Photography teacher Philippe Sibelly ( @philippesibelly ) and I had a brief twitter exchange a few nights back about teaching students and how difficult it is to get them to see beyond the obvious, to tease out the magic from the unlikely. The current night-class I’m teaching is a really good one, one of the most enthusiastic groups I’ve had in many years and are all fired up, realizing that what their cameras can see is very different from what their eyes see, forcing them to engage a different mindset and look at the world afresh. They’ve realized that photography is a bit like fishing: the surface might all look ‘the same’ but what can be pulled up from beneath it can be wonderfully varied and impressive. It’s very satisfying seeing them ‘reel in their catches’.
Being ‘creative’ has been in the news a fair bit this past week, Radio 4 tackling the issue on the 26th January in ‘Organising the Mind’ . And there’s some previous broadcasts by Radio 4 on creativity in their archive that some of you might be able to access: Jonah Lehrer talking about his book ‘Imagine’ ( * see comments!) and from a few years back, an excellent series by Ian Peacock that looks at the myths, science and psychology behind creativity.
Personally I don’t think we value creativity highly enough. We certainly don’t try to properly ‘teach’ it….and we don’t generally nurture environments where creativity can be explored and given free rein. It’s risky you see. Being creative is to be an explorer. To have to leave the tarmac of the familiar, and tread the rougher ground where only inspiration is your guide. That’s scary stuff for many people. Especially some teachers, if my dismal and frustrating experience is any barometer.
Arthur Koestler author of ‘The Act of Creation’ puts it very succinctly:
“The prerequisite of originality is the art of forgetting, at the proper moment, what we know”
And I love that notion, that all the teaching in the world might inform you of what other people know, but that only you can tell the world what YOU know and have discovered. You just need to find a way to express those discoveries, and photography is an amazing tool to enable this.
I offered to post a few before/after shots for Philippe to use to give his students some inspiration. So here we are.
Each to their own – but as I’m growing older I’m finding it more liberating to carry less equipment, rather than be burdened with a huge pile of ‘stuff’. The more you have with you, and the more choices you are faced with, the less time you’ll spend actually making the most of your immediate response to whatever it is you encounter. Certainly if I’m being paid to take images, or lead groups it’s worth having a big bag full of tilt/shifts, macros, w/angles, and wide aperture teles to cover all likely scenarios; but for the satisfaction of everyday personal curiosity a single small camera, often with a fixed lens, can be the perfect tool.
The images here are from a variety of cameras: an old Canon G9, some from a Ricoh GR (fixed lens) or a Fuji x100 (fixed lens), with a few from a ‘proper’ dslr. Where I’ve got one, I’ll post a ‘before’ image to give some sense of the scene I encountered, and then a few ‘after’ shots to demonstrate how even what may at first appear to be relatively poor subject matter can have something more ‘interesting’ teased out of it with a little experimentation and imagination or as is more often the case, with just a large helping of luck.
So there you go. It’s fun doing this on your own, but even more fun doing it with others, to see what unique perspectives they can offer. I had a wonderful day with a group of 6 – 8 year old primary school children on the Isle of Raasay off Skye one day, teaching them how to ‘see’ and explore their familiar surroundings through a camera. They were brilliant. Here’s one of their images:
…and if you want to see a few more of their glorious images, have a read at this: ‘It’s Good To See‘
Creativity matters. It’s worth investing time in. But the bottom line…the absolute bottom line? If you’re not curious, and not prepared to take a risk and invest some time in failure, you’ll rarely see success. Every failed image is a stepping stone to the one special image that works.
I’ll leave the last word to Arthur Koestler, he knew a thing or two about the creative impulse: “Creativity is the defeat of habit by originality”
So be original. It’s really easy, you just need to be yourself, and show everyone else what YOU see.
(PS…and have fun. Its got to be fun, otherwise whats the point?)
(All images © John MacPherson, apart from Raasay P.S. image)
Really good photographers work every day. Where’s that next picture? That’s what they want to know. Great photographers are like children. They’re always curious. They don’t want to grow up, on a certain level. They want to keep that childlike curiosity. That’s another gift great photographers have.
I just had my fiftieth high school reunion and we had to write about what we did in the last fifty years. Most of the pieces were like, Bob and I got married. We had our kids and now we’re retired in Naples, Florida. I started writing mine and my classmate who was editing this reunion edition of our yearbook said, “Holy sh*t keep writing!”
…………..We all gave a lot. If I gave out a lot, trust me. I got just as much back. It makes me want to cry because I think how f*cking lucky I was. If it hadn’t been for Mr. Pollard. What did Pollard see in me? I never saw it. So if later on I saw potential in beginning photographers or editors and helped them it was because I had been mentored well. My responsibility was to give that back.”
