Musings on creativity for photographers and artists by Rob Hudson

Thursday, 12 June 2014

It's all about the work: Why I won't be pursuing a Masters in photography.

Some of you may know that I've recently been considering going back to university to pursue a Masters in Photography. I've been agonising over it endlessly, but I've finally made my mind up, I will not be pursuing it further. I've got to offer some big thanks to everyone for their kind advice and help, particularly Paul Gaffney and Tom Wilkinson who have given me full, honest and unbiased accounts of their experiences.

It's been one of the hardest decisions I've had to make in recent years, but when I weighed everything up, it comes down to my photography. It's always about the work for me, it's the centre of my life, a point around which all else resolves. And I've passed the point in my artistic life where I'd derive significant benefits from an MA.

It boils down to this; how much am I already the ’reflective practitioner’ that is the end game of a Photography MA? Call me arrogant, call me naive, but I think I've already achieved that, at least to a degree. (If you'll forgive the pun!). A few years ago I would have benefited, I can see that now, but at that time I could neither afford the time nor the expense. In some ways I regret the missed opportunity because I'm sure it would have been enjoyable and intellectually stimulating. But there's also the quiet inner satisfaction that I've already achieved that goal. I've already developed a substantial critique of photography, and in particular landscape photography, of myself, who emerged from that genre. In many ways there's not much an MA would offer me, except perhaps the ability to express these things better, more clearly. Yet as much as I enjoy reading and writing about photography it is peripheral, it's not, for me, the end game. It's about the work.

Photography isn't a hobby, not something I do to escape the world, and it's not a career, it is a precious part of me, a way I define myself. Most of my non-photographic friends can't quite grasp this, but you'll just have to trust me. It's about the work.

None of this means I will stop learning or stop developing. It was many years ago that I passed the point where I realised the more you know the more you recognise there is to know. Rather than closing a door, these ruminations have revealed a bright, hopeful future of more self-directed research, thought and questioning. And in each new series I've realised, in part, I remake myself anew. I also appreciate the answers aren't to be found elsewhere; they have become questions only I can answer, and perhaps only I will ask. I'm too far down the road, too mature as an artist. It really is all about the work and I'm doing that anyway.

A whole unlovely order that night would transubstantiate, lend some grace to.
Mametz Wood. 

Monday, 9 June 2014

Meaning in photography is a slippery subject to pin down

Meaning in photography is a slippery subject to pin down; it's like trying to define ’thinking’. Yet I'm still convinced it's a necessary element, no matter how vaguely or with what art or artifice it is presented to the viewer. It's about fleshing out our pictures so they are beyond the trivial record, beyond the postcard of ’I was here’.

Meaning does not depend on narrative. There must be a narrative, but it could be internal, within the photographer’s mind rather than expressed explicitly as a story within the picture(s). Meaning is as much about the meeting of minds, the shared experience as it is about storytelling itself. The crook of the matter is in the quality of that shared experience, whether it gives pause for thought or is a one dimensional, often purely emotional, response.

Meaning doesn't preclude emotion, it's important to assert the legitimacy of a connection, but it can be diluted by emotion, until it is unrecognisable. This isn't an argument for restraint, but to give due consideration to all the elements and facets within an image and not to rely on one element alone.

Photography without some degree of meaning is probably virtually impossible. Even without the intent to say something a photograph can, and sometimes will, be interpreted for it's meaning by someone, somewhere. It's all too easy to fall into the trap of assuming the multitudes of photographs that are shared are meaningless, or trivial because of their sheer volume.

Yet, if we are to define a photographer as beyond a 'camera operator’, as someone who exerts some control of not merely the technical aspects, but also the intent of the image, then some degree of construction of images becomes inevitable.

Constructing an image sounds artificial, it sounds like it detracts from the immediate response. Yet all images are constructed to some extent whether it be the simple response to document a moment or by repeating a visual response to a scene that one has seen before. Simply by choosing what we photograph we construct an image. The secret lies in the qualities of the construction.

If we stop to consider how and why photographs are constructed then we are well on the way to becoming a photographer in the fullest sense. But it is only when we stop to consider the 'how and why and what' in our own work that we achieve the full realisation of that title.

How then do we exert some degree of control over the meaning of an image or a series of images? It is partly about editing what we photograph and partly about how and why we photograph. In simple terms the elements within a frame can be arranged to infer meaning, but this is difficult to achieve unless we are aware of what it is we want the image to say. Thinking about what we want to achieve before we even pick up a camera creates a framework through which we can exercise discretion over what and how we photograph. If we have an idea about what we want to say we can start to decide what to photograph and how to photograph it to convey that message.

The quality of that thinking process is extremely important. It is remarkably easy to construct a simple, one-dimensional concept, but to construct one which will have lasting depth is the work of a lifetime. The work of a poet or a composer and a photographer are not dissimilar, we all look for the tiny resonances that can lead to a bigger picture.

Your fair natures will be so disguised that the aspect of his eyes will pry like deep-sea horrors divers see.

Friday, 30 May 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Cliché: The unacceptable face of photography.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.