Working Titles

In a short while, I will be announcing a new book about the south American atacama. The book encompasses photographs from the Argentine, Bolivian and Chilean high plateau. It has been a work in progress for around 8 years.

I had the 'working title' for this book earmarked around six years ago. I find titles a great way to conceptualise and to think about which way to steer my creativity. Once I had the title 'altiplano', I felt I knew what should be in the book, but also perhaps more importantly - what shouldn't.

The proposed title for my future central highlands of Iceland book. I hope to publish this in the next year or two.

The proposed title for my future central highlands of Iceland book. I hope to publish this in the next year or two.

I find projects or themes a great way to steer myself forward. My creativity is more focussed once I have the 'correct' theme in mind. But the theme doesn't always surface straight away and I find that 'working titles' can morph into something else if I live with them for some time. 'Working titles' are like clothing: you try them on for size and to see how they feel. You need to wear them for a while to see if you grow into them or to find that they really don't suit at all.

Altiplano was one title that stuck from the moment I had it. It made me realise that I couldn't add in other landscapes from around Bolivia - I had considered the mines and some other areas but they weren't part of the region that is defined the altiplano. Boundaries are important in focussing attention.

I don't know if I've discussed this on this blog before, but my graphic designer friend Darren and I have been playing around with themes and designs for a set of books. The first of which is coming out soon. We pretty much hope to publish a further two books over the next few years.

I'm hoping to publish one about the central highlands of Iceland - this will be a book with no 'popular' landscapes in it. No classic waterfall shots, etc. It's all about the remote interior, and I hope for it to include my images from my winter shoots in the interior, and also the dark landscapes I encounter throughout the rest of the year. 

The proposed title for my Hokkaido book.

The proposed title for my Hokkaido book.

The other is about Hokkaido. You can see 'mockup's' above. I wouldn't take the designs or titles too seriously right now - I'm showing you these to illustrate the process I go through - these are just 'working titles'. Hálendi means 'Highlands', and Shiro means 'white'. Just working titles and it's too soon to say whether they will stick.

What these working titles give me, is a way of visualising the final books. I've already been collating the work from each landscape, and I've managed to choose around 50+ images so far. But I can already see gaps in the work - areas where I need to look for images to fill out areas of the landscape that I have either missed out on at times in the past, or that I know are still there to be photographed.

Working titles are a great tool to help steer you forward. Making individual photographs isn't enough. If  you find yourself feeling rudderless, not sure where to go with your photography, but at the same time know that you are creating good individual images, then I would suggest you need a concept: something to help you glue your work together. 

The whole is always greater than its parts, if you get a really strong theme or 'working title'. It can propel you and give your creativity focus.

Gestation Period

I'm publishing a new book this September which has had a long gestation period.

If I had been less experienced in my creative efforts I may have given up on this project many times: it's often hard to know when something is paused (stopped temporarily) or has reached a point where things can't go any further.

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia Image © Bruce Percy 2012

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
Image © Bruce Percy 2012

I'm more and more of the opinion that you can't rush things. Everything has its own time and place, and everything has its own non-linear pace. Feelings of great satisfaction as well as great uncertainty tend to mix and merge as we navigate through the ebb and flow of our creativity. Being a creative person is often more about reading and understanding when flow is working and when it isn't. 

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Pauses in our creativity can at first appear to be difficult times. No one, no matter how talented or creative they are suffers from periods of feeling stuck. I have often found with hindsight that these periods of inactivity are usually rests where a new direction is about to take place, or some new work is about to be created, and when I find that I can't go any further, I just let things be for a while and do something else to take my mind of it.

Altiplano was like that. This book has been in my mind since around 2012. I first mentioned the title of it to some friends long before I knew I had enough material to complete it. Had anyone asked me how the final product would look, I couldn't have guessed correctly: I just had to trust that future work would let the seed of this idea grow into something more concrete.

There were delays along the way. Many of them, in many different forms. Around 2015 I had reached a point where I felt I could add nothing new to the work. I had been to Bolivia many times and felt that my image making there was becoming cyclical : I was now settling into certain formulas with some of the locations I had been growing into over the years, and I was beginning to feel I was reaching a natural conclusion with this landscape. Then, without warning the image on the front cover of a travel magazine I noticed while waiting in my dentist's office found me looking at Argentina as a continuation of the project. The Puna de Atacama had sufficiently different landscapes that its Bolivian cousin to work on and all of a sudden the book was no longer finished, and I knew I had a few more years yet to work on it.

Then there were schedule problems. My workshops and tours are set up 1 year and sometimes 2 years in advance. Trying to find time within my working life to get out to Bolivia or Argentina to complete what I saw in my mind's eye was difficult.

Cono de Arita, Puna de Atacama, Argentina Image © Bruce Percy 2017

Cono de Arita, Puna de Atacama, Argentina
Image © Bruce Percy 2017

And one mustn't forget that making a book is a slow process: as soon as you have other people involved in the project, things just slow down. Waiting to hear back from printers, waiting for your graphic artist friend to find time in his own schedule to work on the book meant that things started to become drawn out. The book was commenced in full last year, and then I had to shelve it for about six months. Then we re-commenced with it this January and all the text was mostly completed by March. Translations were required as the book is also in Spanish and that added further time to the project. And while all this was going on, we were finding that we were changing the format and concept of the book. I don't think Darren and I have changed our minds or reviewed a book so many times in the past six months.

