digital photography

Critique

Individuality and creativity

.. .(presenting)  your personal work is a central part of creative art; in exposing your ideas and expressions to the cold light of impersonal inspection, your work – and your own attitude to it – gains strength.  … Diffidence inhibits creativity. Tom Ang.

I find it difficult to show my work.  I question why anyone would be interested, why people would be bothered to look at my photographs (slide night anyone??)  or read my writings.  I frequently ask ‘WHY”  I have a blog, why I put photos on on my blogs or Facebook. And the only answer I was able to find until I read Tom Ang, was that I am a photographer and writer and therefore, it is something I need to do. I have to express myself..

But, if I look at the process from the other point of view, that I am aiming to strengthen my work, then this gives me another acceptable answer.   Knowing that others may view my photos  drives me to consider, compose and  take shots that express what I want to say.  Thinking that someone may read my writing makes me choose my words more carefully, and revise more.  Sometimes I find this revision and culling process very helpful in developing my craft and attitude.  I have to ask myself what is it about this shot, what about this idea that expresses what I mean.  Often I see that I could have improved my technical skills, or that what I saw in my mind’s eye was not what appeared on my screen.  Other times, I feel as if I just want to relax and enjoy the shots for their memories or the weird way they turned out. I want to play with the words.

When I look at my periods of deepest personal growth, they have happened most often when I have been placed in a situation where I had an impersonal eye looking carefully at me. Therapists or colleagues, friends or enemies can all call us on our behaviour and our barriers and challenge us to move past whatever it is that is holding back our growth.

What do we fear most from critiques?  That we will be told everything we have done is wrong?  That we are hopelessly inadequate ourselves?  Are we afraid that if others look at our work or us too carefully we will be exposed for frauds as artists or people?

Once we have heard this challenge, it is still up to us to decide whether we can take it on or not.  Will we by-pass this call for change?  Will we be happy enough with the level we are at, ignoring the potential for improvement?

If we accept the need for change, for growth – are we afraid our growth will take us in directions others do not understand?  That our work will be too different, that we will be too individualist to fit within the comfortable framework we have operated in for the last few years?

Improving as a photographer or writer could bring more opportunities for more critiques.  Am I willing to move down that road?  Am I willing to put more work, my vision and my individuality out there, for more and more people to see and to critique?  They will continue to challenge me.  I will continue to have to make a choice between more learning and saying ‘Enough’.

The more I place my work in public, the more I open myself to challenge as well.  Am I prepared to continue on the journey of self-discovery and change in public?  I think Tom Ang’s words apply equally to our inner growth.  We need to critique ourselves, our actions with a dispassionate eye. We cannot allow ourselves to hide behind comforting excuses, blaming others, the situation, our birth order for what we are or for our actions.

Fear of turning the cold light on ourselves means that we hide in the shadows and lose the chance for taking the next steps forward.

Bring on the critiques!

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Peace and permanency

Langmusi mountains

No matter how sophisticated you may be, a large granite mountain cannot be denied – it speaks in silence to the very core of your being” Ansel Adams. 

Langmusi is my favourite place in China.  A village surrounded by mountains and high grasslands.  The beauty is indescribable, and I return annually to nourish my soul, fill my eyes and heart with the beauty and spend time with my Tibetan mates.

Thinking so much about transience and change lately naturally took me in the opposite direction – thinking about permanence.  When I look at mountains, grasslands, wide plains and oceans I feel a deep comfort at what seems to be their permanence and taking it further, their endurance.  In a changing world, what looks permanent, looks safe.  The permanent seems to offer us a refuge from the restlessness around us and the constant need for us to be reacting, thinking, analysing and managing.

The mountains and oceans, these vast places do speak to the core of my being.  I can be with them in silence for many hours, letting the majesty and strength of them fill me with strength and courage.  Letting the vastness of them extend my soul a little wider and deeper.

I look at mountains and oceans and see endurance.  The mountain vegetation, nothing like the lush growth in the valleys, speak to me of endurance and strength.

But is this permanence an illusion?  Oceans are forever moving and changing, mountains rise and fall depending on seismic shifts and erosion.  The mountain vegetation or the ocean kelp beds die and renew.  Is there anything that we can call ‘permanent”?

For me their permanence lies in knowing that no matter what we as humans do, these mountains and oceans will be there for many eons after we disappear, as they were for many eons before we arrived.  The exteriors may change, but the core remains.

