Saturday, 31 January 2015

Making Photographs

I'm very pleased to have a double-page spread of my work featured in a new book just published by Bloomsbury, Making Photographswritten by Dr Mike Simmons, programme leader for the MA Photography course at De Montfort University. My thanks to Mike for including my work - it's really heartening when you see your photographs in print, especially in such illustrious company.

The clue to the book's identity is in the title - this is a book about 'making' photographs, about using photography in a structured and organised way to explore ideas in depth, as opposed to the more casual approach of just 'taking' photographs. The emphasis throughout is on developing your own personal perspective and covers such topics as identifying and understanding your subject, generating ideas, cultivating a visual vocabulary, research, inspiration and influence. It is subdivided into chapters which explore the creative process from start to finish, using work of both renowned photographers and former students of the MA course (many of whom have since become very successful in their individual fields) to illustrate ideas and working methods. The reader is encouraged to think critically about the way images are read and understood and there are both case studies and practical exercises in each chapter to aid the process. The book would be a first-class introduction to the understanding of the creative process, both for students of photography and photographers in general who wish to develop a more coherent and personal approach to their work.

    My work as featured in the book

Reading through it, I was immediately transported back to my time on the MA course at DMU, where, under the tutelage of previous course leader and founder Paul Hill, together with Mike Simmons and Greg Lucas, we were constantly encouraged to experiment, research, question and justify as we made our way on our photographic journey. I learned such a lot, and studying on the course helped shape my interests and develop my own style. But I wonder how many photographers carry on working in this way once they have graduated? It takes a tremendous amount of self-discipline to do so much preparatory and developmental work when you are not in a learning environment and without the support of a peer group. I realise how far I have drifted away from this ordered approach - I do take the odd note and still do a lot of research into other photographers, but the days of keeping a photographic journal are long gone and my method of working is much more intuitive. I would find it really difficult to plan my projects in such close detail now. These days, I often start with a vague idea and see where it takes me and I have noticed a worrying tendency to fly off in too many directions at once, or else I get bogged down and abandon the idea!

Perhaps now would be a good time to return to a more disciplined and considered approach to making photographs....

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

A few feet away

Last week, browsing in one of my favourite London bookshops - Koenig Books on Charing X Road - I came across a rather beautiful volume of photographs by Paul Strand, the renowned photographer whose work I'm ashamed to say I'm not very familiar with. The book is called The Garden at Orgeval and consists of black and white images of his garden in France, taken in the last years of his life - nothing spectacular at first glance, but beautifully composed quiet studies of plant forms and shapes.

From The Garden at Orgeval by Paul Strand

What led me to examine the book more closely was Strand's quotation on the opening page:
"The artist's world is limitless.
It can be found anywhere, far from where he lives or a few feet away.
It is always on his doorstep."
It is something which immediately struck home - how we are often blind to what exists under our noses, preferring the exotic, unusual or unfamiliar. It's certainly easier to make interesting work far from home - just being in a new or unknown location sharpens the photographer's eye. But surely it can be just as rewarding to observe and document our immediate surroundings, the stuff of everyday life in all its familiarity.

In The Gravity of Time, the introductory essay to the book, photographer Joel Meyerowitz explains how when he first came across this book as a young man, he thought the photographs were a bit dull and simple compared to Strand's iconic earlier work, and that Strand had 'probably lost his nerve and succumbed to some sort of visual ennui'. Only when he was approaching the same age as Strand was then, did Meyerowitz 'get it', understanding that a deep visual communion with the natural world was probably something you only appreciate with age. Artists throughout the centuries have tended to pare down their work in their later years and Meyerowitz proposes that perhaps it is a 'winding down of ambition and the measuring of the time that is left that draws them to this simplicity, within which lie the subtle complexities of nature often hidden from the eyes of the young.' You can listen to him reading the essay here

This is a tendency I've noticed in my own practice though I don't claim to have any deep communion with nature. As I get older my priorities seem to be changing. Instead of heading out to the street with my camera, I find my attention turned towards making still life photographs at home, using the objects I find to hand to create compositions which resonate with a personal meaning. However, I do wonder whether the reason for this is sheer laziness rather than any deepening of insight - it takes effort to go out and photograph in the city! I also struggle a bit with the kind of work featured in this book.  Close-up studies of nature - the kind of thing beloved by macro enthusiasts - don't particularly inspire me.

