Posts from the ‘Musings on: …’ Category
Rannoch Moor: a name full of romance.
Alternatively: Rannoch Moor – fifty square miles of boggy, high level moorland consisting more obviously of water than of land, with what land there is being less than firm and universally wet.
I went for a wee donder across a corner of this last week, from the isolated, road-free Corrour railway station down into Glen Nevis; it seemed a romantic way of reaching Fort William, especially since the train journey to Corrour started at Ribblehead in the Yorkshire Dales, itself not the most metropolitan of railway stations: only I joined the train at Ribblehead; only I left the train at Corrour :-)
I was carrying 10Kg of assorted camera bits, plus another 5Kg of ‘useful stuff I might need when crossing remote marsh with all the rivers and streams in spate from persistent rain and snow-melt’. Nothing came out of the rucksack; I never took it off. I did make a few ‘record’ snaps with my compact camera, but the dSLR remained untouched all the way to Fort William. I’m happy with that choice.
A lovely day out?
I’ve just deleted the first version of this sentence … I was going to say that ‘the traverse of this corner of Rannoch Moor was too enjoyable to stop and play with the camera‘, but that’s not exactly true. Yes, it was enjoyable, though in the slightly masochistic way in which achieving an objective despite adverse conditions can be enjoyable. Any given instant of trudging through ankle-deep marsh, fording alarmingly large burns, and being heavily rained upon whilst pushing into a 30mph headwind was, I have to recognise, not in itself ‘enjoyable’. The enjoyment was retrospective and holistic; all about the location and the short journey, rather than the minute-by-minute progression towards Glen Nevis.
The sense of place, of isolation and remoteness; that was the enjoyment of descending from Corrour, following the bank of the Abhainn Rath, and crossing the east/west watershed, where water from numerous sources collects and meanders, seemingly at random, before choosing to go westward, to form the Water of Nevis and emerge into Loch Linnhe at Fort William, or eastward, to empty into Loch Treig. After a few hours of seeing no-one and nothing but gently sloping hills and saturated ‘ground’, the cloud hanging just a few metres above my head and the rain on my hat muting sounds, the feeling of being ‘involved’ with the long valley was immense, pervasive, and only broken when I met the first other people of the day, just above the Glen Nevis gorge itself, at Steall Ruin.
The whole experience, though lasting only a few hours, was quite genuinely mesmeric and would have been disrupted severely by stopping to capture my surroundings on camera, let alone by taking time to explore and find compositions.
So entrancing was it that I was able to re-imagine the atmosphere when I returned from the Glen Nevis road-head a few days later, intent on photography, even though the land had by then been transformed into a verdant, welcoming, springtime paradise, bathed in warm sunshine … Except, it hadn’t, of course; this is Scotland after all. The conditions were actually rather similar, merely with somewhat less persistent and lighter rain, higher cloud and considerably less wind. Still grey and assuredly dreich though.
This was a good thing! I was returning towards the watershed area precisely because I wanted to attempt to capture something of the atmosphere which had found me so mesmerised earlier in the week; sunny and warm would have ruined it.
Separating experience and photography
The images which accompany this article do not show ‘how it was on the day’, but they do, for me, capture some of the sombre mood of the crossing and the overall grey-green immensity of the place.
That’s really the point of this piece: to photograph on the original walk would have spoilt it; the atmosphere would have been lost to me by the sheer act of stopping and fiddling with metal and glass high-tech. Not only that: I also suspect that I’d have been unhappy with the resultant images; both experiences would have been diminished. Instead, looking back, it was far better to enjoy the traverse in its own right, develop a feeling for what made it special to me, then return to attempt to make images which at least remind me of how I felt about the glen at the time. With luck, they may also evoke similar emotions in viewers who’ve not been there, or who’ve had the misfortune to do so on a sunny day!
It’s certainly possible that photographs made at the time would have better represented the crossing itself, but I’d have missed the immersive experience, without doubt. Writing this, days later, it feels far better to have absorbed the mood of the place on one day, thought about it for a while, and then used the same landscape later to interpret it photographically.
Not a unique idea …
This particular realisation was reinforced for me earlier this week when I received my copy of a stunningly beautiful photographic monograph, ‘Johsel Namkung, A Retrospective’ and read that he ‘walked for miles without a camera, looking for places to return to. Not searching for a picture, but for a place to return to where a picture might occur’. Perhaps a strong, emotional response to a place is best developed in isolation from capturing its reflected light? Maybe stronger images can result? And I would most happily have foregone the weight of all that glass and metal on the original walk! (Thanks to ‘On Landscape’ magazine for the review which prompted me to order the book.)
At the very least, compartmentalisation into walking and photographing allowed me to fully enjoy both the grim grandeur of a gloomy, Highland day and the subsequent, emotionally different time of using the landscape to make images. On this occasion it happened almost accidentally, but perhaps it’s worth adopting as a deliberate approach sometimes?
“A cliché or cliche is an expression, idea, or element of an artistic work which has become overused to the point of losing its original meaning, or effect, and even, to the point of being trite or irritating, especially when at some earlier time it was considered meaningful or novel.” Wikipedia
Using the above definition I can, unfortunately, state that:
“every image is a cliché, all you need is the right perspective”.
