exhibiting – never again!

I’ve spent most of my life doing things that helped other people achieve whatever they wanted to achieve.  Sometimes this involved teaching people how to use computers or cameras, sometimes it involved moving location because of my husband’s job, sometimes it meant working hard to maintain a clean and welcoming home for my Airbnb visitors, or writing newsletters for someone else’s company.  But slowly, over the last couple of years, I’ve gradually come round to thinking that it’s my time to do something for me – I feel the frustration of a lot of unfulfilled potential..  So for the time being I’ve dropped most other things and am trying to blow my own trumpet a little.  I feel uncomfortable with this – I don’t really like being in the spotlight – and I also miss the satisfaction of feeling that I’ve helped in some way.  Helping myself is both harder and more guilt-inducing.

It’s been a big learning curve, both in practical terms and in terms of my own reactions and motivations.  My first step forward was to set up an Instagram account.  I began to get followers and ‘likes’ almost immediately and am now up to 134 followers.  I like Instagram and will continue with it, but I’m also aware how little all these ‘likes’ and followers mean.  I’d noticed that my follower numbers tended to go up and down a bit and, naively, I hadn’t realised that a lot of people will follow just so that you follow them back.  This doesn’t work with me, because I’ll only follow work that I really like, hence the up and down figures.  But it also highlights just how meaningless the whole thing is and I wonder how many of my 134 actually care about or like my work – but that’s social media for you!  (Please have a look, if you like – you can find me using #gillywalkerimages)

The other thing that I’ve been involved in is showing my work, which has begun with taking part in Nottinghamshire Open Studios throughout May, and which has now progressed to my own exhibition at beloved@thebarn in Southwell in July.  For the Open Studios I only had to produce a few pieces; for the solo exhibit I needed to fill a whole wall.  I’m so relieved I had this gentle run-up as there’s been a lot to learn and even so, things have gone wrong.

My first problem was the cost of framing.  Even if you find a cheap way of framing and mounting your photos, it remains very expensive if you have to do a lot of them.  I’m still in a state of shock about it all.  I was lucky enough to find an online framing supply place that does good quality budget frames as well as all the other accoutrements you might need for any framing purpose.  (If you’re interested, they’re called Brampton Framing and I can recommend them.)  To begin with I stuck to A4 prints, which I can make myself at home, plus ‘value’ frames and mounts.  There’s a limited choice of the budget frames – you can get black or you can get white – and you can specify the width of the simple wood frame.  They come with mounts in the price, and there’s a choice of 23 colours.  I settled on two combinations – white frames with Smoke (mid grey) mounts that work for most images, and black frames with black mounts that work brilliantly for a few of them.  The white and pale grey combination looks fresh and modern and I’m really pleased with it, and the black makes the right images glow out of it.

So far so good – but these are quite small pieces and for my solo exhibit I needed some larger pieces.  Larger prints are straightforward – I get these from Digitalab who do a very good job at reasonable prices.  However, the framing was more of a problem – see above, about cost!  I upcycled one frame that I already had, sticking to the white frame/smoke mount combination, ordered another largish square frame, and had another long horizontal frame custom made to hold a sequence of three prints that worked well together.  But I had been asked to produce a large statement piece.  I had the idea of upcycling a very large, professionally made frame that I already had and which contained a print that I didn’t particularly like, which seemed like a good idea at the time but turned into a bit of a disaster.

First I had to take it apart.  Peeling the tape off the back and scraping the remnants of it from the wood, took quite a while.  I bent back the metal pins, and managed to get the backboard out, but the mount and print wouldn’t budge.  After some closer examination, I realised that the mount/print had been taped to the glass in a kind of sandwich.  With a bit of help I managed to run a knife round the edge and cut through the tape binding them together, eventually removing the mount/print.  Next the glass, but it wouldn’t budge – it almost looked like the metal pins had been put in after the glass and it was obviously going to be impossible to get the glass out.  Never mind, I thought, I’ll paint it with the glass in place, although this was going to be a slightly precarious exercise as the frame was so big that the glass was very vulnerable to breaking.

In the meantime, my larger prints arrived, having taken quite a bit longer than usual.  On trying out the largest print with the mount and the frame, I found that somehow the mount had been cut about 3mm larger than it should have been and didn’t fit the frame.  That was fairly easily solved and I used a sharp craft knife to trim the edges.  However the aperture in the centre, which should have been about 3mm smaller than the print, was exactly the same size and the print was falling through.  I have no idea whose fault this was – I thought I’d been very careful with measurements, but I’m notoriously bad at measuring things so it might well have been down to me.  I solved this problem by sticking the print to a much larger piece of paper and then fixing the whole thing to the back of the mount – not ideal, very amateurish and I wouldn’t sell it like this, but it got the job done and looked fine.

I was on the home stretch by this time, but panicking wildly as I only had a few hours left to get it all together as the prints only arrived the day before I was due to hang. (Please note: this whole story is a great example of how NOT to prepare for an exhibition)  The masking tape I used to protect the glass had stuck to the paint on the frame, so I had to run a sharp knife around it to get it off cleanly.  Finally, and with great relief, I placed the mount/print in the frame and tried to insert the backing board.  It was really tight and I struggled to get it in, and while I was doing this the glass – the glass that no way would come out of the frame when I tried – came partially out of the frame.  And I couldn’t get it back in.  You may have guessed the rest – I got all of it in except for one corner which refused to budge, and of course it ended up breaking.  There was nothing I could do except take along the rest of the work and promise to sort something out regarding the big piece.

