Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Feeling Not Looking

Or “Now You Have To Close Your Eyes, Or You Won’t See Anything”

The two-part title comes firstly from a paraphrased quote by Don McCullin - “photography for me is not looking, it’s feeling.  If you can’t feel what you’re looking at, then you’re never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures.”  The second part comes from the introduction to Jan Svankmajer’s film ‘Alice’ based on Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’.  This seemingly paradoxical sentence is a plea to dream, to go within, in order to access one’s own personal imaginative reality.

This is partly intended as a follow-on piece from my last blog where I touched on my difficult childhood because I believe that my incarnation as the photographer I am now has been shaped by those experiences and the measures I took to live in my imagination as a means of escape.  It is also a way of sorting my thoughts out in my own mind and is not in any way a criticism of people who follow a different route photographically.

Because of circumstances, I spent a considerable amount of time with my grandparents as a child.  My grandfather was an artist and he instilled in me an abiding love for the visual arts - he would take me to galleries and exhibitions, show me books and give me endless supplies of paper, paints, pencils etc.  The books of his which I pored over the most were a Thames & Hudson one on the Surrealists, a book on the St Ives artists and a large hardback on Picasso.  I think this laid the foundation for my passion for 20th century art.  I responded to the ambiguity, the imaginative creativity, the unreal reality and the intensity of feeling.   I looked for similar traits in my other great love and escape, books.  The authors I came across as a child and a teenager formed the mainstay of my personal mythology.  I am only now starting to realise the connections between my imaginative life lived in the head (where I could be safe and happy and free), necessarily inward-looking, and the way that my creativity happens. 

I think creativity must be different for everyone, it will have a different impetus and a different way of coming into being; but for me it begins unconsciously.  A kind of soup is brewed in the subconscious, the ingredients being images, emotions, experiences, memories, references to paintings, films and books and so on.  Slowly this becomes a more conscious thing and I am able to see a whole world within my head which is a kind of palimpsestic decoupage of the sum of my life so far.  Things overlap and become covered with other things but, somehow, from all this higgledy-piggeldyness ideas are formed for photographs.  

What I hope for is space, ambiguity, room for interpretation.  Uncertainty.  A glimpse behind the “painted veil” of everyday reality into something other, things unseen but felt.  The magic realism which is there if we can be open to it.  An imaginative reality.  How things are to me.  When I read books as a child or daydreamed, I chose which reality I wanted to escape into.  I recognise that I still do that now as a photographer.  Reality is optional, reality is mutable and this can give rise to interesting tensions, for example in my ‘Flight’ series - the gentle tugging of imaginary wings against the earthbound weight of the body.  After all, perception has its problems and its limitations.  As a parent I am aware that children instinctively seem to know this and it seems sad that as adults we often turn our back on this open way of thinking.  Some kind of dialogue or narrative within the image is also important as photography is not a trick dependent upon skill and technique but a language.  Nor do I seek answers - the asking is what matters.  Depicting the surface reality holds little interest for me, I want to dig deeper, to reveal what lies beneath the picture presented by the senses.  The artist Marc Chagall eloquently explained it like this - “through [my father] I first sensed the existence of poetry on this earth.  After that I felt it in the nights, when I looked into the dark sky.  Then I learnt that there was also another world.  This brought tears to my eyes, so deeply did it move me.”  Expressive and non-representational art seems to me to enable us to reach something meaningful which is nothing to do with appearance and everything to do with essence.  Roger Fry spoke about modern artists not seeking “to imitate form, but to create form; not to imitate life, but to find an equivalent for life.” 

It’s up to each individual to find their own way.  I would not dream of imposing my way of going about things on anyone else or even expect many people to understand where I’m coming from, artistically speaking, as this kind of thing is personal and deep inside but that doesn’t matter.  I think that if this drive, this need to make images, is about anything, then it’s about being true to oneself.  There has to be integrity and genuine feeling.  The emotion part is important to me as in the Don McCullin quote, Andre Kertesz also famously said “seeing is not enough; you have to feel what you photograph.”  And not just in my own work - if I think about photographers (including the work of friends) whose work I admire then one of the unifying experiences is that when I look at their images I think “that is about me” - not in an egotistical way but because the photo speaks to me - I can identify with that thought, that moment, that emotion.  It will probably be an expression of something internal: grief, love, despair, loneliness, desire, hope - we all feel these things at some time or another and by trying to depict them honestly, the personal and the universal become united.  In a way it’s also about stillness - about saying “this means something to me, THIS, this moment, this construction - I hope it means something to you.”

