Nervousness and questions of interpretation

I should be finishing the first page on wind farms (or working on a lecture for tomorrow!), but I wanted to share some reflections that I have found I can articulate quite clearly at the moment…

There are good reasons not to publish photographs. Some are very good reasons – the best reason of all probably being that the photograph in question is rubbish! Rubbish? Is that too harsh? How about “does not correspond to the pre-visualisation”?! (By the way, Alan Ross has just written an interesting post about Ansel Adams’ first moment of real pre-visualisation, if you’ve not come across this story before.) Of course, some are just rubbish! 😉

However, many are not. Many might even be rather good: they are technically fine, they are reasonably well composed, and the exposure is sufficiently on target for it to be usable. And yet… and yet…

The safety of darkness (Loch Leven, December 2012)

The safety of darkness (Loch Leven, December 2012)

… I don’t then click that “Export” button in Lightroom – the first step in moving an image onto my website and making it available to others to see. It’s not that I worry about what people will think of it: there are a select group of friends, particularly on Twitter, whose opinion I greatly value, but I wouldn’t not publish something just because I thought someone might not like it, nor would I publish something just because I thought someone might like it! Those who know me personally will know that I’m not really that bothered by what it is that others think in this kind of context.

The welcoming warmth of the cold (Loch Leven, December 2012)

The welcoming warmth of the cold (Loch Leven, December 2012)

No, the problem – if problem it is – is that I am not happy to share the image. My finger metaphorically (and sometimes literally) hangs over Lightroom’s “Export” button, and I study the image once more. And thoughts appear, almost as involuntary spasms in my brain: “it’s just another hillside”, “haven’t I photographed XYZ frequently enough?”, “what do I think I’m really adding to the world with this?” – and so on. Whilst some of these stop me, none of them necessarily do so. But there is another thought that does. So I don’t then click that button – and then nothing appears for others to see. Others being people like you, reading this. What is that thought? Before I come to that, it’s worth taking a step back.

The problem – if problem it is – is simply that in the meantime I know I have sufficient technical ability to be able to produce a certain kind of image and for it to come out reasonably well. I have many technical skills still to learn and don’t deny that, but I have come a long way from relying on the ‘auto’ setting! Now I’m wanting to inject more into the image, more than compositional ability, exposure, and so on. Now I seek to impart meaning through it.

First flight (Loch Leven, December 2012)

First flight (Loch Leven, December 2012)

However, the problem – if problem it is – is that this meaning is not just down to me. Yesterday, the wonderful Deborah Parkin released this photograph, which I interpreted as the child (Deborah’s daughter, Fleur) being content and self-assured; Lucy Telford, another talented photographer, said that it “Captures that self-contained feeling – poignant – signs of growing up, going inside oneself, inevitable but somehow sad.” Deborah responded to us both, noting that we saw the image differently, but with some commonalities. It is stating the obvious, but so much of the interpretation of an image is down to the viewer. Sometimes this chimes with the intentions of the photographer (for example, I understand from their interaction on Twitter and the comment she left that Rob Hudson’s interpretation of Lucy’s recent new image corresponds closely to her initial vision), but sometimes it does not. And what makes me far more nervous than someone misinterpreting an image, is someone interpreting it correctly.

The great escape into freedom (Loch Leven, December 2012)

The great escape into freedom (Loch Leven, December 2012)

The problem – if problem it is – centres around how I deal with that. On the one hand, as I said, I am rather stubborn and that means I don’t worry about what other people think of what I do, but there is another side to that. I am aware that I see some things differently to others. In Assynt in autumn 2011 Bruce Percy looked at images I had made in one of the workshop’s critique sessions, and said something like, “ah yes, you see differently” – not as a judgement, just as a comment.  What I see, and what I want others to see, varies, of course.  All the images in this posting come from a morning last December, spent on the shore of Loch Leven, watching the sun come up – except that I wasn’t that bothered about seeing the sun itself, of course – and they communicate something for me. Should I give them titles that simply say “Loch Leven, 2012”, or should I give them titles that point to my mood at the time? Obviously, I have done the latter, but it takes effort. I was reflecting on a particularly difficult autumn teaching semester at the university – difficult not because of the students, of course, but because of management, and I was wanting to reflect on those experiences. Whether they communicate the same thing for you as they did for me, I don’t know. Do I want to explain what they do for me beyond what I have done here? No, I do not. But do I want to share these images in case you work it out? Of that, I’m not always sure.

