Let me tell you about Walter



The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach, of intellect, in some material object … which we do not suspect. And as for that object, it depends on chance whether we come upon it or not before we ourselves must die.

Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project

journeys… childhood… memory… history… home… traces…. objects… spaces…. magic… home… memories… traces of memories… journeys… secrets… magical objects… childhood memories… ghosts… traces of journeys… secret spaces… memories of home…

layering… merging… mingling…

There have been some loose threads floating around my blog of late. A little indefined. Vague, perhaps. Though not entirely disparate. It requires for me now, I think, at this point, to attempt to weave a shuttle through those loose ends; to bring them (if only briefly) together. I feel I have now come to a point where I need to write about Walter.

Yes, I think if I tell you about Walter, it might all start to make just a little bit more sense.

I am not generally a person who craves neatness or completeness in her life in any way. I am comfortable with the ambiguous and the abstract. Vague ideas and concepts excite me, even. I enjoy trying to wrap my brain around impossible notions and theories. In the end, I really don’t need to tie it all up in a ribbon with a perfectly neat bow.

But. I do need to understand. I need clarity. I need structure. This is vital. Since without clarity, or an attempt at it, there is no understanding. There is nothing. Just words, just fragments, drifting.

Now, it may be that you understand already. Or it may be that you understand better than I, or it may be that you don’t that much care – in which case you’ll skip this post, and just look at the pictures (that’s fine, by the way) – but I need to understand, and I also need to believe that I have made some effort to bring clarity into your thinking as well as mine.

So what I’m hoping is that Walter will provide a sort of loose context; a framework if you like. Less tying up ends, more catching them together. Briefly. Just imagine, please, a little girl in a park with a fistful of brightly coloured balloons. It’s a warm, breezy Spring day. She’s clinging onto those threads for dear life because she doesn’t want to let them go. In the end, she knows she will have to let them go, and watch the pretty balloons floating away into infinity, but she is holding out as long as she can.They are something beautiful, and transient, like all the best things in life. She is enjoying the experience of having those balloons. She feels insanely happy inside, but there is also a unpleasant shadow of a sensation fleeting across her, quietly hovering, clouding her sunny day and tugging at her bursting heart. She knows it must end. She has experienced moments of pure joy like this before and the memory of having to let them go is surfacing and it is painful, but she is learning to control her emotions. She is a little too old to tantrum and whine. She is also learning that the bitter aftertaste which coats the sweetness of a joyful moment is the flip-side of that heady emotion; that we cannot hold onto joy forever, and part of the process of experiencing it, is also letting it go. Watching the rainbow orbs carry away bobbing gently on the wind, fading ever so gradually into nothingness. They were there, in her hand, and now they are not.

Now they are shelved somewhere in a compartment of her brain.

Memory: holding a brightly coloured bunch of balloons in the park on a windy Spring day.

This, for me, is one of those moments where I am trying to hold on tight for as long as I can; pulling the threads together. It requires thought and concentration, and willpower. It requires me to focus my energies. And in the end I know I will have to let them (the thoughts) go their disparate ways as they will pull and tug and try to out themselves from the confines of my words. (I will let them go.)

I’ll do my best.

So, let me tell you about Walter, and maybe, together, in the process of me writing, and you reading, we will come to some kind of transient state of deeper understanding. Maybe.

Now, I am being overly familiar of course, but I do feel very connected to the late Walter Benjamin. I have always had a fondness for German Intellectuals, and he is unashamably my favourite and most treasured. It is true to say that he has been a great influence on me, my photography and my thinking since I first discovered him in my early university years. Since then he has cropped up again and again in my life, been rediscovered countless times. Possibly one of the most under-rated literary figures of the 20th century, for me, he is up there with Rilke, Baudelaire, or Goethe. He wouldn’t have described himself as a poet: an essayist, social critic, translator (he translated some of Baudelaire and Proust’s work) historian, diarist maybe… an assembler of words; a master of the literary montage. But to me he has always been, and will always remain a poet. His words work some kind of naive, awkward magic over me and continue to resonate time and time again when I am searching for that something which connects everything into place, locating me in that sideways vantage point where I can find distance, and reflect, and yet at the same time place myself firmly in the here and now in a way in which everything around me seems more alive and more exciting. Maybe it’s fate, or serendipity, but my thoughts seem to spiral a trail which lead me back to him, there at the core every time.

Let me explain a bit more.

