Creativity

‘Picture this’ – how the elements of a picture work

Since I’m going to be quite busy developing some new products/services/ideas over the next few weeks, I thought it would be good to re-post some older posts.  This one was something I got quite caught up in when I wrote it, and I thought it was worth resurrecting.  If you find it at all interesting, I’d recommend getting hold of a copy of Molly Bang’s book, Picture This: How Pictures Work, as it’s one of the best books I’ve ever come across for showing clearly how the elements of a picture work together to create an emotional charge.

I picked up a fascinating little book in a second-hand shop recently. It’s called Picture This: How Pictures Work and it’s by Molly Bang.  Molly is a writer and illustrator of children’s books, but one day she realised she didn’t have any great understanding of what makes a picture work.  She decided to experiment using simple geometric shapes cut out of craft paper, to see how these could be used to evoke emotion through their arrangement and colour.

She was working with young children at the time and she did an exercise with them where she cut paper in four different colours – red, black, pale purple, and white – into shapes to create an illustration for Litte Red Riding Hood.  She got the children to give her directions about what made the picture more or less scary – the kids weren’t too enthusiastic (they wanted to make pictures that looked real) but as she went on to try this exercise with a range of children of all ages and with adults too, she found that there were fundamental principles of design that gave an emotional charge to certain arrangements of shapes on the page.  In this book she takes us through the process of decision-making that leads to the most effective illustration of the Red Riding Hood story and then pulls out the principles at work behind them.

So, for instance, she starts with trees like these one, made out of triangles (the slight shading to the right of all of these images is a result of the scanning process):

but then changes them to this (Little Red Riding Hood is represented by the red triangle):

Using tall rectangles that disappear off the edge of the page makes us feel that the trees are very tall and overbearing, giving a better sense of being in a threatening space.  Placing some rectangles higher in the frame and making them narrower gives a feeling of depth to the image as the trees appear to recede.  But upright trees are too static and reliable, which is at odds with the tension of the story, so to increase the feeling of tension she introduces some trees that lean and look as if they could fall on Red Riding Hood.  Placing her inside the triangle formed by two trees also makes it look as if she’s trapped, even though we know rationally that she is situated further into the distance than this.  She’s also been made smaller, to increase the sense of her vulnerability.

The book continues in this vein but this should be enough to give you the idea. Although the basic principles are all things we intuitively feel, it’s less usual for us to have a conscious understanding of why we feel as we do.  I can see that having an awareness of these principles could be very useful in photography, perhaps a little less so for spontaneous shots, but definitely so for those that are planned ahead.  It also offers a way of assessing photos we’ve already taken, to understand why they work or don’t work. It’s a very thin and deceptively simple book that actually delivers rather a lot.

The final, finished image, with the wolf in it, looks like this:

The key elements here are the trees as described before, the largeness of the wolf in relation to the smallness of Red Riding Hood, the red eye, the lolling red tongue, the sharp white pointed teeth, and the lilac background that gives the feeling of it being night, or at least ominously dark.

I thought it would be interesting to look on Amazon to see what existing book covers are like, and to see if they use similar means to get an effective illustration.  I found the books fell roughly into two camps – the modern versions, mainly designed for very young children, had played down the scariness of the story, sometimes to a ridiculous extent.  The wolf in the illustration below looks more like a big friendly dog than anything Red Riding Hood would want to run from:

Of course, this book is aimed at really young children who could end up having nightmares if things got too frightening.  There are lots of variations available on the basic story, some of them telling it from the wolf’s perspective, some turning it into something funny, and some that are adult stories based on the original.  You’d expect the covers to be quite different for each of  these, and they are.  Despite the fact that we consider fairy tales to be for young children, the original stories were often grisly and frightening.  It’s been argued – by Bruno Bettelheim for one – that fairy stories help the child make sense of the world and cope with its own fears and baffling emotions, and that they have to deal with frightening and confusing scenarios to do this.  Modern versions frequently take a Disney-esque approach that changes them into something they were never meant to be and removes a lot of their power.

However, some of the covers, even though still aimed at children, stay more true to the original intent of the fairy tale, and go for a scary, threatening feeling even where some ‘cuteness’ is still in evidence.  In these covers we can see quite a number of the features of Molly Bang’s geometric shape image.  This one has the trees disappearing off the top edge of the frame, some trees that lean, and the wolf hiding behind the trees, but I think it loses effectiveness because the wolf is quite small relative to the girl and actually not very noticeable.

Here’s another cover that contains a lot of the elements in Molly Bang’s image, but the wolf looks a tad too friendly to be really threatening, and Red Riding Hood doesn’t look particularly alarmed or concerned either.  It looks more like a happy game of hide and seek than a scary story.

In both the above images, however, Red Riding Hood is facing the viewer. If we were to see her from the back, it would give a much greater feeling of threat – as if we’re sneaking up behind her, like the wolf is.  Molly Bang uses a red triangle to denote Red Riding Hood so we don’t know for sure which way round she is, but for some reason I assumed we were seeing her from the back.  Despite trawling through pages of book thumbnails, I could only find one cover that shows her from behind and it belongs to a book that tells the story from the wolf’s point of view.  The wolf in this version is a decent sort, but imagine this cover if he had a hungry and predatory expression on his face.

