Friday, April 29, 2011

Learned filters and the Zen of picture making.

I am teaching a course in ‘composition’ for my camera club these days and while I have no idea how effective this is for the other members yet, - any positive results will take a while to show up -, I do know that this focus is doing good things for my own creativity. Typically, the teacher who first must synthesis and then lead others to do the same is the primary learner.

There are some difficult considerations of course, the main one being that people are used to being spoon fed from childhood on, - we break down learning into bite sized portions, provide simple rules and guidelines and assume a stepped learning ladder. I have always taught from a different perspective. - that complex thinking like that which goes into creative work does not lend itself to simplification. It is not the sum of its parts and to pretend that it is makes for a whole bunch of minds who think they know but really have missed the boat. So, the learning process for photography as usually presented actually leads down a wrong path, away from creativity and blocks individual thought. Creativity is a complex and intuitive form of thinking that does not work well with ‘how-to’ lessons.

I have always taught from the perspective that individuals are their own best teachers. A thoughtful learner who finds things out for himself, takes nothing as given, questions everything and experiments endlessly, is more likely to produce original work and advance thought and ideas for his culture as a whole. Photography has such potential for fresh seeing, but is loaded down with standards. We are lead to believe that there are desirable models,‘good images’, that we should emulate. That beauty is synonymous with ‘pretty’ rather than with ‘truth’. That good images are those that sell and are hung on living room walls. A consumer society and its art.

We all see the world through ‘filters’ of various sorts. We drive down the road, while thinking of personal concerns. We barely see the traffic, never mind the way a cloud looks on the horizon. When we go out especially to photograph a landscape, we may see the cloud but use a standard compositional device, one of a few that we apply to all our picture making, to incorporate it into our photograph. The more professional we become, the more the cords of convention and habit bind us up. The challenge must be to peer so closely at our subject that what comes into our camera is the expression of what is and comes from the subject itself. No rules or conventions, no filters between us and the subject. That requires a zen-like mind and a willingness to be misunderstood. An individual path.

In fact, the camera and its images that are harvested in this way become a tool for personal growth. We look closely to make our photographs and the whole world opens for us in a completely fresh way. Making pictures becomes effortless and filterless. Our subjects reach up, organize themselves, and rush into the camera. They are us in a very deep sense.

So, given all that, how does one teach from this perspective? I introduce the elements that are present in some combination or other in the world around us. If we take a photograph, they are there. Things like texture, line, form, colour, point, rhythm, and value. The basic building blocks. My interest, however, is in their relationships, how they work together to communicate whatever it is that they are ‘saying’. I expect my fellow photographers to take it from there and teach themselves by constantly looking clearly at the world around them and also referring to their own recent images as a guide toward the creation of their future ones, - ‘where is my next step?’

If we spend time looking from this perspective, then the cloud is not just a cloud, a white puffy thing, neither is it a simply a form in itself. It exists in relationship with everything else, glides over fields and mountains, sifts through trees and when we enter into its foggy breath and know it, then our chances are greater that we will have something in our mind and in our camera that communicates ‘cloudliness’. A fuzzy subject, its true.

The person with the camera then, needs to step past all those learned filters, those rules of composition, and simply open himself wide enough so that the ‘subject’ can express itself. We must be in relationship and practice that state of mind. It doesn`t matter if our images seem to lack structure at first, that they stray from the ‘rules’. We are breaking out of convention, making our own trail in the forest. Or, as we will begin to suspect, the trail is creating itself in front of our feet.

Composition and reality

When we were sailing through the Pacific it was an exciting moment when a new island appeared on the horizon after many days at sea. First the highest peak, then the bare or forested slopes and finally the flash of surf on the encircling coral reef. As we followed the reef`s edge to find the pass that would allow us safely into the lagoon we feasted our eyes on this new landfall. We never thought to say that this really was not perfect; that the mountain should be higher, the lagoon greener and that the palms on the little islands at the pass entrance could be taller or more neatly arranged. No such judgements as we stared with hungry eyes on LAND! One simply viewed natural reality and accepted it as it was.

When we look at a photograph of ‘reality’, do we use the same criteria or do we apply a series of filters, - expectations and judgements -, that stop us from really seeing it as it is? For example in the first photo of trees one could simply accept nature`s placement and concentrate on seeing it as we viewed the islands, or we could place some screens of judgement before it and by doing that miss seeing its reality at all. The trees are too evenly spaced, we might say, or it is much too dark, or apply whatever theory of composition we espouse. The second image of a lone tree and power lines is definitely stripped down to some bare essentials and a lot hinges on very little. Perhaps one might find problems with the exact placement of the elements, (“That tree should be definitely at the ‘thirds’ position”) One might miss the tension between lines and tree and cry out that powerlines are so ugly and miss the contrast that I saw when I looked up at that moment. Of course, they are a reminder of our power, our rigid grasp on the natural world, and isn`t the tree more noticeable, more fragile and more beautiful as a result?