When I write about phenomenology, I am mostly thinking about it as a philosophy of experience; a celebration of how the self engages with the everyday world around her. Because it is the subjective consciousness which is key in this experiencing, the sense of perspective is also important, requiring a sort of immersion into the sensory world of ‘things become magical’. Like watching a rain drop drip, diffusing undulating ripples in a puddle, or pocketing an irresistibly tactile pebble for my son’s collection. When I look at the world like this I am Alice, who has shrunk to tiny proportions after foolishly eating something labelled ‘drink me’. I am in a state of wonder at the world so familiar, yet so strange and surreal at the same time. There is much more to be explored, of course, but in relation to photography, I suppose, this is what interests me most about phenomenology as an ontology, and as a way of seeing. The sense of perspective and the large-miniature dialectic is important because it serves to heighten that sense of awe, exactly in the way a small child experiences the world around him.

Isn’t it true that when we go back to visit places which were important to us as children, like schools, treasured secret dens in the garden, playrooms… they always seem smaller to us than they did then? And as their proportions normalise to our adult eyes and adult perspectives,  they somehow lose their magical, transformative properties?

Explicitly, Benjamin didn’t have a lot to say about photography, but it was there in the background, in his contemporary history, and it surfaced from time to time in his writing. However I am not so much concerned with what he said or wrote about photography, as his writing style itself which is so descriptive, and so focused on the minutiae of life that it could be called photographic. This is what interests me, as this is the key to understanding his writing, and his thinking on history, the past, and memory.

A Berlin Childhood is probably Benjamin’s most personal and poignant of works. It takes the form of a sort of assemblage or tableaux of ‘moments’, which are recollections of his childhood in Berlin in a middle class Jewish home at the turn of the twentieth century. The recollections are unusual, perhaps, and written with the perspective of an adult who remembers clearly what it was like to experience the world as a child (see for example The Mummerehlen). Benjamin believed in a kind of material history (he described himself as an ‘historical materialist’) which is buried in the strata of our everyday lives. To uncover the past, then, we must take on the guise of archaeologist-detective and search for the clues of the past in our present. Memory is an important medium in this search, since it plays out our past in the way that a theatre stages a play (see the translators forward to A Berlin Childhood, 2006 by Howard Eiland, for more on this), but memory is also complex. It is not linear, instead appearing in flashes, which burn brightly and briefly… and the next moment are extinguished just as rapidly. These memories – flashes of the past – must be snatched at that very moment at which they burn at their brightest:

The true picture of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognised and is never seen again.

Benjamin,  from “Theses on the Philosophy of History” Chapter V, in Illuminations

Memory is also composite. So as archaeologists we have to delve and dig deep. It is messy. It overlaps, much like a multiple exposure (see Eiland again, translators forward to A Berlin Childhood, p xiii). We have to scratch at the surface to expose the faded, peeling paint layers of a forgotten history: rubble trodden underfoot into the receiving earth, waiting to absorb its bounty; layer upon layer of stretches of time compressed; centuries compacted into seconds.

It seems to me then an obvious and small step to make to link Benjamin’s writing style to that of photo montage, or collage. The principle of montage (of which Benjamin was a great admirer for its revolutionary potential) is one of interruption. It creates a gap which is like an inbuilt critique mechanism, inviting a space of questioning. In The Arcades Project this takes on a structural and visual form, but here it Berlin Childhood it is more directly linked to how we experience memory (in the sense that the structure of the text is built up of seemingly random snatches of memories from Benjamin’s childhood, so is more akin to how we experience memory). Michel de Certeau describes how the signifying practice of language can, through the structure of literary forms, create spaces; “ellipses” and “leaks of meaning” in The Practice of Everyday Life.

The verbal relics of which the story is composed, being tied to lost stories and opaque acts, are juxtaposed in a collage where their relations are not thought, and for this reason they form a symbolic whole… Within the structured space of the text, they thus produce anti-texts, effects of dissimulation and escape, possibilities of moving into other landscapes.

(p. 107 of the 1988 publication)

These spaces, then, open up gaps, possibilities of departure, of escape, of other landscapes, other stories. This is especially relevant to my recent thinking around photography and memory-making, layering and composite image-making:

Is a “broken” or multi-layered mode of expression a more effective approach in attempting to convey memory? Is it more akin to how we actually experience memory? Is this the only way that the medium of photography could truly come close to the real experience of memory, and move beyond mere nostalgia?

For a long time, life deals with the still-tender memory of childhood like a mother who lays her newborn on her breast without waking it.

