Letting go of completed work

When is our work finished? When do we decide it’s done, and put it to bed? When do we move on?

These are difficult questions because often, truth is hard.

It’s very hard to let go. Not just of our completed work, but of everything. But I believe that it’s necessary, let alone paramount to staying healthy, to do so. At some point, what we have poured our efforts into, has to be shelved in the ‘done’, or ‘past’ shelf. Otherwise we never move forward and more importantly, we never create the space required to let the future come in.

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But when does one know when work is complete?

I think the answer is: it never is.

Work is never complete. But we have to realise at some point, that we’ve gone as far as we can go with it. Perhaps an older self, a version of us much later in the future may know how to take it further, but the truth is - if you’re feeling you’re at the end of the road with the work - then it’s complete.

There’s a tendency to overwork stuff. Spoil it. Part of your skillset as a photographer is to know when you’ve done enough, and to understand when the time is right to let go.

For me, I don’t like to dwell on my older work. I seldom look at it. I think for me, it’s more the creation of new work that inspires me, rather than dwelling on what I already have created. By not looking at my older work, I feel I’m allowed to free myself from the past. You see, revisiting what you did, and endlessly toying with it - is just far too unhealthy in my book. It smacks of someone who’s got no new ideas.

There’s a line in a song by a British band called Prefab Sprout that goes:

‘You surely are a truly gifted kid,
but you’re only as good as, the last great thing you did’
-
Moving the River by Prefab Sprout

It’s a line that’s stayed with me for most of my life. It’s a reminder that tinkering with images and never leaving them alone, means I’m stuck in the past. I’d much rather be out there creating new work, and discovering more about what i’m capable of producing. Everything I create is a vignette. It’s only ever a shadow of what could have been. I know I’ll never complete anything, so everything I do is unfinished. Rather than get wound up about it, it’s much healthier to assume that everything is a prototype, a moment in time, just a moment. It makes it less precious, and allows me to move forward.

Letting to let go is hard. I hope you don’t think that at any point in this post I suggest it’s easy - for you - for me. It’s just hard. But it is necessary.

Photo tourist or photo artist? Which are you?

I think there are two kinds of landscape photographer:

  1. The photo artist

  2. the photo tourist

The photo artist is someone who wants to show others their view. They are looking to find their own voice, to show others what they saw and felt.

The photo tourist loves to visit really beautiful places and come home with mementos. They are happy to go to a well known location and make their own version of a well known composition. They enjoy being outdoors, seeing these rare and special places and wish to capture a good photograph, even if it may be a ‘cover’ of a well known composition.

eight different photographers, eight different ‘cover’s of a well known composition. All valid, all beautiful efforts in their own right.

eight different photographers, eight different ‘cover’s of a well known composition.
All valid, all beautiful efforts in their own right.

In the past decade, I’ve seen a massive rise in photo-tourism. Indeed, some of the photographic-tours I have run in the past have now become overrun with photographer-tourists. Take for instance the set of photos above. Eight photographs by eight photographers. All are a ‘cover’ of a well known view of the town of Hamnøy in the Lofoten islands. All are very nice images in their own right. The view is from a bridge and each morning during the months of February and March the bridge is often crowded with photographers - all making their version of a well known composition.

For many of us, reproducing a well known composition is a lot of fun. It’s simply enjoyable to be out there, and to come home with some nice images from our travels is great.

But, I am left wondering if when we take photos of a well known location, particularly a well known composition, whether we really understand that the only reason why we are able to capture these scenes, is because someone else found them for us? If you had been living under a rock for most of your life, and someone took you to Lofoten, would you naturally gravitate to a well known composition unaided by someone else’s photographs?

I don’t think so.

So which are you? Are you a photographic-tourist, or a photographic artist? Are you more interested in just coming home with beautiful, if unoriginal photographs of a well known place, or are you more interested in trying to find your own point of view, of trying to show others what you saw and felt?

I realise that it’s really really hard to find original compositions. It’s also much much easier to follow others. But when we follow others too much, we lose the chance to find out who we are and to show others what we saw and felt. This of course, may not be everyone’s motivation in making photographs: many of us just simply enjoy being there, and making images. It’s irrelevant to some of us whether the work is original or whether we are making our own version of a well known scene. If we enjoy it, then that’s just great.