One of many insights offered by Picture Editor Karen Mullarkey to her friend and interviewer Kenneth Jarecke, in an article recently published on Medium.
Its a fascinating read, not just about the behind-the-scenes goings-on at several big magazines, but about mentoring and trust, and the hugely important role that the editor’s objective eye can play in shaping and enabling the freedom to see that some lucky photographers are blessed with.
The UK loves weather. Without the vagaries of our climate many bus-stop conversations would never start, the ferries would ALWAYS leave port, and trains would never be delayed. Basically without a good blizzard or storm putting snow or leaves on the line we’d have nothing to complain about.
And our weather shapes our landscapes as much as it shapes our conversations. Recent floods across the UK have been a timely reminder that weather is its own master, and marches to its own tune – usually an incessant thrum of rain, or banshee howl of gale. Trees that have stood firm for hundreds of years, watching history grow around them, have been felled by hurricane blasts, reminders for us, as if we needed any, that time runs out eventually for even the most oaken amongst us.
I have to confess to loving weather. I like its variety, its unpredictability and perversity, the unbridled madness it can unleash.
When I was in my early teens up I walked up the bank of our local river which was in spate. The swimming hole deep in a rocky gorge we children played in during the summer months was gone, replaced by a standing wave of epic proportions, through which whole trees sailed to be cast onto the road ahead where the river did a u-turn but the force of floodwater drove the debris straight ahead. Feet of rain had fallen in a matter of days and the run-off from the mountains around the town was causing all sorts of problems. Higher in the glen, in a field I was very familiar with from working the sheep as assistant to the local shepherd, there was a knoll, a large round 5 foot high bulge of landscape, right in the middle of the field. The only problem was that this feature wasn’t normally present.
I kicked it, and it wobbled like some gigantic jelly, the turf swaying to and fro. I realized that this was a gigantic water blister, a consequence of the copious quantities of rain deluging us, The water had built up under the mat of soil and found the weakest areas and as the pressure increased the ground had swollen, separating turf from rock beneath. I took my knife and cut a hole in the side and a jet of water shot out several feet sideways. I realized then that weather could do strange and unexpected things.
My home town of Fort William has the dubious distinction of having possibly the highest annual rainfall of any place in the UK, in the region of 80 inches in a typical year, a consequence of being situated directly below the highest mountain in the country, and on the west side of it as well, perfectly placed to catch the deluges unleashed by the prevailing moisture-laden westerly weather systems that roll in from the Atlantic. I can recall one ‘summer’ when it started raining in July and we didn’t have one period of 24 hours that it didn’t rain, for over 100 days. My mate a few miles down the road in Glenfinnan (a small hamlet surrounded by mountains) claimed to have accumulated 200 inches in his rain gauge that year.
One autumn a massive storm hit our coast and I decided to take a Social Work client I was working with out to ‘enjoy’ it. Willie was astonished, although with severe short-sightedness and tunnel vision his visual experience was limited, but the battering we took from the wind made up for it. However the most impressive aspect for both of us was the boulder noise. Each massive wave thundering ashore dislodged tons of rocks as it crashed below us. The deep bass rumble of boulder against boulder vibrating in our chest cavities, combined with the faint sulphurous whiff was a heady and unforgettable mix. Willlie was so overcome by it he whooped and cheered. It was like nothing he’d ever experienced before. This was a beach I’d occasionally swam off in the summer months, marveling at the beautifully smooth and rounded boulders, but seeing how they achieved such smooth perfection was sobering. In some places on the west coast large wave-rounded boulders weighing maybe half-a-ton can be found on clifftops some 60 feet from the sea’s surface, testament to the enormous power of big Atlantic waves.
On another occasion on the same stretch of coast my mate Paul was almost choked by an unexpected gale that flattened his tent, a severe gust of wind barreling down on us and forcing the flexible tent pole to deform so much it compressed across his throat. He was on the verge of blacking out when I managed to pull it off him and he was able to roll out. The tent was destroyed and we had a rather sleepless night afterwards. Weather does that, reminds you that you are small, insignificant and very very fragile.
A few winters back my house, and most of the other houses around me, was covered with snow and ice, it built up on the roof and gutters, and down the walls, despite my fevered hacking at it with an ace-axe. Eventually the ice ‘grew’ up under the slates and overwhelmed the poorly sealed cavity resulting in melt-water streaming inside. Four pieces of plastic gutter fastened INSIDE the house to catch the water, directed via a j-cloth in a hole down a string into a bucket saved the day, and greatly amused the sour-faced loss-adjuster from our insurers. He was so hacked off by the disregard of some householders he’d visited who had had similar problems but had just let the inundation swamp them, relying on the insurers to pick up the tab, that he photographed my catchment system for posterity (and wrote a cheque immediately for me for the minor repairs required).