Benjamin, A Berlin Childhood, ‘Loggias’

For Benjamin, the most important repository of memory was childhood, in turn, the repository of the past. In childhood we are closer to ‘things’ and their magical properties. The child experiences the world around him in a state of mimesis; she (also the collector and the flaneur) truly dwells in the everyday and alone is privileged enough to be initiated into mysterious, enchanted life of everyday objects. For the child, objects come alive – they are comfort and security, but also portals to another, more exciting dimension of play and imagination and other-worlds. The door which Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy step through, and which leads them to Narnia is just an old wardrobe door, full of old coats. An everyday thing. It is only the children, fully engaged in the world of things, who are privileged to have it revealed to them. Thus the magnifying eye of the child enlarges seemingly insignificant objects, which become clues, or portals, unlocking the secrets of a hidden world.

Where this journey will eventually take me I am still not sure, but it will involve some detective work. I’ll worry at the gaps and the cracks. I’ll dig my fingers into the very soil of the watchful earth. I’ll turn it over to sift, to search, through the exquisite detritus. I’ll whisper to it to yield up its secrets. And there, I’ll discover gems, dance with spectres, and etch shadowy traces on the blasted canvases of the past.

 © images and content Emily Hughes and searchingtosee, 2013


treasures 1treasures 3 treasures 2 treasures 4 treasures 5

My children like to collect little treasures: stones, fossils, shells, beads and crystals. They secrete them in boxes or little bags which end up scattered around the house. Sometimes they trade them with each other, but mostly they just enjoy the simple tactile delight of collecting them, and knowing that they belong to them, like the piggy banks full of tooth fairy and pocket money coins they count endlessly but never want to spend. We have so many of them now, I thought I might start making some sort of photographic record of them, but then I got carried away trying to make artful arrangements instead.

© images and content Emily Hughes and searchingtosee, 2013

A lightbulb moment

When I worked in Human Resources, many years ago, I used to regularly undergo personality tests like the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (all part of the job). I got to know myself quite well, and also unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look on it) that I was in the wrong job. My favourite of these such tests was the Belbin team role type tester. I always came out as a plant, which is one of the more unusual types, and especially unusual for someone who works in an office (I did feel like a plant, albeit one a bit sad and limp, neglected and silently withering in the corner of a windowsill). The plant is the creative one in the group (read ‘oddball’ or ‘outsider’). The one who has all the ideas, often unusual which other people might not come up with. The one who may be a little unorthodox. The plant is actually so-called, I think, because in the original research one such personality type was actually planted in each team, because apparently a team cannot survive without one. This team role is depicted by a lightbulb.

Image from http://www.belbin.com

I have probably around 10-20 ideas a day. A lot of them are fairly average and leave my mind as quickly as they enter, but I don’t know, they still just keep on coming. The lightbulbs keep pinging, fizzing and crackling in my head. I can’t stop them, and THANK GOD I now have somewhere to exorcise them regularly.

Anyhow, please let me share this idea with you (before it burns a hole in my head – it’s been with me a long while already).

I have been thinking a lot about whether photography can build layers of meaning in the way that other art mediums can. I don’t know why this bothers me so much, but it does. After all, a photograph is so wedded to its referent. When we look at a photograph do we see something new, an object in its own right, a thing, or do we just see ‘that which it depicts’? Is it just an ‘invisible’ medium, as Barthes suggests in Camera Lucida?

In his book Hockney on photography: Conversations with Paul Joyce, Hockney criticises photography for its shallow perspective on the world. He believes that it is impossible to do anything original with the medium because of its one-dimensional perspective. Having experimented with photo collage, he ultimately found it an unsatisfactory means for creative expression; too mechanical, too fixed, too much surface. Not an ‘authentic’ way of seeing. And what’s more, if in the digital age of photo-manipulation, photography can no longer be trusted to tell ‘the truth’ (whatever that might be), he suggests, during an interview with Jonathan Jones in The Guardian, we must instead turn to other means of communication, like painting to reveal it to us.

I take issue with Hockney’s view. I think he just misses the point of photography entirely. People will always take photographs and will always have the urge to record their everyday lives. This to me is just a fascinating social phenomenon. It doesn’t interest me, or most people I think whether a photograph is depicting ‘the truth’ or not. I think we can agree quite categorically that the relationship between what is true and photography has always been – and always will be – more than a little problematic.

What fascinates me, then, is what happens to these photographs; how they go on to be employed and how they filter out into different social contexts: art, social document/record, family keepsake, etc. A greater part of the meaning of any individual photograph is defined by what happens to it after it has been taken, and not what the image is of. In other words, how it is contextualised. Of course any single image may be something that could have been taken by thousands of other people (so in that sense it is not original), but it’s what happens to it next that is important. Does it go into a family album (photograph as memory, family history)? Or maybe become part of a museum archive (social document or record)? Maybe it is made into a photobook, published on a blog, on flickr, facebook, tumblr, pinterest; put to words, or utilised in some other way. Whichever path it takes it has a purpose. It becomes an everyday object. And sometimes an art object.