I made the move from ‘taking’ photographs to making them some time ago and have never looked back.  I don’t accept limitations on what photography is or isn’t or what can be done with it.  Whilst I don’t believe that technique or process is the be all and end all of photography at all, I have personally found that I can more easily get the images/ideas I have in my head out of there and into the world by doing it the old-fashioned way.  But you do whatever it takes and it doesn’t matter what that is. I like to use film and alternative processes (some of which I don’t do “properly”) because when I make a wet plate or a lumen print - working directly with the image - there is a contact with the materiality of things and, in a way, it’s a kind of birth.  The method of making, the hands-on thing, is completely part of it as is the result - a tangible unique thing you can hold in your hand.  I love the physicality, the traces of contact which are visible as well as the  elements of chance and luck.

In many ways the creative impulse is instinctive and I believe all children are born with it.  Why it remains for some people and not others is a mystery but I certainly don’t subscribe to the view that only some people are capable of being creative.  Creativity takes many shapes and forms.  For me it’s almost a direct retort to the original hurt I suffered as a child - it’s a positive thing to come out of a negative period.  Jung said “had I left those images hidden in the emotions, I might have been torn to pieces by them.”  So - art as catharsis or therapy?  Maybe but it’s far more than that.  It’s also about connecting us with our most fluid and vulnerable selves - the selves who we really are or who we might wish to become; it’s about the dichotomy between our physical bodies (and all that they are restricted by and prey to) and our minds which are capable of limitless imaginings, dreams and thoughts.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

An Open Heart and No Fear

With thanks to Neil

I attended a really up-lifting and enjoyable International Women's Day event today organised by a friend of mine, involving women who make or create from all over Aberdeenshire. My friend was saying that approaching life (and creativity) with an open heart and no fear was important and I completely agree with her. Certainly every time I set out to make a new photograph, it is a leap of faith and exposes something of myself. Art is about what we feel. How we feel. Why we feel. It's an attempt to stop the world for a time and say “look – this means something to me and might mean something to you.” We are all in this together.

An open heart and no fear is also appropriate with regard to this piece because I was (until recently) unsure about whether to publish it or not. Not really out of fear, although there is an element of that, but more because I am worried that people may misunderstand my motives. I don't want to over-share and I don't want to elicit sympathy but there are reasons I feel it necessary to talk about things which have happened to me in my life. Firstly, this should (I hope) lead on to the next post I am writing which deals with my take on the art I make and secondly, there have been some recent experiences I've had which have brought things I try to keep submerged bubbling to the surface. Some of these are personal issues which I won't go into but I have also been very affected by the recent tragic death of Frances Andrade -

I believe that there is a profound connection between my childhood and my creativity. There was an excellent programme on Radio 4 a couple of years ago presented by Grayson Perry about creativity. He set out to explore and then explode myths surrounding creativity such as “creative people are a little bit mad.” I enjoyed the programme very much, especially his discussion with a psychologist who had written an article on possible connections between childhood trauma and creativity entitled 'Scars on the Bone.'

Anyone who has experienced something bad in their lives will know that it's possible to stick memories/experiences into a box and tuck that box into a dark corner of the mind where it can lie undisturbed for some time. It never disappears, however, and it only takes a phrase, a word, an image or an event to shove that box back into the light and re-open it. The experience of Frances Andrade (who took her own life after being made to re-live the sexual abuse which she suffered as a child and young teenager in a court case after being advised by police not to seek therapy or help) made me think about the fact that children who are the victims of something, more often than not, believe it to be somehow their own fault. That they were, in some way, responsible. And I have also been thinking that the shame we adults who have been child victims carry with us is actually a continuation of the abuse. It's very easy not to talk about difficult things but this perpetuates our notion that, as children, we did something wrong.

The first 18 years of my life were fairly hard. From being an unwanted accidental conception, my mother's suicide attempts and mental illnesses and consequent stays in psychiatric hospitals, sexual abuse from the age of 5 at the hands of my mother's ex-husband, domestic abuse of my mother by a boyfriend to homelessness whilst I was studying for my A levels. My way of coping was to escape mentally. A solitary only child by nature, I withdrew into books and into worlds of my own making. My imagination saved me I think. I really believe that this way of escaping paved the way for my need to find a creative way to express myself. To bring something into life was so much the opposite of the place I found myself in. I was able to make something positive from the negative, although this process was long and slow and non-linear of course. Now, if I express something true to myself, something genuine then I have created something which takes on a life of its own and which, hopefully, may strike a chord with someone else, or make them feel that they are not alone. The thing is that nothing which touches us deeply (whatever it may be) ever goes away and those things always leave a mark - in one way or another. We can't get rid of them or forget them so we absorb them somehow and they become part of the filters through which we see the world. 


Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Showing Me How To Fly.

In the latest of a series of strange coincidences and revealing insights, my eldest daughter came in this morning to tell me that she had had a dream last night where she was given wings.  She was somewhere she did not recognise and was given the wings by an unknown girl who then showed her how to fly.  She said it was a lovely dream.

This was remarkable to me for a number of reasons.  I'm been working on a series of photographs entitled 'Flight' which are to do with ideas of freedom, escape, yearning to be in another state and wanting what seems impossible.  It also relates to the fact that children do actually believe, for a while, that they can physically fly if only they could learn how.  As you become older, you realise that, in fact, it is possible - in an allegorical way of course.

Last week I had two separate lovely and lengthy conversations with friends.  Being made to question what is behind my images and re-visiting certain points in my childhood, showed me how the impetus to create and to create in the way that I do goes far deeper than I had previously supposed.  I had a troubled childhood and it has taken astute and perceptive comments and questions to make me realise that part of what I am trying to achieve is a kind of cleansing.  I'm not yet sure if this is some kind of Nietzschean art as redemption thing or whether it's a different kind of beast altogether.  For the moment, I am happy to have gained some insight and will see where it all leads.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Where It All Began I Suppose...

I've been doing this photography thing for 3 years now and am only just figuring out how it fits in with my take on the world.  I've never kept a diary or journal so this will be instead of I suppose, a way of setting down and ordering my thoughts.  The thoughts are usually just part of the disparate jumble, along with emotions and daydreams, which exists in my head.  I'm hoping this will help me to remain true to myself and therefore clearer in my purpose.
It is the sense
of things that we must include
because we do not understand them…
and so the wood
advances before the evening takes it -
tense in a light like water,
as if (on extended fingers)
supporting the cool immensity…
This is from a poem called The Impalpabilities by Charles Tomlinson.  It's significant for me in a number of ways.  I came at creativity through writing - reading it and later writing it myself.  Books were where I escaped to as a child, they showed me that the world was more than just sensory perception and quotidian reality and could include imaginative leaps of fancy, anything was possible - magic realism where things are not as they seem.  As I got older and studied literature, I realised why I felt that some poets and writers were writing just for me - by writing about deep personal truths and how things appeared to them, they managed to tap into universal truths or at least how things seem to some people.  This is, for me, the basis of art.  There has to be a connection.  

I believe this just as passionately with the visual arts.  When I read something or look at something I am carrying all of my personal history with me, everything external will be tinged by my baggage.  I see the world through the filter of my mind, as does everyone through their own.  I tend to connect with things which are imaginative, ambiguous, unreal, internalised and oneiric.  I don't have to, or indeed want to, understand everything.  As Tomlinson says "the sense of things...we must include because we do not understand them."

During these three years of taking photos, my way of working and my way of seeing have both changed hugely.  I started out fairly conventionally but soon realised that I was disatisfied with what I was producing.  I am not interested in things being cut and dried, not interested in a world where there is only one right answer, or indeed one where there are only answers.  The surface of things isn't enough.  I want and need to get behind the supposed reality, beneath the superficial and try to make unseen things visible.  I can respond like anyone to a beautiful view or a gorgeous sunset but I have no interest in photographing that response.  I think it's in Sontag's On Photography where she makes the point that a beautiful photograph isn't the same as a photograph of a beautiful thing.

Developing my own vision has required a certain amount of determination and thick skin however.  There was no one in my immediate circle who 'got' what I was about and so I became used to laughing along at people's descriptions of my "weird blurry photos."  I went through a long period of self-doubt where I worried that I produced what I did because I didn't have the technical knowledge to do anything else, painfully aware of my photographic ignorance.  Having now met, both in reality and virtually, other photographers who get where I'm coming from, though, has helped my confidence enormously and I now see all of this as part of my aesthetic journey.  I have to work through things in my own way at my own pace and make the images I have in my mind's eye so as to make room for more.