The Labyrinth, Puna de Atacama, Argentina Image © Bruce Percy 2017

The Labyrinth, Puna de Atacama, Argentina
Image © Bruce Percy 2017

Some things just take time. There has to be a way of pushing forward while at the same time not over-stressing it. Things need to be helped, but they shouldn't be rushed. Everything has its own rhythm, its own way of evolving and our task as creative people is to work 'with the natural flow' rather than against it. Force something to be finished when it's not ready to be and the work suffers. Don't put any effort into it and the project stalls. Finding the balance is a skill in intuition. Knowing when to pause and wait for an answer, and knowing when to push forward is key.

If the work is good, then you should persist (not give up), and if obstacles are in your way, just choose to look at them as pauses: they are often there for a reason. Keep thinking about where you want your work to go, and this will help you steer your creativity in the right direction. My 'Altiplano' book wasn't an effortless task, it had many delays and obstacles along the way, but it is here now, it is real, and that just gives me the confidence to understand that sometimes, when I think things are stuck or going nowhere, it is just a brief pause in the birth of my ideas.

Collating

Today I've been collating my images from Iceland and Japan, with the thoughts of putting together two future book projects. I've been struck by just how much work I've done over the past three years in each location, but also, how much is still incomplete in the sense of producing a book on each subject.

Playing around with sequencing of my central Iceland photographs.

Visualisation is key in propelling me forward with what I do.  

By collating the work and laying it out in a visual sequence i'm able to build an emotional connection to how I see the work panning out as it continues to be supplemented with new work. This can be very inspiring for me, and I often find myself dreaming up some additional images in my minds eye.

This aspect of visualisation is usually down to 'lost opportunities' - those 'photographs that never were', as you spied them while passing by some place, or because the weather changed and you failed to make them on time. They leave an indelible mark on your imagination that trigger strong feelings of 'I must return here, as I know I am not finished with this location yet'.

As a result of all this visualisation and dreaming of expanding the work, there have been for the past few years, ongoing discussions with my Icelandic and Japanese guides as to new places I wish to research and photograph. Everything is a work in progress. This is all good stuff as it gives me purpose: I can see that there are still unfinished ties to each of the locations I've already made photographs in.

What is most exciting for me, is that I am acutely aware that I often underestimate how much new work will come out of further explorations. New work often enriches existing work by allowing it to take on a new identity. Sometimes I feel the work is one thing only to find out that once I'm done adding new work to it, that it has become something different entirely. And I find that just very inspiring.

Collating one's own work is a great way of figuring out what you've achieved, and where there are missing gaps in the work, and which direction you need to take it.

Playing around with sequencing of my Hokkaido photographs.

Trying too hard?

I was talking to a sound-recording friend of mine recently, about the art of mixing music. I explained that when I work on a piece of music, I often want it to be louder and more impressive than everything else around, and that I'm not sure if it's to cover up a lack of mixing expertise on my part, or a lack of confidence. I suspect it's both.

Transylvania, February 2018 Image © Bruce Percy

Transylvania, February 2018
Image © Bruce Percy

This got me to thinking about confidence, and its role in the creative-arts.

Many years ago, I had an art student on one of my workshops and she told me that 'it is easy for you - you have a lot of confidence in what you do'. At first I was surprised by the observation as I have never thought of myself as an overly confident person. Secondly, I had never thought that confidence had anything to do with the creative-arts. For me, doing anything in art was more about being free and going wherever you want to go. Indeed, I had often found certain subjects at school overly competitive - sports, academic studies where you are marked by your performance etc. Arts - such as drawing, painting, playing or composing music, to me, had none of this. It was a 'free for all' where there were no rules and you could just dabble with no pressure of being assessed.

I've had many years to think about my art student's comments, and I think she was right. Not just about me being confident in my creative-arts pursuits, but also that confidence has a role in it.

Confidence is vital, if you want to become good at anything you do. I'm not talking about arrogance, of thinking you are great or superior, I'm talking about simply being comfortable with yourself. That comes from confidence. Confidence comes from knowing yourself and also understanding your strengths and weaknesses. Confident people are comfortable to tell others when they don't know something, and they are also comfortable in realising where their own limits are, and understanding they have some things to work on. Conversely, people who lack confidence, tend to over compensate for their limitations or try too hard. I think that is why we see so many heavily manipulated images on the web - anything that is super strong, overly contrasty is probably suffering from a need to force a point over to the audience. The editor isn't quite sure the audience will 'get' what they're trying to do, so they tend to spell it out - LOUDLY.  When I often see overly-worked images, I tend to think there is a lack of confidence behind the motivation to edit in such a way.

Being a creative person does require a sense of confidence. Any decision you make in your art making has to be one that you alone have come up with. To have a sense of conviction or faith in what you are doing is important, and to do that, you need confidence. But don't confuse confidence with knowing what to do. Confident people may not know what to do, but they are willing to try, to experiment and are comfortable knowing that anything they try may fail.

If you have confidence in yourself, you are ok about it when you fail. Indeed, I think that failure is part of the creative process. So often do writers and musicians talk about how a finished piece started off as something completely different from the finished work. This means they were entirely comfortable to throw out the initial ideas when they found something better. To do that, you've got to be able to let go, and to let go, you have to have confidence in where you are going.

How does one teach someone confidence? Well, I think it's all about trusting in your own decisions and also applying a healthy degree of forgiveness when you make a bad decision. There are no rules, and there shouldn't be when one is involved in the creative arts. And you should have the freedom to try things out, without the fear of being judged, either by others or more importantly - by yourself.