I think that Hockney, a painter first and foremost by practice and by training, is only able to view photography in a very one-dimensional way. Yes it is ubiquitous, and becoming more so, but it is also intriguing exactly because of this. The layers of meaning in a photograph are not intrinsic to the photograph itself, as a single image, rather in what happens to it afterwards on its ongoing journey. Photography is part of the social fabric of everyday life, and therein lies its inherent significance: as social commentary, if you like, rather than as unique art object.

Accessible to all and admired by all. Walter Benjamin applauded photography for its ability to endlessly reproduce an image. He called it ‘the ultimate democratic art form’ (in his essay “The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction”, which can be found reproduced in Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt) because, through its very nature of mechanical reproduction it was so accessible to ordinary folk.

If you have been following my blog you will have noted that I am very interested in the idea of the photograph as a material object; as harbinger of history and memory and social meaning. In the introduction to Photographs Objects Histories: On the materiality of Images, Elizabeth Edwards and Janice Hart describe with great eloquence and clarity the importance of talking about materiality in photography (what phenomenlogists might call its ‘thingness’ – although Edwards and Hart are not primarily concerned with phenomenology), and what exactly this means.

Barthes is their starting point: the famous and beautiful image from Camera Lucida of him studying an aged sepia toned photograph of his dead mother from an old photograph album, desperate as he was to find an image which captured the essence of her. The Winter Garden Photograph:

The photograph was very old. The corners were blunted from having been pasted into an album, the sepia print had faded, and the picture just managed to show two children standing together at the end of a little wooden bridge in a glassed-in conservatory, what was called the Winter Garden in those days.

from Camera Lucida, by Roland Barthes (p67 of the 2000 Vintage edition)

Dog eared and time-worn, this photograph carries so much more meaning than its subject alone. It is an object in its own right; a memory, whose marks and scratches, wear and tear tell a kind of threefold story of its journey through time, the scene it depicts, and a ‘broader visual narrative’ of a photograph album (p1) in which it lived and played out its role.

A photograph is a three-dimensional thing and a physical entity, one with which it is possible to interact in a sensory way. It is subject to the rules of social exchange, production, exchange and usage, all the time gathering meaning on its trajectory (p4) rather like we humans acquire knowledge and wisdom on our journey through life. We may get a little battered and bruised along the way, but usually (I think) we emerge from the ride a little wiser, and more interesting. A photograph, therefore, is not an abstract concept, neither is it static, it moves ‘through space and time’ (p9), bearing the marks, the traces of its material existence.

Unlike an image which we view on a computer screen, a photograph-object bears an aura of something original and unique (p9). It offers a unique experience of looking – a different way of seeing altogether. I want to try to explore this further in a practical way. I, like many of you I’m sure, spend a lot of (read: way too much) time straining my eyes looking at photos on a back-lit computer screen. It’s all just so…. well, flat. I suppose. I want to get back to a photograph; some thing tactile, which I can touch, hold and respond to physically, not just visually.

UntitledUntitled Polaroid image by Kim Unscripted, all rights reserved

I am not the only one thinking this way, of course. This is nothing new or groundbreaking I am writing here. You only have to take a look at WordPress photography blogs, or check out Flickr to see that there is a slow but rising tide of resistance against megapixels, Photoshop and everything digital photography has to offer. Not so much getting back to basics, perhaps, but getting back to something real and emotive in photography. Something which is perhaps lacking in the uniformity of a digital image?

And indeed a faded, yellowing photograph curling at the corners with age immediately evokes another era. In itself it becomes a record of time passing and a promise of the future. Like world-weary wrinkles worrying gentle rivulets of time passed; life, love, and laughter into the once new, unblemished skin of innocence. They are a record of experience lived. Something to be cherished.

I recently came across The impossible project, an enterprise which was undertaken by former Polaroid employees to rescue instant analogue film from the brink of oblivion, and to continue reproducing Polaroid film for still-functioning Polaroid cameras everywhere. They are now making exciting (although eye-wateringly expensive it has to be said) new Polaroid film such as color shade and various other special edition films.