Of the traditional versions of the story, I managed to find a couple that take a side-on view. This is one of them, and the change of viewpoint plus the fact that the wolf is made significantly bigger, delivers geater impact in terms of scariness than the ones where Red Riding Hood faces us.  However, the colours are very gentle and pretty, and the trees rather manicured and orderly, and this works to tone down the frightening aspects of the story.

The next one omits the setting of the woods, but is probably one of the scariest images on offer. Many of the wolf’s features – open jaws, sharp white teeth – are similar to those used in Molly Bang’s image.  The dominance of the colour red also imparts a feeling of danger, with its associations of blood, and the positioning of the wolf above the girl also helps.

One of the covers I like best, and find most effective, takes quite a different approach. In the following cover, all we have is an area of scribbled red, with a tiny Red Riding Hood running towards the corner edge of the image.  I tend to like simplicity, so perhaps that’s why this appeals so much, but that scribble of red says a lot about danger to me, hanging over Red Riding Hood like a threatening storm cloud, with her tiny figure running for safety.

Finally, this image forms the cover of an adult take on the original fairy story. Again we have the tall trees disappearing off the top of the frame, with some leaning in threateningly towards Red Riding Hood.  No wolf in this one, but look at the spiky branches sticking out from the trees – don’t they remind you of sharp teeth?

I got a lot more swept up in these comparisons than I thought I would, and it struck me what a good way it is of figuring out what works and what doesn’t in an image, and why.  You could take any book of which there are a number of versions or editions and do something similar.  I think there’s a lot to be learned from this that could be incorporated into our photographs.  It was fascinating to see the same elements occurring again and again, but also to find covers like the red scribble one above that are quite different in concept.  I wonder how minimalist you could get with this – what’s the least amount of information needed to get the emotion and, to a lesser extent the storyline, across?

 

Self-delusion, tall poppies, and other creative nightmares

I don’t read so many new books these days as I used to, because I spend quite a bit of my reading time revisiting books I’ve read before.  Most recently I’ve been re-reading Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit.  It’s a terrific book, rich with good advice and insight and I find something different in it every time.

Twyla Tharp: The Creative HabitEarly in the book Tharp lists her own creative fears.  We all have an assortment of these, and I knew I had them too, but I hadn’t clearly articulated them to myself and it struck me that this might be a worthwhile exercise.   Then I thought that it might also be good to share them, because it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that everyone else is super-confident and it’s only ourselves that are shriveling up inside.  So here goes – I’ll share my fears with you, and if you feel brave enough, maybe you’ll share yours with me in the comments.

Fear number 1: I’m deluding myself. 

This is a big one for me – I think about all those people on X Factor who truly believe they can sing and have talent when in fact people are actually laughing at them because they’re so bad.  Whenever a little fin of pride shimmies around inside, I get this awful thought that perhaps I’m deluding myself, perhaps – horrors! – people are amused that I think I can actually do this (whatever it is).

It’s a bit of a twist on imposter syndrome (feeling like a fraud, and that any day now people will discover that’s just what you are), but imposter syndrome is about feeling you’re fooling others, while mine is more about feeling that I’m fooling myself and that others aren’t fooled in the slightest.  I find that a whole lot scarier.

Oddly, imposter syndrome doesn’t worry me so much – I’m a big fan of the ‘fake it till you make it’ school and there have been plenty of times in my life when I’ve had to wing it and have pulled it off.  I know I pick things up fast and improve fast, so I also know I’ll actually be what I appear to be, given a little time and experience.  We’ve all got to start somewhere.

It’s fear of self-delusion that stops me entering photography competitions or putting my work forward in any way that invites judgement.  Although I have moments of it in all areas of my creative life, the fear is strongest in the areas where there’s least chance of objective feedback.  There are methods of assessing art in a relatively objective way, but it’s fundamentally a subjective thing and so I don’t know how seriously to take criticism or praise.  In the end, it’s up to me to decide whether or not my work has merit and I don’t entirely trust myself.

I think anyone who practises an art in any serious way has to be both supremely confident in their work (or they wouldn’t be able to keep going), and also full of doubts about it (or they might fall into the self-delusion trap).  I’m comforted by this quote from the art critic, Robert Hughes:

‘The greater the artist, the greater the doubt.  Perfect confidence is granted to the less talented as a consolation prize.’

And Bertrand Russell:

‘The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.’

Of course the mere act of doubting doesn’t mean you’re any good, but I guess it does mean that you’re less likely to suffer from self-delusion.  Strange that doubt can be so reassuring.

Fear number 2: tall poppy syndrome. 

Tall poppy

Once I get past the fear of self-delusion, fear of tall poppy syndrome kicks in.  The expression refers to ‘a social phenomenon in which people of genuine merit are resented, attacked, cut down, or criticised because their talents or achievements elevate them above or distinguish them from their peers.’ (Wikipedia)

While looking for quotes for a previous blog post, I came across this poem by Jane Taylor which encapsulates the rather petty sentiments of those who would cut down the tall poppy (or in Taylor’s case, all poppies):

High on a bright and sunny bed
   A scarlet poppy grew
And up it held its staring head,
   And thrust it full in view.
Yet no attention did it win,
   By all these efforts made,
And less unwelcome had it been
   In some retired shade.
Although within its scarlet breast
   No sweet perfume was found,
It seemed to think itself the best
   Of all the flowers round,
From this I may a hint obtain
   And take great care indeed,
Lest I appear as pert and vain
   As does this gaudy weed.

Well that puts it in its place, doesn’t it!!  All those poppies should just crawl right back into the soil they came from lest they offend anyone by daring to think they’re worth attention!

