What would you do, if you had no undo?

I’ve written posts in the past about the act of committing to your decisions. When we create art, we have to commit to our decisions along the way: where to place the tripod, when to click the shutter and when to say when something is finished / complete. There are many stages along the way where we have to make a choice knowing we can’t go back.

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But there seems to always be a need to have an undo button with the software we use. We think that the undo button is pretty neat. Don’t like what we’ve done? We can undo it. It’s powerful. We now have more options in front of us, and that makes things more powerful, more creative, right?

Well, I don’t think so.

Having a way of being able to undo a decision is a cheap way of saying ‘I don’t have to worry about any decisions I make, and therefore, I can take them less seriously than if I knew that once they are made, I can’t go back.

What would you do if you had no undo feature with your software?

Would you be more careful with your edits? Would you think twice before you delete something? Would you find that every decision you made became quite difficult? Would you slow down? Would you find yourself torn, unsure of what to do?

Being a creative person is all about taking risks, of accepting that you may fail. Failure is good for us. Being able to be comfortable at failing when experimenting means that you open up your chances of doing something surprising. It also means you aren’t following the beaten path of the derivative.

Having no undo, means you have to stand by your decisions and learn to let go if things go wrong.

Having no undo means you are free. Because as soon as you are no longer scared to screw up, you are free to try anything you want, and to see where it goes.

Creativity cannot be controlled, perfected, done with no room for failure. Failure is part of the creative process, and having no undo button is actually a good thing. Having an undo button is actually stopping you from letting go, and from trusting yourself to give things a go because you believe in what you do.

Gerhard Richter

I was in Norway last week, visiting a photo-pal. Except that my friend and I came down with a really bad cold and spent most of the week just trying to breathe, as our lungs were a mess.

While I was at my friend's home, he showed me some DVD's. One of them was about Gerhard Richter. I must confess I did not know of him, but I was intrigued. Particularly by his portraits, which look like photographs, except they're made by oils.

So I've just received some books and more DVD's to accompany my recuperation. Here is one of them. I've had a brief look and it's wonderful. So I hope to write a more detailed review later.

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Outdoor Photography Magazine

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Many thanks to @OPOTY magazine for beautifully presenting my article in this month's edition of their magazine.

It was a rare chance to discuss my interest in painting and how historical paintings from some of the locations I have gotten to know so well, have influenced or informed what I do.

When I was a small boy, my parent's really supported me in my interest in drawing and painting. My aunt Helen, who was married to the late John Bellany (Scottish painter) would send me oil paints and other art materials.

It has taken me a while to acknowledge and understand the relationship between my art-beginnings and my photography. Indeed, I would be inclined to say that my landscape photography is really a continuation of the compositions I made as a small boy with oil paints and charcoal sticks.

Art as Influence, as Inspiration

"art is often a symptom of the landscape"

Over the past few weeks, I've been enjoying and reading about the great Japanese artist Hokusai. Although Hokusai's name may not be universally known to many of us, his painting 'The Great Wave off Kanagawa', will be. It is perhaps the most famous Japanese print of all.

Hokkusai's 'The Great Wave of Kanagawa'.

Hokkusai's 'The Great Wave of Kanagawa'.

I'm due to visit Japan this December. It's a trip I've been looking forward to all year now and as it gets closer  I find I can't help myself but wish to know more about Japan, its art and its culture.

You see, I get great inspiration from enjoying and absorbing the art of the places I'm going to visit, because its art is often a symptom of its landscape. I think this is very true in Japan's case. Often the landscape has been cultivated to fit their aesthetic sensibilities, and other times the shape and form of the landscape has informed their art.

This is a beautifully illustrated book of Hokusai's work. I find that just looking and enjoying the work, that I am finding inspiration. 

This is a beautifully illustrated book of Hokusai's work. I find that just looking and enjoying the work, that I am finding inspiration. 

But as well as enjoying the art for its own sake, I find the actual process of investigating and learning about it helps me connect with the place I'm going to visit. Indeed, I often find that the art of a country can often mimic elements of the landscape, or the other way round.  In Japan's case, their landscape has been cultivated to a degree to match the culture's aesthetics. 