I need to define ‘right’ in the above statement. In this context it means some combination of: familiarity with the subject matter, when presented as a photograph; an attitude which decries such familiarity; and belief that anything repeated too frequently is in some way invalid, or at least less valid.
My overall point in this article will be that the perspective issue makes the above, bold and emboldened, statement accurate, which further implies that trying to work out what is, or is not, a cliché is, at best, unhelpful.
The origin of this article
This musing on cliché in photography started off a few months ago in Northumberland. For anyone who’s unaware, the coast of Northumberland is well-endowed with some very fine and highly varied castles; it may well not be possible to be both on said coast and also unable to see a castle, either to the north or to the south (assuming that it’s light, with clear weather, and that you’re not hiding behind a boulder, that is). Not only that, but there are some huge and impressive beaches to complement the various ruins and still-inhabited fortifications, and these are themselves often enhanced by threateningly crashing waves and dark skies. In other words, the area lends itself both to a certain type of shot and to not-infrequent use of the word cliché.
Early on during my week in Bamburgh, staying in a house overlooking its castle, I was joking with my fellow photographer friends that we couldn’t include castles in any images; too clichéd. Except – I was only half joking since, from the perspective of someone who spends a fair amount of time on photography-related social media, castles on the Northumbrian coast have been well-covered already; I really didn’t feel terribly inspired to use them in images.
Fortunately, at least for me, I overcame this self-inflicted objection and did capture a shot including one of the castles. It may not be especially original in photography circles, but it was, to me, a new subject; something I’d not done before. Whilst it doesn’t further photography as a whole, it furthered my photography in some small way. So, returning to perspective, or perhaps context: whilst the image I created is a cliché when considered in the set of all images ever made, it’s not so, and is therefore ‘valid’, in the rather smaller set comprising images made by me. I think this is a critical distinction.
And my argument is …
That brings me to what has become the point of this article, a point reached by much genuine musing on the subject over the last couple of months. The widespread exhortation, on the web and other media, to avoid cliché in photography, evidenced in numerous articles describing how to avoid the ‘problem’, is itself becoming a cliché and is conceivably counter-productive.
A quick search and some skim reading produces several obvious candidates in the wealth of lists describing ‘photographic clichés to avoid’. Let’s pick the most commonly cited example to start with: sunsets. It’s undoubtedly true that sunsets fit the definition well for many people, especially for many photographers: they’re ubiquitous! Conversely, many non-photographers, quite possibly most non-photographers, do enjoy pictures of sunsets. Not only that, but from a learning point of view they’re quite informative: I certainly recall experimenting with how my first camera handled being pointed at the Sun and coming to understand more about exposure from doing so, as well as about the effect of the shape and size of the aperture; all useful stuff, even if the images were far from novel.
At the opposite extreme, I read an objection somewhere, very recently, to the ‘cliché’ of blocks of glacial ice at Jökulsárlón in Iceland. As a follower of photographic social media, I know where that comment comes from: Jökulsárlón is currently a very popular place to visit. That, however, perfectly illustrates my earlier point about perspective and context being critical to terming something a cliché: I would be amazed if any non-photographer, shown such an image, would consider it clichéd! Given time, naturally, the glacial lagoon and its melting ‘bergs may reach the lofty heights of sunsets on the cliché scale, or at least be in the same general order of magnitude; right now, most people have never heard of it, nor seen images from it. In other words, it’s only a cliché to a relatively small, self-selected audience; photographers themselves (and then only to a subset of those!).
The logical conclusion of defining things as clichéd
So, both long-standing subjects and relatively new subjects can be derided. To what end? The common theme is advice to ‘avoid these subjects in order to be original’. How does that work then? After reading just a few anti-cliché articles, I’m fairly confident that there is little left in the real world which I could conceivably use as a subject for an image! If people follow the admonitions of these lists then the remaining subjects will rapidly diminish, leaving nothing whatsoever as permissible!
Of course, only ‘serious’ and ‘enthusiast’ photographers read such articles. Let’s assume that they all followed the advice given. Instantly, the only sunsets captured as images would be by ‘non-serious, non-enthusiast’ photographers …. Sunsets, et al, are popular subjects since people like them and because they’ve been used in the past to produce pleasing imagery. Surely there must still be potential to create a sunset image which adds something positive to the collective pot of such pictures? If so, then perhaps ‘serious’ and ‘enthusiast’ photographers are best-positioned to attempt to do that, even if the vast majority of images will, indeed, be redundant beyond their creator and his/her friends and contacts. The alternative, taken to the extreme, is that sunsets would only be captured by people less interested in photography. We’d still have lots of them, just with, arguably, a lower average quality.
I should point out that this article is at least slightly tongue in cheek; ultimately, none of this really matters. Of course, I do, personally, consider some subjects to have been a little over-used and I’m less inclined to use them in my images; but I’m not about to advise people not to photograph them! Their undesirability is solely my perspective; others may well have a different and equally valid view.
It seems to me that the very existence of a personal perspective on something as being a cliché will encourage photographers who want to be creative and original to find something else to capture. Importantly, those people probably don’t need to be told to do so, nor told what is and is not considered a cliché! Quite possibly, lists of things not to photograph will only succeed in discouraging people from photography altogether; people who might otherwise have worked things out for themselves, given time, and become more inventive in their choice of where to point their cameras.