Letting go, and letting things flow where they want to go, is the best approach. Accept that you don't know all the answers, and you never will, and that nothing is ever finished. You are not doing your photography to be measured, nor for praise from others, but for self enjoyment and self development. If you are able to take this approach, then I think confidence will grow within you.

My art-student friend was right. I did have confidence in my abilities. I don't tear myself down when I create bad work. Just because you may only see finished work on my site, there is a lot of stuff that doesn't make it. If you realise that everything out there that really impresses you and moves you as a piece of art, most likely had to go through several re-works to get it right, then it should give you comfort to know that it's ok to not get things right first time. Good artists are ones that are able to keep re-assessing what they are doing, without judging themselves too harshly, and to do that, they need to have confidence.

You've gotta hand-craft it

Many years ago, before my current occupation as a photographer, I used to be a budding musician with lots of nice synths at home to play with. This was the 90's and an era where most synths turned up with lots of nice sexy factory presets to play with. Indeed one of the issues with 90's synths was that they only usually had one slider on the front of the panel and thus were a nightmare to edit the sounds, so most people would tend to use the factory presets with almost no changes to them at all.

This past month I have returned to music and I'm presently busy building a little home studio of some nice synths to own. I've deliberately chosen to look for machines that have lots of knobs and sliders on the front panel so that they will encourage me to shape the sound to my liking, rather than hope or rely on some preset to work in the music I'm making.

You may wonder what this has to do with photography. Well quite a lot.

I don't believe that plug-in's that offer presets to work with are a good way to start, or to continue with for the long-run. I can sympathise and appreciate that they may feel like a really great way of kick-starting your editing, or that they perhaps influence or inspire you, but the chances of them actually being exactly what your images need is pretty slim.

I've reached the conclusion that the best approach to image editing is to hand-craft it. Here's my reasons why I think it's good to go the slow manual way:

  1. You are given the opportunity (through having to figure out what you want to do to an image) to learn what components of tone, colour and form your image is made up from.
  2. You learn a lot about what works and what doesn't when you have to go in there and deconstruct  your image. Presets don't encourage this.
  3. Presets will rarely, if ever, give you exactly what you need and they will not encourage you to look or study deeply into what is going on in your work.
  4. Hand-crafting your work means that you build up skills to interpret what you've created, and also to think about what you might want to look for in future when you do return to shooting outside.
  5. It should go without saying, but each image you create does not conform to a preset. It has its own character and therefore needs to be treated on an individual basis.
  6. Photography is about being creative, and convenience should not be part of the creative vocabulary. Making good or great images isn't easy, and we have to put the work in to learn.
  7. Perhaps the most important point - you get to tune the image exactly the way you want.

Perhaps you think that presets are a great starting point, and that you still tune and edit manually anyway. My thoughts on this are that when we apply presets to our work, we only see or understand a little of what has been changed. if you wish to iron out some of the effect it's a little bit like going 10 steps forward to have to retreat 8 steps to get to where you want to be. I'd much rather walk each step at a time and build up a good understanding of what it is i'm doing with the edit at each stage.

I used to rely on presets for synth sounds in my music and often found it hard to get certain sounds to mix in well with others. Now that I have a collection of synths at home with tweak able parameters I can shape the sounds to fit in more. It brings me confidence when I hear certain sounds just shift into focus as they are tuned to fit into the music. Rather than flipping through thousands of presets hoping for the 'right sound' I am creating it myself.

By taking the reigns of your editing and pulling the decisions and control back into your own lap, you are giving yourself the opportunity to learn about your yourself, your work and to improve your own visual awareness. As tempting as certain presets may be, I'd suggest going the manual way for a while and see how it goes.

slow growth

A few days ago I wrote a very short post about the neuroscientist Susan Rogers. She was the sound engineer for Prince in the 80's and early 90's. In her interview she finishes up by saying:

'slow growth is real growth.
You have to be patient, and you have to go the distance'

Getting to know a tree, Hokkaido 2018

Getting to know a tree, Hokkaido 2018

Nothing worth pursuing comes easily, and if it does, I would be suspicious of it. You don't create great work by talent alone - there has to be a lot of effort put into it. Likewise, you don't create great work from putting the hours in - you still need talent.

If I were to say what's required, it's dedication, commitment and a sense of drive to pursue what you love. Great work doesn't come from following formulas or templates, nor does it come from using software-plug'ins or reading cheap e-Books that promise to get you there in 10 easy steps. It simply doesn't work that way.

Slow Growth through intimacy

I've learned so much from the places I am so fortunate to visit. I mean, who else has the fortune to go to Iceland twice a year? or Patagonia every year? And yet doing so has taught me so much. I know it's a great privilege to do this, but it has taught me that improving one's own photography comes from developing an intimate knowledge of the places I photograph. This is why I often suggest to students on my workshops to go back to places, if they feel they have a connection with them. That connection is telling them something: namely, that there is potential here, there is work to be done.

Again and again and again

It would be understandable to think that each time you return somewhere, you get to see things in a new way. But as much as I think this is a valid part of learning, it's only one part of the story. For me, what I do learn a lot from, is seeing places in exactly the same way. If I go back to a location each year around the same time or same season, I often find that there is commonality in what I'm seeing. It confirms that places have seasons, that a tree will look a certain way, but rather than it allowing me to think 'If I don't capture it this year, I can always do it next year', it makes me realise that with the same lighting, the same weather conditions, and the same subject, I am forced to find something new there, that doesn't rely on different weather, different light, or the subject being different. Being confronted with the same thing each year, makes me think 'what else can I do here that I haven't done before?'. That is where the real learning comes from.

