Fabulous Monsters (I believe in you)

… he was going on, when his eye happened to fall upon Alice: he turned round instantly, and stood for some time looking at her with an air of the deepest disgust.
“What – is – this?” he said at last.
“This is a child!” Haigha replied eagerly, coming in front of Alice to introduce her, and spreading out both his hands towards her in an Anglo-Saxon attitude. “We only found it to-day. It’s as large as life, and twice as natural!”
“I always thought they were fabulous monsters!” said the Unicorn. “Is it alive?”
“It can talk,” said Haigha, solemnly.
The Unicorn looked dreamily at Alice, and said “Talk, child.”
Alice could not help her lips curling up into a smile as she began: “Do you know, I always thought Unicorns were fabulous monsters, too? I never saw one alive before!”
“Well, now that we have seen each other,” said the Unicorn, “if you’ll believe in me, I’ll believe in you. Is that a bargain?”
“Yes, if you like,” said Alice.

From the chapter “The Lion and the Unicorn”, Alice Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll

I have just finished reading Alice Through the Looking Glass to my children. The moments when I read stories to them are probably some of my favourite moments of motherhood. I hope that they never stop wanting me to read aloud to them. Storytime is a cue for winding down; time to be still, to stop and listen, to just be content at the end of the day in our weary bodies. It is time to take ourselves off into a different world. I love hearing their gentle warm breath next to my ear, feeling their little chests rise and fall to the gentle rhythm of my voice. Their limbs sleepy and still, relaxing, in concentration and anticipation. Eyes wide with wonder. Warm heads snuggled under my armpits.

I love to play the role of the storyteller. It’s so much fun getting into character and doing all the funny, silly voices; making them laugh, making them scared, intrigued, confused, or just desperate to find out what happens next. I relish introducing them to the wonder of worlds which exist only on the page in words, pictures, and which fizz and sparkle, bursting into life in that moment inside our heads. There are no limits – only the far-reaching parameters of our own imaginations.

The bewildering range of things which a 6 and 4-year-old can conjure up in their make-believe worlds never fails to astound me: mermaids and sorcerers jostle with knights and princesses, dragons and fairies… Disney, God, the tooth fairy, Father Christmas… it’s all there, jumbled and confused maybe (and it’s all pretty much on level pegging), but it all provides such rich and wonderful material for little heads thankfully yet innocent of the onerous reality of the adult world. I’m glad they have all these characters to turn to and provide them with some comfort, and some answers which we adults sometimes fail to.

In childhood I see such urgency, such presence and promise, such embodiment of humanity in all its wild energy, passion, cruelty and innocence.

I don’t believe in so many things as I used to when I was little, but I believe most fiercely and passionately in them, those fabulous monsters. In everything they are in their lively, questioning minds and bodies, and everything they might be.

© Emily Hughes and searchingtosee, 2012

Seven things to do with your instagrams

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Maybe it’s a bit like Marmite; you either love them or hate them. Believe me the narrow-eyed cynic in me really really wants to hate them, but I can’t help it. I’m hooked. I love instagrams (and really I use instagram as a catch-all for any kind of images made/enhanced by a smart phone photo app. I also use vintage cam and Hipstamatic occasionally and there are some others I haven’t tried yet like Tilt Shift Generator and PictureShow which are interesting). I know they’re a bit too mainstream to be cool anymore and they’ve had a bit of stick, but they are fun and simple and easy and surely all the best things in life are and should be those things. I think they are as exciting as the Polaroid camera must have been to Walker Evans when he first got his hands on his new ‘toy’, the SX-70 40 years ago.

And cheaper! The ultimate democratic art form!

OK, so maybe they’re not examples of Quality Image Making, but we all know that you can have the best kit in the world – it’s not going to make you into a pro photographer, or an artist for that matter. It’s what you point it at that counts Evans said (I did promise I would come back to this, didn’t I?). I would go further than that and say It’s what you do with it that counts. He was lucky because he was already famous and established as an artist-photographer so some nice people made his lovely Polaroids into a book after he died, otherwise surely they too would be lost and forgotten; checked into the end-of-the-road snappy stop shop for stray photographs, like billions of others.