I have a lovely old book written by the Rev. Alexander Stewart: ‘Twixt Ben Nevis and Glencoe’ (Natural History, Legends and Folk-lore of the West Highlands). It is a wonderful confection of tales of wildlife and weather, and human responses to them, collected by the Rev. and published in 1885. There are several mentions of weather, but one in particular is worth retelling:
One day about a month ago we were talking to an old man, still lively and active, though upwards of fourscore years of age, he observed that for fifty years at least he had not known so “natural” a spring, so seasonable a season, as he termed it, from mid-March to mid-April.
“When I was a big boy, long-legged and clumsy, (we translate his Gaelic literally), bare-headed and barefooted – for I was twenty years of age before I had a shoe on my foot or a bonnet on my head – I well recollect that in carting out the manure in the spring I had frequently, barefooted as I was, to jump now and again from off the top of the dung-heap; it had become so hot in the burning sun that I couldn’t bear it. Dung heaps in those days used to reek like so many kilns, sir! Thinking of this the other day I made a barefooted son of mine stand in a manure heap that I remarked was reeking as it was being carried afield, and after a minute or two, he also found it so hot that he couldn’t bear it; and from this I conclude that this is one of the real good old springs of my younger day; for if you try in ordinary years, you will find the dung-heap at the time of its removal not hot, but at the best clammy, no warmer than a spadeful of the soil around, and oftentimes as cold, or colder, than a puddle of black peat moss. Depend upon it sir, that when manure has to be put upon the land in spring otherwise than hot and steaming, the season is not of the good old sort.”
A method this of pedometrically ascertaining the maximum and minimum of spring temperatures probably unknown to our friends in the Meteorological Society.
Aye, wading through it! Try that if you feel driven to explore his theory!
But for photographers, writers and painters weather is fuel, the raw material of the dramatic, and rightly so. So here’s a small selection of weather images, from all four seasons, from the mild to the wild.
It’s been a week of major dramas. Here’s a minor one. But a drama nonetheless.
I worked in Social Work Disability Services for many years. And once a week my colleague Tom and I took Martin, an 18 year old lad with cerebral palsy, swimming in our local pool. A lovely splishsplash session of unrestrained nonsense, as was Martin’s preference.
Earlier that week my female colleagues had run a similar session, for another individual, but to use the jacuzzi instead. Despite their careful (and finely honed over many years) toilet preparations, there was a disaster. Of epic proportions. A very very difficult disaster to conceal, given the fact it had turned the bubbling jacuzzi into something resembling a frothy chocolate drink. But sadly one that did not have the whiff of cocoa about it. The jacuzzi was closed, for several days, until the mess was removed from the pipes, pumps, reservoirs, channels and filters that lurked beneath the floor.
We were not popular. Formal ‘you are not popular’ letters had been sent to our establishment. We were told we had to be on our best behaviour from now on. Or else. “Or else you will not be allowed back in, ever.”
And so it was that Tom, and I, and Martin fetched up for a swim a few days later. And the staff gave us the eye. The ‘make a mess and you’re all out’ look. Because the jacuzzi was still closed, its pump clogged.
The pool was warm, and empty on this winter afternoon. No splashers but we three.
Martin loved it.
We filled the pool with floats and made him the centre of fun. The staff, two lifeguards, bored and surly, looked on.
One of Martin’s favourite games involved one of us holding him upright whilst the other, be-goggled, dived down in front of him and swam through his legs, tickling his feet as we passed and then appearing behind him with a gurgling seamonster burble. Martin loved it and would giggle with delight.
I took a deep breath, and down I went, through the leg-gap and as I rose something caught my eye. Aaargh!
I surfaced for air and submerged again. No, I was not mistaken. There, happily swirling about was a sewer trout. A long fat semi-buoyant one. Hugging the pool floor.
Back to the surface:”Tom, get your goggles on and have a look down there”
“Over there, look, lets all move this way” (putting our bodies between the trout and the keen-eyed lifeguards).
Down Tom went. And resurfaced “Oh bugger bugger bugger!” he muttered. “is it …er…ours?”
“Of course not, Martin was in the toilet before we left, and he’s wearing his net lined shorts. No possibility this is ours. Unless you did something and you’re not telling me?.”
“WHAT? Of course not!” said Tom, indignantly.
“Well we have a problem” I said.