So this morning, I thought I would go out into the garden and see if anything caught my eye on my own doorstep. At this time of year, there is not much to see - a lot of brown branches and bare earth, the tangled remains of last year's growth. Yet there are still a few little traces of colour and some welcome signs of spring's imminent arrival. This is an exercise I have tried in the past - trying to draw inspiration from unpromising material - and is probably something I should do more often. Looking closely brings its own rewards.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

RIP Lone Tree

This morning I went out walking on one of my usual routes - I hadn't been this way for some time and the going was heavy. Over two grassy sheep fields, is another large arable field which has a lone tree in the middle of it. The field had been ploughed over the winter into huge furrows and I felt momentarily disoriented as I scanned the horizon for its familiar outline only to find it missing! I felt sure I had made a mistake - perhaps the tree had been in another field after all. But as I walked round the edge, it became clear to me that it was definitely no longer there. Perhaps it blew down in stormy weather or more likely it was removed by the farmer to make ploughing easier. It had always been a landmark which showed the direction of the public footpath across the field, usually hidden by crops or ploughed up in the winter. No longer will it be there to point the walker in the right direction or to offer a bit of welcome shade on a hot sunny day. Another small change in the landscape, probably not noticed by many but sadly missed by me.

I have taken many photographs of this tree over the years, with various assorted cameras and in all seasons. Here is a selection.... RIP Lone Tree!

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Backs to the wall

Another peek inside the artist's studio.....

The works in today's post are all back views. Whether heads or figures, nude or clothed, the back view of a person hints at mystery, reverie and detachment. The viewer is unable to gauge the expression or can only partially do so if the face is in profile. The subject is usually portrayed as lost in thought, absorbed in some inner meditation, unaware of the viewer. We, the viewer, have to put our imaginations to work to fill in the gaps.

In painting, the Rückenfigur is the term used to describe a figure in the landscape, seen from behind, contemplating the view. The viewer is encouraged to place himself in the position of the Rückenfigur, so that he may experience the same sense of awe in the face of nature as felt by the figure in the painting. Associated with notions of the the sublime in nature, German romantic painters such as Caspar David Friedrich used this device to emphasise the spiritual and mystical aspects of the contemplation of nature.

The figures in the paintings featured below are not depicted in any communion with nature. In fact, we do not know what they are looking at. Nevertheless, their back views may lead us to suppose that their minds are on higher things, their thoughts turned in on themselves and the viewer is inspired to share their experience....

All paintings copyright Mike Newton
More of Mike's Rückenfigur work can be seen here and here

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

There and back II

Another day, another walk. This time across fields and taking in three ponds and some derelict farm buildings for added interest. The fields are heavy with mud which sticks to my boots, the wind is bitingly cold and my hands freeze but it feels good to be outside as my lungs fill with the fresh air, blowing away my mental cobwebs.

The ponds are a feature of the landscape round here - I know of at least half a dozen. They are fed by springs which trickle down from the Edge Hill escarpment, the same escarpment where the Royalists camped out and surveyed the battlefield in the Civil War. I have done this walk at different times of the year, but it is in the winter months that their stark and mysterious beauty is most appealing....

Monday, 19 January 2015

The Artist's Studio

"What would we not give to peer over the shoulder of Giorgione or Vermeer  - or Francis Bacon? In an age that has lost its natural sense of the numinous, we half believe that we could be the witness of a form of magic. And it is not only the enactment of that magic that so compels us; the place in which it is performed may be charged with a presence that compounds the spell. To enter the studio of Giacometti was to walk, like Alice, through the Looking-Glass, into a realm that seemed to change the scale of your own body; to find your way across the floor of Kitaj’s studio that is strewn with open books like paving stones in a Japanese garden is to step into the silent discourse of centuries between artist and artist; and to be invited into Brancusi’s lair at 11 Impasse Ronsin was to cross the threshold into a space that was itself a work of art in which sculptures of polished brass, white plaster and rough-hewn wood had been disposed in groups under the calm white light from high windows – a temple of trophies through which you moved as in a trance. In each case a way of working had moulded from within its own aura." 
          From The Artist at Work by Colin St John Wilson

These photographs are from a project about the artist's studio on which I've been working intermittently over the last year. I am lucky enough to have access to an artist's studio right here at home, where my husband works and produces his paintings and drawings. It is a fascinating place and offers different photographic opportunities virtually ever time I cross the threshold. The constant state of flux creates interesting and unusual juxtapositions of images as new work replaces work in progress or a finished piece. At times portraits seem to communicate with one another, at times willfully turning away, sometimes caught in a shaft of light, at other times expressions hidden in the shadows.   

I usually do my photographing there when the space is empty as I don't like to intrude. The studio is usually regarded as a place of sanctuary, a personal space which is not be invaded. In addition, I make it a rule never to disturb anything - I tend to prefer photographing what I come across rather than staging my pictures - and for me the serendipity of finding a ready-made still life is one of the great pleasures of photography. 

The images in this selection are all to do with the gaze - the painter's gaze of course, but also the gazes exchanged between the subjects of the paintings and their gaze as they look out at the viewer, as well as the viewer's gaze at both the paintings and the photographs. Gaze upon gaze upon gaze.....

To be continued........

All paintings copyright Mike Newton