Working through the shadows

Shadows of life

The last few weeks have been difficult creatively. I came back from Australia ‘photo’d out’, with close to 4000 images to work through, and no energy to make  a  big effort.   I also came back very confused about my direction.  So much desire to go back to Australia to be close to my family and friends, but at the same time, still really enjoying my life and my work here.  And of course my family and friends are suggesting that I return. Internal conflict, the tension of competing desires left me with no focus, no vision.  So I felt pretty blocked emotionally and work-wise.  Photoshop also threw a tantrum and decided to lose a couple of fairly vital bits after I had a friend go through my computer to free up space.  Not being able to work is as bad as not wanting to work!

But a friend visiting from overseas pulled me out of my ‘no more photos’ funk, taking me to local places I hadn’t been to for a while, and giving me a chance to see things with new eyes again.  And then spring came, albeit with a pretty chilly wind as well.  The sheer gorgeous-ness of flowers in spring forces its way into the consciousness, and demands to be seen, appreciated and for me, recorded.

Working came before the inspiration, and resulted in a renewal of a desire to experiment with my camera.  Even without of the full sun of inspiration, I could still see and feel the importance of getting out there with my camera and working from the ‘dark side’. Once we begin work in the ‘dark side’, it allows us to see the shadows and express them.

Added to these influences, I read Steven Pressfield’s “The War of Art’. This book names and shames the resistances within us that prevent us from working, from creating.  It is pretty direct, which is sometimes what is needed.  The basic message of ‘get off the backside, quit the excuses, NOW’ is definitely necessary some days.

Waiting for the sun of inspiration will not open the doors of creativity.

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In camera decisions and production decisions.  Both contribute to creating a good image.  The in camera decisions frequently have to be ‘snap’ decisions (sorry, I couldn’t resist!).  Quick assessment of light, composition, balance, highlights, focus etc.  The best photographers seem to do these automatically.  No thought really required.  This apparent ease comes from years of work, years of making mistakes, years of learning what works.  No shortcut through that path. For a beginner, I can only sigh as I examine wonderful images. Looking at the whole and then the components.  One day, one day…

When I take my photos back to the computer, that is when I, as a beginner, can more clearly see what I did or didn’t do well.  This reflective time is where I can learn more about my actions and decisions.  And, for the moment, it is where I can make some changes to improve on my mistakes in the field.

I shoot in RAW to give myself the best chance to improve the results.  The more information I have (or my computer has) the more chance I have of rescuing an image, of changing a decision.  I can change white balance, improve colours, remove extraneous bits and pieces.  I can do many things to make my image somewhat better.  There are also many mistakes I can do nothing about.  Those are destined for the trash bin, after I have learned what I can from them. My mistakes are as important as my good images.  Knowing what I have done right is important, working out what I messed up is equally important.  One mistake less next time.

Then, after fixing what I can fix, there is presentation.  How to present the image and the vision I had when I created it and refined it through my work and decisions, so that others can share this vision, or create their own visions from it?  How to see with the eyes of others?  How will my vision be seen by a stranger, with a different worldview?  Here I need to step away from myself, and see the image as unrelated to me.  Is that possible?

Not really, but I think I can gain a little distance from myself, through time away from the image or through refocusing myself on other things then moving back.  Books, photographs, other art work – seeing other visions through my eyes, then returning with my mind filled with those visions to re-evaluate mine.  These help me look at my work, the decisions I make now more dispassionately, more critically.  Moving away from the self is important to be able to see the self more clearly.

Then the most fearful part of all – putting this part of the self out for others to see.  How will it be received?  How will others judge me?  Will they see my vision, will I spark some recognition?  Will it be ignored?  Not worth looking at?  How do I see myself if others criticise or ignore?  Fear of exposure, of criticism, of being ignored, seen as valueless….  So much wrapped up in a few thousand dots on a page.

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Jane Reichhold

Haiku has always fascinated me as a poetic form.  Such few words, such strong images.  I write poetry, including haiku; I journal, write short stories; write for newspapers and magazines. I teach writing at university level – and yet the ability to create such clarity in two or three lines eludes me.

