuit more and realise better.

In simple terms the creative process is the application of a concept to the chosen medium. But this is just the beginning of the possibilities of creative process.

Creative process if expressed in purely analytical terms  (that feel somewhat alienating to the artist) can be reduced to perception, conception and expression. Perception - being the information gathering stage; conception - the idea or what is to be said; and expression - how it is to be said.

The creative process is also cyclical as an expression is made, new ideas are formed, new information gathered and it feeds back into the process once more. Ideas, expressions, solutions and the reassessment of information becomes resolved once more. They maybe dismissed, pursued or forgotten, but it's all happening!

In this way it's possible for the artist to follow previously unseen routes that come from a much longer, deeper internalisation of the concept. This is probably why to the outsider work can look difficult or opaque, or, in more positive terms, mysterious. For the artist it is a journey that does as much to open their “doors of perception” as it does for the viewer.

It may not feel like this is what we’re doing, assuming we are in fact doing any of it. But this is essentially what the creative process is about. To take the, very personal, example of my Mametz Wood series, the realization of the initial idea came about over a period of years and from a wide variety of sources. The more immediate starting point came from a very simple and unfocused (metaphorically and photographically!) exploration of some interesting old sessile oak woodland. I had some very vague ideas to do with a sort of abstract expressionist landscape photography that honestly got junked fairly quickly. I made some very unsatisfying images during the few days I could spare there, but they set me thinking. It wasn't until days or perhaps weeks later that I started to form connections with the images I'd made for a previous series I'd worked on, Skirrid Hill, taking inspiration from the poems of Owen Sheers and in particular Sheers’ poem called Mametz Wood.

They were personally satisfying images - more evocation and allusion than description and the process of going out and finding metaphors for the poems on Skirrid Hill itself was even more satisfying. In truth I'd been searching for several years for a way to return to that process, I just hadn't found the right subject. Being a messy human being I initially skipped the research stage and concentrated on the technique for expression. Did I mention that the stages of perception, conception and expression don't necessarily happen in that order?

I'd recently completed a series, Songs of Travel, using multiple exposures to explore our movement through the landscape, so it wasn't a great leap to consider a more simplified double exposure. Still it took me a while to realize that what I wanted to introduce through double exposure wasn't simply ambiguity, but that each layer had to have a meaning in itself as well as working with the other layer. I suppose it's taking the idea of layers of meaning a bit literally! But it did open my “doors of perception” it is one case where technique took me to places that I would otherwise have had difficulty imagining. But the techniques alone would have been meaningless without the ideas to back them up and the creatively virtuous circle of their pursuit.

So I'd worked out the perception and conception stages before doing a great deal of research. I wouldn't advocate this approach, but it was a busy time for me, so things happened rather haphazardly. When I finally did some research on the battle of Mametz Wood I came across David Jones’s poem In Parenthesis and began to find titles for my images that were in part explanatory and in part gave them context and I hope greater depth and resonance for the viewer. That had a virtuous effect on the progression of the images, the insights I sought and my own understanding of the ideas I want to express.

None of this happened quickly, in fact, if I exclude that earlier work on Skirrid Hill, it still took me about three to four months. Time to allow the stages of the creative process to intermingle, suffuse or gestate is vitally important.

It is for these reasons that I advocate working on at least some form of series or project. We need to focus on that ’thing’ we want to say, allow it to gestate within us, the pursuit of it enables us to better understand it and the expression of it feeds back yet more ideas and understandings. In reality that probably feels extremely vague, it takes a great deal of time to come to fruition - at least for me it does. And if we’re working in new territory to our previous work then grasping that ’truth’ is never a simple process.

An, as yet, untitled image from Mametz Wood. 

Rob Hudson 

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Walter Kleinfeldt: A Powerful Admonition Against War.

Contrary to popular opinion I don't devour everything about the First World War that I can lay my hands on. Mametz Wood is an act of imagination, a reflection on how a battle can transform our perceptions of place and I have source material aplenty for that in David Jones' long modernist poem In Parenthesis. It’s more about a collective memory than specific events, or reminiscences. I'm about to read its 225 pages for the sixth time in order to research more titles for my next batch of photographs. Reading David Jones’ words and making the images are a challengingly emotional experience, so it's a relief to escape elsewhere when I can.

