Something new in the familiar

I've often felt that the biggest limiting factor in my own photography - is myself. It's not the scenery, it's not the weather - it's me. 

Isle of Harris November 2016, Lumix GX1  (I use a small Lumix GX 1 for composition illustration purposes during my workshops)   Image © Bruce Percy

Isle of Harris November 2016, Lumix GX1
(I use a small Lumix GX 1 for composition illustration purposes during my workshops) 
Image © Bruce Percy

This is not a post about putting myself down. It's more a recognition that if something isn't working in the landscape, it's unlikely that it's the landscape's fault, but rather my own limitations to 'see' something beyond my own prejudices.

How often have you heard someone, or yourself say 'it wasn't happening today', or 'there's nothing here'. These kinds of statements say more about us than they do about the landscape, even though the language infers that the landscape didn't provide. A better statement to hear is 'I didn't see anything' or 'I find this place difficult'. With these statements we at least indicate that the problem lies within us, not the landscape. But they still have a degree of suggestion that the landscape may not be providing what we want. And there is the rub. 

Having to get past our own prejudices requires us to accept ourselves. We must see our own blindness, and we must also recognise that it is *never* the landscape's fault. It is our own.

If we cannot see something, then we should ask ourselves - what is it that we expect to see? And if we have any expectations, are they something we should entertain, or put to one side?

My own feelings on this matter is that we are often full of self deception. We go to bed full of expectations for the next morning, hoping the sunrise shoot will provide us with what we have already envisioned, or seek. But really, the landscape has no knowledge of us, or what we seek. It is just what it is, what it has to be at that moment in time. Our will or expectations is an illusion. It is our idea that somehow, we have control over what we want the landscape to be.

I often feel that photography is really a leveller. It tells us this: 'the landscape will be what it wants to be, and we have to adopt an open mind to see the beauty in what it is providing us with. Any expectations we had, any pre assumptions about what we hoped it might be - are our own issues to deal with.

Isle of Harris November 2016, Lumix GX1 (I use a small Lumix GX 1 for composition illustration purposes during my workshops)  Image © Bruce Percy

Isle of Harris November 2016, Lumix GX1
(I use a small Lumix GX 1 for composition illustration purposes during my workshops) 
Image © Bruce Percy

This past week, I've been on the isle of Harris - a small island in the outer hebrides of Scotland - my home land. It is a landscape and island that I have been coming to since 2009. I feel I know it well. Yet, this week one of my participants has found a new place on a beach I have been to many times. I am excited because I have found new things here, but I am also reminded that I have been here many times before and didn't see what was in front of my eyes. 

Being a good photographer requires a large degree of humility to accept when one is wrong.  I thought I knew this island (I don't), I thought there was nothing new to find here (there is), I thought I couldn't be surprised after so many visits here (I can).

That's what I love about photography. It's really a metaphor for life: when you think you know something or someone, or some place, the chances are - you really don't. It encourages me to be as humble as I *should* be. Life is more surprising that I think it it is. Places surprise me all the time and offer up new compositions and new views that I had not thought possible. If that's just the landscape talking, then what about people? Should I cast my preconceptions aside? Because let's face it - if  a landscape can offer up something surprising, something new that we had not seen on previous visits, then anything, and I mean *anything* is always possible. 

Photography has taught me so much. But one thing it has repeatedly done is tell me to 'open my heart to the future'. It is often in the unexpected, the open ended possibilities of what might be,  that we often grow.

Certain Landscapes have the power to Shape You

I’m sure all of us have had a positive encounter with someone, at some crucial moment, which has changed the course of our lives in some way.

Well, similar to this, I believe that some landscapes, when I've met them at a certain point in my own creative life, have changed the course of my own photographic development.

Seilebost beach, Isle of Harris, Scotland. Image © Bruce Percy 2014.      Seilebost becomes a massive sand flat at low tide. It's this vastness and space that allowed me to see parallels with the empty landscapes of the Bolivian Altiplano - a landscape that has taught me so much.

Seilebost beach, Isle of Harris, Scotland. Image © Bruce Percy 2014.  