The last dark refuge (Loch Leven, December 2012)

The last dark refuge (Loch Leven, December 2012)

Despite what some may think, I’m a fairly reticent kind of person and do not like to give much away. Clicking that “Export” button in Lightroom is the first step not only to others being able to critique an image (“it’s just another hillside!” being an entirely fair response!), but more importantly, it gives others – that’s you – something of me. You get to see something of me, and I’m nervous about showing that, giving something of myself away. I’ve described a related issue in connection to photographing a model (the first image on this page), but my photography is also giving something of me. What you see might not be what I think I am showing, but… it might be. The danger – if danger it is! – is that you see what it is that I am seeing, as happened in the Lucy/Rob example given above, and that makes me nervous. My stubbornness means I don’t mind what people think of my images (good/bad/indifferent) because – as I don’t yet tire of saying – I am making photographs for myself, nobody else. They explore things for me, they explain and dissect and reassemble thoughts, they reveal hidden depths to me, and make me reflect on who I am and what I am doing. And now I’m supposed to share that with others, with you? Are you surprised I’m nervous about doing so, that I often can’t quite make my finger click that “Export” button?

Resignation, followed by return (Loch Leven, December 2012)

Resignation, followed by return (Loch Leven, December 2012)

And yet – getting over that and sharing images, sharing myself, is also a privilege. So thank you for taking the time to read this posting, to look at the images, to think about them. Now, I had better click “Publish” before I change my mind and delete this posting…

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10 thoughts on “Nervousness and questions of interpretation

  1. tomwilkinsonphotography

    Nice post Michael and I think we can definitely relate to this, as in this social media world we do partially dependent on the thoughts of others, whether we admit it or not- thats why we use it!

    Ive actually got a simple response to your questions. Obviously one has to be happy with the images we are sharing, for whatever purpose, be it simply to show a pretty view, or to show some deeper meaning or context. But when we are happy with them ourselves, I always try and share them and look at any comments/feedback. I think it is an essential part of the ‘creative process’ to get images published and out to an audience (we won’t go into the different types of audience here). Only when they are ‘released’ in to the wild can we let them go and have their place in the world (whatever place that might be, I’m not sure, if any!). Once we have let them go, we can then sit back and think about the stages that led up to the point of release. In a sort of cathartic way we need to get rid of them so we can learn from them. We can learn if there is anything you would have done differently, or (more importantly) how do the images inform what you will do in the future?

    So I say, get them out there, cease with the hesitance and them them exist in their chosen audience. Having said that, I sat on my last image for 2 weeks! 🙂 Perhaps a dose of my own medicine is in order! Personally, I don’t see enough of your images about the twitterverse, which is a shame (unless I’m constantly missing your postings!), and I love hearing about the making of them so please, only when you are ready, let’s have a look! 🙂

    1. Michael Marten Post author

      Thanks Tom – I always appreciate your thoughtful responses to my ramblings.
      Yes, there is definitely something about getting them out and seeing what comes back. And yet: what if I’m not sure I want them out, if I’m not sure I want people to see that part of me? That is what I’m wary of. Where I think I can learn from you in this comment is to say that each of the images above could stand alone as a perfectly decent image, and I could have just put each one out and seen what comments came back. My problem with doing that was that I meant there to be a series of images that reflected a mood, a thought process, and a way of dealing with certain issues, and that is what hindered me releasing them one by one right away.
      Two weeks – ha, that’s nothing! These are from early December! 😉 And the reason you don’t see that many images from me is that I don’t put that many out, but I would like to try and do more. This posting is, I suppose, a way of explaining why there are so few images out there from me, but it’s nice to be encouraged to show more – I think it is partly about letting go of my preciousness about them! 🙂

  2. Rob Hudson

    A particularly enjoyable set of images here. I don’t always say that, because I don’t always mean it.

