During my summer workshop at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre, I set the participants the task of photographing unexpected beauty. I asked them to create images that demonstrated the unexpected beauty that we can see around us when we take the time to actually see.
Any time we study something attentively, our wonder can be inspired, regardless of the apparent banality of the subject. As Frederick Franck found, “When I start drawing an ordinary thing I realise how extraordinary it is, what a sheer miracle: the branching of a tree, the structure of a dandelion’s seed puff.”
He also suggested that in learning to see more clearly, we begin to see a much bigger picture than we might have expected: “While drawing grasses I learn nothing ‘about’ grass, but wake up to the wonder that there is grass at all.”
This year I decided to complete this task alongside the course participants. I often head straight for the glory of Woodbrooke’s gardens, so instead I decided to explore the house. My first little gem was this piece of glass in a rather narrow door alongside the lift. I loved the way the floral design reminded us of the lush greenery outside.
This next image was an example of one of those times when you turn around and realise that the real interest is behind you. I went up the stairs a little, to see if there might be an interesting vantage point. It turned out there was not, but when I came down I was struck by the beautiful curve of the bannister from above, only seen on the way down this staircase.
My third image was actually a real ‘Aha!’ moment, taken after I had packed my camera away. Again I turned round, looked across the room…and couldn’t resist these paintbrushes!
I came across an article a while back which struck a chord with me. It was by Eddie Ephraums, on the use of phone cameras. He suggested that using the camera on a mobile phone can lead to a more relaxed approach to photography. His idea was that ‘image making becomes freer and I take pictures that feel closer to how I see.
Ironically, not trying to be a photographer seems to make me a better one.’ Using a smart phone camera allows me to snap a moment whenever I see it, rather than only when I have made a point of going out to take photographs with my DSLR.
I am also more inclined to share these photos, as I can upload them directly to the internet and am less concerned about theft of my copyright as the image is not of a high enough quality for would-be users to do a great deal with.
My newly developed dependence on this approach was brought home to me recently when I arrived at the venue of a yoga class I was about to teach and was suddenly stuck by the alignment of some elderly railings alongside the car park.
I reached for my phone before realising it was at home on the charger. I have been back several times since but the railings have not struck me in the same way again and I have not again been tempted to photograph them.
Another way in which I have found that using my mobile’s camera encourages me to photograph the world as I see it is that the tiny sensor and short focal length mean it creates a huge depth of field in an image.
This is much closer to the way the human eye sees the world than the shallower depth of field I am frequently tempted to select on my DSLR. I love images with only a small part in focus but if I am honest this is not the reality that I see but rather an image I have created as a result of the shortcomings of my camera’s ‘eye’.
A recent challenge pushed me into painting trees. This is a subject I find particularly challenging and therefore tend to avoid. I discovered that if I just paint a tree, I paint what I think a tree looks like…which is actually completely different to what a tree actually looks like. If I walk round looking at trees, considering them as a possible subject to paint, I realise I am dismissing them for not being suitable. It seems I have in my head an idea of how a tree should look, influenced by years of not seeing trees and a good dose of my preference of the neat and tidy to go with it. And this, of course, is why the trees I was painting looked wrong!
So, I took myself and a camera off of for a walk, specifically to look at and photograph trees. This is what I learned:
- None of the trees near where I live look like the imaginary tree in my head
- Branches come off in all directions, from all sides of the trunk, and they are not tidy!
- Trunks are lumpy and bumpy and not straight
- Although the pattern of division into branches may roughly follow the Fibonacci sequence, it is by no means that precise
- Every tree is different and they are all weird
- The little twigs and branches all follow a set growth pattern – right out to the tips, you can see this repeated – but it varies between tree species
I now understand why my trees looked odd…my attempts to create a randomness in the painting of trees still reflected my subconscious impression of a tree and not the reality of that particular tree. More study is required!
I went this week to Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre, for a meeting to plan the workshop I will be co-delivering this August. We had a very productive day, and as usual a lovely lunch in Woodbrooke’s canteen. I always find myself drawn to bowls of fruit, not necessarily to eat, but because of the beauty of their contents. There were several bowls there yesterday and one contained the prettiest blush pears. I had to have one!
I love the subtle shades of warm yellow, slightly lime green and that pinky-red flush that is neither pink nor red, yet both at once. The shape is also extremely pleasing, and somehow nature has deemed to make them the perfect shape and size to sit snugly in my hand.
We have a great couple of days planned for the course, only a few weeks away now. We will be immersing ourselves in personal reflection and mindfulness, in the fantastic setting of Woodbrooke’s house and gardens. There are still places available so if you would like to join us why not give Woodbrooke a ring or check out the details on their website?
Light is a directional resource, whether from the sun or a lamp. The shadows it creates can dramatically change a scene from the mundane to the eyecatching in the time it takes for a cloud to drift across the sky. At times my attention has been captured by the shadow in its own right. Other times, it is the way it enhances another object that takes my fancy. In an environment where there seems to be little worth taking a picture of, shadows can save the day.
Watching shadows offers a powerful meditation in its own right. Watch them change from long, soft and glancing in the early part of the day to short and crisp when the sun is overhead. See them fluctuate as clouds drift by; a subtle cloud cover that softens definition, or the dramatic passing of bigger clouds across the sun on a windy day. Consider how we depend on the sun for light and warmth. Let shadows be our reminder of the life-giving energy from the star that makes our very existence possible.
