portals and the possibility of hope in a time of despair

I like to look back at photographs I have taken and make connections. Often I will find them, because even though it feels at the time when I am snapping away, that I am being quite random, I have discovered when I later trawl through my images that I am actually quite purposeful and even economical these days when I photograph, tending to hone in on similar themes and subjects. This is, unfortunately the sacrifice of having less and less time to get out and about, I might add, and when I travel it is never with the sole purpose of immersing myself in the art, rather a side line of stolen moments when I have managed to escape family duties. So, my holiday snaps are just that, really, although hopefully something more than that now as experience has trained my eye in what to look for; like a cat I have become quite good at pouncing on opportune moments, with a child hanging off one arm and wielding a bottle of sunscreen in the other. Often I will take a number of pictures of a space or place which is interesting and then work on them later at home to create something I feel I can be proud of, or even sell. Other times it’s a one-off moment, although these days I favour working with layers over anything else, because it gives me freedom and a kind of complex simplicity which seems to be where I am most content in my creativity.

I am teaching English now and when I teach children how to write I try to reveal it as a practice of layering. There is no neatness to writing really; just like art, it is a messy, but wonderful business. Behind that final draft there are layers and layers of crossing out and re-writing, different coloured pens, feedback and comments, where I have asked them to think about things differently, or to dig deeper and find the layers of meaning. I try to show them that writing, just like art, is not an end product as such, but it is a process. A process of becoming. There is no good or great writer for whom the words just magically transpose onto the page. Good writers will cross out, they will edit ferociously; they will be critical of themselves and they will agonise over every single word until they have hit just the right note. Because good writers know that words, and how we put them across, are important; they have resonance. Nowadays, of course, the word processor often erases the visible marks of the editing process, but even when I write an essay now I end up with six or seven drafts before I get to a final version I am happy with, and when the children are writing I think it is important that they see this. It is vital that they understand that neat does not always equal good content. I ask them to take pride in their work and to take time, but I do not obsess over neatness because I feel it is highly overrated. My own handwriting leaves a lot to be desired and spelling might be a challenge, but it does not mean that I cannot be a good writer. We plan and write together on big flipcharts so that they can see for themselves how this process works: I might go back and change a word or phrasing I did not like; I might underline or highlight repeated words and look in a thesaurus for alternatives, or star in another sentence here and there. It’s a thoughtful process of revision and it is important that children see it as such.

Educators like Ken Robinson have been telling us for many years now that creativity is the most important skill we can foster in our children in order to prepare them for a deeply uncertain future. And if this is true, which I believe it is, then neatness is not a part of that. The world we live in today is a mess. It is complex. It is sad, but we must not attempt to simplify things for our children and belittle their intelligence. There is no matter of black or white any more. As I look out on grey, uncertain skies and hear the wrathful winds lash relentlessly at the chimney, I fear that it won’t be long until those old Victorian bricks give away, but most of all I fear that these storms are hear to stay. We must allow our children to see this whipped up mess that we have created and give them hope that they can navigate the storms more successfully than us. For this is imperative. The world may be a mess; it may be a hopeless shade of grey, but it is a glorious mess.

And now I find, once again, that meandering words have taken me in a direction I did not intend to go on this stormy morning. These are words I did not intend to write, but somehow they have been written. What I wanted to write about were portals, magic and mystery. My two children are endlessly preoccupied with science fiction and other fantastical stories about magical worlds. From Star Wars to Harry Potter, to The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, it seems the battle is always the same: the age old dichotomy of good versus evil (although of course the details vary wonderfully). There is great comfort in these stories too, for them, because, although they usually begin with feet planted firmly in reality, they quickly move into a different realm where fantasies can be played out and indulged in a grand scale, and of course, the children know that good will always overcome evil. This is even more important for them now that they realise that real life is not like this. Our children need great stories like this which provide them with refuge from the grey fog of daily life. As do we, I think.

Often these stories contain some kind of magic portal or entrance which allows humans to access the ‘other world’,  like the twister which snatches up Dorothy’s house and dumps it in the glorious, technicolour Oz; the great old wooden wardrobe which houses those wonderfully evocative fur coats through which Edmund, Peter and Lucy fumble to reach the winter wonderland of Narnia; the platform 9 3/4 which boards Harry on his train to Hogwarts; or the famous rabbit hole (and later mirror) which transports Alice to Wonderland. Sometimes they are actual doors or gateways, like the wardrobe, or the door in Monster’s Inc. which allows the monsters to enter children’s bedrooms, but other times they can be a small object, like the magic key which transports Biff and Chip into different time period in the famous phonic adventure stories which those in the UK with young school age children will know and love. These portals or thresholds which provide passage from one world to another are important features of stories like this, because they are physical symbols of transformation and transgression, but also because they allow us humans the possibility of fantasy and of something else wonderful – of hope.