Is there any upside to these lists at all?
After reading the various anti-cliché sites I can only see one real benefit to be derived from them: they do serve to reveal what other people consider cliché. If you’ve created an image of – let’s not be specific here – ‘thing X in weather Y’, it might be nice to know that the combination of X and Y is actually very well known and merely original in your experience, not to humankind as a whole. On the basis that knowledge is always good – itself debatable of course – knowing about the existing popularity of the X/Y combination may avoid embarrassment.
To me, however, even that benefit is at best rather spurious. Surely, it’s far better to take your own path through development as a photographer: start with the clichés if you feel like it; try to improve on what’s been done before; and maybe find that your vision develops in a more original way as you learn to see things in the World as potential images. Reading lists of things to avoid seems to me to be far too prescriptive. Not only that, but I enjoyed spending time photographing the Sun going down over Morecambe Bay when I started out ;-) Surely, that is a significant part of the point of practising photography?
Don’t seek other people to tell you what is and what isn’t a cliché or what you can and cannot photograph; that is itself clichéd and probably unproductive. Instead, work out for yourself what elements of the landscape you can use to make images. If that involves lots of well-photographed subjects along the way, don’t worry about it! There’s certainly less chance of the resultant images being considered ‘art’ if you choose clichéd subjects, but it’s merely more challenging to produce something noteworthy, not necessarily impossible. In any case, in a world where, it seems, everything can be considered to be a cliché if you choose the right perspective, there is really little choice …
I received Bruce Percy’s second monograph book today: ‘Iceland: A Journal of Nocturnes’.
At first I thought I’d write a review of it and to some extent this is a review, though it’s a rather short one, intermingled with the main topic of the musing which is photography books as a medium: it’s a medium that I like.
I should start off by declaring an interest:
I was involved in the production of ‘A Journal of Nocturnes’ to the extent of reviewing the text and making some suggestions on flow, language and sequencing of images; Bruce even used some of those suggestions. Additionally, when I saw a near-final proof of the book, I wrote Bruce a letter describing how I saw it as a piece of art in its own right, something greater than the sum of its parts, rather than as ‘merely’ a collection of photographs and short, poetic essays; Bruce was kind enough to include the letter as a form of epilogue to the book.
So, I am clearly somewhat biased in the context of a review! I’ve also said before that I’m very keen on Bruce’s images and these of Iceland, in particular those made on the coast, are my favourite from his portfolio to date (though I think his Bolivia images vie with them for coherence as a place-based portfolio).
That last point, coherence, is important and I’ll come back to it as I think it’s a major benefit of photographic art books: it’s what, for me, gives them their allure – at least in part.
What of this, specific book then?
It’s an object of beauty! That’s not something I say at all lightly, I can assure you. The finished product is superbly printed on excellent paper and each of the embossed cover, the paper cover and the slip-case are themselves very fine indeed. Plus, the fonts used are gorgeous. I’m a fan of fonts and those in ‘Nocturnes’ are just right for the subject matter.
As to contents: clearly, I like Bruce’s images very much and this collection has a strong theme which give the book a good structure; I also enjoy the short essays which relate to the making of those images. Often, monographs are simply collections of images. That’s an elegant approach, but in this case Bruce has also interspersed the photographs with a few essays stimulated by, or pertinent to the creation of, the images in the book. This, for me, makes it even more interesting and attractive as an artefact. ‘Nocturnes’ does not rely solely on images to communicate, it also gives some insight into the creative process and, more widely, into Bruce’s development over his several visits to Iceland. This seems to me to be a great addition to – again – the book as a piece of art in itself which extends it beyond simply ‘a collection of excellent photographs’ and makes it something richer and deeper.
Photographic art books more generally
So yes, I can enthusiastically recommend ‘Nocturnes’; but what of the more general point about the allure of books of images?
I very much enjoy looking at images on a screen. Like many photographers, I’m fortunate in having large, high resolution monitors and photographs look excellent on them. It’s not the same as holding a book though. It’s not even close.
Holding a book, turning the pages, feeling the texture of the surface and perhaps the weight of it, even taking it down from a shelf and removing the slip-case, smelling the distinctive, subtle aroma of high quality print and paper even before you start to visually examine it and hear the pages turning; they’re all sensual involvement with the work which leaves simply seeing an image on a screen as a somewhat sensory-deprived shade of ‘the book experience’.
Beyond that, taking the nearest parallel as viewing and reading a pdf version on a large screen, the obvious, increased, almost intrinsic coherence of a self-contained object, the book itself, encapsulating all that the artist intended it to contain and no more, is also alluring. Yes, a pdf on a screen may have the same content, but unless you’re unnaturally talented at checking the file size and predicting the contents, or unless you study the table of contents carefully to start with, it can be somewhat ill-defined until you reach the end.
With a book, the wealth of sensory inputs to the experience of reading it means that you build up a feel for how much it contains, of what nature, and where you are within it as you read further; it’s an holistic, multi-sensory experience, not a slightly sterile one where the reading device is at best transparent to the process and at worst an intrusion.
With a book, you’re connected via multiple senses as you examine it.
And what about prints?