I’ve never been successful enough to have suffered from tall poppy syndrome, but I’d like to be.  Successful, that is, not a target of it.  But in the lower recesses of my mind I think that if I become too noticeable then people will attack me, criticise me, or otherwise try to bring me down.  I know exactly where this one comes from – if I got noticed as a child (primarily by my mother) it inevitably led to one or more of these, so I kept my head down and made myself invisible, and the habit has stuck.

This is one fear I simply have to ignore.  I know it’s inevitable that the more visible you are, the more likely you are to attract the trolls, but continuing to hide is not a solution. Authentically putting yourself out there is always going to be scary, but it’s so much more worthwhile than becoming what Billy Connolly refers to as a ‘beige person’ – somebody who blends in so well that nothing distinguishes them or makes them interesting.  He should know – he has a purple beard and is absolutely and totally himself at all times.

Fear number 3: people won’t want what I have to offer. 

No Entry, happinessHappiness – No Entry sign – image by byronv2, used under Creative Commons licence, via Flickr

This is quite a biggie, as well, and something I’ve given into till recently.  I tend to offer the kind of services that I think people will want, rather than what truly comes from my heart and soul.   It doesn’t help that a lot of marketing advice tells you to do exactly this: find out what people want, and then give it to them.  And how do you find out? – you ask them.

However, I think that often people don’t know what they want and that perhaps you can offer them something they didn’t know they wanted until you offered it to them. I often find I’m a year or two ahead of the norm – many years ago when I wrote my ebook I had to explain to just about everyone what ebooks were – and what seems suspiciously different now is what everyone’s going to want in due course, so why not go ahead and get in there first?  Besides, by the time it’s the norm I’ll probably have lost interest and be onto something else.

It’s difficult to answer this one.  I’m not sure why I don’t just get on with it.  There are a number of negative thoughts that twist together in small strands to form the thick and sturdy rope of negativity that pulls me back – I’m not sure how to position myself in the market; I’m not sure how to explain or label what I want to do; I find it hard to handle the look of doubt on people’s faces when I explain what I want to do; I have to explain it for them to get it; I don’t know how to explain it for them to get it; I don’t know how to find the people who’ll want it; I’m scared no-one actually will want it; I’m scared of the pain of disappointment.

It’s the last one that has most emotional force.  If you never try anything you won’t be disappointed and you can hold onto the hope that it would all work out if you gave it a try, rather than having to deal with the wrench of disappointment when it doesn’t.  But I’ve been disappointed before.  My life has been full of disappointments and I’ve survived.  I’m still here, I’m still breathing, and I’m still doing things.  And not everything turns out to be disappointing – heavens, sometimes things actually go well.  So why should this fear be so strong?  I don’t know, but it runs through me like the lettering in a stick of seaside rock.  I have to get over it, that’s for sure.

I have lots more fears but none so disempowering as these ones.  I think I’ll hold back on the rest in case you’re already thinking that I’m a bundle of fear-induced neuroses.  (You’d be right, but I’d rather you didn’t think that.)  Are you willing to reveal what scares you when it comes to putting your creative dreams into practice? – let’s share the fears and take their power away.

 

Are you a discoverer or a designer?

 Blossom through bathroom windowBlossom through the bathroom window – one morning’s discovery

You might know that I’ve been doing the 12 x 12 photo challenges for the last couple of months.  I’ve completed two of them, and the third is coming to an end now and, after a bit of thought, I’ve decided not to do this one.  Before I go into why, let me give you a bit of background.  The third challenge goes like this:

Build something with the intention of photographing it. After you have photographed it disassemble whatever it is that you created.
— Dan Winters

Dan adds…“Create whatever type of object that you want. It could be as ambitious as a house or as simple as a house of cards. The photographs will be the evidence of your efforts.”

My mind began busying itself with the possibilities, and there were many of them.  I wasn’t short of ideas.  My first thought was something along the lines of Andy Goldsworthy’s work – for those of you not familiar with him, he creates wonderful structures, usually in wild places, made out of natural materials like brightly coloured flowers, icicles, leaves, mud, pinecones, snow, stone, twigs, and thorns.  He photographs them, and then they’re left to decay, melt, be blown apart, or drift away.  His work is transient, and very lovely.

I had plenty of other ideas as well, from building something from coloured ice cubes and watching it melt, to making a drawing with watercolour pencils and then spraying it with water to dissolve it, to building a sandcastle and watching the sea take it away.

After a while, though, I felt a definite lack of enthusiasm when it came to making any of these projects actually happen.  And then I began to think about why that was.  Here it is: I’m a discoverer, not a designer.  I like to stumble on subjects and allow them to present themselves to me. I’m not so good with creating things from scratch, or with planning, except in a very loose sort of way.

Twyla Tharp, in her book The Creative Habit, talks about the blank page, the empty room, the white canvas, and how every artist of any kind is constantly presented with the daunting challenge of making the first mark or its equivalent.  My immediate thought was that photography is possibly the one art where you don’t have to face the blankness unless you choose to. There’s always something there to make a photograph from, and it’s only a question of being open to noticing it.

For me, this has always felt easy.  My brand of creativity lies in building on something that’s already there.  When I cook, I like to have a recipe to give me a kick start, but the end result will be my own take on the original and is often very different.  And I’ve always loved programmes about makeovers, because I delight in the idea of taking something unpromising and doing something wonderful with it.