Seilebost becomes a massive sand flat at low tide. It's this vastness and space that allowed me to see parallels with the empty landscapes of the Bolivian Altiplano - a landscape that has taught me so much.

I remember many years ago first visiting the Isle of Harris in the far north west of Scotland. I was struck by the beauty of the beaches there, but I had difficulty in translating the scenery into photographs that conveyed what I was feeling. I've had many encounters such as this in my photographic life where I've visited a place, and although I love it and find it extremely beautiful, I'm still at a loss as to how to photograph it (well). Making good photographs is not simply a case of finding good compositions and good light, but it's more than this for me: it's about finding an underlying theme - something which gives the body of work a sense of cohesion.

I tend to look at these encounters with the view that perhaps I'm not approaching the place the right way, or that perhaps I'm simply not ready as a photographer to get out of the experience what I feel is there. That doesn't mean I shouldn't try - it just means that perhaps I haven't the skills yet to convey what I'm seeing.

Take this case in point. It had been four years since I had last visited Harris. In the intervening years, I had photographed many ‘empty places’ that had taught me so much. I felt that if I returned to Harris now, I might have a better handle on how to approach its minimalistic landscape.

It was just a hunch, but I feel I've worked on my self-awareness enough to understand that what I am looking for has changed over the years. When I first started out making pictures, I was always looking for the iconic - for places that were easily recognisable, and also objects that are easily understood (trees, rivers, mountains). See 'association versus the anonymous' for more on this. More recently I've found I'm much more interested in the mood and atmosphere of a place rather than photographing known or easy to understand objects asI believe photographs can be extremely powerful if tones and colours are used to spark an emotional response. Well, that's how I see it anyway.

Laguna Colorada, Bolivian Altiplano. Image © Bruce Percy 2013  Laguna Colorada is a red lake at high altitude. There are no structures such as mountains or trees in this landscape to grab onto for security. You have no alternative, but to work with what it gives you - tones and colours only.

Laguna Colorada, Bolivian Altiplano. Image © Bruce Percy 2013

Laguna Colorada is a red lake at high altitude. There are no structures such as mountains or trees in this landscape to grab onto for security. You have no alternative, but to work with what it gives you - tones and colours only.

I show both these photos for one purpose: to illustrate that the Bolivian shot made in 2013 helped me 'see' how I could approach the Isle of Harris here in Scotland. Ok, you might want to discuss how both images are quite similar, and maybe you’re thinking I've just borrowed from a template of what worked previously. But I feel the similarity is due to much more than that.

Firstly, when I went to Bolivia, I was forced to work with tones and colours because sometimes there's not a whole lot else in the landscape to work with. 

(On a side note I fully appreciate that it can be quite daunting for many of us and I would not criticise anyone for feeling there was 'nothing there to photograph'. I feel so often I rely on easy to understand objects such as trees, rocks and mountains to give my photographs focus. But i've realised that the act of looking for recognisable objects in the landscape is sometimes just me looking for a emotional crutch, and what I'm really doing, is avoiding working with what i’ve been given).

Since visiting Bolivia and learning to work with empty places, the experience has had far reaching repercussions for my photography. I now find it much easier to approach empty places with confidence and to work with different climatic conditions. I often see parallels between one landscape and another and I utilise these relationships when I'm aware of them. For example, the black beaches of Iceland have taught me how to approach the black volcanic lagoons of Patagonia. I see parallels all the time now and I know this is because one landscape teaches me how to photograph another.

As for the Isle of Harris: I remember when I made the image you see at the top of this post. I was on the beach with my group of workshop participants, and one of them, Carlos said to me 'this reminds me of your Bolivian Altiplano shots', to which I replied 'Yes!'. Most of the time however, the connection isn't so obvious. It can often be an unconscious process where I realise many months or years later that there is a connection between one place and another. That's why it's taken me about six years to figure out how I think Harris is best conveyed. I needed to go to Bolivia first to be taught how to work with empty places before I could approach a part of my own country.

Some landscapes have the power to shape us. They can be road-signs to show us where we are going with our photography. It's just up to us to have the awareness skills to see the connection, or let the connection come to us many years down the line, and run with it.