Prints are great. In terms of pure presentation, a well-mounted / framed print at the right size for the subject, hung in a suitable environment, is a marvellous thing, and perhaps an exhibition of coherent work rivals a quality book for overall experience; certainly it does so in terms of sheer visual impact. It’s a one-off or occasional experience though: with a book, the experience can be repeated and is more ‘intimate’; arguably more involving.
I should make it clear here that I’m not suggesting that books are ‘the only way’. I enjoy photographic exhibitions; I have a Kindle on which I read text; I use a tablet, laptops and a static computer; I even view things on a TV monitor once in a while – all those devices have their place, and if the only thing I had to view a set of photographs on was the tablet, I’d use it (I’d draw the line above using a ‘phone though!). Given the choice, however, I’d choose a finely printed book over any of those things as the best way of enjoying photographs and as the highest level of artefact which can be created from the starting point of a set of images.
I started off attempting to be analytical here but have largely failed as I’ve found myself so enthused by this type of book. No matter! ‘Iceland: A Journal of Nocturnes’ is a really lovely art object and exemplifies the somewhat lyrical comments above. I’m grateful to Bruce for having brought me to recognise the beauty that can be found in this type of photographic monograph.
A review, of sorts
Finally, since the above is not strictly a review, I’ll quote my letter from the book below. In it I tried to encapsulate what, at least as I experienced it, the book is about.
“Your journey from image inception to this book’s production parallels your artistic journey: your subconscious visualisations of the landscape have grown to encapsulate both the story of your visits to Iceland and the water-cycle of the island.
The book can be seen as describing a photographic day.
It dawns, calm and muted, on the black beaches with their isolated, glacial debris. It progresses along the coast to the sea-stacks, and thence inland to the vibrant drama of the cascades. It touches on the inland glaciers that are the source of the translucent ice-jewels, and on the rock over which they flow. And then it returns to the dark sand, this time with richer, optimistic blues as the ice reaches the coast and slowly melds with the ocean, ready to return to the glaciers.
It’s a wonderful, elliptical path through the iconic features of this harsh land and shows how an artist’s growth can mimic the cycle of nature. In this case, water and ice: same materials, different facets.
Journeys entwined with journeys; fascinating to observe and unequivocally inspirational.”
Now to make some more shelf space: paper may trump screens, but electronic media really do have the advantage when it comes to storing things!
Since I published this, Bruce has published a very interesting and revealing article on his blog describing the overall process of creating the book. It considers the organic development which leads to a finished artefact. Very much worth reading, especially if you’re considering producing a book yourself!
“Obfuscation (or beclouding) is the hiding of intended meaning in communication, making communication confusing, wilfully ambiguous, and harder to interpret.” (Wikipedia)
In this article, communicating is the creation and display of a photograph, so the following is about ‘beclouding’ (rather a fine and appropriate word in the context of photography!) the scale of the contents of a photograph – something I’m increasingly fond of doing deliberately. My suggestion is that it’s often, but not invariably, a distinctly positive and useful thing to do, for a number of reasons which I’ll discuss.
I should make it clear that I’m considering this technique in the context of landscape photography. That’s not to say that it doesn’t apply in other genres, but I’ll constrain this short discussion to landscapes since that’s what I know something about!
I’ll also state up-front that I see this as yet another tool to assist with making images, not something which should be done without thinking, and certainly not a rule or guideline of any kind. Obscuring scale, or creating an image whose scale is actively misleading, has a purpose and result which may sometimes be appropriate but certainly shouldn’t be employed in every shot.
The idea is …
My argument is, in essence, that by creating images where the scale is either ambiguous or difficult to determine without close scrutiny, the viewer is encouraged to look more closely. More importantly, they’re encouraged to look for longer. In short, an image in which the scale is obfuscated may engage the attention of the viewer more deeply than one whose basic structure and content is immediately apparent.
I know plenty of people who, when looking at images – and this is particularly true of photographs, as distinct from, say, paintings – will pause long enough to recognise that “this is an image of X” before moving on to the next. The very same people, presented with something whose content is not immediately apparent, will often study it for longer. To be brutal, it’s easy to glance at an image which is overtly representative, see it as ‘a photo of thing X’, and move on, unless ‘thing X’ is itself intrinsically interesting to the viewer. Conversely, if the overall form, colour and texture of the object is appealing, but it’s subject is not, it’s much more difficult to quickly absorb the message ‘picture of thing X’ and move on: obfuscation may oblige the viewer to stop and consider.
That longer examination is intrinsically a good thing from the perspective of the photographer, but it should also be good from the viewer’s perspective, assuming that what’s there is worth studying of course! It seems to me that I ‘gain’ more from all forms of art if I know and understand them better. That’s true whether the art in question is literature, music, sculpture, or visual images. It follows from this that studying a photograph for longer should give me, as the viewer, a better experience, more connection with the art and the artist, and all those other ‘art appreciation’ stalwarts. If I can encourage that, as the photographer, it’s surely of benefit to all concerned?
Why does this scale-abstraction help?
When I approach a photograph, if the scale of the subject matter is immediately obvious then I know I tend to look at the subject before I see the art in the image. If I can immediately identify the subject then my inclination is to consider the overall image based on my previous knowledge, not to see the image as a construction in its own right; I find it difficult to do otherwise and I’m presuming that the same is true for most viewers. My thought process is more “is this a good photograph of thing X” rather than “is this an appealing piece of art”. There’s nothing wrong with the former question, but it tends to preclude, or at least diminish the likelihood of, considering the second question. If scale-obfuscation can reverse the order of those questions then my feeling is that most people will look longer and appreciate the piece more.