Tom knew exactly what problem I meant. We were the only swimmers here, and a sewer trout was loose, so it had to be ours. I mean, how could you possibly prove it belonged to someone else and had been lurking here all day?
“What will we do” asked Tom.
“I think we need to catch it, and take it out” I replied. Adding “without being seen”.
And so began The Hunt for the Sewer Trout.
We needed a receptacle, so Tom decided to take Martin out to the changing area where he hoped he would find a trout-trap. I was tasked with maintaining a swirling surface on the pool to deflect the lifeguard’s gaze and distract them. Tom was gone for ages, and ages, and finally returned, to my great relief as the bored lifeguards started to stir.
“Did you find anything?” I asked.
“Yes, took me bloody ages, had to rummage through the rubbish bins but I found this”….and discretely pulled a crisp packet from Martin’s swimshort’s pocket. (Salt and vinegar flavour if you must know.) Which was brilliant because they are silver and blue packets. Ideal camouflage for a swimming pool.
“So how do we do this then?” I asked.
“Right, I’ll play with Martin and make a load of distraction, you get under and trap the trout in the bag” said Tom.
“Ok. Just try and keep yourselves between me and the lifeguards, and distract their gaze!” I replied.
And so began the The Trapping of the Sewer Trout.
Now, if you’ve not ever tried this yourselves, let me enlighten you about hydrodynamics.
Swimming pool water, for all its clarity and apparent inertia, is actually riven with currents caused by numerous pumps and filters all shifting the water continually. Swirls and whorls of movement, unseen to the casual observer, going unnoticed as they roil and race and turn and chase, invisible………unless…….unless there is also a sewer trout about.
And so, as above me Tom and Martin gaily played, beneath the surface I watched the sewer trout: it slowed, then whirled, and rolled, then stopped, and rose, and turned and whirled again, a dervish dance of troutish joy.
The unrestrained stop-start tango-trout raced across the tiles, turned and circled, and slowed. I closed upon it, bag in hand, closer, closer still, closer yet….and …bugger…as the trout quickstepped off, switching mid-glide to a foxtrot (or was that foxtrout?) racing on some current or other through Martin’s legs. I followed, bag ready, lungs bursting. No use. Up for air. GAAAAASP!
“Did you get it?” asked Tom.
“No! It’s bloody well prancing about down there like a ceilidh dancer doing a Gay Gordon’s”
I filled my lungs and said “I’m going down again” and did.
Bloody trout was off across the pool, still swirling and jigging it’s merry dance. Back up again. “Tom you need to move, it’s gone over there. This isn’t working, we need to drive it this way, closer to the wall, and corner it”.
And so began The Herding of the Sewer Trout.
Swirling our feet and generating currents of our own, we jiggled and swished the trout across to the wall, prancing, looping and roiling in its dancing frenzy. I dived again, bag ready. The trout was circling, waiting, slowly rising…then jitterbugged up and rolled then raced away, but I was quicker now, growing wise to the unseen energies that pulled and pushed and teased. And as the sewer trout and I spun in an elegant pas de deux, I gently reached and turned….and the bag swallowed it. Caught!
I surfaced, trying to look casual and relaxed. “Did you get it?” asked Tom anxiously.
“Yep, it’s in the bag! Literally! Any idea how we get it out now?” (This was a problem as both of us were wearing rather fetching but skin-tight Lycra shorts, and any attempt to conceal the trout within them was going to be…er…unsuccessful.)
“Maybe just pretend we’re eating a packet of crisps we happened to have with us as we climb out perhaps?” I offered.
We agreed that was unlikely to work.
So instead we asked Martin if he’d mind putting it in his swimshort’s pocket. Which he did. And we carefully walked out, smug grins on all of our faces, edging Martin round to conceal the bulge in his short’s pocket.
And so the Dance of the Sewer Trout came to an end. Flushed off to join its fellow trout, dancing, jigging and gliding, on and on and on…….
Duckrabbit are not cartoonists. But we value freedom of speech, the right to be heard, the right to laugh and the right to life.
I took a trip over to the west of Scotland to see family this week. With some time to spare I thought I’d revisit a place I’d not been for a few years – Loch Arkaig.
Arkaig is a well-hidden stretch of fresh water, tucked in behind the hills to the north of Fort William. It’s on a dead-end road, single-track and poorly maintained, the kind of highland road that kills caravans, bashes the spoilers off low-slung vehicles, and terrifies those foolish dutch and german campervan owners who were sweet-talked by a salesman into getting a van that’s two metres longer than is really sensible.