Becoming Unstuck

I've been able to get outside a lot, and create new images. But what I've been having trouble with, is actually getting round to scanning the work and editing it. The problem is that since I'm so busy running a workshop business, when I do get some free time, I've not been feeling that I have any energy left to deal with the backlog of work that has been piling up in my studio.

Nisa Bost, Isle of Harris, November 2014. © Bruce Percy

Nisa Bost, Isle of Harris, November 2014. © Bruce Percy

When images start to pile up like this, it can have some negative side-effects to your own psyche. Firstly, if too much time passes, then it gets increasingly more difficult to look at the work. I can easily become so distanced from it, that I actually start to dread looking at it. Before long, any work that's left undone for too long starts to feel like a burden to look at. It begins to feel like a chore. And this simply isn't a good position to be in.

Then before long, a sense of perfectionism starts to creep in. You're so worried to look at the work in case it doesn't live up to what you hoped it might be that procrastination soon becomes the order of the day. And this is like a compound problem - a problem that is created on the top of a problem you started out with, and things just start to get far too complicated.

Creating art is all in the mind, and to be able to create work, we must have a healthy attitude towards what it is that we do. Once things like perfectionism and procrastination creep in, then things can quickly start to get out of hand and before long you can become lost.

Part of my problem has been that when I do create new images out in the field, I often find I have very little free time at home to work on them. So I decided this summer since I have some time off from my yearly schedule, that I would brace myself and get in and start to work on some of my blacklog.

I'd be lying if I said it wasn't easy to get started. So much time had passed, and I felt the weight of the work pressing upon me, but somehow I managed to get going, and I'm so glad I did.

Sea grass, Isle of Harris, Outer Hebrides, Scotland 2014. © Bruce Percy

Sea grass, Isle of Harris, Outer Hebrides, Scotland 2014. © Bruce Percy

I've now found that things have turned around for me and I'm feeling enthused about the new work, and it's slowly but surely gotten under my skin, so much so, that rather than dreading starting work on something new, I now find myself unable to keep away from it.

So I've learned something about myself as well as the creative process. I've learned that in order to keep a healthy attitude towards ones own art, I must keep on creating at all costs. Even if I feel the work isn't up to much, I should still work on it anyway - because in doing so - I gets cleared out of the way. I know from life experience, that new things can only come into my life provided I've made room for them.  So get it out of the way. 

One thing you must also consider, is that it's ok to create bad work, otherwise again, a sense of perfectionism will grow and you'll be stuck once again. We are not masters of our own creativity and therefore we can't control when we will create our best or worst work. There is just an ebb and flow that means our work will fluctuate. Either way, bad work has to be flushed out of the system - it still needs to be worked on and besides, we learn something from the bad work as well as the good.

White sand, Seilebost beach, Isle of Harris, November 2014. © Bruce Percy

White sand, Seilebost beach, Isle of Harris, November 2014. © Bruce Percy

So I've also had to recognise that I shouldn't be so precious. Art is about creativity, and for creativity to happen, things have to remain fluid. This means letting go.

When you start to control things too tightly, things stop flowing, and before you know it, you're back to being stuck again.

So keep working, keep creating and allow yourself to be open and fluid with what you do. Your output may vary, but the important thing is that you're going somewhere with it, and you're avoiding becoming stuck.

Isle of Harris, November 2014

I've just started working on some new images from the isle of Harris, shot last November during some personal time before a workshop up in the outer hebrides of Scotland.

Luskentyre, Isle of Harris, November 2014 © Bruce Percy

Luskentyre, Isle of Harris, November 2014 © Bruce Percy

I remember when I first set up my Harris workshop for November 2009. I felt at the time that I might be taking a gamble going all the way up to the outer hebrides at this time of year. Often Scotland becomes very wet and windy and most sane photographers assume that heading this far north at this time of year is madness. Perhaps it is. But the storms and changing light during the winter months really ads a dimension to my photography.

