Sunday, August 25, 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, August 20, 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, May 18, 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, April 3, 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?


Tuesday, March 26, 2013

There's something in the trees and the superficial landscape photograph

This is a brief reply to a discussion on Twitter. To give a summary, Tom Wilkinson has asked ’how much is it [my There’s something in the trees’ series] about landscape and how much is it about me’? Meanwhile Duncan Fawkes has questioned Lucy Telford's comment that ’much landscape is superficial'.

I can't possibly hope to reply to that lot in a tweets nor 10 or 20 tweets, so here's my angle.

Firstly on the question of superficiality and landscape photography - I don't think that's a word I would use myself, perhaps I would choose ’one dimensional’. That's not just a criticism of landscape, but photography in general. I think we'd all agree that there's much out there which is a bit shallow. But my critique of landscape photography comes not from criticising other’s work, more it it as a direct result of living with my earlier conventional landscape photography. What I found was that no matter how beautiful or spectacular there was very little I wanted to live with on my wall for an extended period. Mainly that was a result of the fact that it was a simple picture of something, once I got used to seeing it, I stopped noticing it was there; there was nothing to excite the mind in my early work. It was shallow superficial and one dimensional. That's me criticising myself and nobody else!

For years now I have been trying to resolve this conundrum by exploring ways of adding more layers of meaning. That's meant different things in different series, but that is the unifying factor across all my various series. For me adding layers of meaning, (especially if they are not too explicitly described by the photograph and allow the viewer to wonder about the mystery of the photograph over many years) is the epitome of what we should be striving for as photographers. Not just for the sake of our viewers, but also for our own sakes as fulfilled creative people.

Moving on to answer Tom’s question of how much of this is about landscape and how much about me? The honest answer is that is neither a question I want to answer nor am I capable if answering. Firstly because I have no wish to undo that sense of mystery and wonder; and secondly because the series is about exploring that mystery and not answering it.

This series has emerged as I'm sure you won't be surprised to hear out of my Songs of Travel series. It is still using multiple exposures, it is still centred on the landscape. But as a result of two separate and yet related events it will be the new route for me for the time being. The first of those events was the time I photographed myself with the tree under which my mothers ashes were spread. Secondly as a direct result of those images I was asked to collaborate with Tim Andrews, the Parkinson's sufferer who has worked with over 250 photographers from Rankin to Chris Friel and Alex Boyd. These images haven't been released yet as I don't want to preempt Tim’s blog post.

What I found was that by including a person - or myself - in the photos I added a new layer of meaning and a new element of mystery and wonder. In addition it, for me at least, sets up a dynamic of questioning our place in the landscape. Not just our physical relationship, but our psychological relationship. It asks us to consider who we are, what the landscape means to us.

What I've found with these two projects is that they share a strong element of play, chance and serendipity. There is if you like a magical element in the creation of the images, because I certainly cannot predict the results. Adding myself to the images has only increased that sense of magic and wonder for me, because the results are even more unpredictable and mysterious.

Chance, play and serendipity have a long history in painting - from the Dadaists drip paintings to the abstract expressionists such as Rothko or more pertinently Jackson Pollock.

So if you want to know what it's about you should really address the question to yourselves not me!

Thursday, February 28, 2013

The solidity of the living

See a larger sized image here

Yesterday I went to visit the tree under which we spread my mothers ashes and made a self portrait. It is the last of the oak trees, high upon the Sugar Loaf mountain overlooking Abergavenny. If you've ever been there you can't miss the Sugar Loaf, it's the one that looks like an extinct volcano.

The past few days there's been continuos freezing fog and a little light snow in the South Wales mountains, it was bitterly cold and the upper branches of the tree were encased in ice. Not so much a haw frost, but more of a shroud of ice. The weather was on the cusp of change, and the wind blew chunks of ice upon anyone foolish enough to stand down wind. It felt like the dead were angry, which wouldn't have been unusual for my mother. Or it would have done, but unlike previous visits, I felt none of that grasping for presence, the fight for memory. The years have obviously salved that wound which death makes us carry within and reveals sometimes unexpectedly when we make associations.

It would have felt cold and impersonal to photograph this tree for Songs of Travel, not least because that series is in many ways a celebration of the landscape and how we move through it. However much those wounds have healed this will never be a place of celebration to me, but one where I will contemplate the space between the dead and the living.

This week I’ve also been involved in some interesting discussions with fellow photographers about the nature of our work and how much of a personal nature we should reveal through our work to the wider audience. There was also a very important discussion on what makes a photograph important between Francis Hodgson and J M Colberg in which the passage that stuck a cord most closely with me was Colberg's assertion that "The art of photography is not taking pictures, it’s making very good pictures, with rich layers of meaning." That doesn't necessarily indicate that we must always bare our souls, but for me one of the roles of the photographic artist is to be scrupulously honest with ourselves. And there will be times when that results in our needing to delve into some of the darker recesses of our souls, so that we may open ourselves for the catharsis of others. We suffer so that we give openly and honestly of our inner lives, as so many will not be capable of doing so. And yet, if we are not honest with ourselves and present an edited version then one has to question the validity of our work. If as Hodgson said "Far too many photographers don’t even realise that they might be expected to have anything to say.” And what we have to say can only come from within ourselves in an open, honest dialogue with ourselves.