Inside this issue
A Constant Companion
Life is busy these days. That is probably the least revealing fact I could offer, and if you are a regular On Landscape reader you will be all too well aware of just how busy. For example, do you have time to read your favourite bi-weekly online photo magazine from cover to cover? Thought not. Neither do I, a terrible admission for someone who has been involved from the beginning and who should be scrutinising every sentence.
But that is the way of things. Too little time, too much to do. In my case, I don't even have the excuse of social media as a time filler. I may have a Facebook page, but still, need my son Sam to show me how to write an entry; and as for Twitter, Flickr and the like these are simply levels of technology far beyond my humble capabilities (not to mention my Luddite suspicion that there is something inherently risky in writing without reflection). Since our children have both now left home, I have no chance of doing social media, and also no excuse that our children absorb my time either. In spite of which apart from the odd frantic outing with the mower there's no time for gardening, and even the bits and pieces of football and cricket that I used to play no longer happen (of course, at 55 I may be slightly less helpful as a teammate!)
The degree of busy-ness is antithetical for reflection time, and that is bad. Reflection time is creative. Time to look back, time to look forward, time to do nothing in particular except look out of the window. Of this train for instance. Or go for a walk with no specific (or photographic) agenda.
The cause of busy-ness is not all bad of course. There is work to do and a living still to be made, and when opportunities arise the freelance in me is still always reluctant to refuse them. I have travelled widely this year, and while that travel has been mainly for work, visiting the landscapes of Scotland, or Antarctica, or Cornwall, or Spitsbergen, or Iceland, or Snowdonia, or Colorado, or even North Yorkshire is not the sort of work to complain about. Sometimes it is hard to believe ones good fortune. It may be work, Jim, but not as we know it.
But too much work means too little time to think and to reflect, and ultimately to become reinvigorated by rest. Perhaps counter-intuitively when I do reflect, look back at my recent work I become concerned, afraid even. The fear is that my work is static, not moving forward. Perhaps I am even a bit scared that I might not be any good, and that sooner or later, everyone else will realise.
I am no psychologist so I have no idea if self-doubt is a genetic or a cultivated character trait. Perhaps (like most traits) it is a bit of both. It is one characteristic that has always been a companion. The shadow of self doubt is haunting and persistent; no matter how often the reassuring voices are heard it is the questioners and cynics to which the self doubter listens. It takes an act of will to remember to keep things in perspective, and to remember that naysayers especially tend to have their own hidden agenda.
Landscape photography suits me in so many ways because it is not a matter of life and death, but of interpretation, of nuance, of description and of artistic endeavour. It is not about right and wrong, but of a subjective view and self discovery. Ultimately, the only judge of what you do, is you, the photographer. And maybe that is my problem. I am a pretty harsh judge.
The eyewitness tradition is a code of conduct for me. I see photography's limitation, its imitation of nature, as by far its greatest strength, and fundamentally I am not comfortable (for myself) in all the manipulations and deceptions that prevail in modern photography. It isn't that I disapprove per se of the expansion of the medium into the surrealist realm, but I do wish there was still a way of saying that 'truth to nature, truth to light' is still a useful, valuable and desirable tradition to preserve without sounding like prehistoric prokaryote.
When the landscape is a big set-piece landscape theatre, and it doesn't get much bigger or more theatrical than the American desert south west, I realise there is no hope. My pictures can only ever be 'decent record shots'. If I were to attempt anything else it would probably look forced, or mannered, or self-conscious. From my point of view, its not 'about me', its about the landscape.
So from that recent trip to Colorado and Utah, hugely enjoyable as it was, my images of the mountains and canyons seem no more than a carefully composed record. Whereas the fragments of woodland (variously shot in rain, snow, overcast or backlighting) do, for me, have much more of my 'interpretation', for want of a better word, in them. They remain embedded in the eyewitness tradition (does it look pretty much like what I saw? Yep…) but the scale and intimacy of the subject matter allows far more scope for self reflection.
Perhaps appropriately given the angle I have adopted here, it is in the deep shadows I found my favourite images.
Do I really need to get back into painting?
Somehow the trees suggested things to me, presence, absence, community, conversation, the cycles of life, that may (or may not) resonate. In the nurturing quality of soft light, the eye can wander curiously around the frame, absorbing the colour and texture noticing the observations and juxtapositions, the subtleties and significance, without drama or force. It is possible too with some of them to look at a black and white interpretation, to perhaps evoke Adams, or Washburn; but for the most part if I did refer to any other photographer I would hope it might be in the colour tradition of Elliot Porter, or Peter Dombrovskis. Or perhaps even Dav Thomas or Tim Parkin?
But even allowing for a feeling that I am happy with these intimate images the thought remains, 'there is nothing original here'. Have I seen it all before? In my own camera viewfinder? Or on the pages of other peoples books? But what more can you do with a camera other than be yourself? And your aesthetic preferences, principles and predilections must decide, mustn't they? If so, then have I played out all my possibilities already? Have I made every picture I am ever likely to make?
Do I really need to get back into painting?
Perhaps fortunately I don't feel under too much pressure in spite of the work intensity, and the shadows of self doubt. My family helps me stay grounded and my children seem so much more interesting and gifted than I could ever be that it is tempting to simply sit back and watch. But there remain the fears, the feeling that I still have unfinished business, and that on some level the feeling I haven't really got started yet. Currently there may not be enough time for reflection. That will have to change. Time will have to be found to escape the shadows.
To quote Captain Oates, “I may be some time”…