Musings on creativity for photographers and artists by Rob Hudson

Sunday, 26 October 2014

New directions: Cwm Blaen Taf Fechen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 30 June 2014

A very personal pilgrimage.

Today I'm going for a walk, following a route (to the best of my memory) I last took with my grandfather, up to St Mary’s Vale and over to the Rholben below the Sugar Loaf above Abergavenny.

Walking with my granddad always seemed like saying goodbye, he resented the way old age tricked his mind into believing his body could still achieve when it no longer could. He would complain frequently and recount the achievements of his youth, the ease with which he could reach the peaks. In my hazy memory walking with my granddad is forever autumn, both literally and metaphorically. There was bitter regret in his voice and whining wail of resentment, a proud man looking and sounding pathetic. He struck me once with the metal dog lead when I protested, inconsiderately, that I didn't want to go for a walk.

They were quite distant as grandparents, emotionally reticent, both to my mother and her two sons. Walking became a form of escape from the tight air of that house on North Street. There was always an atmosphere there I could pick up as a child, old, stale, cold. Something haunted that place and it didn't only live in the dark turn in the stairs before the relief of the electric light switch.

So walking became an escape. Even if it was often with a bitter, resentful old man. Old paths have old memories, places aren't immune to imagination. Yet there was always the prospect of returning to the back parlour, warm, and the only room in that echoing house that seemed safe from the chill aura. There would be a heavy, lard-based tea and a nap after the excitement of televised wrestling. The entertainment of Methodists.

Many years later my mother tearfully and far from sober told me the secret. I'd always slept soundly there, at least after a period of vigorous horizontal running had thawed the icy sheets. A diet of exercise, lard and sugar would probably do that for me today. Bed too was an escape, of comfort, especially after confronting the dark turn in the stairs. I could picture the walks in my head and marvel at their beauty in comparison to my home in a dark, coal-stained valley.

I still have that joy for the hills, not the summits my granddad resented, but for the slowly curving angles of the lower slopes, the cool shade of the trees, the constant opening and closing curtain of views. It's little wonder my mother felt the same, despite her polio-afflicted leg. There was more than just freedom and escape; there was life and breath that may have been denied her when my grandmother tried to suffocate her with a pillow. In the bed in which, many years later, I had slept.

When others talk of the landscape having history, or even, more prophetically, memory, you will have to forgive my inclination to find it remote, impersonal. We bestow these things on the countryside, it's not inherent. Except perhaps in deep geological terms, or the hand of man tilling and chopping. Essentially it's Romanticism, a construction, as is mine. The landscape holds no memory, we do.

So today I'm going for a walk, or maybe it's a pilgrimage; to remind myself of the comfort of those hills and why they are the breath of life. As Paul Gaffney might say ’we make our paths by walking’, and our beds to sleep in.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

The art of failure.

“I see it as a messing around on upper levels with things that I wanted to make sense of at a deeper level.” Anne Carson, poet.

How do we calibrate success in visual art? It's a strange thing. Do we call a clear, unambiguous clarity success? If so I aspire to failure. The failure to resolve, to conclude, to be direct. Because that is life and art is life, even if life itself is very rarely art.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

On art and death.

“This frenzy to be lifelike can only be the mythic denial of our apprehension of death.” Roland Barthes

The last tree - self portrait. From There's Something in the Trees. 

It might surprise you to hear that I consider myself reasonably well adjusted, if a little argumentative! Yet there's a recurring theme in my work that rises as if unbidden from my subconscious, something that I often realise only after the fact and that is the expression of my own mortality. It’s not as if I'm some teenager just getting to grip with the mysteries of existence or, at the other extreme, elderly and facing the imminent prospect of my own demise (or at least I hope not!). I'm just an ordinary middle-aged male with good health, although admittedly with a dreadful smoking habit which no doubt somewhat reinforces those feelings.

When I came across Barthes’ quote in his personal meditation on photography Camera Lucida it set me thinking. It's a typically broad and sweeping statement and yet one that is hard to deny, like so much of the book. I started to ponder the unacknowledged motivations of what is somewhat patronisingly know as ’vernacular photography’ and of course my own work.

My main introduction to the landscape was through my mother, she had a real passion for the outdoors. Despite being a polio victim with one near paralysed leg, she would take my brother and I walking in the hills above her parents’ house in Abergavenny on most weekends. Through the auto-didacticism of Observer manuals and a sort of deep cultural knowledge that seems remote to me now, she could name the plants of the hedgerows and the ways of the countryside far better than I, now at a similar age. She passed away some years ago, and it spurred me to make my first tentative explorations of self-expression through photography. In many ways her passing made me mature, as an artist and a person. Yet she also took some of that simple joy of being in the landscape with her, tempered it if you like. The landscape became both suffused with memory and tinged with sadness.

The last tree. From Memories Dreams and Reflections. 

While for most ’vernacular’ (I hate that word!) photographer’s depictions of the landscape seem to be celebratory, I wonder if the freezing of time and memory is indeed in someway linked to feelings of mortality. It's certainly linked to the fragility of memory, but is that too simple? There's little point in asking because by definition the casual photographer doesn't seek to understand or analyse their motivations to any great degree. This, if we are forced to make the distinction, is what separates Photographers from photographers.

The landscape is death and rebirth, that's what nature does and if our work is to reflect this fundamental fact then we must make ourselves aware of it, face up to it and examine it. Surely without that realisation our work as landscape photographers is partial, incomplete and slight?

So where, I hear you all clamouring, is the rebirth, the balance, the hope? For Mametz Wood this is difficult to sell, as it does indeed dwell on death, destruction, and most of all, the psychological trauma that is the almost inevitable result.

There are two ways this can be explained. Firstly, and this is very much derived from ’In Parenthesis’ (the source material for the series) it is to be found in the intensity of the moment. That despite all, we see and feel, revealing ourselves to be alive and creative individuals. For the poet David Jones the landscape is ’transubstantiated’ in his Christian frame of reference.
A whole unlovely order that night would transubstantiate, lend some grace to.
Mametz Wood. 

In my work there is another recurring theme and that is the fracturing of time while, ironically one of the key accepted elements of photography is in the freezing of it. I’m only starting to become aware of this with the benefit of time itself - otherwise known as hindsight. Whether through the process of multiple exposure, long exposure, or currently for Mametz Wood, double exposure. Time isn't so much frozen as battled, elongated and twisted. I'm fighting time and Barthes’ ’mythic apprehension of death’ - the freeze frame of the photograph.

Who under the green tree
 had awareness of his own dismembering, and deep bowled damage; for whom the green tree bore scarlet memorial and herb and arborage waste. From Mametz Wood.

For me, what might be called artistic process (the thought processes and motivations behind the work) and physical process (camera techniques used to explore those ideas) have become linked, and maybe indivisible. That is one of the reasons I don't appreciate the apparently binary arguments between digital and analogue or the often somewhat shallow justifications for the choice. It's actually important to understand physical photographic process on a far more profound level that is informed by our artistic process.

And there's one final truth here, if we don't seek to understand our artistic process we will die in ignorance. There are no easy answers. I sometimes say my work is produced from ’the shadows’ places that I've barely acknowledged even to myself. It's a process of realisation through ’artistic play’ and that is why it's so endlessly fascinating.

I shall now trail off into the afterlife of the afterword...  You see I had to get one last reference to death in. Maybe I need therapy after all?!

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.