Without realising, I frequently photograph ‘portals’ – usually doors and windows, and I think many photographers do likewise. They are endlessly fascinating, so saturated with symbolic meaning, as well as being visually intriguing. And so my wordy saunter brings me back (not too neatly I hope) to my photographs and travels. This summer I was lucky enough to visit Brazil with my family, a country rich with cultural diversity and with a sheer expanse beyond my capacity of conception. It was not my first visit, and for the second time I was captivated by the dazzling natural beauty of Rio de Janeiro, as well as the impressive mountainous landscape of the countryside dotted with dusty little villages where locals sit on their doorsteps and lazily watch the world go by. Then there are the more touristy, but charming colourful seaside towns along the North East coast. I encountered many appealing doors, windows, and other less traditional gateways on our travels and have many tales I could tell, but looking back at them now makes me wonder about the prospect of exciting adventures to be had beyond the threshold of these portals, and the possibility of stories untold.

Without possibility, there is no hope.

 

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© images and words by Emily Hughes, 2015

tell me a story

 

 

mabou

 © Robert Frank, Mabou 1997 – image reproduced at Mutual Art

opening line

Stories are necessary, enchanting, evocative things; but they can also be the means by which our dreams are traduced or defused, defiled or filed away. We learn to read sideways. We learn to read by the light of secret planets and signs.

Excerpt taken from From one state to the next by Ian Penman (included in the forward to Robert Frank, Storylines)

One of the things I love most about blogging is the opportunity it provides to make connections with so many other creative and inspiring people. I remember vividly the excitement of starting this blog four years ago; gaining followers, having people comment on my pictures for the first time, discovering other like-minded bloggers. I posted a series of pictures my husband and I had taken in a house in Italy, and a fellow blogger (writer) asked if he could pen some words to them as a writing prompt, and so an artistic collaboration evolved with Nathan from The Whole Hurly Burly. I was curious to see what he would come up with, and it was indeed a fascinating process seeing your own pictures take on new meaning through somebody else’s eyes. It was good, from my part, to know that a collection of pictures which I had put together had the possibility of narrative, and that they could not only tell a story, but provoke an emotional response, and one which had resonance.

Sometime later I found the courage to instigate another artistic collaboration on a larger scale when I imagined the journey of a photograph project. A humble forgotten photograph has taken on new life, weaving words, stories and memories in its flight around the globe.

I remember the exact moment when I realised that exploring narrative in photography was something not only important but necessary, and that combining words with images was what I wanted to aspire to do in my own photography. It was when I went to see the Storylines exhibition at the Tate Modern in 2004.

Frank is a storyteller; he attempts to convey narrative and sequence in his work employing not just photography but text – sometimes just single words and images, sometimes scratching the words into the surface of the negative – as well as video and film to create a dialogue (although more recently he has focussed exclusively on still photography). His later more experimental autobiographical work (and especially his polaroids and Mabou series from his home in Nova Scotia) for me is extremely powerful; saturated with emotion and complex layers of meaning. Photographs are grouped together haphazardly, peppered with random words sometimes scratched angrily or smudged. Fragments of writing, like diary entries, sometimes typed or handwritten are cut and pasted onto sets of images, creating crude collages which further add to an impression of fear, confusion, but also of profound sadness. There is so much to look at and explore in this work which reads like an expulsion, an exorcism even, of inner torment.

Although his later work never received the critical acclaim of the earlier projects such as The Americans (perhaps because it is less accessible?) I found it very moving. It speaks (to me) and tells the story of a deeply disturbed state of mind. Of a man who is broken.

 
© Robert Frank, Mabou 1987 – image reproduced in Fashion for Writers .
 
I often write little short stories, or poems to go along with my images. I do it because it’s something I enjoy, often as much as making the picture itself, and I think that words have a tremendous power to bring life and meaning to a picture. This picture ‘the feathers’ is one I made a couple of years ago and recently re-worked into this final image. It features a fine pair of pheasant feathers, and is inspired by a sweet little story, when my husband bought home a surprise one snowy winter night. I posted this a while ago on here (some of you may remember). I have edited it very slightly since then.
 