Blue leaf reflection

Disasters aside, choosing which images to show has been really difficult.  First off, there’s context – my work is being shown in a space that’s half gallery, half craft/gift shop, so it needs to have some commercial appeal while at the same time being images that I feel happy with and that are representative of my work.  The second and more difficult issue is that I tend to work in series, or themes.  This means that a lot of what I do doesn’t terribly lend itself to showcasing single shots – the whole is greater than the sum of the parts and would be better displayed as a book or slideshow.  Also, some of the work I’m best pleased with is unlikely to be popular with viewers and buyers – eg, I’ve done a lot of recent photography in Newark Cemetery and people don’t really want photos of gravestones on their walls.  I wouldn’t, either!

This has forced me to go back in time for a lot of the images I’ve used.  However, what I’ve done is reworked many of them as my skills in post-processing and my access to useful software have both increased since these were taken.  It also makes them feel fresher to me and rekindles my interest in them. And while, at the time, I was still adhering to the ‘least processing necessary’ view, I now don’t care about that and am only interested in the final result.  It doesn’t matter to me how I get there and I feel I’m moving towards what might be called photo-based art rather than photography, the latter raising all sorts of expectations in people’s minds that I don’t always fulfill.

This whole process has been – at varying times – frustrating, enlightening, infuriating, motivating, panic-inducing and educational.  There have been times when I wish I’d never started on it.  However, it does feel good to see my work nicely presented, on a wall where other people can look at it.  I’ve learned an awful lot from the process.  I haven’t managed to fill a great deal of space even though it’s cost me more than I can really afford, but I now have a basis for building on and adding more work.  I’m glad I did it – but I’m not in any hurry to do it again…….

If you’re in the area, you can see my pictures at beloved@thebarn, King Street, Southwell, Notts, NG25 0EH, from now until the end of July 2018.  The gallery is open Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.




a photographer’s miscellany

Reflection on River Trent, NewarkLots of bits and pieces this week, plus a few images that I like with but about which I don’t have a great deal to say.  To start with the images, they were taken by the road bridge over the River Trent in Newark where, on a sunny day, there’s a reflection in the water of the metal posts that fence the road up above.  When the ducks swim through it the reflections get swirled around and this zebra effect is created.  This appeals to me greatly, and that’s really all there is to to say………….

We visited Connected 2016 this weekend, an annual photography exhibition which is on at Patchings Art Centre in Notts till May 21st.  I would have been going anyway, but when I saw the poster advertising it I realised that a photographer whose work I’ve been following for a while was going to be giving a talk at the Launch Event, so that made it an absolute must.  If you haven’t come across Vanda Ralevska, she creates wonderful and very individual images and is currently doing a 366 project on her blog.  I find it hard enough doing my rather more modest 52 Trees project, and how she manages to maintain such a high standard on a daily basis, I really don’t know. I got to meet Vanda, who is a very lovely lady, and her talk was excellent – funny, fresh, interesting and hugely enjoyable.  There was also a talk by Guy Aubertin, who himself creates beautiful landscape photos.  If you’re in the area a visit to the exhibition is well worth it – the standard is high, and the work varied.

I’ve been interested for a long time in methods for teaching the creative side of photography, and Sean Kernan’s approach is unusual, to say the least.  He uses theatrical exercises to give people the experience of cultivating awareness without analysis,  and the exercise in the video below (which has a number of professional dancers taking part) is a lot of fun to watch.

Alison_Sean class from Sean Kernan on Vimeo.

Kernan is also an amazing photographer and well worth checking out.  I came to his work through his still life series Secret Books, which were like nothing I’d ever seen before.

The video above reminds me of reading John Daido Loori’s account of going on a workshop in 1980 with Minor White – someone well known for his unorthodox photographic teaching methods.  Students were expected to get up at 4.00am and participate in dance and meditation exercises, and were often not allowed to pick up their cameras till after a day or two of this had passed.  Loori, at the time, thought this was ridiculous and nearly stormed out; however he was persuaded to stay and came to see the value in White’s approach by the time he finished the workshop.  You can read his account of this in The Zen of Creativity: Cultivating Your Artistic Life.

Moving on, I came across an article called Why Typical Preschool Crafts are a Total Waste of Time.  The main thrust of the article is that these crafts are both too ‘ready-made’ and thus about as creative as painting by numbers, and more importantly, that they put too much emphasis on the end product rather than the process.  By doing this, the article claims, we’re indoctrinating young children in the belief that you must have something to show for any time you spend on creative pursuits.  There’s a parallel here in that so much emphasis is put on the images we manage to ‘capture’ and not enough on what the process of photographing does for us in itself.  After all, even if you don’t catch a fish, going fishing can still be rewarding.

As someone who can procrastinate with the best of them, I really liked this article’s take on how to use it to your advantage, and found it quite amusing:  ‘All procrastinators put off things they have to do.  Structured Procrastination is the art of making this bad trait work for you.’

The key idea is that procrastinating does not mean doing absolutely nothing. Procrastinators seldom do absolutely nothing; they do marginally useful things, like gardening or sharpening pencils or making a diagram of how they will reorganize their files when they get around to it. Why does the procrastinator do these things? Because they are a way of not doing something more important. If all the procrastinator had left to do was to sharpen some pencils, no force on earth could get him do it. However, the procrastinator can be motivated to do difficult, timely and important tasks, as long as these tasks are a way of not doing something more important.

I have never kept a photography sketchbook.  We were encouraged to do this when I was studying photography, but a blog was thought to be an acceptable alternative.  I kept the blog, which has morphed into the one you’re reading now, but I’m wondering if I’ve missed a trick in not keeping a more tangible and less public sketchbook where I could explore ideas and keep a record of them.  These examples of photography students’ sketchbooks make me want to join in.