Beyond that, I know that I find it entertaining to puzzle over what I’m looking at, including what its scale is. It’s an additional element in enjoying the image and for me that’s a good thing.
When is obfuscation not beneficial?
It goes almost without saying – but I’ll say it just to make sure – that if the photographer’s intention is to represent a place accurately then it’s probably not overly helpful to obscure the scale! Indeed, making sure that there is something to which the viewer can relate is explicitly desirable and part of why people sometimes use human figures in grand vistas.
This is also true when the objective of the photograph is to induce a feeling of awe or wonder at the subject matter, perhaps due to its sheer immensity. Making sure that the scale is unambiguous must be fairly important in such images. More than that, some viewers will be actively diverted from the main point, the ‘awe’, if the scale is not made clear. They may even be annoyed if they can’t discern the scale easily; probably not the typical desire of the photographer!
Context is, as usual, everything
Whilst individual images may benefit from lack of scale, it’s generally also useful to establish an overall context for a set of images. The viewer may be able to build up an idea of a place through a series of intimate landscape shots, but they will mostly also appreciate a few images to set the scene. Again, it depends on the artist’s intent: is the image, or set of images within a project, about the place, or are they simply using the place as a source of raw material for abstraction, as a means of producing an emotional response in the viewer, but with no intention of portraying the reality of the places photographed?
My feeling is that I, when viewing images in sets, like some context most of the time, yet I also like abstraction… It’s all about achieving a balance between, at one extreme, showing things clearly and, moving towards the other end of the spectrum, obscuring them for the sake of adding interest, intrigue and deeper engagement from the audience.
Returning to the whole ‘art’ issue
As much-discussed in photographic circles, photographs are often not primarily – and this applies particularly in the UK – seen as art by many people; not in the way that paintings are. People mistake photographs for reality (not all people – some people!) and see them as mere representations of something attractive, not artistic creations in their own right. As also much-discussed, they’re not reality and never can be, for many, many reasons to do with how our visual systems work and the rather obvious fact of their two-dimensionality. Removing or obscuring scale may remove the image from reality sufficiently for the viewer not to see it as ‘just a photograph’ but to approach it as ‘art’.
I’m emphatically not about to suggest that obscuring scale makes a photograph more artistic than one whose scale is apparent, but I will assert that it can make some people initially perceive the image as having more merit, and therefore encourage them to engage with it more strongly. I’m just as guilty as anyone else of seeing ‘picture of thing X’ and moving on; hence I actively like obfuscation in other photographers’ work: it obliges me to look again or to look more closely!
There are no absolutes in this. All I’m suggesting here is that it may be worthwhile to consider whether consciously abstracting an image from reality by concealing its scale from immediate recognition is worthwhile; whether it might engage the audience’s interest more? Further, looking more widely: is it worth introducing scale-obscured images amongst more obvious compositions to add variety to a project or set of photographs?
Personally, I think the answer is an unequivocal ‘yes’ to both those questions and I plan on continuing to do this.
There are many aspects to this approach and I’ve deliberately not attempted to cover everything I could think of around the whole scale issue, but any comments or arguments you have will be very welcome, either way! I should also point out that I very much like both completely abstract paintings and puzzles, so maybe I’m somewhat biased here…
Immediately prior to my recent photographic trip to Chile and Bolivia I was concerned that I’d come back with similar images to those from my first trip, a couple of years earlier; I needn’t have worried.
Yes, I’d already convinced myself, pretty much (!), in my previous article that I’ve changed enough as a photographer to not need to be perturbed by the idea of spending a lot of time and money in revisiting an area, but it’s nice to be proved right. Except … I was decidedly wrong in predicting the actual images I would find myself creating on this second visit to the Atacama desert, the Andes of southern Bolivia and the Salar de Uyuni: wrong in nearly every respect in fact. Having been to everywhere I went this time so recently, I’d pre-visualised all sorts of things, none of which I captured as it turned out.
The good news from my perspective – and part of the point of this short article – is that it doesn’t remotely matter that I was wrong. In future, at least until I change my mind again, I shall not attempt to predict what I’m going to capture when I go somewhere; I now intend to ‘just go’ and see what happens! Of course, that doesn’t mean not doing the logistics in advance, sorting out a way to have flexibility on time of day and location – all the normal photographer things – but it does mean cutting back a fair bit on pre-visualising actual compositions in advance of even reaching the location.
I should contextualise this a little…
There are plenty of places I know well, to which I’ll return, and for which I shall most certainly continue to plan shots using personal knowledge, Google Earth, The Photographer’s Ephemeris – all the various technological toys we now have at our disposal. The key words in that previous sentence, however, are ‘know well’. There are trees and limestone pavements near to my house where I’m simply waiting for the ‘right’ weather in order to capture something with which to make an image. That approach works if you’re able to constantly and easily revisit a place, get to know it very well, plan things in detail. It’s why the photographic project concept often works so marvellously for many people.