Going the distance

Working on my photography is like investing money in a fund. You have to be patient. You have to take delight in the subtle changes as the fund slowly grows over time. Photography is not about instant hits. It's not about instant gratification. It's about the long haul. It's about standing where you are in 10 years time and noticing that things have changed. You are now seeing things with a more mature eye. You're more aware of what's before you. And you know, that this couldn't come any other way, than going the distance.

 

Slow growth is real growth

If you're a regular reader of my blog, then you'll know that I see so many parallels between music and photography and that I'm fascinated by what creativity is. If you're interested in creativity, and how to get better at what you do, then I'd suggest watching Susan Rogers (used to engineer records for Prince) talk about it. She is a neural scientist these days. There is so much wisdom in this interview. A must see.

Forest Shadow

Great photos aren't about pixels. Neither are they about resolution. They aren't about technology and they aren't about plug-in's or software. Great photos aren't about the camera we used to make them.

Great photos are about engagement. They are about having a great idea, a strong composition to start with.

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Much like a good story, good photographs don't need to be supported by gimmicks. Just as good songs don't require expensive production techniques to make them good, great songs can be played on simple instrument because the strength of the idea behind them carry them along. 

Good images just need a good idea. They shouldn't need much more to make them work.

Yet we live in an age where we can become lost in the technology. Where we are convinced we need another software-app, HDR, Focus-stacking or to blend images to produce good work.  This is not true. We just need our images to be strong ideas to begin with. An ill-conceived image will always be an ill-conceived image, no matter how much gloss we apply to it.

Jon Hopkins shows us that some very simple chords on a piano can bewitch us. Strip it back and it still works. It's a reminder that great ideas have a knack of carrying themselves.

When I'm out making images and selecting which ones to use later on, I always respond to how I feel about them. If they are strong, I usually know because strong work tends to let you know what it wants. Like strong song ideas that tend to write themselves, good images tend to come from nowhere and dictate to you what needs to be done.

Weak work on the other hand doesn't. Weak ideas often lack conviction and send confused muddled messages about what they are and where they want to go.

If you want to improve your photography, then I would suggest you dump your technology. Put to one side the HDR, focus-stacking, blending, software-apps for a moment, and instead, go out and listen to your intuition as it's the best photography tool you possess.

The value of anonymous places

Photographs are much more intriguing if we aren't told anything about them.

No words, and no titles.

Intriguing images have the capability to cast a spell upon us, and the beauty of that spell is that it's a highly personal one. Through a lack of explanation, each and every one of us attaches our own personal thoughts and feelings about what we are looking at.

Myself in the landscape. Image © Dorin Bofan. Image used by kind permission.

Myself in the landscape. Image © Dorin Bofan. Image used by kind permission.

Conversely, being told exactly what the picture is, or what we should get out of it robs us of being able to attach our own emotions and thoughts.

I remember looking at some of Paul Wakefield's wonderful landscape images on his website. There were no titles, nothing to give away where the images had been made. I thought I recognised one of them as a place I frequently visit but there was something new about it, a different perspective that made me think again. So I emailed him to ask if it was where I thought it was, only to get the reply "don't you think an image is more compelling when you aren't sure where it is?".

I agree.

Not only are they more compelling, they are also free to be whatever you wish them to be.

When Paul finally published a book of his images several years later, there was a page at the back of the book that told me where the locations of each image were. By this time I had become so familiar with Paul's beautiful images that I had attached my own impressions to his images, so much so, that finding out that they weren't where I thought they were - meant that my attachment fell into question and I found myself having to revise my thoughts about them.

It was more beautiful when I hadn't known, when I was free to create my own ideas and impressions of where his images were from.

We attach so much to an image upon first viewing, and as we go back to our favourite images we keep reinforcing our own emotions into them. We make up dreams and ideas about images that we love, the same way we make up dreams and ideas about songs we love. This is why I have never enjoyed watching music videos because they often force me to discard my own personal interpretation of a song and instead force me to take up the view of the video. 

Describing, or giving emotive titles to images gives less freedom to the viewer to take up their own view. But what about images of anonymous places? Do they hold similar appeal?

I think they do.

Rather than shooting the iconic well known place that everyone knows of, we are left to wonder - 'I don't really know for sure but there are aspects about the picture which make me think it could be Scotland, but then again, there are other aspects that make me think it could be Norway'...... Anonymous places have so much power to bewitch us.

Don't you think this makes the images more compelling?

Special thanks to Dorin Bofan (a fantastic photographer in his own right) for the kind use of the image of me in the landscape photographing a rather snowy, frozen tree, and to Florin Patras for putting together the trip where this photo was made.

More later, once I get my films back from the lab!

Moving beyond the accessible

I think all great artists at some point lose their audience. Through pursuing what they feel is all about the art, they move beyond what their audience find accessible.

Because accessible often translates to 'conservative' or perhaps 'already understood and accepted'. Accessible means that the audience know where they are, because they've been there before. There is you see, great comfort in knowing what you're dealing with.

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When something comes along that we have never experienced before, some are able to see it as the great wonder that it may be while others find it hard to take the new step on board.