We all get something out of the photographic experience and indeed, we can all learn a lot by copying well known compositions. They often teach us so much, that I think there is great value in imitating the things that inspire us. It’s just that we all need to be honest with ourselves when we’re relying too much on someone else’s ability to see a composition, and just how much further we have to go to find our own view.

Finding our own view has never been an easy task. Indeed, good photography isn’t easy. Nor is it something we master in a short while. Good photography is about being an individual, of being independent, of showing others how you see the world. Good photography is a life-long endeavour of self improvement, of development. Sure, go ahead and copy well known compositions if they make you happy and you learn a lot from the experience, but at some point, we should try to leave the well beaten path and start to show others what we saw and felt. That is why we should all photograph: to show others what we see.

Being original is hard work. The things that really matter in life often are.

Enjoy your journey :-)

Going Backwards

Somehow, sometimes, I feel as if I’m going backwards.

I take this as a message. A marker, a notice: “Do not pass this way again" - this is old ground.

We all know when we’re repeating ourselves, or when we’ve outgrown something. I think that feeling one is going backwards is a perfectly normal part of creative progress. To move forward we have to feel that where we are right now, isn’t good enough any more.

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Looking for a fresh point of view?

I feel that polarisation seems to be at the heart of many human interactions these days.

I feel that we are split. Find those who agree with us, and try to avoid those who disagree with us. But I think we should do the opposite. To hang around with those who agree with us, is just to live in a feedback loop and we learn nothing new.

Rather than follow the newspapers that reinforce our beliefs, or follow the photographers that tell us what we already believe, we should go out there to find an alternative view. Even one we may disagree with. Because it will challenge us.

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If you know yourself enough, you are most probably comfortable hearing another point of view without feeling threatened. To be able to filter between your own beliefs and someone else’s and to find a new position is the kind of openness we all need as artists.

I don’t for one minute expect everyone to agree with my blog writings. My blog is just a point of view. That’s all it is. But is it challenging enough for you?.

Often hearing things we don’t want to hear, can feel unpleasant, or may feel of little benefit at the time. But if you’re as old as I am (52), then you’ve perhaps learned that challenges and trials in life are often times of growth. We don’t see them that way at the moment they happen, but often years later we’re able to look back and say ‘I learned something’.

I really don’t wish to live in a world where things are predictable and stay the same. And I realise I’m entitled to change my mind as time goes on, because I learn. And I change. We all do.

I think comments or views that are considered negative at the time, are views we should sit up and listen to. I don’t mean to suggest they’re always right, but if they challenge our point of view, then it means we have been given a chance to grow. We’re either able to get more clarity on our current position, or to discover that we’ve learned something and our position has changed as a result.

For me, I’d prefer to go and seek someone who tells me something I’ve never heard before. I’d like to believe I’m strong enough to not feel threatened, while at the same time be able to re-consider without being brainwashed - to find my own new position.

Which brings me to my point today:

  1. as much as I believe I am right, there is always room for another way of seeing things.

  2. I’m entitled to change my mind, at any point.

  3. I’m entitled to change my art, at any point.

  4. Everything is up for discussion. Even when the work is complete.

  5. The work is never complete.

The work is never complete. Nothing is ever cast in stone, and nothing is ever black and white. We should seek fluidity in what we do. We should allow things to happen regardless of our views. We need to be open to let creativity flow.

Appetite

So a few days ago I wrote about appetite.

I deliberately left it open and didn’t continue to expand on what I meant. My reasons were two:

  1. that I think if you’ve got it, you would know what I meant.

  2. and if you didn’t know what I meant, you might be prompted into thinking a bit more about it.

The web is full of self-help stuff. Most of it has a short-term feel-good factor but it’s rare that things we read stay with us the long term.

we’ve got to do the work. And we’ve got to be clever about it.

Me explaining things all the time isn’t you doing the work. It’s me doing the work, and you choosing to tune in, and tune out when you feel like it ;-)

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The thing about appetite, is that it can be whatever you feel it means to you.

You may define it as ‘drive’, you may define it as ‘effort’, or ‘talent’.

But I’ve known many talented people who never complete things (that’s ok - it’s no judgement - do what you want to do), but I mention this just to illustrate that having talent alone doesn’t make someone a great photographer. Neither does working hard. I’m not a big fan of the 10,000 hour view that if you put enough time into something, you’ll get better. You can spend a lot of effort running in a circle.