This is one reason why contemplative photography suits me so well – it simply asks you to be open to what’s there and to see it in a new way.  (I do also like to transform what’s there into something different, which is not really part of contemplative photography – but then I treat the contemplative approach like I treat a recipe: take from it whatever I find useful, and play around with the mix.)

There are numbers of photographers who take the opposite approach and go in for meticulous planning.  People like Gregory Crewdson, for example, who builds the most elaborate sets and lighting to produce haunting, unnerving tableaus that require a whole film set full of people to produce.  And Ori Gerscht – who would have fitted perfectly into this 12 x 12 challenge – who cryo-freezes elaborate flower arrangements, blows them up, and photographs the resulting gorgeous explosions.  These photographers are designers, not discoverers, and I really like their work but I’ve got no desire to emulate how they do it.

Twyla Tharp also talks about what she calls our ‘creative DNA’ – a creative style of our own that’s intrinsic to us and comes easily to us.  We can work in other ways, and it can be good for us to do that, but our work is never going to be as strong and effective as it will be if it’s aligned with our authentic creative instincts.

For me, the planning involved in coming up with an idea and building it from nothing takes away what I most enjoy about photography.  The fun for me lies in discovery and serendipity – it’s like a treasure hunt, where I go out never quite knowing what I’m going to get.  I lost my enjoyment of photography once before, when I was in a learning environment that was taking away the aspects of it that gave me pleasure and forcing me to work in ways that didn’t.  I don’t want to go there again.  Being a designer isn’t for me, and that’s why I’m not doing this month’s challenge.

 

Throwing away the labels

Sunlit streamThe intimate landscape

I had several ventures fall through early this year, and one of them was some work for a nationwide photo tuition company.  Although initially disappointed, I feel now that it would have been a backwards step for me, as I’m actively trying to move away from the usual ways of teaching photography.  The company runs ‘how to use your camera’ courses, plus other courses that are divided into genres like ‘landscape’, ‘portrait’, ‘nature’, ‘lighting’, etc. They’re all very technically based, and the landscape course – to give one example – shows quite fixed ideas about how landscape should be done.

I guess this is what people want, or perhaps they simply don’t know that’s there’s any other way to go about things.  I’ve always resisted being categorised photographically, and one of my least favourite questions when I talk to new people is ‘what kind of photographer are you?’.   It’s difficult for me to place my work squarely in any one genre so I usually resort to saying I’m a fine art photographer, which leaves them not much the wiser and me feeling somehow inadequate.  When this question was put to me by the woman who talked to me about working for her company, I knew we were on different wavelengths.

I was reminded of this problem on reading an editorial in Black and White Photography magazine.  Elizabeth Roberts (who edits the magazine) has an architect husband who’s involved in teaching, and who announced one morning that he ‘hated nouns’.  On pursuing this further Roberts heard that when he asked his students to design a restaurant, for example, they came up with dull pre-conceived ideas and designs.  However, if he asked them to design a space, part of which people might eat in, they were that much more likely to be imaginative and original.  Roberts then suggests that the nouns we use in photography, like still-life, landscape, and so on, immediately conjure up a picture for us consisting of our pre-conceived ideas about what these things are.

Let’s take landscape as an example – we usually have an image in our heads of somewhere beautiful or awe-inspiring, with lots of colour and drama, sharp as possible all the way through, some foreground interest, leading lines drawing our eye into the picture, and that rosy golden light you get at dawn or dusk.  Mention landscape, and the majority of us think of something we might see on a typical calendar.  There’s nothing wrong with this but it’s a very limiting idea of what landscape is, or could be, and not likely to lead to work that stands out in any way.

I thought a lot about this a few years back when I was studying a landscape course.  Traditional landscape photography didn’t inspire me – not because of anything lacking in the images (although having seen so many of these now, it takes something exceptional to excite me) but because it’s not a way that I like to work.  I like to use a lot of softness and blur in my photos, I like abstracts, I don’t like using a tripod, I’m less into ‘big’ views than I am into close-ups, and I’m unlikely to get up at 4:00am and hike miles over moorland to catch the dawn light.  None of this fits with the traditional concept of landscape photography.

I had to navigate my own way through the course, which thankfully turned out to be a lot less prescriptive than the course materials suggested.  I looked at a lot of contemporary landscape photography, including a book called Shifting Horizons, on women’s landscape photography.  A lot of what I saw left me, shall we say, under-whelmed, but it did open up my eyes to new and interesting approaches.  One of the projects in the book was carried out by a woman who collected elastic bands from the pavements she passed along when doing the school run, which she then arranged on photographic paper to make photograms.  I have to admit I still have problems thinking of this as landscape photography, but it did have the effect of stretching my mind in a positive way.

Language and words, when used poetically and with imagination, can expand our minds and emotions rather than contract them.  However, when used to pin labels on things and sort them into categories, it’s easy for it to limit our thinking and end up trapping us in boxes formed of expectations and preconceptions.

But what if we threw away the rulebook – and the label – and asked ‘what if…..’  What if……landscapes could be blurred and soft?  What if……they could be small and intimate?  What if……..they were made of multiple exposures?  What if…..they could be abstract?  Or taken from above?  Or urban scenes?  Or things lying on the ground?  Or telephone wires and sky?  As Roberts goes on to say, not every picture taken with ‘what if..’ in mind is going to turn out original or exciting, but the attempt at something not bounded by preconceptions ‘might be the beginning of something – an opening up of ideas and ways of approach.’

