Smoky mountains – the art of forgetting

I made a number of images last year that I’ve only just had developed (mostly by Dan at The Photo Parlour – highly recommended).  One of the advantages of this delay is that I have been discovering the images afresh.  This is something I learnt from Bruce Percy, though I’ve never had such a long wait – there were even images from November 2014 in this batch!

I’m pretty pleased with most of them, and forgetting exactly what was intended makes me see them in a different way to more rapidly processed images.  I have distance to them, and interpret and see them in new ways.  For example, here’s one that I had not remembered until I came to looking at it much more closely once it had been scanned and imported to Lightroom:

July 2015, looking east across Loch Ewe (click to see a slightly larger version)

July 2015, looking east across Loch Ewe (click to see a slightly larger version)

I think these are Glas Mheal Mor – Bidean a’ Ghlas Thuill – Sgurr Creag an Eich – Sail Liath, but in the meantime am not completely sure, and my extant notes simply say ‘smoky mountains’!  Any note I may have had of how I identified them at the time is lost.

What is now more interesting to me than the exact location is that sometime before going north to Loch Ewe I had been reading about distressing negatives – see, for example, this short description – and I have a vague recollection that I deliberately scratched and damaged one of my negatives. In a careless (carefree?) sort of way, I didn’t write down which one that was, but it must be this one – and I love it. At the time I clearly thought through what the image would be, choosing Ilford FP4+ film to emphasise the subtle cloud tones (even though I can’t exactly remember doing that) and the damaging of the negative (that I also only partially remember) accentuates the sense of foreboding and darkness that the weather was creating. In fact, it almost looks as if it was raining heavily – but I know that it was a dry evening.

The art of forgetting takes on a new meaning…!

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River Forth, Gartmore

It’s been a bit wet here recently.

However we thought we’d go for a walk today, and headed for the Fairy Knowe near Gartmore; we thought the car park that we often use, despite being not that far from the River Forth, would probably still be accessible. We took the 4×4 car, but decided even that wasn’t going to get to the car park at the bottom of the track:

River Forth, Fairy Knowe, Gartmore, 5. December 2015 (click to see the full size pano)

River Forth, Fairy Knowe, Gartmore, 5. December 2015 (click to see the full size pano)

In May, those trees were… err… not in the river:

Fairy Knowe, Gartmore, May 2015

Fairy Knowe, Gartmore, May 2015

Also, the Forth is normally much calmer than this:

River Forth, Fairy Knowe, Gartmore, April 2015

River Forth, Fairy Knowe, Gartmore, April 2015

This is from just a few weeks ago:

River Forth, Fairy Knowe, Gartmore, November 2015

River Forth, Fairy Knowe, Gartmore, November 2015

The Forth runs very low at times, and it’s possible to get to the sandbanks in the middle of the river without any difficulty:

River Forth, Fairy Knowe, Gartmore, April 2015

River Forth, Fairy Knowe, Gartmore, April 2015

Of course, for me this is just an interesting and unusual experience – I do realise that there are many people who are experiencing real difficulty with flooding, whether in Tamil Nadu, Lagos and Dar es Salam, or elsewhere in Scotland or northern England and Wales.  As the link on Lagos and Dar es Salam describes, global climate change is clearly very real.

Every morning…

… should ideally start with stumbling around on a hillside with the dog, falling into a bog (though I must add: the dog was smarter than that: he didn’t fall into the bog), and making photographs of snowy hills, then returning home and drinking hot coffee…

WINTER IS COMING!

Snowy tip of Ben Lomond

Snowy tip of Ben Lomond

Lochan by the Hill of Balgair, near Fintry

Lochan by the Hill of Balgair, near Fintry

Early morning sunlight falls on the Fintry Hills

Early morning sunlight falls on the Fintry Hills

A light dusting of snow in the Trossachs - and a promise of yet better weather to come!

A light dusting of snow in the Trossachs – and a promise of yet better weather to come!

Las concert

Las in concert, Glasgow, 20.8.2015

Las in concert, Glasgow, 20.8.2015

One of my Gaelic teachers, Joy Dunlop, is an established singer and step-dancer (and TV presenter and and and…).,  She and some friends – Edel Ní Churraoin (Ireland), Clíodhna Begley (Ireland), Suzanne Houstan (Scotland) and Catherine Nì Shuilleabhàin (Ireland) – recently formed a band called Las, with a focus on Scots and Irish Gaelic music.  I went with a friend to see them in Glasgow in August, and although illness prevented all five from being there, the four remaining band members gave a fantastic performance.  Coming from the two musical traditions – different but related – they worked incredibly well together, and the evening was a utter delight.  I know almost nothing about step-dancing, but the differences there were also interesting – the more emphatic (it seemed to me) Irish steps contrasting with the Scottish steps.