Now let's mirror this in what we do as creative people. If you are always creating work that you can accept, then I would like to suggest to you that you are only treading water. You know where you are because you've either been here before many times, or someone else has.

Conversely, if you venture into an area that is new to you, or something you've never encountered before elsewhere, I would suggest that you are growing.

it can feel like you might have gone too far. You may be scared, or uncertain because you are now in unfamiliar terrain. If you feel this way, then that's great, because when you're riding the crest of a wave, you should feel scared (and dare I suggest - alive). Being somewhere you've never been before is good for you.

When you get there, you may feel that what you have created is too weird, or strange. Maybe you don't feel you get it yourself. This is normal. Like trying out a new style of clothing, something that you had never thought would suit you, you may find after a while that it was a natural progression. 

If you manage to get to this point, you should congratulate yourself, because I don't think this happens very often. In general, most of us stay within our comfort zones and create the derivative - we see what else is around us and we replicate it. Without thinking about what we're doing, we may be fitting in, but we're not standing out. We've lost our individuality. We conform.

Great work comes from going it alone. To make a mark, you have to be different, and to do that, you cannot follow others. You have to find your own path. One way to do that is to not give a damn about what others are doing and to give your creativity the freedom it deserves. This can only come from some kind of confidence or self-belief, and that only comes if you give yourself the permission to experiment. You need to give your creativity the freedom to be what it needs to be. You know this is the right approach. Control it too much and you'll be right back to producing something bland and derivative. Sure, everyone will get it, but they only get it, because everyone else is doing it too.

If we only keep within the realms of what others think is cool, then we are in danger of becoming lost. We won't be pushing the boundaries of the medium, and most importantly, we won't be finding out who we are, or what we are capable of.

Instead,  we will simply be losing ourselves to someone else's story, to someone else's idea that has already  been tried and tested so many times before by so many others, that it can't possibly be yours.

So what is it to be? Do you want to reach the levels of the work created by others you admire, or would you much rather find out who you are?

The choice is yours.

Printing is a vital part of image Editing

I've just completed the image selection and sequencing for my Altiplano book, which is due out later this year. 

As part of checking the images are ready for publication, I've printed them all out. There are a number of reasons why I've printed the images but it's mostly because no matter how calibrated my computer monitor is: no one should trust what they see on their computer screen. The only way to validate and prove that your images are as good as you think they are, is to print them out. 

You should invest in a daylight viewing booth to verify your monitor is calibrated (by comparing a print target). And also to evaluate your prints.

There are a number of reasons why you should print out your images:

1. The human eye is highly adaptive. Stare at a computer screen for too long, and your eye adjusts to discrepancies in the white balance and also in the tonal range. 

2. I've often noticed things in the print that I never noticed on the monitor. Yet, when I go back to check if the problem exists on-screen, I now see it. See point 1.

3. Loss of highlights or blocked shadows become more obvious once printed. It takes a lot of time and skill to be able to 'read' a computer monitor and know what it's telling you. See point 1.

Mostly it's all about point 1.

I'm a big fan of Charlie Cramer, the American landscape photographer and once protege of Ansel Adams. I was fortunate to meet Charlie a year or so ago and listen to him talking about the value of printing and in particular how the human visual system works (and deceives us!).

The most memorable point that Charlie made is this (which I am paraphrasing):

"An image can look good on screen, but not good in print. But if you get it to look good in print, it will also look good on-screen"

I agree entirely. Printing *should* be part of your editing process. When you are dodging and burning areas of your picture in Lightroom or Photoshop, you should be printing it out to verify your edits. Editing and printing are therefore highly iterative. You should be circling around between them as you continue to edit your work.

Here is Charlie's talk from the On-Landscape conference I attended. There is a lot of wisdom in what he has to say so I would stay with the video to the very end:

If you want to create great images, then you need to optimise them. The only way to do that is to print them out and evaluate them with a daylight viewing booth. If you're not printing your images, you're not really finishing your work, and it most probably still has a long way to go to being complete.

The art of overlooking something

Sometimes I overlook images. I don't see them, don't recognise them for their beauty. It's a talent I have, one that I think most of us have to not truly see what is before us :-)

Pabellon.jpg

As part of reviewing work for my upcoming Altiplano book this year, I've been finding work that I can't quite understand why I passed it by. The images are very beautiful and yet I failed to embrace them at the time I was editing.

We all do it. Sometimes we don't see our work for what it truly is (this goes both ways - sometimes I think it's better than it actually is, other times I don't appreciate the beauty because I am so hung up on how I wanted the image to turn out, and don't accept it for what it offers.

There's a remedy to this: every once in a while, I go back to my older images and review them ( in my case - I look at the unscanned Velvia transparencies). I then focus on the work I didn't use and try to see if there's something there that I missed first time round.

I can guarantee I will find something for sure. Either because I was too focussed on other things to notice it, or I was simply too close.

One of photography's much needed skills, is the ability to review oneself. To do that, you have to be open to what you've done, accept the failures as much as the successes, and to be as objective as you can be.

Progress

Sometimes you just want to go back and rewrite history. Your older work feels immature and lacking.

If you feel like that, it's a good sign that there's been progress in what you do, because you are probably seeing issues in the work that you didn't see at the time you made them.

Salar-Reflection.jpg

I've just had the uncomfortable task of going back over my older Bolivia work choosing images for inclusion in my forthcoming book 'Altiplano'. I think it's encouraging to note that I am uncomfortable with the older work, as I do believe there has been an improvement in my visual awareness, and hopefully editing skills.