Having an enduring, eternal core for ourselves is necessary.  It is the basis of all else we do.  Knowing this core, strengthening it, deepening and broadening it, allows us to maintain our individuality in the face of the restless, impermanent world around us.

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The ‘good eye’.

Light and Water

My readings in the world of wabi-sabi have also lead to readings about ‘miksang’ – a Tibetan Buddhist philosophy of seeing.

Miksang is a Tibetan word meaning “good eye” and represents a form of contemplative photography based on the Dharma Art teachings of Chögyam Trungpa, in which the eye is in synchronisation with the contemplative mind. The result of this particular perception of the world, combined with photography, produces a peculiar and open way of seeing the world. Miksang pictures tend to bring the observer back into the original contemplation  state of the author of the picture. The pictures can bring one back to a purer perception  of reality that is often neglected. Miksang involves nothing fancy, no special setup; only a visual capture, in the proper state of mind, of everyday reality .

This combination of the contemplative mind with looking deeply at things from daily life seems to fit beautifully with the wabi-sabi concept of seeing the beauty in impermanence and the peace within natural objects and shapes.  Wabi-sabi and miksang both call for an acceptance of things as they are and of allowing our inner being to respond to the beauty of the imperfect, of the melancholy of the beautiful, of seeing ourselves within these deeper simplicities.

Both philosophies call for a stripping away of the externalities and complexities that fill our lives, asking us to see more clearly and more deeply.  Looking at the world this way from a meditative state where the eye and the camera become one,  expresses the inner sight and at the same time, the inner being.

Miksang photography or art takes us into the small hidden things of the world – the patterns that create the world we see.  Examining the patterns of sand or leaf veins or the patterns made by bubbles in water opens our minds to the patterns we create in our own lives.  Are they permanent patterns, or like bubbles, transient?  Are they functional patterns, like those found in rings on a  tree or have these patterns lost functionality and we now follow them without thought, because we have always done so, or because it is the accepted behaviour for ‘people like us’?  Are our patterns of behaviour and thought natural or forced upon us?  Did we chose them to meet a need, now long forgotten?

Nature’s patterns have a purpose and we can examine them in detail to understand the reason.  We need also to examine our own patterns to see if they too have a purpose, and to see if the purpose behind this pattern is still good.  Do we hide behind the patterns we create to keep ourselves safe or protected from the world?

If we work with these ideas we may find that our patterns of thinking and seeing and behaving are no longer patterns, but prison bars, limiting our functionality, limiting our creativity, limiting our understanding..

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A shot into the psyche

The limitations of photography are in yourself, for what we see is only what we are.Ernst Haas

For the seeker of the soul, photography and all other arts become the window to the inner world.  We look at the world with our eyes, seeing the things that resonate within us.  We take photographs of what catches our psyche, and therefore catches our eyes. To explore this is to find out so much more about ourselves.

I take photographs of things that fascinate me, and in doing so, I expose my view of the world, and my inner being to others.  When I spend so much time on finding the beauty in the imperfect, the transient, the dying – does this echo my preoccupation with my own imperfections, my quest to create beauty and goodness within my transient self?

When I walk through the streets taking photographs of faces, am I looking for myself within those crowds; searching for someone that I can see myself in?  The photos of foibles – lovely shots of touches of humanity in an increasingly homogeneous world, are they signs of my search for my individuality?

Each shot I take means something to me, and places me ‘out there’ to be interpreted as others wish.  I have no control over those interpretations, and occasionally when someone interprets one of my photographs in a way that I didn’t see, didn’t intend, I cringe, wanting to shout “But that’s not what I meant!”.  Yet, that person is interpreting my work through their eyes, their experiences, and from that I can see another way of looking at the world, and I can see a little way into that person.

What does the photo above mean to me?  I see many things.  New growth – always something I am looking for.  For me, to see the end of growth is to experience death.  Light – light is so glorious.  I can stand transfixed by light and how it touches the world.  Light creates glow and warmth and joy.  These are things I want to echo in my life.  Contrast – bright and dark, new and old, the shadow and the light.  The yin-yang of the world.  I am seeking balance in my life, and examining contrasts clearly shows that I need opposites to create balance.  Quiet times need to be balanced with energy; sleep with wakefulness; work with rest … the list is endless.  And yet we often strive for an unbalanced life – calling for happiness without sorrow, growth without pain or change without loss.

The more I look at my photographs, the more I ask WHY that shot needed to be taken, the more i can see into what motivates me.  It is a fascinating journey.