One of the first books I read that introduced me to the idea that photography was about a whole lot more than the camera, was Freeman Patterson’s Photography and the Art of Seeing.  I loved this book, still re-read it regularly, and think it should probably be required reading for every photographer.  This interview with Patterson is long and dates back a bit, but well worth reading through to the end.  Patterson is another person whose photography teaching goes far beyond the usual ‘this is how your camera works’ style of classes.  Here he is, talking about the kind of assignments he gives to his students, each one individually designed for that particular student:

…..one person might be given a white sheet and asked to photograph it as a landscape; somebody else might be given the topic ‘outer space’.  We don’t care how they deal with it.  Someone else might be given a colourful shirt and told to photograph it, but only in water.  One of my favourite assignments, and I’ve only given it two or three times, is the Joseph Campbell quote “the privilege of a lifetime is being who you are”.  We gave it to a guy this week from near Chicago and it was just one of those intuitive things.  We could tell this guy was experiencing a period of real personal liberation, and he really carried that assignment off, it was beautiful to see what he did.

And on that note, I leave you with some more zebra-patterned water:

Reflections, River Trent, Newark

Zebra stripe reflections, River Trent, Newark

Zebra stripe reflections, River Trent, Newark

What it looked like before the ducks swam through:

Reflections, River Trent, Newark



The Wave and Bill Viola – Yorkshire Sculpture Park

The Wave, Yorkshire Sculpture Park

I so wanted to see the poppy installation when it was at the Tower of London, but never managed to get there.  A part of it, though – the Wave – is now at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and we made a visit there last week.  It’s small in comparison – around 5,000 poppies compared to 888,246 at the Tower – but still impressive.  The poppies pour down from a small stone bridge, spilling into the water at the bottom, and the setting works well.

Unfortunately it was a dull grey day with uninteresting light, plus a lot of other people on site, so getting decent photos of it wasn’t easy.  To be honest, I felt a little bit flat on seeing it.  From a distance it looked fantastic – a flow of bright red in the greyish landscape- but close up it lacked something.  The coach parties of visitors didn’t help – I would have liked to spend time with it alone, tuning in to its real meaning.  I took some photos nonetheless, and quite like some of the close-up details.

The Wave, poppies, Yorkshire Sculpture Park

The Wave, poppies, Yorkshire Sculpture Park

The Wave, poppies, Yorkshire Sculpture Park

The Wave, poppies, Yorkshire Sculpture Park

I think perhaps the poppies paled into insignificance for me after viewing the Bill Viola exhibition first (also on at the YSP).  Bill Viola is a video artist – or as he prefers it, an artist who happens to use video.  Now, I usually find video art very unappealing, but there are a few exceptions – Tacita Dean’s installation in the Tate Turbine Hall, for example, and something I once saw in an art gallery in Reykjavik although I can’t remember what it was.  Even then, they don’t touch my soul in the way that a lot of other art does.  Bill Viola, though, is my new art crush.

I can only tell you about it here, because although there are plenty of videos on Youtube showing his major works, they’re badly-recorded phone camera jobs that aren’t even a pale imitation of seeing the real thing and would probably make you think he’s not worth bothering about.  A lot of this is because Viola’s films are exceptionally and beautifully sharp and detailed, and shown very, very big.  Much of their impact lies in the clear, sharp, detail, coupled with the extreme slowing down of the ‘action’ which is his trademark.

I first came across Viola years ago, when I was taken along to what I think was his Quintet Series 2000 exhibition.  I wasn’t as into art then as I am now, and I didn’t have much understanding of it either, but I knew quality when I saw it.  However, I found this work quite hard to take as it involved huge close-up videos of five actor’s faces in exquisite – and sometimes excruciating – slow motion as they experienced a variety of mostly negative emotions.  I often feel very uncomfortable looking at faces this closely, and I found it difficult to watch the minute nuances of anguish on someone’s face over a period of what felt like hours, although it was actually minutes.  It was very, very good, but I simply couldn’t watch it for long.

However, much of Viola’s work is centred around water and fire, and these were the pieces that did it for me at the YSP.  Two of them were created to act as backdrops for a production of the opera Tristan and Isolde.  One of these, Ascension, starts with a pale, draped figure lying prone on a white plinth.  Gently at first, a column of water begins to pour upwards from the figure, getting ‘heavier’ and ‘heavier’, till there are water drops bouncing off the plinth and waves developing in the water around it.  Then slowly the figure begins to ascend towards the source of the deluge, finally disappearing, and the water slowly decreases again till it’s nothing more than mist.  Its accompanying film, Fire Woman, begins with the silhouette of a woman against a huge wall of flame.  Eventually she begins to move, slowly, until she dives into a pool of water in front of her and the water splash rises up in front of the flames, to fall back into the fire-reflecting ripples of the water.  Both videos had soundtracks, of the pouring water or the crackling fire, and were shown several times larger than lifesize.  Everything happens in slow motion, and is meditative, stunningly beautiful, and awe-inspiring.

There were many more of Viola’s works to see, all of them quite amazing and many of them somewhat more complex than the two I’ve described.  The whole point about them, though, is that like the best art they manage to express ideas and feelings that can’t be put into words, and so to attempt to describe them rather misses the point.  There’s a meditative quality to all his work that draws you into it and won’t let go, and it’s difficult to get across something so intangible.  All I can say is, if you’re in the vicinity, go and see it!

Resources: I eventually found a half decent video of Fire Woman on Vimeo.  Just bear in mind, if you watch it, that when shown as intended the screen is twice as high as an average interior wall and a small video loses most of the impact, as you can’t see the subtle detail.  The woman doesn’t begin to move until three minutes in, and doesn’t dive until nearly four minutes in, but this doesn’t matter when you see it really big – it’s enthralling enough to hold you even though not much is happening.