Conversely, whilst I have a good idea of the type of terrain, the compositional elements available and the colour palette of these South American destinations, I most certainly don’t know them well enough to realistically pre-visualise anything specific. That last fact wasn’t clear to me until my trip in July. It is now: it seems to me that detailed pre-visualisation ‘off site’, so to speak, is a luxury only available, or at least only worthwhile, when combined with quite comprehensive familiarity with a location.
So, that’s one reason not to predict too much: it doesn’t really work!
Of course, it might work sometimes; arguably it does no harm either. My argument here is that, for me, it didn’t really do anything terribly useful either. I had half a dozen or so captures pre-planned and didn’t execute a single one of them.
There were all sorts of reasons for that, but they came down to simply not knowing enough about the climate or the details of the vast landscapes. Those two things can realistically only be gained by either: remarkably thorough remote research (not my thing – a little light reading-up, some gentle planning; those are both fine, but if I did too much I’d stop enjoying the whole experience of making images); long association with the landscape by being there a great deal (not entirely practical for most people when the ‘there’ in question is in the opposite hemisphere).
And the second reason for eschewing too much pre-planning is that, if you’re in the right frame of mind, in a wonderful location, and feeling even vaguely creative, it’s not needed in order to capture photographs which are worth working with. I had predicted, given my gradually-increasing inclination towards ‘intimate landscapes’, that my images would be of small details in the deserts and high plains; I planned for those shots but very few fit the description.
In practice, whilst I anticipated not taking any big vista images, I took several, both for context and because the scale makes them totally alluring. As to the intimate landscapes: yes, some of my captures might come into that category, but only if ‘intimate’ allows for simple frames with little obvious scale and whose actual dimensions are measured in hundreds or thousands of metres.
Why is this a useful learning point (to me)?
Essentially, I’d fallen into the trap of over-thinking things to some extent. Again, I don’t think that did any actual harm, but nor was it especially helpful. Were I to spend a year in the area – or in any other area – I’m sure I’d treat it as I do the Yorkshire Dales; I’d head for particular places at particular times of day and year and in specific weather conditions. On what can only be a fleeting visit – two weeks in this case, and not all in one location – that level of preparation simply doesn’t, and indeed didn’t, buy me anything.
None of this is a problem though! The above is not intended to sound negative. It’s simply a continuation of my interest in exploring what does and doesn’t work for me when attempting to put myself in situations where I can capture the materials for making images. Everything is useful as a learning experience. All this means is that, when planning my next trip, I’ll spend less time trying to pre-visualise compositions in detail – more free time in other words :-)
And the trip?
The trip itself was a great success and I’ll be posting something about it in the next week or two; quite possibly two articles, one on the Atacama Desert in Chile and another on the Salar de Uyuni and the southern Bolivian Andes. At this point in time I think they’re sufficiently different in character, and certainly in accessibility, to be better described separately.
Whether it’s one article or two, my conclusions will be unequivocally positive on both locations; I’m still a huge fan of these deserted places :-)
About a year ago, thirteen months to be precise, I wrote about my ‘need’ to return to the Atacama Desert and the Bolivian Altiplano. To grossly summarise that article: I went there two years ago, before I’d started making images in any way which could be described as ‘serious’. Then I learnt a lot more about photographic image-making and felt that – it being an entirely spectacular location – I needed to return armed with my new knowledge about things photographic. To some extent I meant that in terms of technique but, far more importantly, I shall return with a different and, I hope, improved vision.
So, I booked myself a trip which will take me to all the same places that I’ve been to before, but with the specific, primary intention of capturing images, rather than general tourism. Not only that, but it’s in winter, so things should be different (notably, about 50C colder, it seems…. ). That trip is now imminent and, over the last couple of months, I’ve had a few fears of the journey failing to meet my expectations; I’ve had doubts about what I can bring back from South America in terms of images.
I’m pleased to say that those feelings are now resolved; at least, they’re not noticeable, so either I’ve resolved them or they’re now reassuringly suppressed :-) This article is about how I removed the anxiety.
So what was the problem?
When I went to the Altiplano a little over two years ago, I was just wandering about playing with my then-new, first, dSLR camera. I was merely travelling, looking at things, and pointing a camera at them. Yes, I was certainly trying to point the camera at interesting things and operate it properly, but essentially I wasn’t ‘a photographer’ at the time, simply a tourist with a camera. This time, I’ve set myself up to go there as ‘a landscape photographer’, with the specific intention of making images which improve on the first set I captured.
Not only that, but this time I’ll be using a better camera and lenses, I’ll be on a trip designed for photographers, and I don’t expect to see anything, in the big picture sense, that I haven’t seen before. All of that can add up to a combination of high expectations and a modicum of self-induced pressure to ‘perform’.
My niggling concern – I’d not go so far as to give it the title of a real worry, but it was certainly something which had come to nag at the back of my mind over the last few weeks…. my niggling concern was that I’d come back with the same shots, or even shots which aren’t as good as the first set. Bolivia from the UK is a fairly long way to go to reproduce something you’ve done before ;-)
And how did I resolve it?
Let’s assume that I have resolved the issue and that I’m not simply suppressing it. I’m sure the latter wouldn’t be a good thing, though that knowledge admittedly comes from watching films and television where ‘suppressing stuff’ is generally not seen as desirable!
The best aspect of this is that I sorted out my worries by re-reading a few of my own blog items!