 the feathers colour
 
‘the feathers’, 2014 
 
The Feathers
 
We heard the slam of the car door, then the familiar thud of his footsteps. The door opened. It was dark and cold out, and we could see he had something bulky and unfamiliar hanging from his back. Smiling in the shadows, he dangled his prize in front of our faces. I screamed.
Two dead pheasants.
The boy was amused; the girl less so.
He hung them in the garden shed in the dense, bleak night, and after the snow had begun to fall, and a snowman had been made [two hazelnuts for eyes; a jaunty snow hat, and an elephant for a companion], he began the long, diligent labour of preparing the birds with his strong, adept hands. The snow had created a perfect crisp white work surface for the task. He plucked the feathers (taking care to put aside the two longest, most elegant), then they were gutted and washed, cleaned, and finally – pink, bald and dimpled – ready for the pot.
The girl looked on with growing disgust.
“I’m NOT eating that!” she wailed.
But she kept on watching.
When the day came to cook them she quietly observed him from a distance as he worked. Slouched against the kitchen door frame.
“Want to cook with dada?”
“Okaaaay” she relented (she never could resist).
Later, I went outside. The sky was blank. Bleached white, as if it had been erased. It felt as though I could reach up and touch the clouds, weighty with snow. I found the stray feathers from the birds cocooned in their white blanket, abandoned where they had been strewn a few days before. They were graceful with strong supple whiskers. They were bold and colourful in rich auburn shades and a fine tiger stripe print. But they were also wispy little locks of silky-soft fluffy down-like bristles. As I photographed them the snow started to fall, slowly and tentatively, executing perfect pirouettes downwards towards the waiting ground.
The gleaming flakes clung to the feathers and gave them new form. It seemed like a fitting tribute to those birds to capture them there in that moment. In the snowfall. All that remained of their plump weight. Of the organs and the blood. The flesh.
And soon the snow will melt as the air starts to thaw. The feathers will turn to sludge and join the mud of the earth. Their proud, shiny plumes; soft tufty barbs and fine opaque quills will spoil and fade to nothing, or be carried away to nowhere on the gust of the next windy day.
But there is still something.
There are still two:
One for a boy, one for a girl.
Strong and tall and vibrant.
Remnants.
From the earth, which fed us.
A simple, hearty supper shared amongst friends.
And then, to the earth it returned.
[And the girl?
Well, she ate, and enjoyed her meal.] 

*********

 This blog post is a re-working of two previous blog posts; words and pictures, and the feathers.

The feathers is also available to purchase as a limited edition print from my artfinder shop.

 © words and images Emily Hughes, 2015

breathe

When I push the shutter release, I close my eyes.

(Annelies Strba, from Shades of Time)

 pink2

breathe, 2014

I have done a lot of reflecting during this holiday period. I’ve read a lot of blog posts and facebook updates about fresh starts and being thankful and realising what’s important, and all that. I’m not knocking any of it. It’s all good and true, of course. It’s been refreshing, and liberating, to have some time to just be without the pressures of work and the day-to-day (of course I know this is only a temporary state, so I’m bracing myself for the full onslaught which comes with immersing myself back into the deep end of life). One thing which has struck me head on, though, throughout all the great stuff (and there is lots of great stuff!) is just how busy 2014 has been. And not entirely in a good way. I always like being busy. I need busy. But I have learned it is definitely not good to busy yourself to the point that you find yourself collapsing in a crumpled heap over the finish line on your hands and knees with a white flag between your teeth. It ends, usually, in tears, frustration and wounds, the kind of which you can’t slap a plaster on; the kind which take much time and effort to heal. It benefits no-one in the end, least of all you.

So at the start of this year. This shiny, brand spanking new clean sheet of a year, I am going to gift myself some much needed advice.

Just give yourself a moment.

Just breathe.
Breathe in
and out.

Look.
Close your eyes
and
see.

 

Happy New Year to all, and I wish you a peaceful, fulfilling and inspiring year ahead.

 

© images and words Emily Hughes, 2015

serious play

The work you do as an artist is really play, but in the most serious sense […] Like when a two year old discovers how to make a tower out of blocks. It is no half-hearted thing. You are materialising – taking something from the inside and putting it out into the world so you can be relieved of it.

Quote by Leslie Dick, from Seven days in the Art World, by Sarah Thornton

 

Haiku of grass and sky2

 Haiku of grass and sky, 2014

 

As I try to move forward with my practice, I find myself reflecting more and more on what it is I am doing, and to what purpose. I read the book Seven days in the Art World last year (kindly sent to me as a gift by a fellow blogger). In an attempt to unravel the elusive workings of the art world, Thornton tries to engage various academics with the question: “What is an artist?”, to which she receives a range of answers, mostly disparaging and dismissive, as she records, presumably because many found the question naive, distasteful or even irrelevant. An obvious question it may be, but it is a pertinent one, and one to which it seems to me someone involved in any way in the discourse of art and art practice, whether as scholar, producer, seller or critic, should have an intelligent sounding answer.