These kind of ‘throwaway’ snapshot images almost seem to reproduce themselves. They supersede the medium of photography. They are disposable, junk; the visual equivalent of white noise, proliferating, littering our screens, our minds, our lives. I have this vision of the end of the world when everything has imploded and all that is left are millions of little shiny glimmering photographs, like Polaroid snapshots. Our starry lost souls floating aimlessly around in a void of empty, black space. This will be what we are reduced to.

I wonder then if the criticism levelled at these tools is more about a certain elitist attempt to protect or safeguard the worthy status of photography. But why do we need to do this? Why do we feel like images like this are somehow base, a bit dirty or cheap, whereas say bad writing is OK, it’s just bad writing. If we get back to what photography actually is about, like words, and all art, it is communication. People will always seek to communicate. We need to communicate. It’s instinctual. I would argue that nowadays we communicate as much through pictures as we do through words.

It doesn’t cheapen anything really because all people are doing is communicating. It might be annoying, and thoughtless, but, like meaningless words, we can toss them aside because they probably weren’t meant to speak to us anyway.

I am also aware that the youth-of-today probably doesn’t know or even much care that these retro-vintage style filters are appropriating an aesthetic made fashionable by the Polaroid camera in the 70’s and lomo-style cameras like Holgas, Lubitels etc. It just looks cool.

But why does this even matter?

Is it just because it’s too easy, somehow? After all, all art is about aesthetics, and appropriation (Warhol, anyone?). Nothing is truly ‘unique’. We are always borrowing ideas from other people; things we see around us, things we read, we get inspired and hey presto a new idea furrows its way into our brains and takes on a life of its own which is a little bit like something someone else did, but maybe we take it a bit further, or we put a new spin on it. Let’s be honest, there’s a lot of recycling going on.

At school when a child ‘borrows’ an idea from another child we don’t call it cheating anymore, we call it ‘magpie-ing’ (thanks to the great Pie Corbett). I love this, because it is liberating. Not only does it teach children that knowledge and ideas are not things to be guarded jealously, but are free and should be shared amongst our fellow human beings, but it also exposes the creative process to them, which previously might have seemed a bit mysterious or impenetrable. This is how creativity works: you open up your mind, you look, you listen, you read, you become receptive to other people’s ideas, discuss them maybe, inform yourself, and through them, your own ideas will grow and develop (if you nurture them).

This is why it is often said to be a good writer you have to be a good reader, and probably the same is true of photography and looking. Generally, to be a ‘good’ artist you need to be sensitive, attuned to the world around you, and be able to draw that into you work in order that you have something interesting to say.

Anyway, this is why I like instagrams so much. Not because they are really anything that great, or because they are trying to communicate anything particularly deep or meaningful, but because they don’t pretend to be anything more than they are, which is fun and nice to look at. They don’t take themselves too seriously.

BUT if you don’t want them to end up forever inscribed in the graveyard of your C: drive under: oh yeah I meant to actually do something with these one day then here are a few ideas, just in case you are stuck for things to actually do with your instagrams:

  1. Share them. On your blog, on one of the many social networking sites like tumble, Flickr, foursquare, Facebook, twitter, pinterest…. You can share them on instagram of course, but I know that only about three people follow my instagram feed and I think the more places you share them the more likely it is people are going to look at them. Flickr has loads of iPhone photography/instagram type groups you can join if you’re into that sort of thing
  2. Create a 365 instagram-a-day diary style project. Blipfoto has set itself up as a forum solely for people who want to share their 365 projects
  3. Turn them into prints. You can do this easily anywhere on the high street, or use an app like postalpix. Or if you want retro Polaroid-style prints try Firebox. Once you have prints, the possibilities for creating collages and other works of art are endless! I like Elsie Larson’s blog she has lots of fun and easy to create ideas for things to do with your pictures like this instagram canvas wall art
  4. Surprise your family and friends with an instagram postcard with postagram (I just sent my mum one so we’ll see what they are like. I think these look quite good fun!)
  5. Download the blurb app and make a book of your instagrams (haven’t done this yet, but planning to do one towards the end of the year, maybe My year in instagrams or something inspired like that!)
  6. Make some into coasters to give as gifts, as demonstrated by petapixel here
  7. Make them into ‘art’ by signing up for gallery space on instacanv.as where you can buy and sell your prints on museum quality canvas. The way it works is, you get your gallery sooner if you advertise in on social media sites like Facebook, twitter, pinterest and get your ‘friends’ to vote for your gallery.