Firstly, I read the Altiplano one to remind myself why I’d been so committed to going back. It re-established in me the feeling of just what a spectacular place I’m visiting. In that context, I actually don’t care if I fail to produce any new images: even if I had no camera, I’d still be more than happy to go on the same trip and watch the light change in those stunning locations. This time, I’ll be in the same places as before, but at dawn and dusk; the light will be different from last time, and it will change (unlike the previous visit, when it was effectively bright, unmitigated sunshine all the time, with very few exceptions). I’m entirely happy to sit and watch varying light in beautiful surroundings, whether or not I also use it to make images. That said, if it’s as cold as it might be then it’ll be more of an ‘experience’ to be there, rather than unequivocal ‘fun’, I suspect!
Secondly, I read my several Lofoten and US South-West desert ‘Locations for photography:…’ articles. For each location, I was reminded that I came back with shots which were, for the most part, markedly different from those I’d expected. True, I’d not been to either of those places before, but the point is that, once you’re in a place, what you see is generally different from your expectations and is affected by all sorts of factors; things like your mood, what you’ve seen photographed before and how it’s been photographed, the particular weather conditions, the time of year, and doubtless many other things. I’m confident that ‘vision’ is one of those factors, and since my vision has developed, so should the images I make from the Atliplano landscape.
Thirdly, I read a handful of my own ‘musings’ and could see how my thinking on image making has developed in the last couple of years. I’m not the same person now, in terms of my attitude to capturing light and making images from it, as I was in Chile and Bolivia in March 2010. Whether those changes which have occurred are for the better or not is irrelevant: I’m different as a photographer now and hence what I see in the landscapes of the Altiplano and Atacama can safely be expected to be different too.
Finally, it doesn’t really matter if I produce identical images. If I were professional, reliant on making new, saleable images to live on, then I think I’d quite rightly be somewhat trepidatious. I am, however, at a stage with my photography where I’m still very much developing the skills and attitude that are required: I can’t be certain of going to a place and making worthwhile images. Yes, I do expect to, but there’s no guarantee. Not that there ever is, but I suspect that many people can be more confident than I have a right to be at this stage!
And the point of this post really was?
This piece started out as a musing on performance anxiety (of a sort!), but my more significant, personal, learning point is that writing this blog is genuinely useful to me.
I said about eighteen months ago, when I first started putting my thoughts out in this form, that part of the idea was to have something to refer back to; to enable me to see how I’d changed. Re-reading those few articles I have, I can see that there are certainly developments over the period.
There’s more to it than that though: by reading my past thoughts I’ve been reminded of various things which have all fed into my experience as a photographer and which have proved specifically useful right now in allaying the minor ‘fears’ I had. Doubly useful then, and perhaps next time I go back and read some of this I’ll find another broad category of usefulness?
I’d therefore like to suggest that the activity of writing a web journal / blog, or even just keeping a personal diary of thoughts and attitudes to photography as you progress, is a really rather good idea, if only for the wholly selfish, but compelling, reasons that it can serve as reassurance, as reinforcement, and as a record of development. Only the last of those things was more than a vague concept when I started, and this is the best instance so far to prove to myself both that the original idea was valid and that there are other benefits too. And if anyone else finds value in these musings and location commentaries, then that’s even better!
The images in this article are, of course, from my first trip. I’m now looking forward to seeing how different the next set will be!
I was thinking of entitling this article:
“is the preference some people have for muted, desaturated or ‘dull’ colours a deliberate overlay of what we consider to be ‘refined taste’ on our natural liking for exuberant, saturated, vibrant colour?”
That seemed a little long for a title, but it’s essentially what this posting is about. Put another way: do we – some of us – find less saturated colour more appealing because it’s ‘more artistic’ than vivid colours? If so, then is this preference, to put it slightly pejoratively, an attempt to be terribly clever, civilised and sophisticated by suppressing our instinctual attraction to the more lurid end of the saturation scale?
To start with, I probably ought to declare which side of the fence I’m on here. I like desaturated colour. In fact, I like black and white images, I just haven’t managed to get the hang of creating them as yet; and I don’t prefer them over colour. Having said that, I also like some images which have plenty of colour, though those tend to be abstracts rather than representative landscapes. Certainly, what I like to make is on the more muted end of the scale. So this is in part a musing on whether I’m being pretentious in that … I think not, and I’ll explain why, but I’m clearly biased ;-)
I should also mention that this is effectively part two of my previous article on whether there is such a thing as ‘over-saturation’. I concluded in that piece that, provided the photographer isn’t misrepresenting what they’ve made – claiming that their images faithfully reproduce reality when they don’t – the degree of saturation is purely a matter of taste and artistic intent. That, then, is the starting premise for this musing. (Incidentally, the idea that two-dimensional images can ever ‘faithfully represent’ reality is decidedly suspect, but that’s probably a subject for another musing!)
We are instinctively attracted by saturated colour
Perhaps a worthwhile perspective is to explore just why it is that people are drawn to bright colours. Yes, there is always the argument that photo-processing software allows us to intensify colours, so we do, and such manipulation undeniably produces arresting images when seen in thumbnail galleries; but why do people notice bright colours in the first place? Maybe it’s just how we are? And if it is, then perhaps the fashion for admiring muted colouration really is a subconscious, or even deliberate, statement that we have overcome our natural state of gasping and saying “wow” when we see something bright and shiny?