There are maybe a hand-full of the 63 images that I intend to include in the book, that really need to be tuned a lot for one basic reason: way back when I started out, I didn't really know how to utilise the complete dynamic range of the print.

I think that review is healthy. But going over your older work endlessly trying to make it perfect isn't. Still, there are times when dusting off older work does give you the chance to reconsider.... but I often feel if the image is well known and much loved, it's best to leave it alone.

Let's see where my book preparation takes me......

Hit Rate doesn't matter

A good friend of mine recently asked me how many good images I shoot on a roll of film.

I can fully appreciate that it's just very interesting to know how often a photographer reaches success with his images - it might give an indication to the skill of the photographer, but it might not.

In my own case, I shoot a lot. And I'm very selective about what gets published. 

Borax field, Bolivian Altiplano, © Bruce Percy 2017

Borax field, Bolivian Altiplano, © Bruce Percy 2017

I don't think we should focus too much on how successful we are. Simply because I believe that experimentation is an important ingredient in the creative process and by definition, experimentation means being open to trying different things without fear of failure.

Let's consider that experimentation actually means. If you are experimenting, it means you don't quite know what the outcome will be like. This means that it could be somewhere between two extreme possibilities: a success or a failure. There's too much emphasis on failure being a bad thing. I think failure is a positive thing because you have to find out what you don't want to figure out where you need to go.

Indeed, I find that when I look back at my rolls of films, each roll is a chronological record of me working a scene. Take the transparencies shown below. There are four strips from one roll all laid out from start to finish from left to right. You can see that as the shoot proceeded I went from sunset to twilight.

If we analyse what I was doing, I think the roll of film breaks down to two major compositions. The first composition is using the peak of a volcano as a black triangle on the ridge of a borax field (it's not snow - this was shot in Bolivia). You can see I try the volcano peak on the right side of the frame at different focal lengths (it's bigger in the first shot and smaller in the next two). I then settle for the volcano peak on the left side of the frame. 

The 2nd composition is really about the black hillside in the distance. Again you can see I place the black hill in the background on different sides of the frame.

There is a theme going on with both compositions: I'm using a stark black object to frame against the white borax - these images are exploiting the tonal difference between black volcanos and hills against white borax.

A roll of processed 120 Velvia film, showing you the chronological sequence that the images were shot in.

A roll of processed 120 Velvia film, showing you the chronological sequence that the images were shot in.

The other thing to notice is that I am doing small shifts in the image sequence - changing the foreground slightly or using a different focal length to make the small volcano bigger in the frame.

I like to explore a scene, and take different compositions with different focal lengths. On the surface it may seem as if I'm making the same photo again and again, but I'm really looking for a perfect scene and this is the most important point: I have given myself permission to experiment.

When it comes down to the final edit, I think there are perhaps two images in this roll of film that I will compete and be happy with. I don't view the others as wastage of film, or failures: everything I've shot contributes to the final result. Consider them prototypes, or whatever, they all contribute to where I finally end up.

So with that in mind, I think 'hit-rate' is rather unimportant.

Shoot when you feel you need to shoot, consider if you are changing anything in the composition each time you click the shutter rather than just endlessly repeating the same shot, think about what might make the image stronger or weaker if you change something.

Borax field, Bolivian Altiplano, © Bruce Percy 2017

Borax field, Bolivian Altiplano, © Bruce Percy 2017

I think I am always shooting variations on a theme. Once I find my main composition, I will take around four or even an entire roll of film working the scene, experimenting, because I can't be a good judge of what I've shot until I get home, I'd therefore like to try out as many possibilities as I can. And that means discarding the thought of how many successful images I've made. It's really quite irrelevant.

Keep on experimenting and being open to trying new things. By it's very definition, experimentation means you don't really know the outcome of what you're doing. To truly experiment you have to be open to failure, because if you aren't open to failure, then you aren't experimenting. If you aren't experimenting, then you aren't growing.

Being a curator of one's own work

"Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop."
- Ansel Adams

Nothing is more convincing about the quality of a piece of work, than the test of time.

It's something I always think about when I finish working on a set of new images. 'Wouldn't it be great if I'm still happy with these images in many years to come', is something I always wonder. And each year as I move forward through life I find that I change, and my impressions of what I have created also change.

Isle of Harris. Image was shot in 2014. I'm still very pleased with this image, yet it is now three years old. I wonder, will I still feel this image is relevant for me in a decade's time? Does it have staying power for me?

Isle of Harris.
Image was shot in 2014. I'm still very pleased with this image, yet it is now three years old. I wonder, will I still feel this image is relevant for me in a decade's time? Does it have staying power for me?

Ansel Adams is quoted as saying "Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop.". But even with those 12 images, there may have one or two that would become part of your canon: work that you would still be proud of in years to come.

It should be something we all aspire to.

Going out there to make images is only really one tiny part of being a photographer. We also have to curate our work. Curation is all about raising you family of images to be the best they can be. It is an on-going process of returning to your older work to review and select, to help those older images live with your newer work. Our older work isn't static, unchanging. We change towards it and as we do, we must also reflect and review and understand its place in our present. I've found that it is hard to gauge my work until a few years has passed, because it is only then that I see one or two images that seem to stand the test of time, and stand out over everything else I have shot.