Fire Woman by Bill Viola

And if you’d prefer something shorter, here’s a 45 second trailer for the YSP exhibition, which shows a few of the works very briefly, including Ascension:

Bill Viola at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park


On photographing the landscape

Wye Valley, walkerLone walker in the Wye Valley – if you can’t see him, click for a larger view!

Another very ‘linky’ post this week, but it demanded to be written! The last week or two has seen a surprising number of landscape-related things land in my inbox.  The first was Geoff Harris’ article on why landscape photography is often so boring and predictable, with hundreds of images all looking much the same.

“It seems as if many enthusiast photographers (and some of the more predictable professionals) have internalised a landscape photography checklist which they feel they always need to follow. First, they head to the coast, or popular beauty spots. Then there needs to be some of kind of rocks or boulders in the foreground to lead in the eye, then the depth of field needs to stretch to infinity.

This is often balanced by water and sea shot at long exposures, so it looks glassy or milky, and heavily filtered skies that look so apocalyptic, you expect the accusing finger of God to point down through the clouds………A layer of HDR varnish is sometimes applied by cruder exponents of this style, or the golden hour colours ‘lysergically’ cranked up in software.”

Harris does concede that this style of photography is not easy – it’s very demanding technically, and sometimes even physically when it entails rising before dawn and walking miles to get to the right spot – but he argues that there’s little personal expression in the resulting images, and there’s a danger that satisfying the technical and compositional requirements becomes an end in itself.  He calls for more originality in landscape photographs.

Harris goes on to talk about an exhibition local to me, in Southwell Minster, called Masters of Light, which he feels transcends the traditional landscape.  I went to this myself a few weeks ago, and was blown away by the quality and originality of the work there.  You can see several examples of it in Harris’ article.  There were seven photographers exhibiting, and although a couple of them were showing a very traditional style of landscape image, these had something that lifted them above the crowd, and they were anything but dull and predictable.  Of the rest, two photographers really pushed the boundaries of photography – Valda Bailey (whose work I love) and Paul Kenny – and the others spanned the spectrum between these extremes.  It was one of the best exhibitions I’ve seen for a long time, and showed beyond doubt that landscape photography can be varied, interesting, and exciting.

One of the participating photographers, Mark Littlejohn, was Landscape Photographer of the Year 2014, winning it with an image of Glencoe that stands apart from the traditional views.  I grew up in Scotland, spent a lot of time in the Highlands, and to me this image ‘says’ Glencoe in a way that the other classic views I’ve seen of it never have – it’s a place of dark rock, grim beauty, and falling water, and most images romanticise it and fail to express the slightly menacing feel of the place.  Littlejohn has written an interesting article for On Landscape online photography magazine that explains his approach to photographing landscape and displays some of his work.  The full article can only be read by subscribing to the magazine, but there’s a fairish chunk of it available free.

A link to this year’s Landscape Photographer of the Year winners then appeared in my inbox.  This has often been a bastion of the traditional landscape view, but I noticed with pleasure that a large number of this year’s winners have moved a long way away from this.  An image by one of my favourite photographers – Caroline Fraser – was included in the top 101, and it’s a double exposure which is wonderfully unlike the sort of thing we’ve come to expect.  She’s written a blog post telling the story of how it came about.

Sarah Merino has compiled a list of 200+ women landscape and nature photographers.  Female landscape photographers, on the whole, would much prefer to be known as landscape photographers who just happen to be women, and whose work is assessed on its own merit, but it’s a fact that women are under-represented at the top levels in this field.  Some of this may be the common female reluctance to push ourselves forward, but there’s almost certainly more to it than that.  (You can read more about this under-representation in Merino’s article, along with her reasons for compiling the list.)

It takes a lot of time to work your way through more than two hundred links.  I’ve been doing it in chunks since I received the article, and still have many to go.  I thought it might be a nice idea to sift out the photographers that stand out for me, and give links to a few at a time over the course of the next few weeks.  I’ll make a start at the end of this post.

Finally, I’ve just come across another couple of events featuring women in photography.  The Tate is holding a conference in November entitled Fast Forward: Women in Photography which ‘explores the complex and dynamic evolution of the history of women in photography, from early commercial practices, to the impact of World War II on women and their work, to reframing the role of the archive’.  And the Oxo Tower in London is holding an exhibition called Mistresses of Light – I do feel it could have been better titled, but it features some of the best and most interesting female landscape photographers around.  It runs from 9th-13th September and if I could get there, I would.


200+ Women Landscape Photographers – a selection from Sarah Merino’s list

This is a very personal selection which won’t reflect everyone’s tastes.  Everyone on the 200+ list is worth looking at and many of the photographers not featured here are masters of their craft.  I had to sift through them somehow, however, so I dismissed most of the more traditional approaches to photography because they don’t interest me greatly, although I did include a small number that I felt really stood out.  I also left out all the nature photographers because, although I love watching wildlife, I don’t particularly enjoy photographs of it.  On the whole, I was looking for something different and something with a very individual voice – images with which I felt I’d like to spend some time.  Over the next weeks I’ll link to a small number of photographers at a time and hope you’ll follow the links and have a look round.

Jennifer Adler – Adler’s subject matter is unusual: underwater photographs taken in mainly freshwater sites.  I particularly like her Rain gallery, in which you find yourself looking up from underneath at the rain on the water.  These are a cut above other underwater photographs I’ve seen, and show a very individual approach.

Valda Bailey – Valda has to be one of the most original photo artists I’ve come across.  She uses intentional camera movement and multiple exposures to create multi-layered, textured images that are quite unlike anything else I’ve ever seen.  Her work is (quite literally) darker than I usually like, but it’s so striking that it doesn’t matter.  She pushes photography to its limits and beyond.