I think good artists are self learners. They are able to use their time to learn from themselves as they go along. I’d dare to say that most great artists didn’t get to where they are because of an art class they took. Sure, the art class will have given them skills and new ways of working, but they had to spend the time and effort joining the dots, making the connections and finding their own path. In other words, at some stage : they took hold of the responsibilities of their own development.

That’s the appetite I’m talking about.

Having the aptitude to grow is one thing, but wanting to do it badly enough is another thing entirely.

If you really want to improve in your photography then there are no shortcuts. No quick fixes, no instant results.

We all have to do the work.

And we have to have the appetite to do it.

The rarest quality

Everyone is hoping to improve their photography skills. Skills can always be learnt.

But there is one thing that is much rarer than skill, and it’s something that can’t be learnt.

It’s called appetite.

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The lone tree cliché

I know, trees are such a cliché aren’t they?

But I think that often a photograph isn’t about the subject. It’s about the treatment. It’s about the sensibilities applied.

Everyone can take a photo of a lone tree. But what we should be aspiring to, is to convey a level of excellence, of elegance, of beauty that is above ‘just another picture of a tree’.

Doing what everyone else is doing means you just disappear into a sea of sameness. But you can avoid it, I believe, if you try to set your work apart in some way. Often that can happen, not by the subject matter you choose, but how you choose to shoot it, and how you choose to edit it. Often the excellence is in the execution of the work.

Landscape as director

I’ve just had to accept that certain landscapes are what they are. They have an uncanny knack of knowing how to direct you: they tell us what needs to be done. We just have to listen.

Therein lies the problem. Most of the time we don’t listen to what the landscape is telling us. Instead, we often try to force upon it what we want. What we are looking for. Instead, we shouldn’t be looking for anything. We should be a clean slate, ready to work with whatever conditions we are given.

How many of us go to places with pre-visualised expectations? Hoping to get a certain shot we’ve seen before, or the same conditions?

I’ve been having problems this past year with my use of colour. Or perhaps the lack of it. I was very happy to find that my South Korean image had quite a bit of colour in them. I feel there’s been a pendulum-swing as I’ve gone from reducing colour further, and then further still, to feeling I’m starting to re-introduce it into my work.

Not so with Hokkaido.

As you can see above. These images may ‘appear’ to have little or perhaps no colour to you. All I can say in my defence is : it’s what the landscape directed me to do. I can’t make the landscape be anything it isn’t and rather than have an up-hill struggle to make it so, if I follow what the landscape tells me, things just tend to ‘flow’ much easier.

Hokkaido is not a landscape of strong colours. But it does have them. I think the art in making good photos of Hokkaido isn’t necessarily about working with negative space. Neither is it about working with snow scenes only. I think it’s about working with tone and colour responses. These are where the emotion of the picture reside.

Snow is not white. Neither is it just one continuous tone. Snow is a vast array of off-whites, with subtle graduations running through the landscape. Our eyes are often blind to these subtleties as we start to photograph it, but with some well informed time behind the computer monitor editing and reviewing, we should all come to learn that white has a tantalisingly vast array of shades and off-white colours.

Hokkaido has been my director. It has guided me in my lessons over the past four or five years. I’ve learned so much from working in this landscape when I have chosen to listen to it.

The idealised view

Photography isn’t about capturing what’s in front of us. It’s more about capturing what is within us. Often when I see workshop participants want to stop somewhere to make a photograph, it isn’t what’s in front of them that they are drawn to. Instead, they are drawn to an idealised view of what’s there.

I was laughing to myself when I saw this. It was simply too good to be true. Too symmetrical, too balanced, too orderly. Too close to an idealised view.

Image © 2019.

When we see a composition in our mind’s eye, what we do is take each element of the scene that is important to us, and discard the rest. Although the scene may be far from perfect, we focus on the parts that give us what we see in our mind, and discard the rest. This is often why many of us find our photographs never match what ‘we saw’ at the point of capture.

In other words: we have a tendency to idealise the view.

If we can find such an idealised view that requires little or no post-edit work, this is perhaps the goal we all seek. But it’s often not like that, and often most compositions out there are compromised in some way.

I think this is why I love Hokkaido so much. Although the landscape is heavily shaped by man, with a bit of work it is possible to find those rare moments when everything clicks into place and all the components before my camera lens fit into perfect symmetry. It satisfies my urge to make sense of the nonsensical, to make order of the disorderly, and to make pleasing compositions of random elements that come together for a brief moment in what seems like an intended way.