The writer Leslie Dick, however, does have an answer, and one which is somehow obvious and clever and thoughtful and disarmingly simple all at the same time. I have a terrible memory for quotes (and most things), so when I do remember things other people have said, or written, it usually means that it was something which resonated deeply with me and was apposite to me or my situation. Indeed, I was, at the time, spending a lot of time pondering this creative impetus and the overwhelming necessity which I was feeling to express it.

I was asking myself a lot of questions, and the internal monologue went something like this: Is this normal, to feel the need for space to just ‘be creative’? If so, why don’t other people around me get that? Is it selfish to want time away from my friends and family to satisfy this craving? Why do I find it awkward to talk about? What is it I am trying to achieve, though? Is it art? Is it a hobby? Or is it something else entirely? How do I know? How do I find out? Does it really matter?

So you see, when I read these words, they just seemed to slot so perfectly into my thinking, like missing pieces of a jigsaw which had previously brought nothing but sheer confusion and frustration – it suddenly all transposed neatly together to make a perfectly whole picture of where I was at. Which made perfect sense. Because here is the ‘guilty’ stuff which was also going through my brain:

1 – I am being indulgent (there are so many other useful things I could be doing – like the ironing, or sorting the cupboards, or baking nice treats for the family, or volunteering my time for a charity… I could be so much more organised! And charitable!)

2 – I am wasting my time (just playing around – who cares about my pictures and my confused ramblings anyhow? Why bother?)

3 – I just need to do this.

And with that efficiently eloquent turn of phrase I was able to, if not exactly answer my questions, place them, settle them, and realise that the questioning in itself was a perfectly normal, even essential part of the process. Because it does feel like being a toddler at play, in the sense that you are gifting yourself the luxury of time (and we all know how precious that is) and sometimes money also, to play. It does feel indulgent. But no-one would ever dream of accusing a toddler of wasting her time building a tower of blocks, because we also all know that play is an essential part of a toddler’s development. What is one day a tower may the next day become a bridge, then a castle, and then, when the necessary motor skills are in place, only the child’s imagination and opportunity to practice is its limit. And her mother’s (or father’s) little squeals of joy and rain showers of kisses are all the feedback and encouragement that child needs to know that she is on the right track and should continue in her modest endeavours, which will eventually become greater ones.

It’s a bit more complicated as an adult. We tend to seek recognition from a wider audience for one thing, and that toddler’s world is yet reassuringly simple and primitive, in the sense that the meeting of basic human needs and impulses are of primary concern over social ones. We cannot always seek to satisfy our desires so freely. But why do we as a society tend to advocate that play should be ring-fenced for childhood?  Adults need play too, and they need it in the most serious and fundamental sense. Just like the toddler, they need time and space to explore and experiment; to practice and develop ideas and processes; to put them ‘out there’ so that they may then have the opportunity to evolve into achievements for which they can be recognised and of which they can be proud, however small or big they may be.  Inside every adult is a little toddler desperate for a high five or thumbs up for good effort, or even a small squeal of joy.

Soon after I wrote the first draft of this post, I went away to a music festival with (husband) Alex for the weekend. We try to get away and do this every year, just the two of us and our tent, to indulge our shared love of music and escape (just for a while) from the trappings of a terribly bourgeois existence. There was a young unsigned American band who were all over the festival and generally working really hard, but having a great time. We saw them play a couple of times, and on one occasion the lead singer introduced a song called “Innocent” saying that as people get older they often feel the need to get all serious and tortured about creativity, but that really, well, it should just be about having a whole lot of fun. Yup. And that “fuck it, let’s just have fun” vibe of a festival is just generally the best kind of atmosphere to spawn creativity. Even tonight, I start to reprimand my children for blowing bubbles in their milk and making a mess all over the tablecloth, but whilst launching into the familiar rhythm of weary chastisement, I suddenly stop and check myself. Because I realised they knew. They were already getting the cloth to clear up the mess they had made (even if they made a terrible job of it). Play is good. Play is experimenting. Play is learning. But like anything good, it must have its limits, and as adults and educators, that is our job, in our wisdom and experience, to gently and sensitively educate our children in the seriousness of play, and thus instil a sense of individual responsibility for any mess they may make in the process. And maybe next time they will know exactly how hard they need to blow to get maximum bubble fun without spilling the milk over the edge of the cup (here’s hoping at least).

Answers to my questions? I haven’t really found them. What I have found, I think, is some reassurance that what I experience when I need to ‘create’ is derived from a most basic and natural human instinct. Whilst other people may feel the need to pigeon-hole my outward self as one thing or another and may find this confusing, really it is OK for me to be ‘just me’ on the inside and to continue to play with serious focus, energy and passion and a self-reflexive approach in order to push my practice forwards. All the rest is just a fine balancing act (and that, of course, is a little more complicated).