Sandra Bartocha – Bartocha’s work is much closer to the traditional idea of landscape photography, but it stands out from the usual.  Her light, delicate images have an appealing ethereality about them, and in places she makes use of interesting techniques and perspectives.  Her Pflanzen gallery – macro flowers – is particularly lovely.



Edward Burtynsky’s ‘Water’

Gallery view, Flowers Gallery, Cork St, LondonEdward Burtynsky, ‘Water’, at the Flowers Gallery, Cork St, London

Two days in London, and three wonderful exhibitions – bliss! Although I thoroughly enjoyed all three, I’m only going to talk about one of them here.  I’ve been interested in seeing Edward Burtynsky’s work in the flesh, so to speak, for quite a while and was annoyed that I managed to miss his ‘Oil’ exhibition a little while ago.  This was made up for in spades when I met with Eileen at the weekend and we went to see his new body of work called ‘Water’ at the Flowers Gallery in Cork Street in London.  I’m going to try very hard not to sound like a Burtynsky groupie, mouthing ‘wow!’ and ‘awesome!’ to everything I saw, but it’s going to be tough.  These images were gobsmackingly gorgeous.

Normally photography is prohibited in galleries like this one but this was an exception, so I managed to take a few shots of some of the images.  As photos of the photos, these pale in comparison to the real thing – huge canvases, beautifully printed, with extraordinary colour and detail – but they do at least give an idea of the work.  The theme, as you might have guessed, is water.  Sometimes it’s the absence of water, sometimes the ways in which we use and harness water, and sometimes the natural source of our water, hidden in the mountains and glaciers.

Many of the images are taken from an aerial perspective, and seen from a height, turn into very beautiful abstract patterns.  However, the beauty of the colour and pattern often hides the toll we’re taking on the natural environment.  In the image below, for instance, the shot is of the Almira Peninsula in Spain and what you’re looking at is greenhouses – mile upon mile of greenhouses that have effectively turned this area into a no-man’s land.  I’ll be giving some thought to that next time I eat a winter tomato.

Almira Peninsula by Edward BurtynskyGreenhouses, Almira Peninsula, Spain, 2010, Edward Burtynsky

These rice fields, taken from above, look more hospitable to human life but also portray intensive farming practices.

Rice fields by Edward BurtynskyRice terraces #2, Western Yunnan Province, China, 2012, Edward Burtynsky

One of the things I found most interesting is the way in which the images were both extremely detailed – if you peered in close you could see every bush, tree or bird – but also took on a very painterly appearance when viewed further back.  Somehow Burtynsky manages to preserve detail and create something that has the amorphous feel of an abstract painting, both at the same time.  In the following images, it’s very hard to see what these are in reality, but not because there’s any lack of detail.

Glacial runoff by Edward BurtynskyGlacial runoff #1, Skeidararsandur, Iceland, 2012, Edward Burtynsky

Olfusa river by Edward BurtynskyOlfusa River #1, Iceland, 2012, Edward Burtynsky

In some of the other images the content is more obvious and easier to pin down, but even these manage to express both a feeling of softness and sharp detail in the same shot.

Dam, Xiaolangdi Dam, by Edward BurtynskyXiaolangdi Dam #1, Yellow River, Henan Province, China, 2011, Edward Burtynsky

In these two shots of the Xiaolangdi Dam on the Yellow River, water billows and roils and at first glance there’s nothing man-made here.  In reality, the movement of the water is the effect of a constructed dam and there is a small, delicate metal walkway whose sharp detail contrasts with the force and expansion of the natural element of the water – you can just about make it out on the left, a little over halfway down.  These two images were possibly my favourites – they reminded me of Turner’s paintings, and those of some other artist whose name I can’t quite remember.   To me they epitomise the idea of the sublime in art where beauty, and fear, and awe at the power of nature all combine.  The sheer softness and subtle tones of the colours had to be seen to be believed – they’re somewhat lost here.  It’s impossible to show just how amazing these images were seen at full size, and I can only suggest that if you’re anywhere near London you should get yourself along to see them for real.

Yellow River 2 by Edward BurtynskyXiaolangdi Dam #2, Yellow River, Henan Province, China, 2011, Edward Burtynsky

Yellow River 3 by Edward BurtynskyXiaolangdi Dam #3, Yellow River, Henan Province, China, 2011, Edward Burtynsky

Seeing pictures as good as these is a double-edged sword – there was a part of me that felt they were so far beyond anything I could hope to produce myself that it made me feel like sticking my camera on ebay and giving up the game.  Of course I’m being a little tongue-in-cheek here, but not entirely.  Eileen, who is always full of wisdom and good advice, took another view – she suggested that if they spoke to me as strongly as they do, then there must be something in what I like to do myself that connects with them.  Perhaps I should read my own blog posts a bit more often, because I just found this quote in my archives.

I feel a little presumptuous comparing my own work with Burtynsky’s, but I have begun to see that there are links.  One of the things that Burtynsky does to great effect is to play with the scale.  In his case he shoots on a grand scale which often appears small; in my own case my subject matter often consists of close-ups that appear larger.  The obvious example would be my ‘oil spill’ images, where tiny areas of oil floating on ditch water look as if they might be grand landscapes – here and here.  The image right at the end of this post is a particularly lovely example of Burtynsky’s large-to-small effect, with a river delta appearing like a tree or a piece of seaweed lying on the sand.