I think as time goes on for me, as I am getting older, I am now starting to think of what I do as a record of who I was at a certain time. I now understand that some of them have more staying power than others and some have become really important to me as time has passed.

We should all be curators of our own work. We are responsible for collating, documenting, and organising our past so that it can sit alongside our most recent work. We have to tend our garden well and look after not just the new buds, but also the established ones as well.

Music for Image Editing

I can't edit in silence. The silence is too deafening and distracting.

It is simply too quiet for me to work as there is some part of my brain that needs to be kept occupied while the image-editing part works.

Steve Reich's 'Music for Mallets, Instruments, Voices and Organ' is a cyclical piece that I often use when editing my work.

I have found over time that certain kinds of music, but not all, can be used to occupy the part of my mind that needs to be kept busy while the rest of me works on my images.

In general, for me I've found that the best editing music is either cynical - full of repeating patterns, or has a wash like structure to it of long notes held over long periods. I believe it is the structure of the music that is the most important element for it to work as a background. Somehow the structure of repeating patterns and long washes of notes lend a hypnotic effect which allows my mind to zone out of the present moment and into the world that my images reside in.

It's also vital that the music does not demand too much of my attention - so highly dynamic music (going from quiet to loud) doesn't work. Any music I use has to have some form of trance ability to it, or for it to act as a form of 'audio-wallpaper'.

Steve Reich's 'Music for Mallets, Instruments, Voices and Organ', lends a certain quality of 'wallpaper' about it. It is a cyclical piece that is consistent in dynamics, with enough gradual variations over time to keep my background mind occupied. It provides enough of a 'trance' like effect to help bring my mind under a spell as I am brought out of my current existence and transported into a place where I can allow my mind to focus on the process of editing my work.

Environment, I think, is greatly overlooked when it comes to image editing, or being creative in general, not only do I have to have the right kinds of sounds around me, but I also need to be surrounded by the right levels of lighting. Perhaps I am more tuned-in, or too sensitive to what is around me? I don't think so: I think we all need a space that is conducive to creativity, and it is something that is personal for each of us.

Long washes of sound, such as this piece of music by Stars of the Lid provide the right setting for me to work on my images.

Are you the same? Do you find that you need to create the right setting in which to work? And do you sometimes feel that you can't find the right space in which to edit? Perhaps you can't find the piece of music you need, or perhaps it's more to do with the ambient light around you or the simple fact that you need some time to yourself to work on your images?

Our environment plays a big role in how we feel while we are editing our work and music can be a big part of that space. By choosing music that is non-distracting, or has some hypnotic aspect to it, we can create a suitable space that is conducive to good editing. 

Happy music choosing.

Long Chin San's Photographic Painting

"Photography should take us on a journey within. Good images should allow us to tap into our imagination and see beyond the subject to a meaning that is ours alone, a personal impression or feeling"

I have a large collection of photographic books at home. So many in fact, that until recently, they had extended beyond the book shelves and were taking up space on my studio floor. I've tidied them up and done a bit of autumn (it's coming!) cleaning, to give my book collection the space it deserves.

One book that I've revisited this month is a small publication from China about the photographer Long Chin San. I thought I would share with you some of the images from this book. These were made in the 1950's, and I just love them. 

Long chin San took objects such as flattened flowers, leaves and twigs and placed them onto photographic paper, exposing them to light to create these innovative photographs. He called these works 'photographic paintings'.

I'm not a verbatim photographer. I don't see photography as a means to capture what was there, but instead, as a means to give an interpretation. I think we are still very much at the emerging stage of photography: it is going to evolve and change so much over the coming century that to think of it only as a means for recording real pictures is to limit its application and potential.

5-(8).jpg

I believe the past often gives us clues and hints as to where we are going in the future. With this in mind, photography has always been an experimental medium and photographers have always manipulated their work since the first images were recorded. We all know that Ansel Adams greatly manipulated his prints and that they were often a radical departure from the initial negative. Manipulation and specifically interpretation of a scene are nothing new and this knowledge, and acceptance of photography as a creative medium, not just as a way of recording the real world is vital in letting the medium evolve.

Thus, looking at these beautiful 'photographic paintings', I see not only beauty, but great potential for the future. There is always room for exploration.

I know that influences come from many sources and I'm touched to think that perhaps my most recent Icelandic 'minimalist' images are derived from looking at these photographic paintings of Long Chin San's. I've never been much interested in the verbatim aspects of photography. I'm much more interested in creating a new reality, or a vision of one. I'm more  'art' than 'verbatim', and that's why I find these images of Long Chin San so appealing.

Photography should take us on a journey within. Good images should allow us to tap into our imagination and see beyond the subject to a meaning that is ours alone, a personal impression or feeling.

In these photographic paintings of Long Chin San's, I can't help feel he has conjured up beautiful compositions that would be most difficult to find in real life: because real life is never this perfect. And yet, when we look at landscapes, I think this is what we do: we try to distill them into some kind of order, some kind of sense of arrangement that pleases us, and makes us feel good. That is why the paintings of Hokusai for instance resonate with me: the great wave off  Kanagawa is perfect: everything is in place, as it should be. One would hope in our photography that we can reach such idealistic compositions.

I love these 'photographic paintings'. I'm convinced they have been instrumental in my own photographic development. I find them very beautifully composed and very pleasing and I think I often aim to simulate this level of beauty in my own work.

The book by the way, is called:

'Landscape on Negatives,
A special exhibition of Long Chin-San's Photographs Works',

Published by Cultural Relics Press, 2012.