Is my vision not clear enough? Have I crowded my ideas with too many threads, too much that I want to say?  The words bubble and fall from my pen, leaping out of my mind onto the paper, but without the simplicity and strength that I aim for.

This seems to me to be an echo of my life.  I seek simplicity, peace and serenity. And yet I bounce from one event or group of people to another.  Finding time for meditation or solitude is hard.  My days are filled with people and ‘happenings’ – meetings, competitions, lunches, classes, friends.  I want not to lose any of these – but to stretch time so that I have more space. My days open and close so quickly.  I am afraid without more space and more time, I will look back on my life and see how quickly it also opened and closed.

If my life closes without me being able to clarify and express my vision, is it wasted?  What is the achievement I can look back on?  Family?  True – beautiful daughters living full and interesting lives – but that is their achievement.  Policies written and implemented?  These change with the changes in government.

Then comes a more interesting question.  Do I have to matter?  Do I have to leave behind a legacy?  Is it enough to have just lived a full and interesting life?  My ego says – yes, your vision is important, your voice is important.  My logic (is that my dark side??) says – no, you are one of billions, no more or less.  Your vision is one of billions, your voice is one of billions.  Why do you expect or want to have more voice or more vision expressed than others?

The flower above is wilting. Its brief life is crumpling.  The bud below it opens, showing glory for one or two days before it too disappears into nothing – into my rubbish bin.  These lovely flowers have had a small impact on my life.  I enjoyed their beauty today.  tomorrow unless I look at this image again, they will be completely forgotten. Why should I ask for more?

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Looking for beauty

The taint of age can be very beautiful. The wreckage of man-made objects is something more beautiful than the new. Rust and weathering adds a patina of . . . well, I call it ‘elegant shit’ or ‘elegant gorp’. – Brett Weston

Searching for beauty is instinctive.  We look for beauty in men and women because they signal healthy breeding processes for the survival of our species. Beauty in nature attracts insects to fertilise flowers and create new life.  Majestic mountains and serene landscapes have been painted and photographed over and over, their beauty inspiring us and being transferred around the world in images that we label as beautiful.

But for me there is equal beauty in the imperfect, the old, the forgotten and the dying.  In these things I feel as if I can find deeper meanings.  The immediate attraction of overt beauty is not there, so I must look further to find value and meaning.

In judging people we have been told so often about books and their covers that we almost never say we want a beautiful or handsome partner.  We talk instead about other qualities – warmth, compassion, sense of humour etc.  But these qualities take longer to manifest, our first attraction is to symmetry, health and beauty.   Often ‘less-then-perfect’ people are unconsciously rejected from our choices, no matter how much we deny this ‘shallowness’ within ourselves.

Unless we are antiques experts, we rarely see beauty in old ‘stuff’.  It’s an old cup, with faded painting and perhaps some crazing on it.  Where is the beauty?  Even more rarely do we see the beauty in bent and broken  items.  They are for the rubbish pile.

But if we slow our judgment processes, we can see beyond the lack of perfection, beyond the cracks and dents.  We can see into the humanity of a person, we can find the history of use for things, imagine the history that has caused the breaks and twists.  Old and dying flowers or trees speak of regeneration in other forms.  Wrinkled faces and hands tell many stories of love and work.

When my camera takes me for a walk, I frequently focus on the obvious beauty of a garden first, but soon I am drawn to the flowers past their prime.  Their shapes are less predictable, their colours softer and their positioning speaks to me of death within life, of regeneration within death.  Walking in industrial areas creates the chance to explore human dreams and their implementation, and the effects those dreams have on the earth.  Debris, pollution, emptied streams  … none of these things are seen as beautiful, but the shapes and forms they create, the colours of rust and metal, the shine of oiled mud, these all have a beauty within themselves.

A deeper part of this beauty is that they force us to examine what we are doing to the world around us.  Dead trees at the edge of a once healthy lake engage and revolt us simultaneously.  Their stark beauty captures our lens, their origin our minds.

This ‘elegant gorp’ has more messages for us and more meaning than simple beauty.