I’ve used landscape as an example, but this is equally true of any other kind of photography.  The moment we try to fit things into a category and label them, we begin to close down our ideas.  The most interesting books, music, films, and photographs are usually the ones that it’s not easy to label – they transcend labels.  Those bays in the library labelled ‘family sagas’, ‘crime’ or ‘thriller’ tell the reader that the books on the shelves will hold no surprises, that they can rely on a certain formula to be used in each of them.

Sometimes we want the sweet familiarity of a formulaic approach, just as it feels good now and again to eat junk food for a day – there’s something reassuring and comforting about it.   But too much of it gets cloying and doing a bit of home cooking and changing some of the recipe ingredients, or perhaps throwing the recipe away altogether, is a lot more satisfying and exciting.

I still don’t know what kind of photographer I am – one who likes to cook, maybe?  Here are a few of my attempts to change the recipe!

Chillenden windmillThe blurred landscape

Trees reflected The reflected landscape

MudscapeThe mud-scape

Sunlight and grassesThe down very low landscape

Path through the wheatfieldThe minimal landscape

Poppy field abstractThe abstract landscape

The cloud scapeThe cloudscape

Twenty-two shots in ten minutes

Drain

I’ve just held my first photography workshop in this area, in a village called Calverton.  I didn’t do it alone, but with a fellow tutor I’ve met since moving here – I like to teach photography but not photo-processing, and Gill  likes to teach photo-processing but not photography, so we were obviously made to work together.

Our plan for the workshop went seriously awry early in the day. We had billed it as a creative workshop and we wanted to put the emphasis on developing photographic vision rather than the technical side of camera work, following that up by doing a little creative post-processing with the resulting shots.  However it became clear pretty quickly that our students felt they were more in need of help with the technical elements and so I did one of those abrupt about-turns you sometimes have to do when you’re teaching and re-jigged it to suit – in the end, it’s more important to give people what they want than what you (perhaps rather high-handedly) think they should have.  However, I did manage to sneak in one exercise on the ‘seeing’ part of things and that’s what I’m going to talk about here.

I put together a simplified version of a coursework exercise I did early on with OCA.  For my version of it, I made up some cards with various shapes or qualities written on them:

  • squares and rectangles
  • spirals and circles
  • diagonals
  • curves
  • texture
  • colour
  • light

I put the cards face down in a heap in the middle of the table and asked everyone to take two.  If they really didn’t like a card that they’d picked up they were allowed to put it back and take another.  Then they had twenty minutes to go outside and create as many pictures as they could that featured one or more of the qualities on the cards they’d chosen.  I wasn’t at all sure how this would go down, or how people would cope with it, but I was really surprised and pleased with the results.

It wasn’t an easy task, as the immediate area was fairly uninspiring.  It comprised of a small shopping centre with nothing much to recommend it, a car park, and a short stretch of village street.  With only twenty minutes to complete the task, there wasn’t time to wander far or to think much about what to shoot.  Everyone came back with some great shots – in one instance, there was a bit of a problem with camera shake, but the images themselves were good ones and well-seen.  Another student had picked up ‘colour’ and ‘diagonals’ and had decided to concentrate on finding red things that would also fit the ‘diagonal’ brief – ambitious in the time, but she pulled it off.  The final part of the day was for each student to create a photo collage or mosaic out of their shots, and the collection of reds and diagonals worked really well for this.

I’d thought that we might have to give our students some help, but by the time we got outside they’d mostly disappeared and the only person I could see looked quite happy and absorbed in what they were doing.  Since I believe in putting your money where your mouth is, I’d picked up a couple of cards myself, thinking that I might get a chance to give the exercise a go.  I’ve done similar things before, but only over the course of several weeks and I wanted to see how I’d get on finding reasonable shots that fulfilled the brief in ten minutes – all the time that was left by then.

I surprised myself with how much fun I had in that ten minutes, and I got an unexpected number of decent shots.  Some are a lot more interesting than others, of course.  Anyway, here’s what I took in that ten minutes – I’ve left out a very small number of shots that either didn’t work or were just too dull to include.  The following images mostly use diagonals rather than colour as there wasn’t much colour about, and the diagonals range from the obvious to the fairly subtle.  The first image cried out to be converted to black and white, as did the drain at the top of this post and the section of noticeboard below.  The rest worked much better in colour.  In all, I took 22 shots in 10 minutes – in many cases there were several shots of the same thing – and ended up with  a dozen reasonably decent images.  If you’d asked me, I wouldn’t have been sure I could have done that!

Microchipping

Jet trail

Sainsbury's dog

Kerb

Crossed

The Avenue, Calverton

Noticeboard, Calverton

My own favourite of the day is this one; I looked up and saw this pattern of leaves on a rather ugly plastic roof:

Leaves on a roof

I only shot three images that could qualify for ‘colour’. Two are very conventional but quite pretty shots of the wonderful light shining through some dead leaves in the gutter, and the other was the colourful village noticeboard.  I’ve used a section of the same noticeboard above for ‘diagonal’, and in that instance it worked better as a black and white shot as it focused attention on the diagonal shadow.  Here, the diagonal shadow becomes a lesser part of the image and the colour holds most of the impact.