 

This image is part of a new investigation into photography and poetic expression, in which I am exploring the relationship between photograph as both surface-object and subject-referent. I don’t really know if it’s art, or if it’s any good, but I’m definitely having lots of fun playing.

 

© images and content Emily Hughes, 2014

 

destination

travel on diptych3

The journey of a photograph is looking for new participants. It has been such a creative and inspiring journey, but it’s not ready to end yet. Currently the photograph resides in New Zealand, and although I’m sure it’s enjoying it’s little sojourn there by the beach with Maureen of  kiwissoar (and how envious I am of it), it needs to move on to new destinations. If you are an artist, writer, photographer, or any other type of uncategorisable creative being (aren’t they the best types?) and think you might have something to add to the journey, please contact me , or sign up via the blog. Contributions have been varied and unique, each and every one,  from solargraphs to mosaics, and poetry: check out the blog to see where the photograph has been and what it has inspired thus far. I can promise your practice and even your being will be enriched for it.  And you get to join a wonderful little virtual community of creative minds.

The journey is an entirely collaborative effort. Visit the blog to read more about its beginnings.

Here’s to travelling onwards…

Emily

© images and content Emily Hughes, 2014

Colouring outside the lines

So, I’ve been blogging for two weeks now, and after my initial posting frenzy I have decided that I really cannot manage to post every day. The housework is starting to suffer, I can’t find anything, the washing pile is taking on a life of its own, and the children are, well, just hanging off me, literally, at any given opportunity. I get the message: they are starved of attention. I’m feeling bad, and things need to settle down now into a gentle, manageable rhythm – more moderato than presto, let’s say. With that in mind I have decided to limit my posting to three times a week (hopefully quality, not quantity, in the spirit of Friday’s post – see below), and I’m going to aim to do two shorter posts and one longer one each week (but, of course, I reserve the right to completely change my mind about all of that at any point in time).

Anyway, let’s get back to the point of this post which is not really about photography or phenomenology (directly, at least). The title is inspired by this lovely poem Colour Outside the Lines, by Jared Louche:

I was always told to colour inside the lines,
but sometimes lines just confine your mind.
From somewhere far down in the orange deep
I start to see new colours flowering all around me.
Confusion looks like black static-scrapes
on crinkled, white, burned-edge paper scraps.
Sleep’s always coloured deep-ocean green,
rivers of copper tug me through lavender dreams.
Bubblegumblebees swirl from my head
When I’m being silly in bed;
electric red-yellow wasps start to drone
when I’m an angry screaming cyclone.
Thinking hard at doing maths, my head follows
pencil-thin, jagged, rust-red paths.
Shouts are nasty, silver daggers stabbing
Huge policeman’s blue hands grabbing.
Whispers slip out on a crisp, cream strip
with chocolate-brown writing typed across it.
Snores have wide, blazing tiger bands.
Boredom has no colour but fog-grey on wet sand.
Birds chirp chatty, blue paint chips.
Dog barks are cloud-white with dawn-golden sparks.
Trucks rolling by burp grouchy black splashes.
Bicycle bells ring in shaky pink flashes.
Thunder blows a splatter of sickness-green grim,
brushed throughout in a bruised-blue trim.
Boiling kettles make tiny neon-yellow fish that swim.
When I sing a song,
a long string of loud,
rowdy colour explosions
slowly go floating
past my nose and
hilarious horns brightly
pop purple spikes.
Drums’ black splashes and
guitars roar orange-red slashes clash,
blue fuzzy bass feathers fly by and
white flecks of dry piano bone-specks
spatter across the mixing mess.
Glorious, glorious, colourful mess,
But music’s the colour I love the best.

It’s a wonderful, vibrant, symphony of colour. When I read it I think of a child allowed to run wild and just create: sing, paint, make music, dance in all the glorious clashing colours of the rainbow. And don’t we, when our children are little, encourage them to run wild with bright colours, to just be creative without restriction or adhering to form? But then, as they grow up and go to school, something happens and we start expecting them to conform. We start expecting them to be neat; to colour between the lines.

When my son was three he went to pre-school. We were living in Italy at the time. I remember one day his nursery teacher pulled me aside and expressed mild concern at the fact that he struggled to keep his colouring between the lines. She was so kind and looked so earnest about it and I remember nodding my head and trying also to look concerned, but inside I was wondering why on earth this was so important, that my son who was only 3, and just wanted to run around and be wild, should be able to pick up a crayon and colour in a picture without going over the lines. I shrugged my shoulders and assumed that it was some kind of cultural thing and decided not to worry about it. Now that he is 6 and I know much more about the education system, I understand completely why that teacher expressed concern. Of course, colouring is a pre-cursor to writing and we encourage nice neat colouring in schools and nurseries so that children will develop their vital fine motor schools that will allow them to in turn develop nice neat handwriting later on.

