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.

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