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I love close up and macro photography.  The ability to see the small made large is wonderful.  With this form of photography we can see the intricacies of life and the beauty in all life forms – even insects that would otherwise revolt us.   With beautiful plants we can see their connections to us, physically or with a little interpretation, emotionally.

For me this plant is cradling the flower to be.  An Australian native, with intense hues and lovely dramatic shapes, this plant seems to me to be surrounding the burgeoning flower with support. The colours of the supports attract bees and butterflies, helping the flower to start its role in life.

We, too, probably have similar supports in our lives.  Sometimes we want these supports, they are necessary for our physical well-being and growth.  As we grow older we want to reject some of the support, particularly if it is parental, and replace it with other forms of support – friends and lovers.  Later still we may move through a period where we see ourselves as strong and capable of living our lives without support – and certainly without the constraining forms we may have had before.

Our strength grows as we depend on ourselves, as we realise we are responsible for our decisions and must accept the consequences of them, good or bad.  But there are many times when having support waiting in the wings is very important for us.  Just knowing that there will be someone there to talk to, to help bring us to the place we need to be next in our lives enables us to remain strong.

I feel I have so much luck and joy in my life, because I have love and caring from family and  deep and abiding friendships.  These provide me with support and reassurance that whatever directions I need to grow in, that I will always have someone there.  I am supported in my search for the things deep inside me, for the parts of my life that are yet to develop.

My family and friends are not only the macro lens but also the wide-angles in my life.  They show me the importance of small things and the challenge of the wider view.  They don’t let me drown in the tiny details, but pull me back to see the whole.

There is beauty in support.

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The vision thing

Seeing what is there

Yesterday I was lucky enough to be invited to an artist/photographer friend’s studio.  It was fascinating to see his works.  His walls were hung with completed paintings and mounted photos,  on his work table there were works in progress.  His cat was in charge of everything!

The visit was inspiring as well.  My friend is preparing for a solo exhibition in Indonesia later this year, and the theme is orchids.  But not just orchids, the heart of the orchid, the centre, the wellspring of new generations.  His vision is to see into the beginning.

With his photographs, he shoots macros of mostly inanimate objects.  These shots are so close that bark becomes completely abstract. Pebbles becomes shapes and forms rather than identifiable.  The colours are often monotone, giving the forms more depth and mystery.

We spent the afternoon drinking tea, talking art, photography, travel, making money and creating.  Over dinner we agreed that ‘seeing’ what is happening around us is important for our inspiration.  Not just seeing with our eyes but seeing with a vision.

When I looked at this photograph of the heart of a pansy flower – a very common garden flower – there was so much beneath the surface.  The likeness to human genitalia, the source of both our species and the flower species; the strong contrasting colours between petal and petal, between petal and heart, evoking thoughts of people of different races  and unreasoning prejudices; the moisture in the depths of the flower, nourishing new life.  So much below the surface, and yet so much of it seen only in my mind.

Looking at the visions expressed by others makes me question where do we find vision for ourselves? When we look around us, how do we learn to see the patterns in life and the heart of things?  Where does our vision of what we want to express come from? How do we find it in the external world if we are photographers?

Wynn Bullock looks into the depths with photography:

“In photography, if I am able to evoke not only a feeling of the reality of the surface physical world but also a feeling of the reality of existence that lies mysteriously and invisibly beneath its surface, I feel I have succeeded. At its best, photography is a symbol that not only serves to help illuminate some of the darkness of the unknown, but it also serves to lessen the fears that too often accompany the journeys from the known to the unknown.”

Looking at the reality that lies beneath the surface is where vision meets ‘taking a snap’ to create something with a greater meaning.  Finding the reality beneath has to come from within the photographers internal reality. We need to see deeply into ourselves so we can see more deeply into what is lying before us.

If a photographer does not evolve as a person, then the photographs will also not evolve.  If there is no personal growth, then there is no photographic growth, no matter how technically skilled the photographer is.  Each step of personal growth leads to a step in being able to create a deeper vision, of being able to see the reality beneath the surface.

So, a paraphrase of Proverbs 29:18 might be useful:

“Where there is no vision, the photograph perishes.”

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