    So you’re worrying about giving your babies away? I’ve come across this before, although it’s not something that particularly bothers me, if I’m honest. I know when they are sent out into the world that there will be many interpretations. That’s not necessarily a bad thing to me because I try to allow space in my images to engender a personal engagement. But shouldn’t we all be doing that? (I think you are here incidentally.)

    Perhaps the answer lies in not doing it solely for ourselves? Sure as artists we will follow our own paths, to please ourselves, it can even become obsessive (not in a bad way) taking turns up previously unknown paths etc. It’s what artists do – explore the avenues of visual representation.

    —-I need coffee—–ahhh!

    Despite following my own path, I always have in the back of my mind ’how will this be seen / interpreted by others’. That’s not a negative thing either, again it’s part of the process of visual art – we aren’t making direct statements which are clear and unequivocal – that would be boring for both viewer and maker. We are exploring in the visual world and sometimes that can be things which are intangible or inexpressible in other forms. It’s why we use pictures. One of the joys of visual art for me is to intertwine elements of guidance for the viewer, should they choose to stop and engage. Even then we can’t predict reactions, it could spark a memory or association in the viewer that comes from completely outside us. So alternative interpretation to my own is perfectly acceptable to me. In fact I relish any honest reaction. Yet I’m still striving for that clarity of expression, always. Aren’t we all trying to find what Mark Rothko called ’The simple expression of the complex idea’? It’s the joy of the journey.

    Ultimately we have to put our expression to the test. We have to let it go out into the world to be seen and assessed by others. It’s the only way we can calibrate our visual expression. Learn from it. Take the successes and failures as lessons for the better understanding of your own future expression.

    We are social animals, we naturally want to share, even the deeply personal and it may be easier to do that visually than say in words. It’s another reason for art. Really we should question this assertion that art is ’for ourselves’. Whilst I find ’from ourselves’ perfectly acceptable is there no community for your work, if there isn’t, does a lack of viewers mean a lack of wider meaning? Is it not like keeping ideas within your head? Your tongue tied? Does not the wind farm project have wider social ramifications? Of course we will have differing interpretations, but as Man Ray said to his protege ’We only need 5 or 6 people who understand and care’.

  3. Duncan Fawkes (@duncanfawkes)

    A very interesting post Michael, one I strongly empathise with. As ever I feel my reply can’t do justice to the thought you applied to the post, and others to their replies, but here goes…

    I understand a lot of the angst you share here, and I share it. Yet I find it difficult to reply to this post. On one hand the question and answer is simple, just share. If you shoot genuinely for yourself, are satisfied with what your images express, then for me the purpose of the art is to share that with the world. We create to share, some may understand our images and our metaphors only shallowly, others get an insight into our deepest selves. For me the hesitation comes from feeling the image is lacking or isn’t representative of me or how I perceive others to see me (some doubt, sometimes misplaced). But ultimately if I’m happy with the image, I publish.

    Yet I think your post goes deeper, beyond photography and beyond such an easy answer. If you feel your images are so true to you, so deep, so revealing, then I think your concerns are less about the images themselves and more about how you view yourself and role within society? Here I’m interpreting your concerns as akin to sharing one’s deepest thoughts retained in a diary. Images are perhaps layers of metaphor laid on top of our emotions, but if the essence and the ‘answer’ is there for others to see then its very much bearing ourselves/yourself open to inspection, criticism and perhaps humiliation.

    I believe these are the very deepest and most powerful of human emotions – I see them stir within me constantly. We are tribal creatures, we feel the need to fit in, to belong, to seem normal, to feel safe, perhaps to be reassured to lead. Freely opening the opportunity to others to see you as ‘different’, to see through the social facade that allows us to be a part of the tribe, is quite the challenge.