Two of the other things I love about the Burtynsky images are their colours and their softness, particularly the way the softness contrasts with sharp detail.  I wish I could achieve this feeling of deep, layered softness without loss of detail, and the rich range of tones that he produces.  Some of the colours in his images are spectacular; in others they’re very subtle but rich and satisfying.  I love strong colour, but recently I’ve found myself drawn to this greater subtlety of colour and this is something I’d like to explore a bit more.  The abstract nature of the pictures appeals to me greatly as well – all the more so because the abstraction arises out of something real without feeling overly contrived.  A lot of these qualities are nascent in my own work and on making the comparison I can see why Burtynsky’s work draws me so strongly.  Perhaps, somehow, I can take some of this and use it to come just a tiny step closer to what he has achieved here.

River delta, Edward BurtynskyColorado River delta #2, Near San Felipe, Baja, Mexico, 2011, Edward Burtynsky


If a thing’s worth doing……

Eric Kessels, 24 Hours in Photos,

Image copyright Eileen Rafferty and used with photographer’s permission

I’ve been thinking, recently, about an exhibition by Eric Kessels called 24 Hours in Photos. (Eileen has written about it, here). It’s a simple idea – Kessels printed out every photograph uploaded to Flickr in 24 hours and put them in a great big pile, in an even bigger room. I haven’t seen the exhibition, but just looking at the images of it is shocking – the sheer excess and superfluity quickly leads to a feeling that adding to the numbers of pictures already out there is a bit pointless. What’s it all for?

It started me thinking about the value, or lack of it, in the plethora of mediocre and sometimes downright terrible photographs that surround us online. The ability to take and share photographs easily and effortlessly has led to a situation where everyone is a photographer. This often gives rise to some disparagement, and even on occasion sneering, from those who think of themselves as ‘real’ photographers. There’s a sense that they’d prefer a situation where only those who’d taken time to acquire the requisite skills could produce photographic images.

It’s easy to feel that there’s just too much photography taking place – or perhaps more accurately, being ‘shared’ – and that we’re being so overwhelmed by images that it becomes harder and harder to sift through them to find something above the mediocre, something worth looking at. And there’s some truth in that, for sure. But actually I’m glad that photography has become something that just about everyone participates in, even if the result is too much sharing of too many poor photos.

Before the advent of largely passive entertainment in the form of TV, video, internet, and so on, people used to do stuff. They sang or played an instrument, they took part in sport, they danced, drew, wrote, crafted and made things. They did it because there wasn’t much ready-made entertainment to hand, but also because there’s a satisfaction to be found in the doing even if the result isn’t that great.

Things have changed. Now, if you’re heavily into music it most often means you listen to it rather than play an instrument or sing; many sports enthusiasts sit and watch rather than play; people who love art go and look at it in galleries but don’t produce any themselves; film buffs have never had a go at actually making a short film. People go shopping to buy hand-made crafts but don’t try learning a craft themselves. Entertainment has become something that’s done to us and for us and not something we create for ourselves.

If you ask a room full of adults if they can sing, dance, or draw, very few hands will go up – there’s an assumption that in order to qualify you have to be able to do these things well. Young children, on the other hand, know they can do all these things and they do do them with a total absence of self-censorship and no assumption that they have to be good at it. Somewhere along the line we absorb the idea that if we can’t do something well we shouldn’t be doing it at all, and the easy solution is to opt out and become a consumer rather than a producer.

When did it get to the point where we feel ashamed to sing or dance or paint unless we’re good at it? Some of my fondest memories of my dad were listening to him play the clarinet. He was a really poor player, but the pride and pleasure on his face when he was giving us his rendition of ‘Stranger on the Shore’ means that that particular song can still bring tears to my eyes. I loved to watch him play, not for the music, but for the joy it gave him to perform it. I’m glad he played anyway even if he played badly, and it was part of what made him the person he was.

My dad also painted. He never did anything original, just made very accurate copies of anything he liked the look of that was contained within a book-sized catalogue of art prints called The Homelover’s Companion. He was good at copying, and he enjoyed it, and many people got pleasure from the resulting pictures. I still have one of them – an oil painting copy of Constable’s Salisbury Cathedral. You could never say my dad was an accomplished artist, but I don’t think the time he spent painting was in any way wasted.

Photography is the one area where people haven’t yet lost their joy in participation, or given up because they’re ‘no good’. One of our removal men took ten minutes to show me every single photo of his two cats that he had on his phone. They were technically awful photos – blurred, focus in the wrong place, all of that and more – but I liked that he’d taken them himself and wanted to show them off. They really meant something to him and I was touched by that.

So when I find myself cringing a bit at some of the stuff I see on online photo sharing sites, I choose instead to be pleased that there’s still one art form that everyone takes part in without embarrassment. Yes, I get tired of the endless, dull, and usually meaningless (to me) photos that we’re surrounded by, and I do think there are too many of them – perhaps we don’t need to share quite as many photographs as we do. But I don’t want to hear someone say, someday, ‘oh no, I can’t take photos – I’m really bad at it – I’d rather just look at other people’s.’



Sculpture in the Sanctuary

Geoff, framedGeoff, framed by a sculpture

There doesn’t seem to be much happening in the way of art round here, so when we saw that a local wildfowl sanctuary was holding a sculpture exhibition, we had to go. We’d been to the sanctuary before, and it’s a lovely peaceful place with some very unusual varieties of birds. We have a notion that some day we might keep chickens, and if we do, I think I want at least one like this black and white fellow – he’s very handsome. Some of the chickens in the sanctuary are really unusual and even highly amusing at times (feathery feet, anyone?), but even the more usual ones have wonderfully glossy colourful feathers.

Black and white chicken

I always feel that photographing sculpture is a bit of a cheat, since the artist is the one who’s done all the work and deserves the credit, but I end up doing it anyway.  Before we entered the sanctuary itself, there was a huge greenhouse full of smaller sculptures to see.  I loved the shape of this one and the curvy, cave-like interior.