Noticeboard 2, Calverton

Autumn leaves, Calverton

Autumn leaves 2, Calverton

 

 

The beauty of plastic

Asda bag 1

I don’t like plastic. I especially don’t like plastic when it’s been dumped and is classed as litter.  Even so, you just have to see some beauty in the fluid shapes formed by this torn Asda carrier bag, floating in the Marine Lake at West Kirby.  And if you abstract just one tiny piece of it, it has the look of a graceful and exotic jellyfish.

Asda bag 2

And it’s not the first time I’ve found plastic beautiful. When my friend Eileen visited recently, we got a bit lost looking for Gladstone’s Library in Hawarden, and ended up at the (closed) public library instead.  We wandered round the outside before realising our mistake, and spotted these windows.  They had some kind of plastic coating on the inside that was beginning to peel off in interesting shapes.

Hawarden window

Hawarden window 2

This is what I love about photography. Where once I wouldn’t have given these things a second glance, or would simply have been upset about the dumping of non-degradable waste if I had noticed them, these days I’m able to see something wonderful in them as well.  Seems to me I’d do well to transfer that attitude to the rest of my life.

 

How pictures work

I picked up a fascinating little book in a second-hand shop recently. It’s called Picture This: How Pictures Work and it’s by Molly Bang.  Molly is a writer and illustrator of children’s books, but one day she realised she didn’t have any great understanding of what makes a picture work.  She decided to experiment using simple geometric shapes cut out of craft paper, to see how these could be used to evoke emotion through their arrangement and colour.

She was working with young children at the time and she did an exercise with them where she cut paper in four different colours – red, black, pale purple, and white – into shapes to create an illustration for Litte Red Riding Hood.  She got the children to give her directions about what made the picture more or less scary – the kids weren’t too enthusiastic (they wanted to make pictures that looked real) but as she went on to try this exercise with a range of children of all ages and with adults too, she found that there were fundamental principles of design that gave an emotional charge to certain arrangements of shapes on the page.  In this book she takes us through the process of decision-making that leads to the most effective illustration of the Red Riding Hood story and then pulls out the principles at work behind them.

So, for instance, she starts with trees like these one, made out of triangles (the slight shading to the right of all of these images is a result of the scanning process):

but then changes them to this (Little Red Riding Hood is represented by the red triangle):

Using tall rectangles that disappear off the edge of the page makes us feel that the trees are very tall and overbearing, giving a better sense of being in a threatening space.  Placing some rectangles higher in the frame and making them narrower gives a feeling of depth to the image as the trees appear to recede.  But upright trees are too static and reliable, which is at odds with the tension of the story, so to increase the feeling of tension she introduces some trees that lean and look as if they could fall on Red Riding Hood.  Placing her inside the triangle formed by two trees also makes it look as if she’s trapped, even though we know rationally that she is situated further into the distance than this.  She’s also been made smaller, to increase the sense of her vulnerability.

The book continues in this vein but this should be enough to give you the idea. Although the basic principles are all things we intuitively feel, it’s less usual for us to have a conscious understanding of why we feel as we do.  I can see that having an awareness of these principles could be very useful in photography, perhaps a little less so for spontaneous shots, but definitely so for those that are planned ahead.  It also offers a way of assessing photos we’ve already taken, to understand why they work or don’t work. It’s a very thin and deceptively simple book that actually delivers rather a lot.

The final, finished image, with the wolf in it, looks like this:

The key elements here are the trees as described before, the largeness of the wolf in relation to the smallness of Red Riding Hood, the red eyes, the lolling red tongue, the sharp white pointed teeth, and the lilac background that gives the feeling of it being night, or at least ominously dark.

I thought it would be interesting to look on Amazon to see what existing book covers are like, and to see if they use similar means to get an effective illustration.  I found the books fell roughly into two camps – the modern versions, mainly designed for very young children, had played down the scariness of the story, sometimes to a ridiculous extent.  The wolf in the illustration below looks more like a big friendly dog than anything Red Riding Hood would want to run from:

Of course, this book is aimed at really young children who could end up having nightmares if things got too frightening.  There are lots of variations available on the basic story, some of them telling it from the wolf’s perspective, some turning it into something funny, and some that are adult stories based on the original.  You’d expect the covers to be quite different for each of  these, and they are.  Despite the fact that we consider fairy tales to be for young children, the original stories were often grisly and frightening.  It’s been argued – by Bruno Bettelheim for one – that fairy stories help the child make sense of the world and cope with its own fears and baffling emotions, and that they have to deal with frightening and confusing scenarios to do this.  Modern versions frequently take a Disney-esque approach that changes them into something they were never meant to be and removes a lot of their power.

However, some of the covers, even though still aimed at children, stay more true to the original intent of the fairy tale, and go for a scary, threatening feeling even where some ‘cuteness’ is still in evidence.  In these covers we can see quite a number of the features of Molly Bang’s geometric shape image.  This one has the trees disappearing off the top edge of the frame, some trees that lean, and the wolf hiding behind the trees, but I think it loses effectiveness because the wolf is quite small relative to the girl and actually not very noticeable.

Here’s another cover that contains a lot of the elements in Molly Bang’s image, but the wolf looks a tad too friendly to be really threatening, and Red Riding Hood doesn’t look particularly alarmed or concerned either.  It looks more like a happy game of hide and seek than a scary story.

In both the above images, however, Red Riding Hood is facing the viewer. If we were to see her from the back, it would give a much greater feeling of threat – as if we’re sneaking up behind her, like the wolf is.  Molly Bang uses a red triangle to denote Red Riding Hood so we don’t know for sure which way round she is, but for some reason I assumed we were seeing her from the back.  Despite trawling through pages of book thumbnails, I could only find one cover that shows her from behind and it belongs to a book that tells the story from the wolf’s point of view.  The wolf in this version is a decent sort, but imagine this cover if he had a hungry and predatory expression on his face.