Except of course there are some children, like my son, who have no desire to conform, and no interest in learning to colour between the lines. For them, school is a long, hard battle of wills.

Last night, Alex and I had a rare night out in London to have dinner with some old university friends. The red wine was flowing, and as we picked at our tapas we got to chatting about all the extracurricular stuff we were up to. One of us plays lead guitar in a band and does gigs, the other is taking acting classes but has dabbled in singing too, and another is getting involved in her local community, doing a course in permaculture, volunteering in her local amateur theatre group, teaching youth theatre workshops and writing screenplays (she’s a busy girl). Alex is also very much into doing photography, but also painting, and his music (we have about eight guitars in the house, all of which he plays – we joke that they are breeding). And of course I am doing my blog and photography. This is all in our spare time, on top of holding down full-time jobs. (That is apart from me as I work part-time, but I like to think the children and the housework more than make up for the other 60% of my workload.)

We wondered why it was, that at this point in our lives, in our mid 30s, we have started to feel the need to reignite our latent creative urges, which have probably for most of us pretty much lain dormant since at least our free and easy university days if not since early childhood. None of us really do particularly creative jobs for a living, but we all felt the need for some kind of outlet in our spare time (or indeed, perhaps because of this). And we all felt like we had mostly suppressed our creative sides for so long for fear of not being taken seriously, or not being very good, or lack of confidence, or lack of time, or a combination of all of the above. It is quite scary to veer off in another direction and do something new. It takes more than a bit of courage.

It’s almost as though a fresh surge of creativity has welled up from deep inside us at the same time. Yet this time, there is an urgency about it. The lazy arrogance of youth has dissipated and its place there is determination and necessity. There is a sense that this is our last chance to get it all out while we are all still young-ish, and able and full of energy-ish. But it runs deeper than that, too. Many of us at a certain point in our lives realise that maybe we might want to try walking that alternative path that we could have taken, but didn’t for whatever reason. Maybe, like me, your parents or your teachers discouraged you from following more creative subjects at school because they weren’t ‘academic’ enough and were unlikely to secure you a place at a ‘good’ university or give you those elusive ‘opportunites’ to forge a decent, respectable career.

I loved art at school. It was my favourite subject along with English, but I never took art A-level because it was just never really valued as a subject. And people (even teachers) would say, well what are you going to do with art? How crazy is that, really? And how crazy is it that vulnerable, immature 16 year olds who know nothing of the world are forced into making life-limiting decisions like that which will ultimately fashion the path they will take in life. These are the first steps we take in narrowing our choices in life rather than broadening them, and narrowing our minds.

Education is the key factor here, of course. The other day I came across a talk on TED by Sir Ken Robinson (I love TED talks – I have the app on my iPhone and watch them whenever I can snatch twenty minutes here or there) on the subject of how schools kill creativity in our children. His premise is that the global education system stifles creativity in our children in order to prepare them for an ‘ideal’ life of academia. But of course in reality this is not the kind of route that all children would desire to take, or indeed should. Why do we pressurise our children into aiming for a university education, why do we prize that above all else, when a university education doesn’t really get you a job anymore?

We are failing our children because we are not preparing them for an uncertain future, where creativity and the ability to innovate will be the most valued skills we can offer to the job market. For me it is also simply about teaching our children to be true to themselves. This is the key to creating happy, well-rounded, succesful individuals. The speech is fascinating, inspiring, sad and hilarious (I defy you not to laugh out loud at the anecdote about the girl drawing a picture of God). I highly recommend checking it out.

So I will try, (tenuously?) to bring this back to photography. I have actually been thinking about these points a lot with reference to the subject. The photograph I have included today is a picture of one of my son’s drawings. He likes to fill the page to bursting with lots of colour and lots of intricate detail. He often adds bits of torn paper with writing. It’s almost as though he cannot be contained by a piece of A4. There is everything original about this picture – my son conceived it, and coloured it himself, but there is nothing original about the photograph. It is a picture I have stolen from ‘real life’. This is something which I both enjoy and find frustrating about a photograph at the same time: it can’t exist in its own right, and (unlike other art forms) it has to be contained by its own form. I don’t wish to enter into a debate about whether photography can be art (I think unquestionably it can be), but I do question whether it can ever be truly original. You can’t colour outside the lines of a photograph… can you?

And if you can or could, what would that kind of photography look like?