But there is more. The Japanese have very definite aesthetics to their art and architecture, and I feel that any understanding I gain before the trip may help me when I am piecing together a new portfolio of images. I guess I'm trying to say that since I felt inspired to come to Japan because of its art and their approach to shaping their landscape, I wish my photography to illustrate this as far as is possible. If I am not entirely ignorant about a place and the culture, then I think any knowledge I have is going to be absorbed hopefully in my picture making.

Inspiration can come from many sources, and I guess the most obvious one is to look at other photographer's work. But I think I stopped using others photography as the sole reason for my influences many years ago. These days I'm more likely to find inspiration through a book i've read, some music I've listened to (such as the wonderful 'Bino No Aozora by Ryuishi Sakamoto below)) and most likely - the art of the country, because the art is often a symptom of the landscape. 

Ryushi Sakamoto's 'Bibo No Aozora

Using tonal relationships to connect the inside with the outside

I think there are a lot of parallels between the world of photography and that of the world of painting.

I found this video today on YouTube which I felt has just as much validity in teaching us photographers something, as well as it's intended audience of painters.

The video deals with the art work of Winifred Nicholson. She was a beautiful painter of still life's that she painted from inside looking out. I've enjoyed her work for many years since I first found out about her while on the Isle of Eigg here in Scotland. Winifred visited the island several times and made many paintings whilst there.

Candle, Isle of Eigg. Painting by Winifred Nicholson (1893 - 1981)

Candle, Isle of Eigg. Painting by Winifred Nicholson (1893 - 1981)

Anyway, I digress a little. In this video we see that Winifred was very clever in allowing us to know that she was painting from inside a house looking out, but manages to avoid showing us the window. But more interestingly, as she developed her style, she started to incorporate the inside of the house into her paintings, but she did so by managing to make the inside feel 'related' to the outside. She did this by clever use of tonal relationships.

In her earlier work, the quality of light within the house is different from that of outside - thus creating a divide. As viewers, we do not feel so connected with the outside. Whereas in her later work, she was clever in making the quality of light and tonal responses inside and out similar, therefore relating the two, and ultimately bringing the outside into our viewing space. 

I've been thinking about tonal relationships for a long while in my own work, and I find that when I make two objects in the same frame tonally similar - they become highly related. Conversely, when I make two objects in the same frame tonally dissimilar, they become less related. 

Well, this video illustrates this point very neatly, particularly in the last image where we see that Winifred uses a couch inside the home as context - something for us to begin from, and then through the similarity of light and tone inside and out of the house, invites us to reach outside the house where the outside feels like an extension of the inside.

Although it's discussing paintings, I think there is always much to be learned about photography through the world of painting. I hope you get something from this short video.

A Stark Beauty

Wishing for the golden rays of the sun to come and light up the landscape may be something that we all aspire to. But I believe that having this aim in mind isn't necessarily always a good thing.

Geothermal, Black Deserts & Ice hugging

Geothermal, Black Deserts & Ice hugging

Some landscapes are muted in colour by nature. I think this kind of understated tonality has a beauty to it - one that we as photographers need to embrace when we encounter it.

I think the central highlands of Iceland is one such place. It can be stark, bleak and yet it is a beautiful thing to witness. I can however, fully understand that to many, words such as 'stark' and 'bleak' could be construed as meaning 'ugly' or 'unwanted'. 

As a landscape photographer who has had a great deal of interest in vibrant colours, I have to say that there has been a subtle change in what I do over the past years - not just in how I edit my work but also in what I am looking for in the landscape. I think this has been an evolutionary thing for me. These days if I encounter a landscape that is devoid of colour, I think I'm more willing to accept it for what it is. I now see a kind of beauty where perhaps years ago I wouldn't have and as a result, i'm more comfortable representing it in all its muted, monochromatic glory.

For me, I think that's one of the reasons why I'm so captivated by the central highlands of Iceland. It's there that I'm confronted with oblique shapes and unconditional tones of muted grey. It is what it is and it can't be forced to be something else.

Natural & Hydro Powered Landscapes

Natural & Hydro Powered Landscapes

For instance, some of the deserts appear to be devoid of colour. They are almost absolute black. They can't really be conveyed in any other way than their stark quality. And It's in this immensity of constant 'nothingness' that I've been drawn in. It's like I'm looking for something underneath, something just out of sight that  I know is there. Each photograph I take, is an attempt to convey that, yet each time I feel I'm just scratching the surface.