Of the traditional versions of the story, I managed to find a couple that take a side-on view. This is one of them, and the change of viewpoint plus the fact that the wolf is made significantly bigger, delivers geater impact in terms of scariness than the ones where Red Riding Hood faces us.  However, the colours are very gentle and pretty, and the trees rather manicured and orderly, and this works to tone down the frightening aspects of the story.

The next one omits the setting of the woods, but is probably one of the scariest images on offer. Many of the wolf’s features – open jaws, sharp white teeth – are similar to those used in Molly Bang’s image.  The dominance of the colour red also imparts a feeling of danger, with its associations of blood, and the positioning of the wolf above the girl also helps.

One of the covers I like best, and find most effective, takes quite a different approach. In the following cover, all we have is an area of scribbled red, with a tiny Red Riding Hood running towards the corner edge of the image.  I tend to like simplicity, so perhaps that’s why this appeals so much, but that scribble of red says a lot about danger to me, hanging over Red Riding Hood like a threatening storm cloud, with her tiny figure running for safety.

Finally, this image forms the cover of an adult take on the original fairy story. Again we have the tall trees disappearing off the top of the frame, with some leaning in threateningly towards Red Riding Hood.  No wolf in this one, but look at the spiky branches sticking out from the trees – don’t they remind you of sharp teeth?

I got a lot more swept up in these comparisons than I thought I would, and it struck me what a good way it is of figuring out what works and what doesn’t in an image, and why.  You could take any book of which there are a number of versions or editions and do something similar.  I think there’s a lot to be learned from this that could be incorporated into our photographs.  It was fascinating to see the same elements occurring again and again, but also to find covers like the red scribble one above that are quite different in concept.  I wonder how minimalist you could get with this – what’s the least amount of information needed to get the emotion and, to a lesser extent the storyline, across?

 

In those spaces, you make your own voice

Justine Musk is talking about writing in this quote, but it applies equally well to photography.

Let yourself gravitate to the writers who attract you, pull you in, because their work is showing you something of yourself.  Let yourself imitate them, until you notice those spaces where you can’t help but do something different.  In those spaces, you start to make your own voice.

Sometimes we try so hard not to imitate other people that we leave ourselves nowhere to go – better to trust that in the imitation there will be spaces where our own voice insists on making itself known, and that if you’re drawn to someone’s work it’s because something of it already exists within you.

Quote from 11 Quick + Dirty Things About Writing

 


Influences

Turquoise wave

I’ve been thinking lately about the whole business of being ‘influenced’ by other artists. Researching other photographers and putting our own work into that context is something that we’re supposed to do for our coursework. I’ve always found that a little bit strange – I mostly just do what I do without thinking about who else has done something similar first. Apart from helping us avoid the reinvention of the wheel, I’m not sure what the benefit to us is supposed to be. (And actually, even if we did reinvent the wheel photographically speaking, we’d almost certainly do it in a different way that had our own stamp on it – so it’s still worth doing.)

It might give us some inspiration, perhaps, or supply us with an idea that we could build on, or twist in some way to create something new.  The danger is, though, that it could also push our own ideas into the background or lead us to feel that we might as well not bother as someone else has done it better first.  It’s for these reasons that photographer Cole Thompson practices what he refers to as ‘photographic celibacy’ – he won’t look at anyone else’s work in case he’s influenced too much by it.  It’s a controversial approach and if you want to read what he has to say about it, you can find it in this interview (the bit about photographic abstinence comes right after the sixth image).

There are obviously situations where you have to relate your work to other photographers – for example, the assignment in which I attempted to produce work in the style of Ernst Haas involved a lot of research into Haas and some analysis of his work, followed by an attempt to see the world through his eyes. What struck me most while I was doing this was that the attempt didn’t involve much effort as I was already photographing ‘in the style of’ Haas before I even knew he existed – it’s what I’m drawn to doing anyway. (I’ll hurriedly add that I’m not claiming to be of the same standard – just that I see the world in a very similar way)

I took the picture at the top of this post years and years ago, before I’d even heard of Haas; compare it with After the Storm, by Ernst Haas, here: http://www.gettyimagesgallery.com/picture-library/image.aspx?id=4102 Not identical by any means, but there’s a similarity of approach.

Naturally, one of the reasons I chose Haas as my subject is that I love his photographs and his vision. While there are plenty of other people whose work I enjoy and who have very different ways of relating to the world, I knew it would be much harder for me to come close to working in their style. It might have been more interesting – it certainly would have been more challenging – and a part of me thinks it would have been very good for my learning to choose someone with a very different voice. However, I doubt I could have pulled it off very successfully because I’d have been working against my own style, and it would have been a lot more difficult for me and perhaps frustrating, too.

Oddly though, it’s just possible that if I had chosen someone very different to me, I could have ended up being more influenced by them than I am by someone whose work fits with what I’m doing anyway. Emulating Haas hasn’t made me change anything that I was already doing, but if I’d had to emulate someone very different, it might have given me cause to change some, at least, of what I usually do – and that would have been a very definite influence. Even if it hadn’t, it might have given me a better understanding of why I like to work in the way that I do, and that might have had a beneficial influence in its own way.