So when Al Brydon suggested I'd be interested in the BBC4 documentary Hidden Histories: The Lost Photographs of World War One, I was actually a bit tentative. With a few exceptions the images were exactly as expected: groups of friends, officers or privates and big bushy moustaches followed by the descent to vacant 1000 yard stares as the war took it's toll. There was one serious exception in the photographs of a 16-year-old German gunner Walter Kleinfeldt who actually photographed bodies. Here he is, in the early days of the war apparently cheerfully carrying a box of munitions through the trenches.

Photography was banned by the British army in 1915 for fear of contradicting government propaganda when soldier’s photographs were published in newspapers or sent to relatives. So with a few exceptions the later, nastier years of the war aren't covered well by photography from the British and their allies. There was no such prohibition by the German forces and perhaps that in part explains the potency of Walter Kleinfeldt’s photographs. Yet he had an extraordinary grasp of photographic narrative and in the image below a potent metaphor for the futility of war. The bodies he photographed strewn across the battlefield weren't distinguishable by nationality or rank; there were no insignia visible. They could be anyone, they could be us. They were us. They are, as his (now elderly) son Volkmar said, “...a powerful admonition against war.”.

Walter Kleinfeldt went on to run a camera shop in Tubingen until his death in 1945. He never showed these photographs to his family; his son discovered them only three years ago. We can only speculate that he had no desire to revisit those experiences; and that, perhaps, the photographs acted as a form of catharsis; a finality, a sealing, a cleansing? One can only hope they did. He apparently continued to love photography and what better purpose can photography serve other than as a salve for the soul. Especially a soul that witnessed the horrors of the Somme at an age when most of us were still in school. I think I can understand that, my pictures, in part, play that role for me too.

Thursday, 27 February 2014


Below is the preface to the book: Landscapes of the Mind: the photography of Rob Hudson 2011- the present. I have no intention of publishing, it is for friends, family and the eyes of those to whom I'd like to introduce my work only. I have decided you can see the preface though. You lucky people!

2011 was the year I lost touch with reality. Some of my friends might claim I never had much of a grip on it, but I actually mean photographic reality - the depiction of ’things’ for and of themselves.

Although I call myself a landscape photographer, I'm not much interested in the form of the landscape itself; I'm more interested in how we as human beings relate to it. I don't mean man's impact on the landscape either - that would be far too ’social documentary’ for me. I mean the way it inveigles itself into our subconscious. It's the archetypes, the myths and stories that we can tell and explore through the land, the way it affects our emotions and imagination and how it defines us and we define it.

Primarily I see myself as a storyteller and just as all good stories have grounding in reality my photography has a grounding in the physical world. As it must, that is what photography is. Yet, as fiction would be nothing without imagination, my photography loses its grip on reality to express its messages more fundamentally.

I experiment endlessly in my photography, you'll find multiple exposures, double exposures, camera movement, long exposures and negatives in my work. I am very much in agreement with Lazlo Moholy-Nagy when he says “The enemy of photography is the convention, the fixed rules of 'how to do.' The salvation of photography comes from the experiment.” I know that the simple act of photographing something has the power to transform something to ’other’ and there is power in that. But I also realise that the photograph is not ’real’ and that, therefore, I have nothing to apologise for if my photographs are one step further removed from reality.

I am also fascinated by words and how they interact with visual imagery. In two of my major projects you will find I have used poetry to add a layer of meaning and explanation to my work. In Skirrid Hill I took the words of Owen Sheers and literally went out to find ways to express them in the landscape. That was the point when I began to lose touch with reality - with things - when I realised the power of allusion and metaphor. In my current series Mametz Wood I have reversed the process: making images using double exposures and then finding the words in David Jones' In Parenthesis to express their meaning. I also use words to define ideas, I work as I've said before like a creative writer, building ideas, building and deepening concepts, exploring notions. Without those words, even if unseen, my work would be more (even more?) shallow and simplistic.

Fundamentally I hope that my images, for their lack of reality, are more real. I don't want to say ’look at this’, I want to express something more essential, more to the core of who we are and how the landscape affects us. The metaphor is human, there is beauty AND meaning in a metaphor, it is essential to art, some may say it is even a defining characteristic of humanity. For me, too much reality creates a distrust or a muddying of the metaphor, the ’thing’ predominates.

It's too easy to be one dimensional in photography. It is essentially a very simple process (despite what most photographers tell you) and that perhaps, in part explains its wide appeal. When I look at photographs I want to find the poetry of ambiguity, I don't want ’right and wrong’, ’left or right’ or visual one liners. I want it to inspire my imagination. I want it to puzzle and intrigue me for a long time. If we hang photographs of things on our walls we often see through them quickly and past them easily. It's only through the depth and layers of ambiguity that we can engage our emotions and our minds at the same time. That is the peak of achievement photographically: when engagement becomes personal.

