Taking the time…

This can be read as a parallel reflection on the text I wrote about portraits a few days ago.  It might be terribly tedious because it might be very obvious to you – but it’s about my own exploration of a key issue in my landscape photography.

I have taken thousands of landscape photographs on and off for about 20 years.  When I bought my first SLR – I think it was a Pentax P30n with a 28-70 or so lens, a graduation present; later augmented by a Sigma telephoto zoom (ca. 80-200mm) – I was living on the island of Iona, working for the Iona Community.  Most of my days off were spent wandering about this small island in all seasons and weathers, taking photographs.  I bought the cheapest print film I could, and had to post it to a camera shop in Oban on the mainland for D&P – it took about a 10-14 days to get it back.  When I took my photos I didn’t always think to write anything down such as exposure or speed settings, and so in part just learnt incidentally from mistakes I could identify, and from other people (thanks, David, for advising me to underexpose a little to get richer colours – that was my first lesson!).  I had virtually no money (salaries were very low, and I needed to buy other essentials, like whisky!) so I could barely afford to buy sufficient film.  But in slightly less than 2 years I took hundreds and hundreds of photos, and developed my technique considerably.  One of my all-time favourite photographs of Iona Abbey comes from this period – one day I’ll get around to finding it, scanning it in and putting it on my website.

I moved from a remote Scottish island to Jerusalem and worked there for almost a year.  I used mostly black and white and some colour print film.  Some of it I developed (with help) in a lab in a local Palestinian newspaper, which used one or two of my images – this was street photography, more than anything else, often with a lot of energy behind it.  It was a fantastically creative time, and because I spent quite a lot of my time travelling in the illegally occupied territories, my photographs tended to be about Israeli abuse of Palestinians and the like; journalistic-style imagery.

On my return to Scotland, my life changed dramatically – I ‘got together’ with my wife!  Wonderful person she may be, but she doesn’t always appreciate the nuance of waiting for a photograph.  Now, in retrospect, I notice that this is when my photography began to change considerably.  When out walking, for example, I would still take my camera, but often felt myself to be under time pressure, even if it was more imaginary than real: I find it’s hard to walk backwards and forwards, take a few steps to one side or the other, stoop down, climb onto a bench – whatever! – in order to compose an image when I know someone else is standing there waiting for me to start walking on again.  Mark Twain famously once said that golf is a good walk spoilt – I’m sure there are many photographers’ partners who think of a camera in much the same way as Twain thought of golf clubs!

I found that I was often quite dissatisfied with my photographs, and felt I was ‘getting’ fewer good images than in those early days on Iona and in Jerusalem.  And, being a bit slow on the uptake, I’ve only recently realised why this is!  Interestingly, it connects directly with my first modelling session with Stephanie.  Afterwards, I wrote her a letter and thanked her for modelling for me.  In this letter I wrote about the experience of being able to (however tentatively!) tell her, my subject, what to do, and said that I was more used to the ‘impermeability of a landscape or cityscape, which only gives me meaning if I can take the time to wrestle and struggle with it.’

This, of course, is why I was so unhappy with my photographs.  I don’t think it’s possible to make my subject get into my frame – the whole photographic experience needs to be much more relaxed.  Even in this letter, I was making a fundamental mistake, I think.  Landscapes are rarely really impermeable, and using language like ‘wrestling and struggling’ is far too violent for what I mean.  Getting back to how I first learnt to take photographs on Iona has been key to rediscovering my landscape photography.

This is because regardless of the camera used, my photographing of landscapes needs one thing more than anything else – time.  I need to have the time to wander along a path, climb a hill, fall into a bog, sit on a beach, examine city waste-lands – and then something might catch my eye, might form a shape, a shadow, an outline I wasn’t expecting.  The ‘wrestling and struggling’ is not really about subjugation (which is what I think the letter to Stephanie implied), but about finding the photograph – looking for it, exploring angles, perspectives, vantage points and so on, until the image appears in my viewfinder as I see it in my head.  Sometimes I can’t find it, but like everything that one is searching for, it won’t be found if the time to look for it is not available.

If I’m trying to keep up with someone on a normal walk, all I will get are fleeting glimpses and snapshots – and occasionally a striking photograph.  So instead, I am now trying to differentiate between time spent with my family and time spent with my camera.  I’ll happily go with the snapshots – and then perhaps go back to the same location another time to walk more slowly and try to visualise the image I want to capture.

Holyrood Park, Edinburgh

Holyrood Park, Edinburgh

Making time to go out and spend time alone photographing is a luxury.  But it is one that has its own reward.  Even taking a couple of hours in the evening to go elsewhere in the city and photograph the evening sky can be worth it.  My wife is less intolerant of my photography than she could be (my teenage son has fewer inhibitions, and is often just downright rude!!), but since I want to spend quality time with her and focus on her, trying desperately to get images I glimpse in passing is not a good start.  And I know that she would rather I just went out for a few hours or days and took my photographs, and then was really there for her the rest of the time.

So I’m determined, having rediscovered this fairly basic point, to keep on making time – for family and photographs.

(Incidentally, the afore-mentioned Iona Community, of which I am a Member, includes accounting for use of time in its Rule, and a key element to this is maintaining a healthy balance between the different parts of one’s life.  In rediscovering this part of my photography, I’m even keeping the Rule more appropriately!)


4 thoughts on “Taking the time…

  1. Mabel

    Interesting stuff here!
    Separating family time /happy snapping from serious photography is a great idea.
    I totally lose myself when I’m out on my own with my camera-it’s very theraputic experience, and a completely different one from
    snapping away when on holiday etc. That’s fun too, but better to enjoy ‘as is’, as I think you meant. Keep the ‘real photography’ for a planned time slot. Much less frustrating!

  2. Michael Marten Post author

    When you say you totally lose yourself, I know just what you mean! I sometimes feel that I am more ‘me’ when out on a hill with a camera than at any other time. (In fact, it’s just allowing one part of me to come to the surface that is normally not so apparent, as it were.)

  3. Mike Green

    That’s an interesting, and I think very wise, ‘rule’ that the Iona Community has. A good read, and it ties in almost entirely with my experience. Very well articulated.


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