I remember when I first started playing around with photography way back in the late 80's as a 20' something year old. I always went out to shoot in sunny summer weather because it was exciting to my eye and it felt good to be out in such weather, and I would always store my camera away during the winter months.

Storms on Harris, Outer Hebrides, Scotland, November 2014 © Bruce Percy

Storms on Harris, Outer Hebrides, Scotland, November 2014 © Bruce Percy

That is a complete reversal of what I do now.

These days I tend to avoid the summer light because I don't particularly like blank clear skies, and there is almost no atmosphere to the light. I learned many years ago that what my eye found pleasing, my camera did not. I also learned that what I was feeling at the time seldom translated into a good photograph. Just because I was out in pleasant sunny weather and felt good: did not guarantee a good image when I got home.

Conversely, being out in dull overcast grey skies can lead one to feel miserable, or unmotivated, but that's only because most of us equate this kind of weather and light as 'miserable' or 'boring'. But our camera loves soft overcast light, and the photo loves mist and rain as they can veil parts of the landscape.

Weather creates atmosphere and atmosphere aids the power of an image.

So I love very much going to the Isle of Harris in November now. As much as the rain might be a factor to work around, there is always enticement of great light and drama or action to any images I shoot and these days, I now find myself feeling very alive, and excited during these moments. So much so, that I find myself enjoying all seasons and all light, and also all weather types these days.

The world is beautiful and photography has taught me to enjoy every single moment.

Harris

This week I almost sold my Hasselblad kit. It's caused me so much grief, but I think when I consider how hold it is - over 20 years old, It's just really needing a good service!

I think what's swayed me from dumping the entire outfit, is that the compositions I'm doing in square are very enjoyable to make, and I think it's led me to do thing that are a little bit different from how I would approach a landscape with a 4x5 aspect ratio camera.

This is a big talking point on my workshops. I detest the 35mm 3:2 aspect ratio. It's far too letter box, and either too narrow and wide (landscape), or too tall and thin (portrait mode). I love 4x5 because it works so well for distributing objects around the frame. I've said it here before - the Mamiya 7 camera is not a 6x7 camera - it is a 6x7.5 camera - so the aspect ratio is exactly that of a 4x5 camera.

But square... ahhh, I love it. Although it is not for every single composition and I sometimes find myself grappling with a particular location because I know it can't work, won't work with the aspect ratio of the camera I have in my hands: which goes back to what I've been saying for a long while - walking around with a dodgy aspect ratio is going to kill your compositions. I believe that many of us, if we were given a 4x5 or 6x6 aspect ratio to work with, would do so much better in our compositions.

Well I'm rambling now. I really intended to show you the above shot of Harris, it is one of the first images I made on this beach, before I reached what I felt was my ultimate composition:

I just find myself never stopping at one composition on a location. I'm aware there are always other ways to view the same story, different points of view of the same scene. But I do love the first image you see in this post. I think it's ok to have many different views of the same scene, some that are more dramatic than others, and to love them all.

Looking for the essence #7

I knew something was there. The weather was closing in and the isle of Taransay on the horizon was often being misted in rain. The light was getting low and my exposures were going down into the 10 minute region (due to reciprocity).

When I encountered this scene on last May's Harris workshop, I spent about an hour or more just in this small location, looking for that elusive 'essence' I've been writing about over the past few weeks. The funny thing is, when I do feel I've reached 'it', and made some shots of it - the scene is often etched into my mind (I shoot film 100% of the time - I'm not a digital shooter, so I have to work with the scene in my mind a bit more than I would if I had a preview screen). I think we need to trust the gut instinct about these things. When you hit upon something that is working, it is as if your entire sensory input is being overloaded. I seem to find everything around me becomes more acute.

Here's an image that was shot in the same area just a few minutes apart.

I should tell you that I found the stones in the bottom left hand corner too distracting and as much as I tried to compose with them in, they never really felt as if they should be part of the composition. I'm often not really aware of what it is that's bothering me when I make images. I just tend to go with listening to how I'm feeling inside. I knew however, that it was the white streak of seam going through the foreground rocks that was pulling me in, and I felt very much that this was the 'essence' of the scene I was trying to capture.

Often we're not close enough.