Too much noise in our lives

There has to be space, plenty of it, to enable us to be creative. There has to be lots of free time to allow us to get under the skin of a place. If there’s too much distraction in our lives, then we’re not able to give photography the attention it needs.

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Finding space is one thing, but having a settled mind with which to be creative is an entirely different thing altogether.

I think photography can be a meditative act. A space where you lose yourself. All sense of time disappears. I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that often when I’m making photographs - I disappear. I am not aware of thinking any particular thoughts, or of being aware of being here.

But you can only get to this state if you feel your mind is capable of being settled. Got too much worries in your life, or too many pressures, and it’s hard, even with a lot of space - to disengage.

Decluttering one’s life is important, because by doing so, you give yourself the space to let something else in - your creativity.

For me, I’ve always needed space around me. I’m an introverted extrovert. I like being around people and I like being social, but I also recognise when I need to recharge my batteries and need time alone, space to do …. nothing …. or more precisely …. nothing much in particular, or with no agenda … is something I need more and more. Knowing I don’t have to be somewhere, knowing that the day ahead of me is free and I don’t have to stick to a plan is something that helps me a great deal.

I’m convinced this 'settled mind’ I’m seeking allows me to absorb my experiences, to digest what it is that I’ve travelled to make photographs of. When I come home from trips, I often find I need a decompression period of around two weeks. It gives me time to adjust, to think about where I’ve been and more importantly, to understand what it all means to me.

We’re not here to make only pictures. Photography shouldn’t be only an acquisitive act. It’s about how it feeds you that matters most. For example, I often find the greatest joy and satisfaction during the review of work that was created many weeks prior. Not the actual shooting.

Reliving my experiences this way, often after some time, allows me to reflect upon it, to really understand what it meant to me, and this can only happen if I have enough space, and peace of mind with which to engage with it.

Scars on land II

All landscapes have scars. It just depends if you choose to see it that way.

The word ‘scar’ may sound negative to you, conjuring up the idea that some kind of abuse has taken place. Not for me. A scar is simply the remnant of a moment, after all, even the most treasured loved objects we own, if we have them for long enough accumulate scars.

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Scars are recorded history. Marks of moments in time.

Surely, all photographers are interested in capturing a moment? We are all fascinated by the idea of freezing time. Of pressing pause, of being able to focus on one tiny moment in time.

I think that’s why I like lines, features, geological elements to the landscape. I think it’s why we all do. They are scars. They are signs of moments in time.

We’re not just into photography for pretty-picture-making. I’m sure we’re into it for something more metaphorical in nature, of having a dialog with our surroundings. Photography is a way of connecting.

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Art should be disposable

Being a serious photographer or serious artist is certainly something I would encourage. But you know, I think if you are passionate about photography or art, then you’re probably already there in that respect.

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Being precious about what we do is hard. It’s hard to show others our efforts, particularly if they mean a lot to us, and somehow, when we care less about the work, or feel it’s ‘throw-away, disposable stuff’, it’s much easier to be less critical of ourselves.

Creating work takes confidence. Confidence to feel happy knowing it may not be as good as we hoped. Confidence to feel happy with whatever people think of it. Confidence to take it or leave it.

A split personality is often required: one that can take or leave our work and not get too precious about it, but also at the same time care very deeply about what we do. Let me explain.

To be truly free, to be able to explore, we need to free ourselves from any chains, or self-imposed limitations or rules. That’s a pretty hard thing to do if you are trying to be serious about what you do. We start to judge our efforts often before they are complete and as I’ve said on many previous posts - that can lead to writers-block - unable to produce anything because nothing seems good enough.

Creativity is all about letting go. You can’t let go if you are bound by rules and self-imposed restrictions. And to let go, you need to either develop a sense of ‘who cares if it’s rubbish’, or get confident in what you do.

Confidence does not mean you are good at what you do. Confidence has nothing to do with it. Confidence is all about being comfortable with whatever you create, no matter how good or bad it is.

I think one way to get around any self-imposed restrictions, is to look at your photography / art as disposable. Even create it with the mind that you will destroy it.

We’re all far too precious about it. We want to keep what we create for perpetuity, but that in itself is an illusion. We don’t last forever, and nothing does. So why should our photography? Why can’t our work be a product of the time it was created in? Why can’t it just live for the time it was made in, and be gone afterwards.