© Emily Hughes and searchingtosee, 2012

Let’s keep things simple: an exercise in reduction and redaction

Distillation. Stripping things down. Trusting your intuition. This is what this post is about. It is a topic which has been on my mind a lot recently. Not just with regards to photography, but my whole life, the world and everything (I like to think big). I’m talking metaphysical stuff, here.

Recently Alex and I had to make a tough decision. It was one of those crossroads moments, which forced us into thinking really long and hard about our future and that of our children, and ultimately deciding what we wanted that future to be. We were not ready to do this kind of thinking and to be honest it kind of brought us to a standstill. Either choice would set in motion a chain of events which would be life changing. Which path would we take? It was not an option just to ignore this thing that had reared its ugly head. I spent a lot of time thinking by myself, I talked to Alex, to family and friends, I made long lists of pros and cons, I cried (quite a lot)…. in the end though, exhausted and emotionally drained, I was still left with the decision which needed to be made: no-one else could do that for us. And that is quite a scarily big responsibility for someone who generally just likes to bumble along and go with the flow of life, happy to sway in whatever direction the wind is blowing me.

This time, however, I realised that I really did not want to sway. Things that sway are weak and fragile. I wanted to be a rock: immovable and solid. I listened to all the advice, and in the end I turned inwards. I tuned into the soundtrack of my body; the distant hum in the back of my head, the pounding echo of my heart, and the swirling swell of fluids in my intestines. Sometimes, it is braver to not do the thing that everyone expects you to do. Harder, definitely, but braver to stand still and face the force of the wind. So we are here, standing still, stronger (I hope), and ready to deal with everything that decision might throw up against us.

A while ago I read an article in The Guardian Weekend magazine by Oliver Burkeman about a way of thinking based around reducing everything in life to two things. (One is too few, three too many). Apparently it is possible to apply this two-rule thinking to every subject. I was immediately attracted to this idea given I have a tendency to overcomplicate things, and so have been attempting to practice it ever since. When it came to our decision-making I settled, in the end on the following two salient questions:

  1. Do we have to do this?
  2. Will it make us happier?

The answer to both questions turned out to be no, and after that, the decision was fairly straightforward.

So, now I’m going to take a little diversion (sorry, this is a long one, but I need to get it all out, and I promise I won’t lose you along the way – I’ll deliver you right back to the start when we’re done). I’m turning back to photography in order to attempt to illustrate this point in a different way. To Polaroids, by Walker Evans, in fact.

I have to admit that this is a book I have been itching to write about ever since I started this blog, partly because I feel like these images convey so much of what I want to say about seeing and being and phenomenology and all that, but partly also because I just love them. I don’t own many photobooks, but this is one I really treasure. Every so often I get it out and look at it and it gives me immense pleasure. I feel like I’m feeding my eyes with those little 3 inch squares; they are like visual poems to me.

So, before I talk about why I choose to write about it, here is a little bit of background about the book itself:

Towards the end of his life, tired and physically frail, Walker Evans decided to put his fading energies into one last photographic project using the Polaroid SX-70. He photographed everyday things around him (as was his style): found objects, road signs and road markings, churches, buildings, work colleagues and friends.

(by the way sorry about the slight texture and glare on the images. I had to photograph them from the book as I don’t have a scanner to hand)

What he liked about using the Polaroid camera and the images it produced was that they allowed him to look at the world with a renewed clarity. Uncluttered by mechanics and unburdened of the chore of having to process and print his images, he found a new impetus. The images he made were honest, without pretence. The simplicity of the medium and aesthetic freed him – both physically and mentally – and he was able to enjoy making pictures again with his new ‘toy’. In the forward to the photobook Jeff L.Rosenheim describes its effect on him as thus:

The camera’s instant prints were for the frail artist what scissors and cut paper were for the aging Matisse: the catalyst for a new, provocative, chromatically elemental, yet profoundly inventive body of work.

Evans was quite clear though, that it is important to ‘do all that work’ before attempting to turn to Polaroid making:

It reduces everything to your brains and taste… you have to know what you’re pointing it at, and why – even if it’s only instinctive

I think what he is saying is that you first need to develop your viewpoint as a photographer; train your eyes (practice, lots), if you like, before you should be let loose with a Polaroid camera. Partly because there is no skill involved in taking a picture, it takes a whole lot of skill to know what to point it at.

In his excellent book Introduction to Phenomenology, Robert Sokolowski explains how phenomenology can help us to deconstruct perception as layers of meaning, both “actual and potential” (p.20). Though an object is whole in one sense, it is also made up of “layers of differences”. The object (he uses the faces of a cube as an example) is both a ‘whole’ and a sum of its parts at the same time. Or, we could put it another way and say that things inherently contain objectivity as well as subjectivity, which we project onto them. So a tree can be a whole tree, but it is also its branches, leaves, or whichever part we care to focus on and choose to use to represent as ‘tree’. This is because when we look at a branch or a leaf we understand that it has come from a tree, so a tree can be a tree in its complete whole entirety, and it can also be represented by its independent entities (p 23).