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New eyes, new perceptions

“In life, as in art, the beautiful moves in curves.” Edward G Bulwer-Lytton

It is the function of art to renew our perception. What we are familiar with we cease to see. The writer shakes up the familiar scene, and, as if by magic, we see a new meaning in it. Anais Nin

Seeing the familiar with new eyes takes much practice.  Being able to step out of our familiar perceptions of things, people, ourselves and look with new eyes at the world around and within us is a challenge. It can be an uncomfortable challenge.  We may not like the new perspective we gain on the world or ourselves.  But we also have an opportunity to see old things with new joy.

The  magnolia petals in this shot seem to hold the essence of the flower within their curves, promising protection but at the same time, hiding the beauty at the heart of the magnolia.

In photography, as in writing and in life, we need to be able to see beyond the external into the heart and the essence of what we look at.  If we do not look for the essence, we will forever be looking at the external, the familiar, believing that we know all there is to know, because we are so familiar with it.  We can learn nothing new when we look into the mirror, or the flower or around us.  But the essence is not seen in one glance.  We have to part the curves of the petals, open the curving armour around our being, see beyond the curving horizon of our world to find  new perspectives.

Each day is a challenge to look for the new perspective.  With a camera at my eye, I can look into the hearts of flowers, see the spider webs hidden beneath the bark or catch the craters on the moon.   When these images appear on my computer, they stun and delight me.  They teach me that what I see with my ‘normal’ eyes is such a small part of what there is.

Finding a camera for my soul is more difficult.

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Balance

Fires of life and death

This photograph was taken from a train window as we returned home from the southern part of China.  I am often frustrated when I take photos from cars or trains, as they are so often blurry and indistinct.  But this one seemed to retain its essence for me, showing approaching dark, the speed of life and how we depend on fire.

A fire from a gas burning power station, providing light and warmth for thousands of people, at the same time burning the resources of our world and polluting the atmosphere.

How do we balance our need for warmth, light, cooked food and industry with our need for clean air, clean water and clean soil?  This is a battle that at the moment the environment in developing countries is losing.

This need for balance can be seen in our own lives and photography.  How to balance light and shade, how to manage contrasts to create the best shot, the shot that best expresses our vision?  How to create the space in our lives to spend hours or days taking photographs when we have family and work to consider?  The necessity of carving out time for our creative and expressive needs is great, and yet it is frequently the first piece of time we give up when our lives become busy.

By doing this,  we devaluing our need for creativity and expression. Are we denying an essential part of our psyche?  For it is often from our creativity that we can best see and understand the deeper parts or the hidden corners of our ‘self’.  To push these sections of self to the background, seeing them as luxuries rather than as part of our core being then denies their growth, and our greater understanding of ourselves.

In our busyness we must ensure we have the time to think, to create, to delve into our expressive self and in doing so aid our growth.

“Live a balanced life – learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.”
Robert Fulghum

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The Visual Language

Light within, light without

Learning a language is hard.  Figuring out what each sound means, how they relate to each other, which sounds to use when.  This all takes time and practice.  At least when we see, that is simple.  We just see, right? Things are in front of us, around us – easy as.

However, when we aspire to be photographers we need to learn a visual language.  We need to learn light and tones and intensity.  We need to see relationships between shade and light, between form and colours.

Our early shots are ‘happy snaps’ – pictures of things that catch our eye, of family and friends, tourist snaps and of days out.  But as we slip deeper into the addiction that photography becomes, we start to want more from out photos and we start to learn a visual language.

Unlike other languages, this one is intensely individual. The elements are the same – light and form, colour and space.  But with a photographer’s visual language, the expression is different.  Photographs will not be exactly the same.  We use similar tools, but each photograph will ultimately be totally individual.  Capable of being understood, but not completely replicated by another.

The same photographer will not take the same photograph on succeeding days – the language has changed, been modified by the previous photograph and the photographer is looking for different expression this time.  The light will change, the position, the internal vision of the photographer will develop.

For in this visual language, the photographer is using an external language – that imposed by the sun, the lighting, the clouds, the natural and man-made world – to express an internal vision.

The external becomes internal becomes external again when seen on the computer or in a print.  The photographer has used a special language to create and convey something from deep within. The viewer reads this language and enters the internal world of the photographer.

Knowing this, the photographer must make choices.  To retain the internal world as private, only for close family and friends, or to light the the internal??  To shoot ‘happy snaps’ or to express part of the soul?

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