If you can get used to throwing your work away, of maybe printing it, and then throwing the negative or RAW file away, I think we would set ourselves free. Free to do whatever we want because we are no longer being tied down to judging ourselves on our past work, on thinking that the work we create represents us. It represents nothing but a moment.

I sometimes think that photography or art should be disposable. If you can create it with this in mind, then I am certain that things become more free. You lose your inhibitions, judgement, and an over-riding sense of value in something that should just be a passing moment anyway.

If you are having problems creating work, then I’d suggest you go out one day to create 10 images. Work on them quickly, print them, delete the raw files, and file them away if you feel you are too judgemental on them. Forget them. Come back to them a week or so later and think about the transient nature of what you did, and more importantly, how you were able to produce something so quickly.

Good artists create. They keep moving forward. They don’t build museums to their work. They don’t stagnate. I think the way they do this, is to understand that anything they create is just a passing moment, and something not to be taken too seriously. Free yourself from your older work and you can find the space to move forward.

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.

Themes and variations upon themes

I believe that photographic work becomes stronger if there is a concept behind it. Concepts can be whatever you want them to be. There are no rules. There shouldn’t be.

I have a dear friend from Massachusetts who tells me ‘You know Bruce, you seem to be able to go anywhere in the world and take the same photograph’. He is of-course right. But I do hope it was intended as a compliment as I think it is. I think what Steve was telling me was ‘you have a style’.

But there is more to this than meets the eye. I do like to focus on certain concepts or themes, and it is not unusual for me to shoot the same scene in numerous variations. I even publish these variations in the same collection. Which leads me to another interesting comment I sometimes hear from viewers : ‘what is different between these two shots?’. The answer should be plainly obvious to us photographers: they are compositional variations. Rather than just picking one to publish, I sometimes can’t decide, as I feel each variation has something to say its partners do not.

Repeating themes in the work also makes the work thematically stronger. The work becomes greater than the sum of its parts.

But the trick I feel, or the talent in working with themes, is in finding them to begin with. It takes a rare eye to be able to see a theme in something that others may pass over as mundane, or in the case of some of my more recent Iceland images, landscapes that look quite close to being man-made quarries.

Themes can also go beyond a body of work, and leak into adjacent projects. You may find over time, that you have a propensity to steer towards certain subjects, or tonal responses. Again the trick, or ‘talent’, is in recognising this in yourself and your own work.

I feel that all too often photographers don’t ask themselves ‘why’, or ‘how did I create this?’, or ‘why did I create it?’. Too many of us are just busy making pictures without joining the dots, without recognising themes or variations in what we do.

We are missing clues that can help drive us forward in what we do.

Building upon a foundation of previous work

We have to keep returning to the landscapes we love, so we can get better at shooting them.

Returning time and time again allows us to dig deeper below the surface and to familiarise ourselves with how the landscape works.

On my first visit to Hokkaido, I was lost. The landscape was nothing like I had imagined. Lost in pre-visualised ideals of what I thought I would see, I learned that turning up to a landscape with any preconceived notions does not help.

Hokkaido is not this simplified fairytale minimalist place I had imagined, but is instead a densely industrialised island that requires a lot of time and effort to find great compositions.

I came home from this trip thinking that I may not return as I doubted I got any decent shots from the trip. The ones you see above were, I felt, handed to me rather sparingly. Or more precisely, happened because these were the few moments when I let go, and worked with what Hokkaido was presenting me with, rather than it conforming to what I wished of it.

As I’ve continued to return, I’ve learned that the landscape is never the same. More specifically, if there is something I feel I missed on a previous trip, it’s rare that I will be able to capture it on a further visit. I never see the same conditions present themselves more than once. Instead I find I just create a set of images that add on to the ones I shot previously. Landscapes offer up something new on each return visit.

I’ve never understood it when someone says ‘Iceland’s been done’. A landscape is never done. Perhaps the conventional view has been made several times, but it is never done. A statement like this says more about the photographer’s limited knowledge than it does anything about the landscape. Nothing is ever the same. We may go back hoping to capture that elusive shot we missed the previous time, only to find that we are being offered up something new instead, and it is our skill in working with what we are presented with, that is key.

There is also the aspect of learning from a landscape, which can go a long way to helping us improve our own photography. Spending time with the same place will show us more about who we are, and how we approach our craft.