© Emily Hughes and searchingtosee, 2012

A walk in the woods

I’ve been sick all week with a horrid virus so haven’t had the energy to even get dressed let alone think about blogging. Still, I do have some new photos to post. Before I got ill we went out for a walk in the woods on Saturday. It was so green and lush and moist (on account of all the rain we have been having). Totally magical.

I focused in on interesting leaves, played around a bit with exposure and focus, and reflections. I quite like the results, I think. They are a bit dreamy. Very me, anyway!

© Emily Hughes and searchingtosee, 2012


Recently, I’ve been doing a lot of cloud gazing. We’ve had plenty of moody skies which makes for interesting and dramatic cloud formations. I haven’t felt much like photographing them, though, strangely.

I just want to look.

The master of all cloud photographers was, I think, Alfred Stieglitz. He made his series of Equivalents as a response to a critic who believed that he had some kind of hypnotic power over his subjects, and claimed therein lay his photographic talents. Affronted, he set about to prove unequivocally that he could take good pictures of other things. Things which couldn’t be hypnotised by his lens. He turned his camera upwards and looked to the sky, to the clouds.

Alfred Stieglitz – Equivalent

Alfred Stieglitz – Equivalent

Alfred Stieglitz – Equivalent

Alfred Stieglitz – Equivalent

Alfred Stieglitz – Equivalent

His mother was dying at the time, and these beautiful images are also a moving and emotional tribute to her. Abstract art has such power to both convey and reflect human emotion, holding up a mirror to our souls.

Was he searching for the truth? An escape from reality? Or blessed relief from the pain of losing a loved one? Was he looking for God?

We will never know exactly, but of course part of their appeal and potency is their universality. We can all find our own solace – our own answers – in them.

Clouds induce in me a lazy state of daydreaming – one of my most favourite past-times. My children enjoy that age-old past-time of spotting recognisable forms (animals, flowers, trees) in the clouds, and mostly when I think about clouds I think about childhood, although I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because my children are so fascinated by them, or maybe because I was as a child.

And children are fascinated by clouds aren’t they? Usually I think of them as quite friendly and fluffy. Though sometimes they can be scary and menacing like the Cloud Men in Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach.

The other day, walking my son home from school in the rain (again) he commented on a discussion he had had with some friends at school about the rain. He said he thought that when it was raining it was God having a shower, but another friend thought that it was God’s tears. “Mummy”, he sighed, “either God is having a lot of showers lately, or he is very sad.”

I wrote these two poems about cloud-gazing from a child’s perspective (and please forgive me if they are very bad I know I am not a poet but I am trying out some new things, and perhaps they are not quite done I’m not sure yet):


Evapotranspiration. Troposphere. Stratosphere. Mesosphere. Cumuliform. Cirrocumulus.

I say the unfamiliar words out loud
Try them
Roll them around thoughtfully, clumsily in my mouth
A sugary boiled sweet clattering against my teeth

Nacreous: very high clouds. Exhibit lustrous, rainbow colours like mother of pearl
Noctilucent: night clouds. The highest clouds in the atmosphere. Illuminate during deep twilight

A new pair of too-tight leather shoes
Not easy
Not comfy

Nephology: the study of clouds

An other language
Beautiful, strange
Not mine fluently tripping off my tongue
With a skip and a hopscotch: 1… 2-3… 4… 5-6…. 7… 8-9… pick up the stone – and back again.
Can I say it backwards?
Ygolohpen (eeee-jolo-pen)
I’m stuck
Standing still
I suck
The sweet deposits itself in the hollow of my left cheek
Oozes gently filling my mouth with a burst of sickly syrupy lusciousness
I look up
Smile to myself
After a while, I turn around and hopscotch back
My once shiny shoes now scuffed and worn
Moulded to my feet
Things that once were new become part of me

Cloud kisses

I watch the clouds up in the sky
Feel the sunshine on my face
Wonder: can they see them up in space?