I think some landscapes offer us many lessons. They are places in which we can grow. But we have to be receptive to them. I've often said that visiting a certain landscape in my own photographic development has been key to showing me the way forward. The emptiness of the Bolivian Altiplano for instance has taught me how to simplify my compositions, and it also taught me a thing or two about tonal relationships. But I had to be receptive, I had to be willing to listen.

And there are some landscapes which we visit too soon in our development. We struggle to find something to work with or it's just plain too hard to do anything with them. I'm convinced these kinds of landscapes do have a lot to offer, but the timing is wrong - we're just not ready for them yet.

A mesmerising vastness of black deserts and moss.

A mesmerising vastness of black deserts and moss.

Approaching a difficult landscape like the central highlands of Iceland has many obstacles to overcome. For me, I've had to overcome my own set of self-imposed restrictions. I'm aware that I do have them - whether they are conscious or unconscious.  Do I, for instance, only strive for golden warm light and disregard other kinds of light as a possibility? And should I only ever shoot when it is dry and never take the camera out when other atmospheric options show opportunities?

By placing these kinds of restrictions upon myself, I do a disservice to my own creative side but I also show a disrespect to the landscape for what it has to offer me.

The landscape is always providing, always giving something of itself. It speaks, it converses with me, it shows me what it is. This I know for sure. It's just up to me to choose whether I wish to listen to it or not.

As I said earlier on - landscapes teach us things about ourselves. An oblique landscape such as the central highlands of Iceland has taught me that If there is anything holding me back with my photography, then it is most probably me.

Is confidence a requirement to making art?

I believe very much, that when we create art, we do it for ourselves and everything else comes as secondary to that purpose. To do it for other reasons, is to lose one's way and soon, we are floating on a sea of uncertainty. Lofoten

I had an interesting discussion with my good friend Niall today in which he felt that for some, creating art requires a sense of confidence in order to do it. I've often heard many workshop participants tell me they don't know if what they're doing is right or not, and some have also brought up the idea that confidence is lacking in what they do.

I can understand a degree of uncertainty at times. I think this is natural and when we're new to any new hobby or passion, we don't often know which way to go. What equipment should we buy? What is good light? Am I being ridiculous trying this out? This is simply a case of going outside of our comfort zone. But maybe for some, maybe for you - the act of creating anything at all is a new thing in life? If so - I would love to hear if you feel that creating something requires confidence?

I've always thought of creating art as an expression of freedom. It is a place where our minds are allowed to roam, unconstrained from timescales, pressures or limits. By placing the concept of confidence on our work, I believe it to be another form of writers-block - in other words, a barrier we have put up, to prevent us from taking chances. Because when we take chances, we are opening ourselves to the possibility of failure.

Reine-Sunrise

There should be no constrictions places upon creating things. No boundaries or rules. There are no rights or wrongs. There is just the act of doing what we feel we want to do next. And enjoying that freedom. Creating art should be a freeing thing to do, not something that we get tangled up in and frozen into a state of inertia.

I'd love to ask you if you feel your photography is bounded by your own confidence in what you do?

My friend and I continued our discussion, and he being from a scientific background, suggested that most of his life has not entertained too much creativity, and so for him to go out there with a camera and make images, he sometimes feels as if he is a 'fraud' in what he does. I can relate to this very much if I look at my sports experience while at School: I was terrible. Always the last person to be chosen for a team because I had two left feet and I would only hold a sports team back. Since then, I've always felt a lack of real confidence to get involved in most sporting activities. It doesn't sit well with me. On the other side of the coin, if I look back to my childhood, I was always drawing and painting. I was an arty kid. So I guess through being creative since an early age, I have never experienced the  'lack of confidence' that my friend is talking about, because I've always been creating things from my very earliest of memories. Creating art feels natural. Perhaps to some, it doesn't?

Back to my first paragraph: I believe very much, that when we create art, we do it for ourselves and everything else comes as secondary to that purpose. To do it for other reasons, is to lose one's way and soon, we are floating on a sea of uncertainty.

Reine-Rorbu

That uncertainty is what kills our creativity. Doubt is introduced, and when doubt comes along, we lose everything.