Is there a Fire in the forest?

Whilst editing my recent set of Icelandic images, it was the first time in a long while where I felt uncertain about what I was doing. I trust my feelings on my creativity very much and I've come to learn that when the work is strong, a sense of decisiveness pervades, and when the work is weak I can find myself lacking conviction in what I do.

But uncertainty is something else all together.

Did I take it too far? Did I lose my senses?

Did I take it too far? Did I lose my senses?

I felt as though I was in trouble. Had I gone too far? Were the edits too abstract? Maybe I should back out, return the images to a more conventional look?

The more I worked on the images, the more I felt less easy to back out of the direction I was taking. Like a forest fire that is out of hand, where there is no going back, I had started on a path that wasn't easy to retreat from.

Each step you take adds fuel to the fire, and each experience you have ultimately changes you. We are, after all, made up from our experiences and memories.

Uncertainty isn't necessarily a bad thing. It can sometimes just mean you are somewhere you've never been before, and being somewhere new may suggest that you have crossed some perceived boundary in your work.

So I'm left wondering now: did I start a fire in the forest? and If so, where is it going to take me?

I think I lost something along the way

I'm sure there must be a proverb out there that says: "in gaining wisdom, we lose innocence".

This week I've been running an exhibition in my hometown of Edinburgh. On the walls of the gallery I have these two images. As far as the exhibition goes, they are (respectively) my oldest and newest images that I have on display.

The first image was created in 2009 in the north west of Scotland. Despite many people thinking it is the distinctive Stac Pollaidh mountain of Assynt, it is in fact Ben Eoin. If I were to dissect it, I would say that this image shows that I was beginning to get more interested in shapes and patterns in my photography: the way the shape of the tree fits neatly into the space below the reflection of the mountain was a deliberate compositional choice at the time of exposure.

Early beginnings? Loch Lurgainn & Ben Eoin, Assynt, Scotland. © 2009

Early beginnings?
Loch Lurgainn & Ben Eoin, Assynt, Scotland. © 2009

I think you can often look back at where you've come from and see the path to where you are now. Somehow, it's pretty easy to see the direction of the journey you've been on. Yet, perhaps not so clear an indication of where you are going to go in the future. But you can get a hint of it as I feel that the past often indicates some elements of the future because looking back you can see traces of where you are now in your older work.

That aside, I've been thinking about how my style of photography has been changing (it has been a purely intuitive one for me: I have not consciously chosen to go the direction I have gone in. Instead, it has been an intuitive process, one which  I have seldom over-thought it). Suffice to say that I realise there has been change and that there has been a distillation of what I do over the eight years between the two images you see on todays post.

Present position. Grasleysfjoll, Iceland. © 2017

Present position.
Grasleysfjoll, Iceland. © 2017

But I also recognise something else.

As we gain experience in what we do, we tend to iron out the rough edges. Aspects of who we were are removed and although we may be wishing to improve our technique and vision, I do think something is always lost along the way of progress. Perhaps it's a sense of innocence in that I'm referring to.

I like to think that experience is a double-edged sword. On the one had it allows us to have a better understanding of what can and cannot be achieved, but it can also be a prison sentence. When you know what should be done you tend to discard possibilities for exploration and are less likely to be open to new discoveries: if you don't know there are any rules, you're more likely to break them.

Developing style and perfecting what you do, as much as they are things to aspire to, can become a set of hand-cuffs. As we develop our style and vision, I think we can become less able to experiment. Rather than letting our creativity go in places we have never been before, we may find ourselves going down the same tired old routes because we know they work and there is safety in these familiar patterns.

I think good artists are willing to not only explore, but perhaps more importantly, they are willing to let go of things they know have worked well for them in the past.

It's ok to change. It's ok to say goodbye to aspects of what you did that you loved, or still love. The last thing you need is to find yourself in a rut because you are too afraid to let go of things you know still work well.

To me this is similar to someone who is in a good job, a lovely home, but they wish to go do something else. It's safe to stay where you are because it's comfortable, but there's also something extremely boring and damaging about doing so. All you know is, changing and moving forward although risky, makes you feel more alive.

Looking back at my older work, I see things in it I wish I still had. I'm aware that I've lost things along the way. I do admit to feeling a sense of loss for the qualities I feel I no longer possess, but only in the way that I realise they can't exist alongside where I am now. To change means you have to let go, and when you change anything, you always lose something in the process. It is impossible to have both.

One last thing today before I go. I do think there is something often quite beautiful about early beginnings. This innocence I speak of: this quality of trying out things that somehow become lost along the way: it's an elusive quality. I often see it in many artists work, not just photographers. Musicians and painters, writers and actors. You don't often know you have it when you do, and you don't have it any longer once you know you had it.

It's impossible to recapture the past. All you can do, is keep moving forward and respect where you've come from. Realise it had its time, and that you are different now.

Tapping into an energy

When I begin to work on a new set of images, I feel as though I've tapped into an energy far beyond my own comprehension. It's as if I'm not driving the work and that it is coming from elsewhere. That might sound a bit hokey, but I really can't put my finger on what the creative process is. It has its own energy. All I know is, that when I'm creating new work,  I'm on a creative high, as I sense something new is coming into being.

Images shot in the central highlands of Iceland March 2017. Images © Bruce Percy 2017

Images shot in the central highlands of Iceland March 2017.
Images © Bruce Percy 2017