Joy welcomed photos being taken, so here are some from the evening. If you get the chance to see them in Scotland or Ireland, do go! And maybe there is hope of there being a recording one day, who knows?!

New book cover photo

I was recently asked by a publisher if I had an image that could be used for a book on sexuality and the churches.  The book title is “Sexuality, Sainthood and Struggle” and as I understand it, the author, Savitri Hensman, argues for a more liberal understanding of sexuality in the churches.  The book is being published by Ekklesia, and Hensman is an Ekklesia Associate.  I didn’t have anything that I could offer for the cover, but I said I would think about it and see if I could come up with ways of representing these three elements in an image.

I suggested an idea that I thought might be a bit daring, but the publisher liked it, and so I contacted a model with whom I’d had a brief online conversation a few years, and she was happy to be involved: Tyne Roberts, a lovely person to work with, and a great pleasure to photograph.  I turned our dining room into a makeshift studio with lights, and she very patiently posed for me until I had just the pose I wanted.  This is the image that will now go on the cover of the book:

§Sexuality, Sainthood and Struggle (model: Tyne Roberts)

Sexuality, Sainthood and Struggle (model: Tyne Roberts)

There may be another photo on the back cover too – I had another idea about the three key words that communicated a different aspect of struggle.  We made several images, and this is my favourite, though I’m not sure if this is the one the publisher will use, even if there is another photo on the back cover:

Sexuality, Sainthood and Struggle (model: Tyne Roberts)

Sexuality, Sainthood and Struggle (model: Tyne Roberts)

Once the book is out, I’ll put details up here.

Slowing down: shooting a full roll of film (again)

One of the things that I (and others) say we like is about medium and especially large format photography is that it “slows down” the process of making images, with the implication that this is something that is harder to do with the advent of digital photography.

Certainly, with large memory cards and every image being “free” (they’re not, of course, but let’s not discuss that just now!), it can seem easy to just click away like mad.  In fact, I often have my DSLR set to “continuous” (which means something ridiculous like 6fps – though I very rarely shoot more than one frame at a time).  In the old days, before I bought my first DSLR in 2008, I used 35mm film all the time and often I’d use a single roll for each “event” in order to make cataloguing easier (sad but true!), and then hopefully one or two images on each roll would be vaguely ok.  This meant, for example, that if going for a walk, I would use a whole film up so that I could easily identify the 36 or 37 images from one particular occasion (there was no EXIF data!).  I know I am not the only person who did that, but one thing it did was force me to make photographs – and of course, many of them were pretty rotten.  Somehow, I never really made the connection between “speed” – “thoughtlessness” – “quantity” – “rotten photos” or at least, it took me a while to make that connection! 🙂

This continued when I first bought a DSLR too, partly because, you know, photos were suddenly “free”(!) – I would take LOTS of photographs, on the basis that at least some would work out.  Of course, many were deleted, and many reside on a hard disk, never to be seen again.  It was my first weekend photo workshop with Bruce Percy in Torridon in 2009 that made me begin to slow down a bit, and I’m tremendously grateful to him for helping me to do that.

Now I go for long walks and whilst I often take a camera with me, I rarely even take it out of the bag other than to make a quick snap of something I might want to come back to later: most of my “real” photography happens when I go out in order to make photographs. But I know that I can now compose and create images more thoughtfully and deliberately at speed (I’ve photographed at events, incl. weddings, when that is a necessary skill), and I wondered if that might still be the case if I tried to use a whole roll of film in one go.

The rules for the day!

The rules for the day!

So earlier this week, when we were going out for a family walk, I decided to “shoot a roll” and made a note of some conditions that I would use, setting myself some parameters (I was using a digital camera):

  • I would take exactly 24 or 36 photos (i.e. a full roll of film)
  • I would use only one lens (I chose to use a Lensbaby, a manual focus distorting lens… because, well, just because…)
  • I would allow myself no chimping or subsequent deleting of images – this would be “a complete roll”
  • I would allow myself to crop later to either 5×4 or square format if I thought that was appropriate – in the old days, I just cut prints to make them the size I wanted, so this seemed a legitimate reinterpretation of a pair of scissors!
  • I would mostly use f2.8, partly to accentuate the craziness of the Lensbaby, partly because I knew that I could just be lazy by not changing the aperture (which involves swapping out little metal rings using a wee magnetic stick, and is a bit of a bother; however, it did mean I would need to focus pretty accurately).

So with these restricted parameters, I went with the family on a short walk through the woodlands at the base of Beinn Eighe. I made 24 images, as follows (click to show larger versions):

What thoughts emerge from this?