Sculpture in the Sanctuary

In the Sanctuary proper, this lady was having a very Bad Hair Day.  I’m about to try out a new hairdressers and I hope I don’t feel like this when I come out.

Bad Hair Day

There were two scupltures that I longed to take home with me for the garden.  I adored this pig, with its floppy ears and lovely solid feel – there’s just something so very pig-like about it.


The second one was a wolf.  We came across him in a small wooded area, gazing at a hare.  Isn’t he wonderful?

Wolf and hare


And we bought something! One of the artists had created what she called a Syrian Tree. Hanging from its branches were a flight of white ceramic doves and for each one that was sold the money was given to help aid for the Syrian people.  We were told that she’d made £6,000 so far.  Ours is now out in the garden and I love its simple shape and gracefulness.

Syrian Tree, Sculpture in the Sanctuary

Syrian Tree 2, Sculpture in the Sanctuary


Yoko Ono’s pyramids of light

Yoko Ono artwork

The Tate Gallery at Liverpool has an exhibition on at the moment consisting of art chosen by Marianne Faithfull.  It was all chosen because it was meaningful to her in some way, and the collection was a fascinating mixture of artists, media and styles.  One of my favourites was this little sculpture by Yoko Ono – a cluster of pyramidal prisms with a light shining through from underneath.  It produced a wonderful pattern of refracted light on the studio walls, but unfortunately the effect didn’t come out at all well in my photos – the close-ups you see here worked a whole lot better.  They remind me of the crystals on the inside of a geode.

Yoko Ono artwork 2

It would be a boring old world if we all thought the same…..

Mosse, Colonel Soleil's boysColonel Soleil’s boys, Richard Mosse

This rather startling magenta pink is the result of using infrared surveillance film to take ordinary photos. It’s the work of someone called Richard Mosse, and yesterday I was at a study day in which we saw two exhibitions that concerned themselves with the subject of war and genocide. This isn’t my usual cup of tea when it comes to photography; I don’t really need it pointed out to me that there’s a lot of misery out there in the world and I’d prefer to be reminded about the better qualities of humankind – it’s easy to forget about those.

But anyway, that’s what we went to see. Thing is, these images left me untouched and decidedly bored, which is not (I’m fairly sure) the effect they were supposed to have. Other people seemed to be getting a lot out of them, but after five minutes I was standing there wondering when the coffee was coming. We had a little discussion over the coffee when we eventually got some, and after some mild internal panic about whether or not I could think of anything sensible to say, I managed to pull something out of the hat. In case you’re interested, it went like this: the predominant pink colour is Barbie pink and reminds you of girls, and dolls, and toys and Walt Disney, and as this is so very opposite to the masculine world of war depicted in the images, it sets up a certain visual tension. I knew my philosophy degree would come in useful some day.

But you know, I don’t really think this; I don’t think these photos worked. Certainly not for me. I felt nothing looking at them, nothing at all, except a desire to move on to something more interesting. Janet made a good point over the coffee table – ‘why’, she said, ‘is this pink colour not just a gimmick? If we submitted something like this for an assignment, we’d get hammered and accused of just that.’ Gareth looked thoughtful. ‘Well’, he said carefully, ‘Richard Mosse is an established and famous photographer and doesn’t have to explain himself; you’re just a student.’ Those weren’t his words, you understand, and he’s considerably better at being tactful than this would suggest, but that was the gist. ‘And it’s not really a gimmick’, he went on, ‘because he’s making a point by using film that played a role in the conflict itself’. Ok, there’s a bit of cleverness there, I guess – but only a bit.

Upstairs was another exhibition by Simon Norfolk, called For Most of It I Have No Words – brilliant title. He was looking at various sites throughout the world where genocide had taken place, and photographing the traces left there. These images were stunning in themselves, but more than that, they made me feel something. One that touched me was a simple image of some stone steps, with the light coming down from above and highlighting the indentations in the steps made by thousands of feet over time. So what, you might think, until you read the caption and understood that these were prison steps at Auschwitz. Photographically, you’re at the bottom of the steps looking up; standing in darkness and seeing light above, but the tragedy is that you may move up into that light never to come down again. The history of the place is held in the stone of the steps, and it’s very moving.

Simon Norfolk, prison steps, AuschwitzAuschwitz: staircase in a prison block by Simon Norfolk

I’m hopelessly biased, I know. I’ve said before that I need an image to be visually satisfying in order to pull me in. This is something so fundamental to me that I know I’m never going to change in this respect, no matter how much art education I’m subjected to. I loved Simon Norfolk’s photos, loved them. I thought they were beautiful in themselves, and profoundly moving when read in conjunction with the captions. They’re quite old now, in art terms, and are much ‘safer’ than the Mosse images. I’m aware of this, and I like to be challenged, and I’ll do my best to appreciate something that doesn’t have immediate appeal. But Norfolk’s photos are what I relate to; they make me feel something while Mosse’s left me unmoved. Mosse’s had shock value and I sometimes think that a lot of modern art relies on this for any effect it has. Norfolk’s were quieter, subtler, and to my mind all the more powerful for that.  ‘Ah well’, said Fiona as we walked out, ‘it’d be a boring world if we all thought the same.’  And so it would.

Both Richard Mosse and Simon Norfolk are on exhibition at the Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool, until 10th June.

Photography as a male sport

Camera as phallic symbol Image courtesy of Corinna, at www.hairygoat.net

A week or so ago I met up with my friend Corinna in Birmingham, and we went to the Focus on Imaging exhibition at the NEC.  It’s basically a photographic equipment fair – not something that interests me overmuch, especially when I can’t have a spend, but it was a good opportunity to meet up for a long chat and a wander round.