I watch the clouds up in the sky
White-whipped marshmallow kisses
Heaped moody-grey wishes

I watch the clouds up in the sky
I watch the thin vapours drift, I watch them roam
Restless puffs of foam

I watch the clouds up in the sky
Sheet-like fold me up a letter
Swaddle me a soft dove-grey angora sweater

I watch the clouds up in the sky
Send me surfing on a halo-hazed rim
I follow them to nowhere on a whim

I watch the clouds up in the sky
I skip a rainbow trip
Reach out to grip

Does God take his strong ancient hands
And wring each raindrop from the clouds
Until they are spent?
I watch them fall
Feel them splash upon my nose, my eyelashes
I stick out my tongue to taste
The tang of His salty-sweet tears

© Emily Hughes and searchingtosee, 2012

For reference, these are the websites I took the images from:


How amazing is this? I would love to see it!

Canadian Art Junkie


Heather Benning’s life-size  dollhouse- a popular entry in last year’s Contact Photography Festival – is now a burned ruin. The western Canadian artist torched it, saying she plans an exhibition called Death of the Dollhouse.  See more on the WP blog ReadReidRead, where the story about Benning’s act of fire originated.  (The rest of this post is Canadian Art Junkie’s original piece on Benning’s work, last year)

Benning’s life-size dollhouse began on an abandoned farm in rural Manitoba and was on exhibit in Toronto’s Contact Photography Festival last spring. Her 30 photos provided a look through an entire wall of Plexiglas, revealing rooms now restored with decor from the time the house was abandoned in 1968.

-Reshingling the roof

Kitchen Sideboard before Restoration

The contrast in the exterior and interior speak to themes surrounding the passage of time, childhood play, memory, reclamation and nostalgia. The Dollhouse delves deeply…

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The space in-between: Reflections of a passenger

Continuing on a theme, which I first blogged about here on photographing the spaces in-between; I thought I would share with you some pictures from a project I did for my MA. I am copying and pasting the pictures, and the introduction to the book as I wrote it (almost 7 years ago now!), although there is probably much I would change now.

These images are all taken on car journeys, through the windscreen or passenger window, whilst travelling on various motorways up and down the UK. They are very low quality I’m afraid as I can’t find the original disc (they were scanned from transparency film) so I took them from the book proof pdf.

The intimate is not a space but a relationship between spaces.

Beatriz Colomina

The space in-between is a space between here and there, between dreams and waking.

It is invisible; a kind of nowhere, somewhere, anywhere… a place which harbours our daydreams.

Through these narrow chinks new possibilities emerge to dazzle the eye like sunlight glimpsing through a cracked wall, and we can dream a different story, or imagine another journey which our fate does not follow for a fleeting, precious instant.

These intimate, indulgent moments in which we (if only temporarily) dwell, offer us shelter, escape, hope, despair, contentment and yearning.

These images chart a period of being a passenger; of frequent journeys I have made, places I have been transported to and daydreams I have had along-the-way.

As the window frame fills with transient scenes I freeze them in an instant, drink them up greedily, and then erase them with one click of the camera shutter. Now they are mine.

Blurred by my eye, they become something other, these non-landscapes of my journeys; not here, not there, not quite anywhere. But they are stored forever in my dreams.

The quote is from Privacy and Publicity: Modern Architecture as Mass Media by Beatriz Colomina

© Emily Hughes and searchingtosee, 2012

Vintage love

I recall that at first photographic implements were related to techniques of cabinetmaking and the machinery of precision: cameras, in short, were clocks for seeing, and perhaps in me someone very old still hears in the photographic mechanism the living sound of the wood.

Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida.

I have a bit of a thing for all things vintage, especially when it comes to cameras.