Access to it is at first spectacular, following the Caledonian Canal from Fort William on the back road to Gairlochy, or from the other direction, the switchback road from Spean Bridge, both roads offering astonishing views west towards Ben Nevis, its great bulk looming over Fort William. At the end of the 19th Century my grandfather used to hire ponies and attendants that would ferry you to the summit of ‘The Ben’ for 1 Guinea, including lunch. Nothing quite so exotic today, now you just walk.
This is Commando country – the WW2 training for covert operations in Europe took place near here and the Commando Memorial set on the hill above Spean Bridge has to have the most impressive location of any monument anywhere. A fitting tribute to those whose lives were lost.
It was pre-dawn when I set off and as a consequence I was treated to the sunlight spilling in over the mountains to the north of Ben Nevis, which form an impressive 12 mile long ridge called ‘The Grey Corries’ after the grey quartzite scree that covers some of the sides of the ridge. It’s a fantastic high walk, with epic views all around, and if you are really keen you can add Aonach Mor, Carn Mor Dearg and Ben Nevis onto the end of the Grey Corries walk and really do yourself in. But today, I was just looking from afar, and enjoying the light as shafts of rising sun spilled over into the glen below.
All along the access roads the views are grand, but once past Gairlochy the road narrows, the hills close in, tree-clad and gloomy. This is Mile Dorcha (gaelic for The Dark Mile). The sun rarely penetrates this small glen, so steep are its sides and so narrow its base – in places it is only a metre wider than the single track road that runs through it, the sides rising steeply, tree-clad, from the edge of the tarmac. However it might be more accurate to call it The Green Mile because thanks to its almost perpetual dampness all the trees, fence posts, and drystone walls are clad in lichen and moss, a verdant mat that clings to every surface and branches like some living coat. You can still find spent bullet brasses here if you’re lucky, remnants of the WW2 Commando training that took place all around this area, the troops based in nearby Achnacarry House.
As you pass through the wee glen the sides close in, tighter and tighter, and tighter still and then when you least expect it you pop out at the end and Loch Arkaig presents itself. And rather splendid it is too, stretching far to the west, with the unmistakable conical summit of Sgurr na Ciche, which lies on the edge of Knoydart peninsula, dominating the distant skyline. This is a wild and unforgiving landscape, a long distance from anywhere should you have a mishap.
I fished up here with my dad when I was younger, and he told me a story about a mate of his who hauled a giant pike from Arkaig, a monster of over 30lbs that put up a fierce fight, almost breaking his fishing rod and very nearly capsizing his boat. What surprised the fisherman was the presence of a pair of osprey’s talons firmly embedded in the pike’s back; the hapless bird had dived and grasped pluckily, but had picked the wrong fish to mess with and been dragged under and drowned. A few straggly sinews attached to the talons were all that remained of its elegance.
Seeing my astonishment my dad followed this tale up with the story of his old school friend who lived on Loch Lomond and whose son, only 6 years old, was grabbed by a giant pike whilst he was wading in the shallows one summer day, the fish firmly clamping its ample jaws around the lad’s ankle and trying to pull him into deeper water. The boy’s father who was only a few metres away putting in fence posts jumped in to save him, and unable to open the pike’s jaws nor lift his son and the pike out of the water, had to beat it to death with a post. The pike was just over 40lbs, not a record for Loch Lomond, the largest pike I’m aware of coming out of its deep waters was over 47lbs, but it was big enough to do a small boy some damage.
Dark peaty lochs with fish that can kill big birds and pull small children in too? That was enough to terrify me, and I was more cautious when wading after that, whilst keeping one eye on the sky too in case my splashing in the shallows attracted a plummeting raptor intent on hauling me away. Fishing on Loch Arkaig and listening to my dad’s tales taught me that the ‘food chain’ is not as linear and predictable as I’d first thought.
But these formative experiences, sitting quietly in a small boat on a deep dark peaty loch, taught me another fine lesson: optimism. As I grew older I realized that photography is very much like fishing, simply a game of luck. But to make your luck you need to get out there, to float across the surface hopefully and trust that you can tempt something from the depths of possibility.
But there was no real drama for me on this brief visit. Apart from a road covered in ice, the result of a rapid early morning freeze that followed on from the sleet of the previous evening, and required considerable caution on corners lest I side off to join the pike in the loch. The loch itself was calm, its surface rippled only by moisture dripping from the overhanging branches.
And as the low weak sun made its faint presence felt, it managed to melt the ice in a few exposed places, and backlit the trees.
But not in the Dark Mile; there it remained icy, cold and green, just as I remembered it being on my last trip there, several years ago. Different though, some trees were taller, others had fallen. But all was reassuringly familiar.