To take the most dramatic images involving shadows we need to be out and about early or late in the day, when they are at their longest. A bright sunny day will give the strongest shade, but we can go shadow chasing at any time of year. The urban landscape can offer many opportunities for fascinating shadow –hunting, often creating stark abstract images through the interplay shapes formed by buildings and shadows
On a smaller scale, strong sunlight can lead to beautiful images of birds and other animals. Although accepted advice is that flowers should be photographed in diffuse light, I also enjoy playing with the shadow patterns they make around them. Oops, breaking the rules again! I have also spent many of hours squatting under bushes to record the effect of shadowplay on leaves and toadstools. But then I think I am a little odd…
The world of image creation is full of rules and magazines spill over with lists of 10 great tips for this and that. With all this conventional wisdom forming a substantial part of our daily diet, is it surprising that our images can sometimes feel a bit same-y? A bit old hat? Done it, seen it, printed that one on a t-shirt.
Operating inside the confines of an accepted composition can impose boundaries that generate this sense of déjà vu, no matter how atypical the subject matter. It can restrict the freedom of the image, limiting its ability to represent the living, breathing and open-minded photographer behind the camera who sees and feels the world in his or her own personal idiosyncratic manner.
I find it can take me a good while with my subject to get beyond that which feels ordinary and find free and fluid images. Some days it just doesn’t happen at all. Exploring from all angles, I wait for that inner reaction to the scene in my viewfinder that says ‘Oh yes! That’s it!’ If my response is ‘Meh!’ then I don’t press the shutter. I am trying to hold out until I feel the emotional response that I would like my viewer to feel when they look at the picture. Sometimes I run out of time. That’s life I guess.
When we are busy getting stressed about life we are often told ‘Don’t sweat the small stuff’. However, when it comes to photography it is precisely these little things that can be the most interesting. I have recently been trying my hand at painting. Although I have always been involved in crafts of some sort or other, this has never involved painting or drawing so this is a completely new venture for me. This week’s photograph is of what happens when you allow cheap watercolour paint to dry out overnight on a plastic palette. My attempts at painting may involve a great deal of wasted paper but I was entranced by the work of art my leftover paint created for me by morning and spent a happy hour with my camera recording its curves and wrinkles. Even the simplest of things can be transformed if we take the time to look.
In her classic text ‘On Photography’, Susan Sonntag suggests that “Today everything exists to end in a photograph.” Sonntag’s book was published in 1977, long before the explosion in camera ownership, the rise of the ‘selfie’ and social media. I have to wonder, when you consider the sheer number of images taken and shared on a daily basis, if we are risk of proving her right. She may well have been before her time in suggesting that we don’t really feel we have experienced something if we haven’t taken a picture of it. And shared it. In many ways, this need to photograph is like a modern version of the diary. Only instead of hoarding our treasured secrets, we snap and share ad nauseum.
Whilst I do my upmost to avoid the scattergun approach often encouraged in photography magazines, I sometimes find myself recording images of the same subject repeatedly. I then have to spend longer on the computer choosing the best and deleting the rest. Perhaps one carefully composed image would have done? Given my dislike of post-processing it’s certainly worth bearing in mind.
Some days I photograph what is there. I need to do more of this. To explore the images I can create within the small space that I call my own. In this way I photograph to ‘do’.
Other days I go out with the specific purpose of recording pictures elsewhere, of seeking the new and different with the explicit intention of photographing it. In this way I ‘do’ to photograph.
Either way, I am trying to spend more time working mindfully with my camera. Taking care with subject, lighting and composition in order to convey the essence of what I see. Sometimes I choose to store the memories in my mind rather than on my memory card. While this data storage system may become corrupted with time, it will never become obsolete.
Perhaps some days I should leave the camera at home.
According to Andy Carr and Michael Wood, in their book ‘The Practice of Contemplative Photography’, “Photography can be used to help distinguish the seen from the imagined, since the camera only registers what is seen.” When we press the shutter button and light enters the camera, it falls on the sensor, or perhaps a section of light-sensitive film. If enough photons reach this receptive surface, an image is recorded, creating our photograph.
Although this image can only represent what was in front of the camera at the time, and the differing numbers of photons reflected back from the various surfaces, a complexity of shape and form appear to us, and for a brief moment we see them as they truly are, forms, colours, shapes. And in the briefest of next moments the mind begins to label, name, judge and classify what is in front of us. In the subtlety of the resultant tones and we recognise the subject of our image. We promptly label them and the next thing you know its “Oh, look! There’s Aunt Ethel standing under the apple tree in the back garden!” or “How sweet, doesn’t the baby look cute in those pyjamas?” Frequently this is extremely convenient, as without these labels our attempts to convey meaning, in conversation or writing, would become impossibly difficult.
Learning to pause in that tiny space between truly seeing, and applying the labels, is an art in itself. Carr and Wood refer to this moment as receiving a “flash of perception”. These moments seem to occur when there is a pause in the flow of busy activity in the mind, our preoccupations with other things fade and suddenly, we really see what is in front of us. I like to think of this as the way a baby might see when they first open their eyes, when they see without preconceptions. Babies don’t know about labels, at least not until we teach them and begin to praise them for repeating the name of everything they see and hold. Even at this tender age we are closing up the gap between seeing and labelling, tucking the fresh perceptions away as unimportant in an increasingly familiar world. Sadly, this habit of auto-labelling can prevent us from seeing clearly and recognising the true beauty of our surroundings. Learning to let go of our auto-labelling self and become open to the ‘flash of perception’ is the first step in beginning to see clearly and mindfully.