The first thing we noticed – and it was hard not to – was that the place was full of men pretty much all of whom were wearing their cameras round their necks, longest lenses attached and lens hood on the end to make it even longer.  Since there was absolutely nothing to photograph, these could only have been for the purposes of display – I hope you’re keeping up with the symbolism here.  Just in case you’re not, Corinna started referring to them as ‘willy wavers’, a name that brought a nod of agreement and a broad smile to the people manning the stalls.  Naturally, we had our cameras with us too, but they were stashed in our shopping bags like Jane Bown used to do when she went to posh London hotels to photograph the Beatles.

Seriously, there were hardly any women there at all (if you discount the heavily made-up, scantily dressed, pre-pubescent ones that tripped around the place wearing advertising signs).  Moreover, none of the equipment or clothing was designed with women in mind and much of it was unusable if you were female.  I was rather taken with a camera harness, for example, that carries your camera on the front of your body, but having my fair share of female curvature made it not only very uncomfortable but positively obscene – it’s got a solid metal plate on front that sort of divides and pushes things out the sides if you get my gist.  Camera straps worn across the body do something very similar, but they are at least narrow enough to more or less go down the middle.

Weatherproof jackets and those vests you get with all the pouches on them were mostly available in men’s sizes only, and there were some photographer’s gloves that we’d have bought had they come in female sizes.  (Just in case you’re wondering, the index finger and the thumb have little caps on them that push off, leaving you free to operate your camera with the two essential digits while keeping the rest warm.)

One stall had some very innovative products; the one I liked was a set of photographer’s spectacles.  When you get to the stage I’m at with your eyesight, you find that you need your glasses on to see what you’re photographing but you need them off to be able to read the display screen or do anything else that requires looking closely.  So you end up in the sort of scenario where you’re trying to change camera lens – which involves enough juggling about with various bits and pieces anyway – while adding a pair of glasses to the twenty-three other things you’re trying to hold onto all at the same time.  The photographer’s glasses have lenses that tip up out of the way, and you can even tip one of them up and leave the other one down, making it a cinch to see whatever you need to see without any need to remove them.  I tried them on: ‘these seem a bit big’ I said, and got the reply ‘yes, we only do them in men’s sizes, I’m afraid’.  Oh well, I guess I should have known.

Not only do camera bags only come in dull, male, colours – black or khaki, anyone? – but they’re often too heavy (even empty) and too large to work well if you’re female.  Now I know there are plenty of women who’re probably quite happy with black, and this is not even a particularly genderised thing – I’m married to a man whose work briefcase is bright turquoise, for goodness sake – but there are other issues here.  Men have pockets in their clothes.  They use those pockets to hold their wallets, their handkerchiefs, their spare keys, and basically all their little bits and pieces.  Women’s clothes mostly don’t have pockets; that’s why we carry bags all the time.  So we need room in a camera bag for things like purses, and keys, and a packet of tissues, and a hairbrush, and even, if you’re that way inclined, a lipstick.  You may have noticed that camera bags don’t allow for this.

There are times, too, when we’d rather it didn’t look as if we’re carrying a rather expensive piece of equipment around with us, especially if we’re walking around in the less salubrious parts of the inner city.  (This may apply to men too, of course)  So why can’t we have some colourful, attractive camera bags that have room for more than the camera and don’t make it too obvious that that’s what you’re carrying?  We put this question to a variety of stall holders, none of whom seemed to know why, but more than one of whom mentioned that you can get these things in the US but not here.   Seems to me there’s a gap in the market in this country.

I know from teaching workshops that there are at least as many women interested in photography as men, and women usually outnumber men on these courses.  If I was being unkind, not to mention sexist, I might say that this could be because men don’t like admitting they don’t know something and would rather fumble around by themselves than actually go and get some instruction.  But I’d never say anything like that.  The fact remains, though, that there are vast numbers of women out there who like taking photographs and they’re not being catered for.  Walking round this exhibition felt a little uncomfortable, almost as if we shouldn’t have been there, in this very male territory.

I’ve thought for a long time that photography is very male-centric. In our local newsagents, photography magazines are displayed under the heading of ‘Male Interest’.  The content also has this bias, with portraiture articles only using young, slim, conventionally pretty girls as their models.  I’d love to see something on photographing men, or ‘ordinary’ women, or old people, but you never do.  Camera reviews assume you’re male, referring to things like the finger grips not being big enough – yes, they’re not big enough for large male hands, perhaps, but might suit some of us very well.  A minor issue, true, but the whole impression if you’re female is that you’re not included in the gang.

All of this is true of the amateur photography market; it’s not nearly so true for the professional side of things, where you’ll find plenty of women in key positions.  There were more women behind the stalls in the exhibition than there were in front of them, for example.  But we all have to start somewhere, and I know from talking to them that many women are put off by the male emphasis on photographic technology and the sometimes condescending attitudes towards them of men with cameras.  I’m really not saying all men are like this – I know some absolutely lovely male photographers – but the amateur, ‘camera club’ brigade do have a tendency to think you’re incapable if you’re female.  Add that to the total lack of accommodation photographic manufacturers make for women and the impression is that this is not an area of life in which you’re welcome.

I’ve leave you with a little anecdote. When I was teaching regularly in London, I’d have to leave on a very early train on a Saturday or Sunday morning.  The man who sold me my ticket asked if I was doing something nice that day.  I replied that I was working, and he asked what I did.  I said ‘photography’. An intense look of puzzlement came over his face for a moment and then (I could almost see the lightbulb going on) he said  ‘oh!………you must be the model then?’  ‘No’, I spluttered, ‘I’m the tutor!’.  Sigh………it can be hard to get taken seriously sometimes.