The reality is that both nature and photos exist within their own particular set of relationships and we must see them as unique with their own individual standards. They are as they are and our efforts should go towards trying to see and understand them as clearly as possible. Our limited understanding is restricted even more by standards and judgements. That island we see with eager eyes, no judgements please, just get us through that pass and safely into the heart of this place.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Arbutus Woman.

The thick branch stretches out over the rocky cliff and shore towards the ocean surface. This is a common gesture for arbutus trees along these shores as they lean flexibly out beyond the more rigid firs to reach the light. I step to the edge of the cliff, lean into the branch and take a photo right down its length. Even as I do this I know that I am drawn to make this picture by the swelling breast and its nipple that is close to my face.

The Salish First Nations people have always seen the relationship between arbutus trees and women, either in stories of how a girl was changed into this tree or in a more general way of seeing the possibility of transformation between animate and inanimate and between human and the rest of creation. It is an easy transition to make. Who has not run their hands over the smooth skin of new bark, seen the breasts where the tree has grown out to cover a broken branch, or noticed a crotch`s curly last year`s rough bark where branch meets trunk. It is so obvious and startling that to turn ones eyes and mind firmly away takes serious self control. To not visit that place in one`s imagination risks creating a habit of mind that will shut out creative thought as well. Because our imagination and creativity are intimately tied to the feminine.

We still refer to ‘the muses’ when we try to name the wellspring of our creative thought. They were the female gods of ancient Greece who mediated between humans and Apollo, - the source of light and knowledge. We get our inspiration ( receive the spirit) via the female principle,- the creator of life. If I repress the female qualities I see in the arbutus, I also limit my free access to the muse, imagination, creativity, and to art.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Cemetery.

I have an hour available before the ferry will arrive in Fulford Harbour bringing my wife Heather home from a day looking after a grandchild across the water. From the stone church, at the head of the bay, I can watch for the ferry and spend some time taking photographs.

The gravestones are my objective today. This is an old church, by BC standards, and the graveyard gives a snapshot of the people of the south-end who built it. Fascinating stuff for me and my camera. While the tide is far out in the bay below and the sun flashes out between grey clouds providing lots of other subject matter, which I will get to later, right now I will simply try to do justice to these gravestones and their history of Saltspring Island.

This does not call on any great technical knowledge or special lens but it does require that I look carefully and with respect. This is a form of anthropology, of documentation, but also a way to improve my own mental attitude. Good photographs come from careful observation and good observation is more than simply technical. It requires a form of empathy as I take these photographs that will permit me today to feel kinship with these folk long beneath the sod.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Japanese lessons. "It is Nature"

I drive down a half hour early to pick Heather off the late afternoon ferry so I can take some photographs in the cemetery of the little stone church that lies at the head of Fulford Harbour. Built well over a century ago by the then new inhabitants of the south end of the island, it is now their eternal resting place, and it is this sense of continuity that I find attractive. That and the interest of the stones and their inscriptions that show the diversity of the population in those early days. Hawaiians, Irish, German, British and Indians still lie in close relationship in the churchyard.

The ferry is still far out in the bay as I finish my project so I decide to cross the road and photograph the shoreline. The tide is out and here in the estuary where the creeks spill their loads of sand and gravel a broad temporary landscape of twisting channels carries the rushing Spring runoff waters to the sea. The sun dodges in and out of racing clouds and the wet beach alternately glows and greys in rushing shadows. In all this almost monochrome world it is the red jacket of a lone figure on a rocky point that catches my interest. I scramble down the brambly bank and say hello. When she turns I see she is a young Japanese woman. When I have offered to and taken her photo on her own camera and asked for and taken a couple on mine we start to talk.

She is Aki, and has been on Saltspring for two months as a ‘woofer’, - a volunteer farm labourer. I express my sympathy for the recent earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident that has happened in her country while she is so far from home and am struck by her reply. She lives on the other side of Honshu and her town and relatives were not affected, she tells me. I grasp an important attitude here that sets me straight. No wringing of hands, no riding the coat tails of emotion here, just an understanding that “It is nature.”she says, “We live always on the edge.” A clarity and acceptance that lies outside of shallow emotion, that accepts thousands dead as part of living on a lively planet. We shake hands and I clamber back up the bank while she walks on the beach beside the rushing stream. The ferry is just docking, it is time for me to go, but I glance one last time down toward her small figure squatting now in the reflected rays of the late afternoon sun. I take some last photos of her beside the river on the bare sandy shore and head for the van.

That sense of eternity, of continuity, that I had in the churchyard, how do I reconcile that with my conversation by the sea? We do live on a violent planet, nothing is certain at all. Is there something in a very Japanese way of looking at things that I can relate to here? I had recognized that young woman`s quiet knowledge within myself as well. Something that was so strong within me while sailing back and forth across the Pacific. So hard to adjust to at first, and yet such a powerful way of understanding the world. The earth, its shrugs, its storms the shifting of light and shadow, the turn of the tide and the rushing streams are part of eternity and we are a fragile part of it too. A shallow emotion of tears and agonizing sympathy is not useful here, not appropriate. She has it right, after all.