If anyone gives a list of their influences, you can always see elements of the work they do in the people they’re influenced by. My guess is that they’d have done work that was much like this anyway, and that their influences haven’t actually influenced them that much, although they may have encouraged or inspired them to continue on the same path (which I concede is also one kind of influence).  What you never see – well I haven’t, anyway – is someone claiming to be influenced by someone whose work is entirely different to theirs.  If you know of any examples, please post a link in the comments!

To the lighthouse – photographing cliches

Talacre Lighthouse

There’s a wonderful beach at Talacre, in North Wales. Unfortunately it’s somewhat spoiled by the tacky caravan sites that line its edges for miles, but it’s big and beautiful enough to survive this.  At this time of year, there aren’t many holidaymakers and most people are there to walk and enjoy the open expanses.  One of the most photographed landmarks on this stretch of coast is the old lighthouse and the kind of shots you see are pretty similar to the one above (of course, many are lots better than this one, but all quite similar – interesting sky/sunset/sunrise, open stretch of beach, romantic lighthouse, etc).  I’ve been pondering the problem of photographing cliches for the past few years and have a few thoughts that I’d like to share with you here.

-It’s all been done before (but not by you). Of course it’s all been done before – there really isn’t anything new under the sun and no matter how original you think you are, somebody somewhere will be doing something similar.  This is especially true if you’re photographing something that’s hugely popular, whether because it’s a well-known landmark or just a popular subject, like flowers.  But the point is, you haven’t done it yet and you probably need to if only to get it out of your system.  Even if your image is no different or better than a million others, it was you who took it and you who have the experience and memory of being there.  It may not mean much to anyone else, but it has meaning for you and that really is enough to justify it (not that you should have to). And more importantly, if we weren’t allowed to do anything that’s been done before, we wouldn’t be able to do anything much at all.

-It’s been done before but you might be able to bring something new to the party. Two people can take the same shot, but it will be different – you’ll never take exactly the same shot as someone else even if you try.  There are instances where you might come close – one of these happened when I took a shot of an old window in Italy, and then came across someone online who’d taken the – almost – identical shot.  We used pretty much identical composition and framing, but her shot had more leaves on the vine surrounding the window and my shot had more interesting lighting.  The same, but not the same.  As it turned out – we’re now friends – we think and see very similarly.  But this is quite unusual – most of the time, if you put six photographers in front of the same scene, you’ll get six very different images.  The extent of these differences tends to reflect the extent of the group’s creativity, so in a group of beginners there’s likely to be more homogeneity than in a group of experienced photographers. But I’ve taught enough beginners to have seen that even people starting out will produce very different interpretations of the same subject matter.  You do have something to bring to the party.

– You usually need to do the cliched shots before you can hope for anything better. Only a tiny number of us can jump straight to being inventive and creative, and I expect even these people reject a lot of their early attempts.  Just as a writer wouldn’t expect to get a finished piece of work down at first go, and would write a rough draft that gets more and more refined with each edit, our first shots are likely to be ordinary and uninteresting.  Keep going, though, keep shooting, and eventually you’ll leave the obvious behind.  What happens is that you run out of ideas quite quickly and then you have to let something else take over.  The ‘something else’ is what’s going to give you what you want – boredom often leads to creativity.

– When it comes to cliches for subjects, there are basically two ways of tackling things. Once you’ve got the obvious shots out of the way, the first – and what usually feels like the easiest – is to look for something unusual or interesting or different.  The photos that follow are like this.  The strange cyberman-like figure on the lighthouse balcony was an obvious choice.  It leads to an image that’s interesting because it shows something unusual, rather than because of any particular cleverness on the photographer’s part.  It’s the content that makes this work.

Metallic man, Talacre Lighthouse

The next few are similar.  A number of roses had been carefully placed around the concrete base of the lighthouse, and there was a rose at each side of the door – one red, one yellow – flanking a small glittery candle.  Some kind of ritual or ceremony?  I don’t know, but it was intriguing.  Again, any interest these images have is because of the unusual juxtaposition of roses and lighthouse and doesn’t have a lot to do with the photographer.

Yellow roses, Talacre Lighthouse

Yellow rose, Talacre Lighthouse

Looking back down the lighthouse steps towards the beach produces a reasonably interesting shot because of its unusual angle and the contrast of the seaweed covered rocks with the sand surrounding it, but it’s without depth or emotion.  There’s not much I can get excited about in this shot.

Steps, Talacre Lighthouse

This one, I feel, is slightly better and has more of me in it.  I liked the way both the lighthouse and the post act as signs and echo each other.

Signpost, Talacre beach

– The second approach is less easy. You let yourself be guided by what draws you and what inspires you, regardless of whether it’s a new idea or not.  The hope is that something a little different will come out of it, but if it doesn’t you at least have the compensation of having had a great time taking the shots.  What immediately grabbed me when we walked onto the beach were the reflections in the seawater pools.  What I really liked was the ambiguity of the crystal clear lighthouse reflections mixed with the sand ripples and pebbles in the pool.  These are the shots that make me happy regardless of what anyone else thinks about them.  These are the shots that I got so excited about I couldn’t be pulled away. I don’t think they’re all that original – puddle reflections are a cliche in themselves – but it seems to me that they have something of ‘me’ in them that the other shots don’t, and that’s a result.

Reflection 1, Talacre Lighthouse

Reflection 3, Talacre Lighthouse

Reflection 2, Talacre Lighthouse