I think it’s undeniable that we are naturally attracted to the bright and saturated in our world. That could be down to any number of things, so here are a few ideas, extensively backed up by no scientific knowledge whatsoever on my part. I’m merely speculating on how pre-civilisation humans might have benefited by having their attention drawn to objects or phenomena exhibiting saturated colours.
- Orange and red tend to indicate heat, which in turn implies danger. It’s in our interests to notice and examine the source of such colours. Conversely, heat is remarkably useful to survival so, either way, spotting things with ‘hot’ colours would be a helpful trait. The more saturated they are, the more heat: again, potentially a very good thing to notice.
- Fruit and berries are often brightly coloured and they generally constitute food. Without a convenient shop to go foraging in, I’m sure it would be beneficial to be visually drawn to pick out such things.
- Similarly, bright, verdant green – the brighter the better – also tends to indicate food nearby, as well as that vital resource, water. With water being so fundamental to survival, finding bright greens with splashes of other colours would generally indicate access to food, warmth, water, continued health and all those things which make us comfortable.
- In contrast to all of the above, grey, desaturated and drab colours suggest cold. Humans aren’t really fond of the cold in general, so we’re inclined to disfavour anything which looks uncomfortable.
If any or all of the above are true, then we in the 21st century have developed from people who were quite rightly inclined to seek out colour, either to enjoy what it promised or to recognise it as danger. Either way, it would be both eye-catching and attractive, in the literal sense of making us want to go and look more closely. If so, it’s perfectly understandable that we should continue to behave in the same way when presented with images of the World around us.
I’ll make the rash assumption that the above is true …
Given that saturated colour is instinctively attractive to us, it follows that, as we strive (or profess?!) to become more sophisticated, perhaps actively rejecting these historical preferences really is an attempt to overcome instinctual behaviour and to demonstrate our high level of education by preferring things which we would not naturally like over those which we should be drawn to? I’m not necessarily saying that it’s a conscious effort; it could easily be unconscious, a rebellion against succumbing to instinct.
If that’s the case then I’m certainly guilty! As my work reflects, I very much like desaturated images, though not to the exclusion of colour when it’s appropriate. I don’t think rejection of instinct is entirely ‘it’ though; for me there’s more to it than that: I have a vision of what I’m drawn to most, and hence what I like to create, and it simply isn’t primarily about colour. Indeed, colour can detract often from that vision, so my inclination is to remove it rather than add more.
But then, what about black and white, or mono?
Monochrome images abstract wildly from reality, whether they’re of landscapes or anything else. We don’t see in mono, so any image consisting solely of tonality is categorically unnatural and simplified. To me, these features mean that the compositional aspects of the image are both more apparent and more important when mono is employed. Without colour, we’re left with tonality used to express patterns, textures and shapes. That, in my opinion, is a good thing – it’s less ‘obvious’.
A recent, non-photography experience of the near-removal of colour convinced me of this even more. I was watching Danza Contemporanea de Cuba in Newcastle a couple of weeks ago. As with most contemporary dance, there were colours involved in the clothing for two of the three pieces, but the last, accompanied by Steve Reich’s repetitive, purely percussion piece ‘Drumming’, was in near black and white. I was very aware of how the lack of colour and the simplicity of the instrumentation, gave added prominence to the patterns of movement and shapes formed by the choreography. The other two pieces that evening benefited from the colours used; this one benefited from the lack of colour. I think this has a direct parallel in desaturated photographs.
Even that isn’t entirely ‘it’ though; if it was, I’m sure I’d have taught myself how to pre-visualise and post-process in black and white by now!
Desaturated colour offers the best of both worlds
I have concluded that I actually prefer to use the slightly desaturated look over either mono or colour: it can be more expressive since it retains the ability to use the colour dimension of the capture, yet also makes shapes, tonality and composition relatively more important than they would be in a ‘full colour’ image. I don’t want colour to be the dominant feature of images, but nor do I want to use purely tonality. For me, desaturating colours slightly, but not to the point of monochrome, offers the best of both worlds: it avoids an image shouting “look at me, I’m colourful” and allows the otherwise more subtle compositional aspects to feature more strongly in the viewer’s emotional reaction to the photograph. I’ll summarise this as:
over-saturation tends to dominate an image, whilst removing colour completely loses a major dimension of many images; desaturating colour can balance all the dimensions better and give a greater emotional impact, or at least more freedom of expression in attempting to create that impact.
This has been an interesting subject to think about and I’ve definitely clarified and changed my views somewhat. I conclude that what matters to me in choosing how to manipulate saturation in my images is achieving some kind of balance which conveys to the viewer the emotional response I had to the scene I captured. Generally, removing some of the colour gives prominence to the things which matter more to me, without abstracting too far from reality by going all the way to mono.
Of course, any given image may ‘balance’ better with either lots of colour or no colour; it just seems to me that slightly reduced colour most frequently provides the best balance in the images I want to create. Ultimately, for any photographer, any manipulation of saturation is purely personal, artistic vision. What matters is why it’s done, what the final effect is, and whether what has been done adds to the artistic statement the photographer was trying to make.
I’d be very interested to hear your views on the above, so please comment if you have anything to add or want to agree or disagree!