When I moved to the right to try and extract the white rocks, I found that the dark eye patch seen in the bottom left of the first image became more of a 'motif'. It filled in the bottom left hand side of the frame beautifully. I find that with a bit of fine tuning, moving in closer, moving around just by a foot or two, things can 'snap-into-focus'.

Looking for the essence (part 3)

A few days ago I titled a blog entry 'finding the essence'. I felt the title was apt at the time because my posting was about objectivity. When reviewing your own images after a shoot, being able to see the essence or beauty that is there, rather than being blinded by a desire to see what we wished the image to be.

Well, I've been thinking about the word 'essence' and also the particular image of Harris I showed on the blog in that particular posting.

I responded to that image of Harris (reproduced here - image #1), because there's a lot of harmony going on in it for me. The tones really resonated with me and I also felt the composition was very simple too. When these two elements are married together, often the resulting image seems to be a more powerful statement. I think this image works so well for me because the 'essence' of the landscape has been conveyed very clearly - the message is strong.

Compare image #2 that you see further on in this post. It's got similar light, and was shot on the same evening. Except I think this image does not work so well. It's missing that extra 'something'. I think it's failed to reveal the 'essence' of the landscape.

I often feel that simplification is a complex thing to pull off. What looks simple is often harder than it appears. Landscape images for me, must contain a soul, they must resonate with you on an emotional level, and breaking things down to colour, tone and form is the best way forward to make images that do that.

Image #2 is too clever. There's too much going on in it, even though there's not that much at all in the shot. But things are competing with each other. There's perhaps too much texture in that sky to sit in the background and let the eye fall on the patterns in the sand in the foreground. It feels as if I've put the wrong sky in with the wrong foreground. Both are not working in harmony.

Image #1 on the other hand is a different case. That sky sets a mood, but there's almost no texture in it. That lack of texture complements the lack of texture in the sand in the foreground. It is as if the sky and ground are working together - a form of visual empathy. And then we have that diagonal streak in the sand. It's allowed to be the focal point of the image and everything else around it is there to support it - not take away from it.

As much as I've tried to explain the images, and get you to think about why one works better than the other, I don't think there's such a thing as a rule book, and I have to confess that although image #1 is my favourite - it was a complete surprise to see it in my processed transparencies. In other words - I did not plan it. And i don't think I could have.

That's what I love about photography. It's those surprise elements. You only know what it was that you were looking for, once you've found it. That was certainly the case with this image.

Me, on a beach

A few days ago, Dumitru, one of my participants for my workshop on the Isle of Harris, sent me this photo.

I've found the last three or four months to be quite hard going. Running workshops is a great way of marking my time, and I really enjoy them. But they're also extremely demanding and I do get quite tired from time to time.

So here I was, on a beach in south Harris, in weather that was perhaps better than the weather we'd had in Summer, enjoying some time on my own. Dumitru said that I looked like I was meditating. I guess I was. Having some free time, on my own, to think my own thoughts, is a real luxury when I'm running a workshop.

Before I finish off this post, each year I notice how my Harris trip in November is always either a late seller, or does not reach the number of participants I'd like on it. Ok, I understand that folks are thinking about Christmas when November comes, and that their holiday time is set out for the summer months, but there's a reason why I do my workshops in the autumn and winter months: the light. It is by far the best time to come to Scotland. September to early May are good times, and when we get into the real winter months, we're talking about low suns, shorter days, more moody light etc, etc. I guess I wish I could convince folks to come to Harris then, but it seems that it's not the case.

It's the gain of the one's who decide to come, and the loss of those who don't. But I will continue to come back to Harris during the winter months, because it has a very special place in my photographers-heart.

Mcleod Stone, Harris

I've been to the Mcleod standing stone on Harris a few times, but this May, we had some very special lighting conditions and I was able to get an image of it that I'm happy with. It was a special evening. The clouds seemed to gather, brooding, dramatic.

As the evening went on, the light just seemed to get more and more interesting and just before 11pm, we were heading back to the van for our return journey back to the hotel when I saw these textures in the sea on the beach below the Mcleod stone.