We are complex creatures and simplicity slides through us all too easily, it is the culture of instant gratification; the swift burger that neither fills nor sustains us. We want for more.

So perhaps you could look at my photography, open your minds, trust your intuition, and let me know if I have achieved that sustaining poetry of image that engages your imagination? The search will continue anyway.

Rob Hudson, February 2014.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Meditative landscape photography: a counterblast.

I'm growing tired and some may say cynical about the growth of comment about finding some form of artistic transcendence through landscape photography. At its best it seems to be a sort of art as therapy (which isn't a bad thing of course, simply partial); at worst it panders to the amateurish idea that landscape photography is intrinsically bound up with an escape from everyday realities. Hucksters selling the ’living the dream’ notion to those poor souls stuck in offices. 

The reality of creativity is somewhat different of course, there's actually a lot of hard physical and mental labour involved; there's research, self examination and self critique. Much of which has little to do with being ’in the moment’ and much of which is as unromantic as any other aspect of daily life that consumes us. 

I also wish to posit the idea that such attitudes tend to result in a self fulfilling artistic prophesy. If we’re looking for transcendence, or a meditative state of mind, where we’re at peace then the results will represent that desire more than any intrinsic truths or clear eyed explorations of the landscape. 

Sure, we need clarity of vision and the ability to focus creatively, but I'll let you into a secret, for me that can be achieved through hard work. Finding those cracks in our vision that takes us somewhere new doesn't have to be about ’being in the moment’ we can achieve it through questioning, concentrating and thinking while; and both before and after we are actually making images. 

The truth is creativity happens as a result of a ’conversation’ between the conscious and subconscious minds (or however we wish to characterise them) it’s a two way process. We need to feed the conscious mind to stimulate the subconscious. 

To be truly creative we must find pleasure in creativity itself, not hoping that external elements will lead us down some hoped for path. The path itself is the subject we should be focussing on. Where it leads us should not be confined by such narrow boundaries, romantic notions and self indulgence. 

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

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.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

On originality and cliche.

There seems to be a significant debate happening within the landscape community around the notions of originality and cliche.  This is an email I sent to Doug Chinnery who asked for ideas for a blog on the subject.

Hi Doug, 
I hope this helps...
In truth I don't think creativity works in such a ’binary’ fashion. I don't see that there is a choice between originality one minute and cliche the next. That we are either driven to be creative or we are not. We are much more complex as individuals than that, the sources of our inspiration are hugely diverse, multifaceted and complex. They include both the urge to copy others as well as the desire to make something new.  In reality when we pick up a camera we are asking ourselves to solve a problem, we can chose the simple path of what others have done before or we can chose to tackle the problem head on by looking within ourselves for a response that is personal and meaningful to us. 

I think it was Minor White(???) who said ’a photograph is a simple expression of a complex idea’ or words to that effect. So are those who find a cliched response are simply not asking a sufficiently complex question of themselves? Actual creativity is akin to problem solving, the vast majority of the solutions are piecemeal, but it's when they come together that we have the ’eureka’ moment, the joy of resolution. (I won't use the word ’answer’ here because, for me at least, art is as much about asking questions as answering them.) That surely is one of the great pleasures of life. And resolving a complex question is infinitely more satisfying than answering a simple question. Creativity for me is akin to listening to a difficult piece of music or reading a difficult poem, the more of ourselves we have to put in, the greater the potential rewards. 

We obviously have to accept that there is a disjunct between those who see photography as primarily a way of making a living and those who see it as a form of personal expression. Many of us, like you and me, exist in both worlds, but it's the standpoint that is important.  Whilst we all have to eat, we should not value what we do to make a living as highly as we do our own personal expression. The latter is what enriches our soul and makes life worth living. The former is a means to an end.

In the early Fifties, a Rothko could have been bought for for 120 bucks, now they are worth $120 million. The Impressionists couldn't sell their work through galleries, but were reliant on a tiny number of rich benefactors. And look what happened to them! So maybe commercial value is not the best way of assessing the worth of an image? Of course it isn't!

The true value of a work should be the value it has for the creator and the viewer; any other form of assessment is a simple corruption of society and is to misunderstand the pleasure that creativity brings. It is one of the greatest aspirations of mankind, it is one of the privileges of being human and can enrich and deepen our humanity. What’s not to like?