We should banish the thought that returning allows us to get more pictures. Sure, of course this may be true, but to think photography is about quantity rather than quality is to forget oneself.

I think we often think of the landscape as an inanimate object, something that we view, and if it doesn’t offer us anything, it is the landscape’s fault, not ours. This is really an upside down view of what landscape is and what it does for us.

Landscapes tell us more about who we are rather than what it is. If we can’t ‘get’ a landscape then the problem most probably lies more with us than it. The landscape is what it is. It has no knowledge of what you want it to be, and in doing so, it teaches us to be more willing to work with what it offers. Any preconceived ideals we hold, constrain us more than it constrains the landscape.

Returning time and time again, offers us a chance to learn. It offers us a chance to understand that the landscape has many sides to it, and the skill is in us working laterally, going with what it presents us with, rather than forcing it to work to our own ideals.

Returning time and time again, also allows us to dig deeper, to hopefully assimilate and build upon what work we have created in the past. Good photography is all about putting the effort in and returning time and time again. It is like mining for gold. We never know when the next great image may come, and they will only ever come if we are out there. As the adage goes ‘if you don’t go, you don’t get’, and of course ‘f8 and be there’ also springs to mind.

nostalgia

A feeling of nostalgia is hitting me tonight.

As I sit here, after spending the whole week preparing copies of my Altiplano book to be shipped out, I can’t help reflect upon the journeys I’ve made over the past decade or so.

I’ve said many times, that the time we spend outside making images, is a way of us marking our time. Photography gives us a great chance to stop and think about where we are ‘right now’, and then as time goes on, we can look back at images we created and they bring us right back to that moment.

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Who we were, what was going on in our lives. Photography gives us a chance to not only relive the past, but also to draw contrasts with where we are now, who we are now, and how we’ve changed.

I can’t think of a better way of marking my time. Photography has given me a way of remembering the past, and of noting just how much I’ve done with my life.

And for that: I can’t help but feel rather nostalgic tonight.

I’m not entirely at ease with the emotion. I think nostalgia is sort of interlaced with a sense of loss. I think that’s ok though. Isn’t it? We must all accept that what water has passed under the bridge won’t return. What we experienced, what we felt and saw, happens only once.

For me, I think the feeling of nostalgia tells me one thing: to cherish every. single. moment. Who we are, are our memories. We are the culmination of everything that went before us. To revel in what we did, where we were, who we were, what we were doing, is such a precious gift.

Great times are often happening right now, except we lack the foresight to know it. You may be forming some of your most precious memories this year, except you won’t know it until much later on in life.

Well, I digress….. but it does have a point. I can’t help thinking about the amateur photographer I was, with a few friends around me who said ‘you should go pro’ (Don’t all friends tell you that?). Except I was daft (stupid) enough to believe. it. It hasn’t been easy, but it’s also been the best thing I ever did.

My Altplano book wouldn’t have happened without the past. I needed to go create some memories, and I needed to go and live. I went to the Altiplano of Argentina, Bolivia and Chile several times, so much so that I can mark my life by it. I know where I was in 2009, 2012, 2013, 2015 and 2016.

My Altiplano book couldn’t have happened without the culmination of experiences. As I said a few days ago, you don’t create work by watching YouTube tutorials, or by reading loads of blogs. You create work by finding out who you are. And to do that, you need to go explore.

That’s exactly what I did. I went exploring.

My Altiplano book couldn’t have happened any other way. And looking back, I realise it’s given me more than just a nice book, and some nice images: It gave me some special memories and markers for my life.

Nostalgia. Well, sometimes it serves us well :-)

The best person to teach you about you: is you

For those of you who have been following me for some time, you may have noticed that I don’t blog that frequently. Perhaps once or twice a week or maybe just a few posts a month now.

I feel an explanation is in order, when no explanation should need to be given.

Writing ‘new’ content consistently, and offering something fresh each time I post is very hard work. It is almost impossible to deliver something new after a while. I’m on my own photographic journey and with any creative endeavour, there is always fluctuation; ebb and flow. Sometimes I will have a lot to say while other times very little.

And so, rather than subject you to a constant daily content that has very little value in it, I’d prefer to write when I feel I have something to say.

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I’d also like to suggest, that the best way you are going to learn, is by getting out there and doing it yourself.

A lot.