    And yet I think this is just ‘resistance’. I always like to believe that if we push beyond that fear and (perhaps?) irrationality then things become clearer, more obvious and uncluttered. As a result many, themselves similarly oppressed by themselves or others, rally to your cause, see you for what you are and support you. That is a gift.

    Being scared, hiding, not opening up are all things we can feel quite deeply. But facing up to that and challenging it may be the most liberating and life affirming thing we can do. So my answer remains. Publish and be proud in doing so. If your images are genuine and connected to your deep self then only good can come from sharing. You will find an audience that understands you and wants to know you better. As i said, that is a gift.

    (apologies if I’ve dwelled into soliloquy and self help, or gone off at a tangent. I think I know where you are coming from)

  4. tomwilkinsonphotography

    If I may add just a little more in regard to the replies by Rob and Duncan. Essentially, what are we afraid of here? If “afraid” is the right word. You mention that you don’t want people to see a particular side of you but in my opinion, photography is the ideal way of expressing inner emotions, fears, etc WITHOUT having to be explicit. Unless you are going to be shooting naked self-portraits (!!), your chosen subject matter (wind turbines, the bedrock of a lake) and its resulting photographs, depending on the way you approach it, can ultimately become the expression you are looking for, allowing for full metaphorical exploration of your inner self , and if done skilfully the audience can be none the wiser! 😉

    1. Duncan Fawkes (@duncanfawkes)

      I do agree Tom. The layers of metaphor and interpretation make visual art, to me, the ideal mode to explore oneself without being very literal. So yes, perhaps there is little to fear.

      That said, if of our art leads others’ perception of ourselves a certain direction then – depending on the extent of that direction – then even a more shallow interpretation of our images may still expose us in a way that we’re uncomfortable. Put another way, pretty pictures that the world laps up is safe. Anything other says “this is who I am and what appeals to me/I associate with” and so is revealing and hence unnerving. Even as a very simple example something alternate begs the question of a casual viewer “instead of taking a colourful sunset you took a weird picture of a tree and some bushes. And you call yourself an artist, huh?!”.

      Our art reveals ourselves to different degrees, and the less obvious it is the more vulnerable we feel (the tribe don’t understand). I still hate Flickr for loving crap images whilst making me feel like an artistic pariah, and my work is relatively straightforward (perhaps my mistake lol)!

  5. Lucy Telford

    Hello 🙂

    Duncan seems to have got your concerns nailed – you are worried that your photographs may reveal more than you had intended, to certain people anyway. I think he and Tom and Rob all make valid points although, obviously, it’s down to you and what you are comfortable with which counts in the end.

    As ever, I can only speak for me but I found Rob’s sensitive, careful and amazingly accurate analysis of my latest image deeply moving and profoundly inspiring. Yes, he did see things in there which were hidden and which I may not want to intentionally reveal but that’s the point. My approach to image making is always a personal and internal one. Everything is to do with feelings, emotions, memories… It’s not that I try (or don’t try) to be explicit – I make images because that’s how I am driven to make them. And for someone to understand the message/the clues/the code is just brilliant (don’t we all want to be understood?) – it’s like someone has deciphered me. I suspect that this is just what worries you Michael – that someone may decipher you? But isn’t that at the heart of what we do? I know we’ve had this discussion about semantics and what one person means by a certain word etc etc – but if you want to call image-making at its highest level “art”, then art is about making images which are so incredibly personal to you that they have “YOU” inside them. It’s only then that the rest of us can start to “get” them.

    Yes, we feel vulnerable. I feel stripped bare, often, by images I make because I am putting pieces of myself out there into the cold cyber world or on a wall. I sometimes think that people must think I am a right old miserable cow because my images are so often melancholy whereas you (and those who have met me) know that I’m not really! I do have a sense of humour – honest! But the images are to do with all the bits of me which I don’t show publicly.

    I think that your issues are maybe more to do with you personally and less to do with the photography. You are a reticent and maybe private person – but for your photos to be meaningful to more than just you I think that you have to take the risk. What’s the worst that can happen? Someone might rumble you?! If someone interprets that meaning correctly…. what would happen? Think on that….