  1. It’s not a surprise that I used to stress over this kind of thing – 24 photographs in one go is really hard work, and I can’t imagine how I was able to take 36 photos in one go like this!  I actually found this exercise pretty stressful, and the last two images are from the car park – I just could not think about making enough creatively interesting images fast enough.
  2. There is some duplication of vistas, partly because I couldn’t spend time thinking about the best way to make a particular scene “work” for me. And yet… none of these really “work” for me!
  3. Ignoring the distortions produced by the Lensbaby (why didn’t I just take a normal 50mm lens with me??), most of the images are vaguely ok, but they’re nothing very special – they are clearly composed at speed and with no contemplation time.  Furthermore, I was constantly trying to keep up with the family – it’s notable that the one image (no. 13) that includes them shows them from behind – and that just adds to the pressure!
  4. The images that are ok follow very conventional patterns of imagery – rule of thirds and such like – and that is what makes them ok.  I didn’t actively think about that kind of thing, it comes pretty naturally.  However, there’s nothing like the sand/grass/sky image that I wrote about in my last posting, which is a more creative, imaginative and personal interpretation of a location than any of these images will ever be.  These are mostly just pretty boring (though I quite like no. 21).

So in conclusion, my mental photographic processes have clearly slowed down considerably in recent years and they don’t speed up just because I am using a digital camera, even if every image is “free” (rather than nearly £5 for a large format image – that’s buying the sheet film and getting it processed… oh, don’t let me think about that too much!). And now when I’m out with a large format camera, I am mentally worn out if I take more than about four images in one go, because I now have patience and take the time to compose and think about them, never really in terms of cost, but in terms of a very simple “does it say anything” or perhaps better: “does it say what I want it to say?”  I can easily take 30 minutes or more to contemplate and make a single image.  Many of these tend to be images I want to keep and use, which none of the snapshots above really are.  And this is not just about large format photography, however: I know that when I take my medium format or DSLR cameras out for landscape photography, I am also very slow and deliberate.  It feels like a liberation from the pressures I used to put myself under.  And that is rather wonderful.

And now, having inflicted lots of mediocre images on you, here’s one I rather like from a few days later. I took some time over this one, using my DSLR and a 50mm lens (my most frequently used focal length). I didn’t use a tripod, but lay in the grass to stabilise the camera and my thinking.  This little row of buttercups by the shore line at Rhue, north of Ullapool, is very simple, and although they take up such a little space at the bottom of the image, there’s a tenacity to their joyous yet fragile beauty that contrasts with the dark hard stone behind them – and I thought it was rather lovely.

Tenacious beauties: buttercups at Rhue

Tenacious beauties: buttercups at Rhue

Once I’m back home I’ll also get all my film processed, and then I hope to post other images from my time here too.  All of them took longer than the “roll” above!

——

Postscript, 27.7.2015 (prompted by comments received to the original posting)

Of course, this blog posting is mostly about the reactive encounter with a new context. I am not seeking to make any comment about the thinking processes that go on before stepping out of the house. The key issue around making snapshots to come back to at a later date describes my way of working with subjects that I might find helpful for a particular theme a week, a month, a year later. Confusing the processes of conceptualisation and reactive thinking is easily done, and is one reason for a lot of bland photography – reactive thought is often mistakenly thought to be conceptual (it rarely happens the other way around, but it does also happen, with tedious and overwrought imagery being the result)

These processes are related, for sure, but are also distinct.

These processes also inform each other: I would assume that to be obvious to most people.

Revisiting images, locations

We are on holiday in the north-west of Scotland, escaping the rain our house-sitter is experiencing, and getting different rain! 🙂

I’ve revisited some locations that I first encountered on the two Bruce Percy workshops I’ve been to in this area – one based around Torridon (2009), one around Assynt (2011).  It’s been very interesting photographing one or two of these locations again and seeing how differently I’ve approached them.  Here are three images from Achnahaird Bay that are quite different to the previous ones from four years ago; clicking them will show you the older images from the bay.

This first image is really what the bay is about for me, I think: three elements in different patterns.  It’s not always necessary to be really clear about what I’m seeing when standing in the middle of the bay looking around it, something I’ve tried to achieve by the grasses being sufficiently in focus to be discernible as grasses, but not clearly defined (I know, I know, thousands of £ on camera equipment to make out-of-focus images, but…!).

Achnahaird Bay, 2015

Achnahaird Bay, 2015

Achnahaird Bay, 2015

Achnahaird Bay, 2015

Achnahaird Bay, 2015

Achnahaird Bay, 2015

These are, of course, digital images.  I have been making large format film images of my wanderings too, but they’ll come later.

PS As it happens, I caught up with some of Bruce’s recent blog posts, and he wrote about revisiting images too (but honestly, after I took these and thought of posting them here!)