There’s far too much effort being spent keeping up with numerous blogs, YouTube channels, and far less time spent actually practicing photography. Sure, I get it: it’s immediately available and your often confined to a schedule, so it’s hard to get out to make photos. But reading endless blogs and watching endless video’s leads you in numerous directions all at the same time. Messages become confused and distorted. And it’s hard to find oneself in the barrage of information overload. I’d much rather find a few sources that I really believe in, and stick to them. The rest of what you do should be about practicing your photography. And to practice your photography, you need to find out more about you.

I’d like to suggest that if you can’t get out to make images, then perhaps re-edit some of your earlier images. There is a mine of information sitting there. Just waiting to be used. It’s the most valuable information you own. It’s all about you, and it’s just for you alone. You won’t be sharing this information with countless others.

Your older images will tell you a lot about where you once were, and where you are now. You will see new ways of looking at them that you hadn’t before and through this new way of seeing, you’ll realise what you’re all about.

Rather than reading the latest entry by some photographer: write your own thoughts down on what you think photography is for you. By doing so, you’ll gain a better perspective on who you are, what you’re doing with your photography, and where you want to take it. Listening to someone else’s point of view all the time just gives you that : someone else’s point of view. Care and foster your own identity. To do that, you need to break away from following too many other people.

It’s hard work to sort out the valuable information from all the noise, but to do that, we need to sort out what we are looking for, and what we want. No one else out there can tell us that. Not any big-name-blogger, or artist that we admire. Listening to someone else’s ideas about what we should do can only take us some distance.

You have to put the work in. If you only get out to shoot once in a while, no amount of tutorials or blogs are going to help you. You need to shoot. You need to edit. You need to spend more time on you.

The best person to teach you about you: is you.

Being embarrassed by your previous efforts is healthy

If you’re at a cross-roads with your photography, or perhaps just feeling unsatisfied with what you are doing, then don’t worry. It’s not only natural, it’s also very healthy.

Being unsatisfied with what you do, is often a sign of growth. Congratulations are in order. You have moved on and the things you once thought were good, are no longer good enough.

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The Dunning-Kruger effect explains how we assess our abilities as we become more experienced. In a nutshell: it shows that when we have no experience, we tend to over-estimate our abilities, and as we gain experience, our confidence dips before it starts to climb.

There is a point in the graph where our confidence in our abilities is at its lowest: once we have gained some experience. This is the time when most of our efforts tend to suck. We find we are seldom happy with what we are doing, and all because we’re more aware. Where we once thought we knew a lot, we now realise we still have a lot to learn.

The old saying ‘if only I knew then, what I know now’ describes this period best.

We all have to go through a period of knowing little (in the illustration below it’s called the peak of ‘mt stupid’). And we all have to go through the period of despair - a time when we realise that we’re not as good as we thought we were. And we all go through periods of enlightenment : we see a way forward.

Progress is hard. Having moments when we think we suck is natural. You have to have the lows to have the highs. If you have the lows, it means you are improving, because it means that what you once thought was good, is no longer good enough. Bad times pass, and are often the precursor to new growth in your photography.

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if not now, then when?

I just published some new images this week from a trip to Romania this February.

If you’ve been reading my blog for many years, you probably know that I don’t like to edit work straight after shooting it.

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There are many reasons why I choose not to:

  1. I’m far too close to it to be objective about what I shot.

  2. I may be too attached to certain images and may be forcing them to be something that they’re not. I may, for instance think an image is much better than it actually is ;-)

  3. f I’m disappointed that they didn’t come out the way I saw them, then I’m less likely to get past that, and see the image in another light.

  4. And conversely, a photograph may actually be much better than I had thought at the time of capturing it. If I’d worked on my images straight away, I would have discarded it too soon.

I also believe that having some time away from the shots allows for my subconscious to continue to work on them. I’m sure that there are processes at work, that I am unaware of, which are going to influence the outcome of the work when I do get round to editing.

Diminishing returns, the longer you leave it?

But I also believe there may be a time-limit before the work becomes too distant, too remote, perhaps irrelevant to where you are now, if you leave it for far too long.

I used to believe that if I didn’t get round to editing the work within a month or so, that the work would become too disconnected from myself and I would find the window to edit it had passed. This is no longer the case for me. I sometimes shelve work for many months and in some cases years.

I fail to see the need to edit ‘right now’.