    1. Michael Marten Post author

      Thanks to all of your for commenting – it is much appreciated. I have spent some time thinking through these things, and want to try and pick up on some themes, respond to some of your questions, and perhaps explain some thoughts in more detail.

      Rob: yes, I do want my photos to elicit an emotional reaction, but I think I’m wondering about the parameters within which that might happen. I like the idea of intertwining ‘elements of guidance for the viewer, should they choose to stop and engage’, and yes, an honest reaction is maybe all I should be aiming for. I wonder if my problem here is the level of guidance on offer? As I suggested in the posting, even the titles offer something of a challenge. And yet, of course, some images are very deliberately intended to offer something to the viewer that I want to direct (the wind farm project is a good example, as you point out; and in some of the journalistic-style photography I pursued in the Middle East, there is clearly a directive element).
      Regarding directing: I use words all the time in what I do in the rest of my life, and I like to think that I am generally a rather articulate sort of person. My photography is in part about expressing things for which all these thousands of words are in some way inefficacious, deficient, inappropriate, inadequate, disappointing, ineffective… and that is, I think, what I mean by ‘I do it for myself’ – I engage in photography because the other great tool of social interaction that I have doesn’t always deliver the results I am after. Perhaps I should consider the viewer more? We all do in some way, of course: we look through a viewfinder etc. and ask ourselves how this scene will be seen, which is in part about how the viewer sees things.
      You are right to point to Man Ray, though my ambition is perhaps more modest – one person would be sufficient! (I just want it to be the right person…!)

      Duncan and Tom: you ask if the images represent something profound to me, and the answer is that yes, many do – but perhaps just to me? Then I should perhaps follow your and Tom’s line and publish and see what comes back? But I think there is more to this, as you say. What is really interesting to me is that I’ve really had to think about your use of the terms resistance, fear, irrationality: these are not terms I was thinking of at all. I’ve had to think long and hard about whether I think these apply here, and I think they do touch on something, but are not quite right in describing the most basic element of the emotion here. They feel a bit too strong, when I think I really do mean nervousness. However, that nervousness can escalate to become worry, and then from there become fear. The point is that I’m not sure I want to hide whatever it is from the viewer, but I am nervous at their reaction to what I might be showing. Your point about us being social beings is the key – I do want to share things, but it does make me nervous, and then I don’t always do so. The photos here acquire meaning for me in part because I give them titles – though you might simply say ‘that’s a pretty snow-covered hill’, and that’s it. But in explaining a little, there is much more that could be read into them, and yes, Duncan, you’re no doubt right is saying that an audience will find these things. So Tom, your thought about ‘full metaphorical exploration of your inner self’ is a nice line to reflect on here. (Duncan, your line about the colourful sunset vs weird tree made me laugh – I suppose we’ve all heard that plenty of times!)

      Lucy: I like the emphasis on the personal and emotional in your comment. With regard to the images on this page: I knew this location from day trips. From that I instinctively sensed that this is where I wanted to go to photograph these hills from this distance across the loch in order to find expression for what had happened to me. And whilst I don’t think these images could be deciphered in the way you describe (they could also just be ‘pretty’), I think there is something to the idea of vulnerability, and from that, about control (ha – the classic combination!): I would like to be able to show what I want of myself when I want to etc.! And yet, as ever, there is something about throwing yourself open – perhaps I need to think more frequently about your question: ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’

      So: as ever, I have learnt so much more from all of you, and will reflect on this further, I’m sure. And yes, getting images out there…

      PS Tom: regarding naked self-portraits: funnily enough, I was just thinking… hey, come back everyone! Where have you all gone?!

  6. Steve Francis

    And there was me thinking I was the only one – I can relate very much to your thoughts, it even stops me firing the shutter in the first place at times.

    1. Michael Marten Post author

      You are definitely not the only one! And yes, all this is presuming I’ve actually squeezed the shutter in the first place! 🙂

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