Recently, I acquired a fantastic little gadget: a Kiwi Lens mount adapter which allows me to use all of our manual OM lenses with my Lumix. It’s such a treat to be able to enjoy all of these fabulous lenses again which have literally been gathering dust in our camera cupboard for the last 5 or 6 years at least.

It’s a great thing. And I feel like a new photographic avenues have been opened up to me.

Yet… it has also rekindled a spark inside me. I feel nostalgic for analogue again. In addition to that, starting this blog and seeing other photo bloggers such as Steve Barnes, Benjamin Donath and Andy Fasoli who are making fantastic pictures with film, I have realised I really want to get back to it.

As much as I love digital (and I do, it’s really a great step forward for photography), I miss the excitement of picking up the latest roll of film from the printers, and even experimenting in the darkroom (badly, admittedly). I yearn for that sensory experience of making my own pictures; being immersed in a shadowy haze of red (always felt a bit illicit, somehow?), engulfed by that pungent acrid aroma of developer, stop bath, fixer… then that wonderful, private moment in the almost-darkness when the chemicals swish gently over paper and your image which you made starts to emerge, slowly, magically, before your very eyes.

It’s a thrill which never fades even if you do it over and over, and, even though you know that it’s all just the chemistry of light reacting on silver halides, it really feels like a little bit of alchemy which you made happen. There is something perfectly meditative, almost religious, about the whole process.

Film also has an aesthetic all of its own, of course. And yes, I know you can achieve all of those effects using Photoshop now, but half the fun for me was always exploring all the subtly different characteristics of all of those wonderful films I used to use, and finding the right film for the right subject: Ilford FP4, panF, Kodak portra, fuji superia, and then all of those colour reversal films which were just so pure in image quality, like ektachrome velvia, provia and sensia.

I think every aspiring photographer should go right back to basics and have a go at experiencing the craft of photography: shooting a roll of black and white negative film, then developing and printing it themselves. I remember with such fondness my first darkroom experience. The dizzying array of materials and equipment: enlargers, easels, trays, chemicals, tongs, filters, timers; not to mention paper of all qualities and grades. Then the excitement of negotiating the semi-blind process: fumbling clumsily around in a changing bag; mixing those chemicals; focusing an enlarger; exposing the image: burning in highlights; dipping the paper in one tray, then the next, and the next; and finally holding it up with the tongs proudly, in the knowledge that you did that from start to finish without the need for a computer, or even a printing lab. At least once, everyone should try it. It’s just so much fun apart from anything else.

Alex and I have built up quite a collection of old cameras over the years, and if I had the funds I would collect more. I love old camera cases too – I have to admit to having a bit of a fetish for metal against leather. Throw a bit of velvet lining in there as well and I’m totally smitten. I love the look and the feel of old cameras; the familiar clunk of the shutter (such a great sound), the satisfying weight in my hand.

Roland Barthes writes evocatively of the physical (almost sensual) experience of making photographs:

I love these mechanical sounds in an almost voluptuous way, as if, in the Photograph, they were the very thing.

Camera Lucida

Old cameras have their own personality, their own idiosyncracies (like people, maybe, it’s the imperfect bits that make us loveable). So then the camera becomes part of the ‘thingness’ of the photograph, leaving its own imprint upon it.

Digital cameras just seem a little but bland to me in comparison (I know there is a trend for the retro look right now, but somehow it’s not quite the same thing) so whilst we can make fabulous images, and undeniably they are hugely convenient, I just can’t get as excited about the medium when I am using them, as with a film camera. They’re just a bit too streamlined and whizzy all dials and buttons and a bit, well, invisible to me.

Now, here for your ocular stimulation is a choice selection from our vintage camera cupboard…

I also discovered a big box of various different unused rolls of film which I plan to start using up over the next few weeks. I’m looking forward to seeing the results as it’s probably all mostly out of date by now.

I can’t wait to use the Rollei again too. It’s so basic, but such a beautiful camera.

So, watch this space…

And please please share with me your vintage loves! I would love to hear about your film experiences and/or cameras you own!

© Emily Hughes and searchingtosee, 2012

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