For example, I have a very nice unedited collection of images from Senja in Norway that are now 3 years old. I didn’t work on them at the time I made them because I felt too close to the work, and then as the months ensued, I just found more pressing subjects to work on - usually I like to prepare new images to coincide with the announcement of a new tour or workshop. So some images do take precedence.

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My last set of Harris images from Scotland sat in my filing cabinet for more than a year before I got round to editing them. This was the first time I’d left work for that long.

I just didn’t feel inspired / in the mood, to work on them and I think this is a very valuable lesson: never work on the images, even if you feel you have to, unless you are inspired to do so.

I had originally thought there was nothing on the films of merit so I just parked the work. A year later I took a look at the work and found that there was a lot of really nice images…..

So sometimes you are simply too close to it, or perhaps there is something internally going on with you that means you’re not feeling the work ‘at the moment’.

Just because you’re not in the mood:
doesn’t mean the work is bad

Similarly with this new set of Romanian images. I did try to work on them, and had a couple of false starts with it where I gave up because I just wasn’t feeling it. There was no inspiration to work on them. Again, I’ve learnt that rather than this being a symptom of poor work, it’s more a symptom of where I’m at. Either through over-work, or just where I am creatively speaking, I just don’t feel in the mood. And not being in the mood is OK. It’s not a bad thing. It’s just that there is an ebb as well as flow to our creativity.

In other words - just because you’re not in the mood, doesn’t mean the work is bad. It just means you’re not in the mood. Best park the work somewhere to come back to it another time.

And now, eight months later, I got round to working on the Romania images. I’m not sure what shifted for me. After many months of feeling that I had nothing to say about the work, I found myself enthused and excited to work on it this week. What changed? I do not know, and perhaps there is no need to know.

What I have learned is : work on the work when you feel it. If you’re not feeling it, put it to one side until you do feel excited to work on it. Never work on images simply because it’s the new work you have, and never force yourself to do something you’re not feeling. Often there is a right time, right place to be creative and one of the best skills you can possess, is knowing when to not work on images, as well as when to.

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Why compete?

Some say that competition is good for us. In technological circles and business in general, competition between rival companies is good for advancing our knowledge and expertise. 

But what about competition in the arts? Is there a valid reason for allowing competition to be part of what you do? I think so.

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As much as I personally have a big problem with photography competitions (more on this later), I can appreciate that as creative people, we photographers need to have a sense of drive in what we do. Creating good photographs isn't something that happens by just going out once in a while with our cameras and making a few snaps: there is often effort - a lot of it - applied in the pursuit of trying to create good work. Sure, talent comes into it, but I've met many talented people in my life who never complete anything and through laziness, never move forward with their art. Conversely, I've also met less-talented people out there whom, through a sense of drive and pushing themselves forward, are able to move their photography further. Talent is one thing, but drive or lack of, is another and you need to have talent and drive to move your work forward in general.

Any vehicle you can find, which will help move your photography forward (or give you a sense of drive) is a good thing. It could be; setting up a project, an exhibition, creating a book. Anything that has a goal attached to it will help focus your efforts and stop you from meandering lost and rudderless around in a mix of 'not sure what to do, or where I'm going'. So projects and goals are important to help you move forward with your photography

I have a dilemma though about competitions. Rating art is a bit like saying you like blue better than pink, or that vanilla ice cream is better than a cat. Fish are good but bananas are better. Photography competitions are meaningless, and the only result one can look for getting out of one is the pursuit of focus in what one does. Winning is irrelevant and meaningless. The focus that a competition can give you, is the real prize.

Life is full of competitive forces. Getting promotion at work, being first in the queue to get off the bus, first to get tickets for a concert before it sells out. Life is a competitive race and as a species we need competition to survive. Our genes and species didn't get here, and neither did you, without our ancestors striving to make this happen. So in a way, competition is built into the core fabric of every human being, and every living thing on this planet.

If I were you, and you are thinking of entering a competition: think long and hard about your motivations to win one. Winning is really meaningless. But the focus that it may give you in honing your skills, working towards something is more valuable than any kudos you may get from the winning.

Art was never about competition. And art shouldn't be measured or compared. But competitions do have their place: if they give you a sense of focus and drive to move forward with your work, then they are no bad thing. Just remember that winning them has nothing to do with your art, because art is personal. You do it for you. You don't do it to 'win'.