I think that this is what we do when we point a camera lens at something; we make a selection – we play with perspective and viewpoint. We are able to select a piece or part of an object and effectively bracket it from its whole entity to suit our own (subjective) purposes. I may choose to photograph a flower but I would not necessarily choose to photograph it in the same way as another photographer; whereas I may decide to take a close up of a petal, another might photograph the whole thing, or find a different perspective (from above, from below) dependent on our personal style and what meaning we are attempting to convey.  We, then as photographers, like phenomenologist, are continually searching and scanning to see the detail of our world from different angles to try to understand our place in it a little better.

Pieces, then, are parts that can become wholes. (p.23)

These ‘pieces’, however, are to be distinguished from ‘moments’ which, on the other hand, cannot be detached from their whole. They are “nonindependent parts”. Sokolowski uses colour as an example of a ‘moment’. It cannot exist independently of its attached object or surface. This is true but of course, in reality, a photographer can very easily take the colour red say from a wall which is painted red and appropriate it. We may not know that ‘red’ was actually a painted wall but the photographer has, by means of selection and framing, created something other; a new object: the material surface of a photograph.

Framing and perspective then are useful both on a practical and conceptual level here. What Evans’ final work teaches us is that finding new ways of seeing and looking – which might involve limiting our viewpoint instead of expanding it – for some time can inspire an abundance of creativity. Those words: “It reduces everything to your brains and taste” are key here. This body of work is an example of the absolute distillation of a lifetime of seeing and devotion to the purity of form.

There is something about limiting your perspective which I think can paradoxically be incredibly liberating and incredibly productive for photographers (but I think also in all creative mediums). And I believe it is not only a useful but even an essential undertaking in a world which delivers an intense saturation of input to our overwhelmed and overstimulated brains. We really need to find ways to sift and sort and filter out the nuggets of gold amongst the grit. We need to order and organise by way of form. It is both a comfort and a necessity to turn our backs on the onslaught occasionally and just clear our minds, reduce everything to what is essential.

In my own photographic practice snapping I have limited myself to using just one lens for the past two years (a 40mm prime lens). I have got so used to it that I have forgotten what it is like to have the luxury of different lens choices. Although I have to admit it was partly an economically driven decision, there was also a curiosity to see how it would challenge my eye. I have mostly found that, even though there are situations when the lens doesn’t really work for me, it has made me train my perspective to find alternative shots that work for the lens. So I am thinking about my image making more, being more creative, but I also don’t feel the need to take lots and lots of pictures all the time. This is the double-edged sword which digital photography brings with it: you can just keep on snapping, indefinitely… and I’m not really sure if that’s a good thing. When we are taking pictures we also need to know when to stop taking pictures. We need to train our eyes to know when to curb the flow and take that finger off the shutter, and sometimes just look, experience… just think about what we are doing a bit more.

Post prodction too, concision is essential. I think it is a useful life skill, not just good practice for creatives. We need to learn to pare things down to the bare minimum, to apply filters and alter our perspectives sometimes, and most importantly we need to edit, edit, edit ruthlessly and then, like an ironmonger forging a piece of metal with hammer and anvil, the sparks of impurity will fly away and what is left will stand stronger, purer, more authentic.

I guess the irony in all of this is that, as Evans pointed out, you do need to go through the process to get to that point of clarity. You need to “do all that work” first. And that for him was his life’s work. But of course that doesn’t make what he did before obsolete. The point is that it is an evolution; a constant sea change of refinement. In truth this discipline of redaction and reduction is not something that comes naturally to me. I tend towards verbosity when I write, and I find it desperately hard to step outside of my world-in-my-head and project some kind of coherent purpose out there (and of course time is always an issue). But this blog is a starting point, and definitely a positive one, I think.

Every subject can be reduced to two things.

So what would my two things be for the subject of photography?

The light, and the eye. Well, that’s all you need, right?

To finish, here is an instagram I snapped the other day (are instagrams the new Polaroids? I guess that’s a debate for another day). It’s a picture of a part of a skip. I thought it was kind of Walker Evans-esque, so a fitting final moment.

I would be interested to hear your thoughts. Do you agree with my two things? What would yours be?

Texts: Polaroids by Walker Evans (with forward by Jeff L. Rosenheim), Scalo, Zurich, 2002
Introduction to Phenomenology by Robert Sokolowski, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2000

© Emily Hughes and searchingtosee, 2012

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