I'm very aware of this myself, because with my own photography business, I could get sidetracked into creating work that I think will interest you as a reader to my blog. I haven't felt any pressure to do so, nor have I ever pandered to the idea that my work is for the consumption of others: I do what I do, for me, and because I am driven to do it.

I think it's a shame if the 'confidence' required to create art is because one feels they do not measure up to another's work, or whether we feel we must prove our validity to others. I think this is why I've never really been interested in competitions as such. Art is not a competitive thing for me, but I can understand and appreciate that competitions give some a sense of validity and encouragement to what they do (heck, I'm sure I'd be delighted if I won a competition!) But really, I think we have to please ourselves first and foremost.

We do art because it's what we saw and what we felt. If we do it for those reasons alone, we can't go wrong. I would love to hear your thoughts on confidence when creating art.

Lenswork Interview

This past week, I had a very engaging telephone interview with Brooks Jensen, the publisher of Lenswork. The interview is slated for release sometime this month or in October. I'm not exactly sure.

If you don't know much about Lenswork, then I would strongly urge you to seek it out. There are not that many interesting photography related magazines or on-line subscriptions which focus on the art and creative aspects of being a photographer. In fact, I think it's telling that most of the sites out there are predominantly focussed on gear. So it's really refreshing to have Brook's magazine available.

Anyway, the interview with Brooks was covered by himself recording his own audio while he chatted to me on Skype, and I recorded my own segment with my handy Sony PCM-D50 audio recorder (I love taking a little audio recorder with me on my travels as I think sound is a further dimension in which one can creatively explore their surroundings and it's been very useful for adding a richness to some of my podcasts).

In his interview, Brooks covered many things with me, but I think the area that interested him the most was how I've managed to make a living from photography and in which mediums I've managed to do this (we discussed e-books, printed books and also my podcasts). I think he's very interested in photographers thinking more outside the box, and not being too constrained by the ideas that they should try to sell images or prints only.

Anyway, Brooks was very nice to talk to. He came over very much as he does in his audio podcasts. You should really check out his magazine. Yes, there is a predominant focus on black and white photography, but he also has a Lenswork 'extended' edition which covers colour photography and how best to illustrate or show your work to others.

Very highly recommended.

Patronising the arts

I've been so busy the past few years with my own work, and sometimes, it's felt as if the whole world revolves around me. It's not a feeling a like particularly, but when you're so involved in what you do - it's hard to take a step back sometimes and look at what else is going on around you.

Last week I was conducting a workshop, and one of the participants gave me a lot of inspiration. Coming purely from an arts point of view, my participant asked me a lot of questions about what I do, and about specific images. It was so nice to 'reconnect' with my own work. I'm so used to teaching everyone around me, looking at their own work, and not for a moment do I ever cover my own work on my workshops.

During some downtime, I'm not sure how this happened, but I ended up looking at the work of a local artist that I like very much. I own a few of Michael McVeigh's prints, but until tonight, I've never owned any originals. Well, I feel that as an antidote to so much focus on my own work, and that of workshop participants, I bought one of Michael's paintings.

I feel immensely good about it, despite not knowing why. I love his work, would have been happy with a print of this piece of work, but there's something very satisfying about supporting him. I believe in his work, and it's great to not only own an original, but also to feel that I'm validating what he does (not that anyone cares what I think), but just to put my money where my heart is, and pay for something that means a lot to me.

So I'm asking myself a few questions tonight about photography, and the role of an artist. There are so many of us out there, who would love to turn our photography into a living. To be appreciated for what we do, and to bask in the limelight of acknowledgement that we create beautiful works... images that others respond to.

But how many photographers do you know who own work from others? I would hazard a guess that the answer is 'very little'. That's a real shame isn't it?

If we were so willing to look at, enjoy, and purchase other peoples work and not just our own, maybe we'd all be living much happier lives. Not just by supporting other artists, and by the very act - supporting ourselves, but by also giving ourselves a much needed injection of inspiration into our own 'art world' that we reside in.

Maybe it's time to go out there, if you haven't already - and buy someone's work. Maybe the act of being an artist, is to explore other people's work, embrace and enjoy it. It will not only give them satisfaction to know others appreciate them and what they do, but it might also act as a catalyst to propel you onwards with your own art too.