There is something uniquely charming about the Polaroid aesthetic. That 1970s colour cast which makes us all feel – at least those of us who were there in the 70s – as if we are looking at old baby photos, which of course we now attempt to reproduce, dusting our images with a haze of ready-bottled-golden-age-nostalgia via the magic of pre-prepared filters.

Of course it wasn’t a golden age, but I think that the nostalgia has a lot to do with children of the 70s like me growing up and reminiscing about family albums. When I was little I used to spend hours pouring over our shelf of family albums. It was one of my favourite past-times. It’s true that all children LOVE looking at pictures of themselves. It helps them to develop a sense of who they are and where they belong in this big crazy world. And of course the Polaroid evokes all of that, but not only that it is also unique in itself. You click the shutter, and minutes later you actually have the image in your hands. It’s there, it’s real; you have the moment in your fingers. You have made an object which is something and will become something; a part of you, your history and your future.

So, ok, I’m finally getting around to the point of this post… the idea…

A while ago I received a letter from a blogger. It was so lovely to see her handwriting (terrible though it was – and it’s OK I can say that because she admits it!). She put lavender in the envelope. It was the sweetest card with a picture of a butterfly on it. It added a whole new dimension to a relationship of transaction of ephemeral words via the internet. Something physical passed from one person to another, across two continents. (I am also ashamed to admit that I haven’t responded yet to her thoughtful note, but I will, I haven’t forgotten, though my computer does, unfortunately seem to take priority these days).

I also read of other bloggers doing trades of artworks, and blogging collaborations. I was approached by another blogger who wanted to write some words to a series of images my husband Alex and I had taken. It’s a world of astonishing, boundless creativity, imagination and generosity I feel I have stumbled upon here where ideas find rich and fertile soil in which to breed and grow, pure clean air to breathe and boundless space to stretch, reach and aspire, or to just be, quietly and thoughtfully. It is infinitely inspiring.

I would like to try, if I can, to tap into that rich resource even further….

It’s quite simple really. I want to take a picture, print it, hold it in my hands, and send it on a journey to someone else who lives somewhere else – maybe half way across the world, or maybe in the next town – who is waiting patiently to receive it, and who will then respond to it, in whatever way they choose, and send another photograph on a journey to someone else (Sort of like those chain letters you used to get, which now get sent by email – except not actually because they are annoying and everyone always deletes them). And I want to record those journeys on a blog. I want to watch photographs being sent around the world and see and understand the different ways in which people respond to them, use them, interact with them. Maybe someone will hang one on their fridge, or use it as a source of inspiration for another picture, a poem, a piece of prose. Or maybe they will pass it on to someone else, use it in a piece of art work, or just use it as a bookmark. I want to record those photographs on their journeys, soaking up layers of meaning like paint layers. I want to see them take on history, memory, stories, which are then shared with other people.

It would be a collaborative effort. A social experiment, of sorts.

So, what do you think? Please respond using this sign-up form if you have any comments (positive or negative), suggestions, or interest whatsoever. Please. Even if it’s a very vague kind of semi-interest and you’re sitting there shrugging your shoulders and thinking: ‘yeah ok, and…?’ (You got to the end – you must be a little bit interested?)

I am in the process of setting up a new blog which people can contribute to. I will be back with more soon…

Thanks for reading this far!


Forever blue

Heart flip

Summer draws to an end. Start of a new school year. It feels like a good time for pause, reflection and assessment.

A time for taking stock.

I’ve been struggling a bit with my blog lately. Struggling to organise my thoughts into any kind of coherent output. Struggling to find focus. I have random notes and jotting everywhere; projects half-started, half-finished; ideas, sentences half-formed… And always the day-to-day pulls me back, calling me away from delicious daydreams. The urgency of my children’s cries and demands grounding me back to the reality of the here and now.

Yet strangely, I feel more inspired than ever.

I guess every blog hits that six-month sticking point (or thereabouts). That crossroads moment where you feel you need to sit down and have a good think about what direction you want to take it in. When I started blogging back in April I had a very clear idea of what I wanted the blog to be about: photography and phenomenology. And that was it, pretty much. Yet, over the days and weeks and months I have found myself meandering down other (delightful) avenues, exploring novel nooks and crannies, and I have realised that I cannot be so blinkered in my approach. I didn’t bank on being constantly inspired by other bloggers, for one thing. My mind is continuously busy whirring, making connections and associations, thinking up new ideas and approaches.

As a consequence, I feel like I have strayed a little from my original blogging intentions. But not too much, and it’s OK. I think it’s OK to alter the flight path a little, take a few diversions. I’ll get there, to my destination, in the end, I think. Perhaps even a little wiser and a lot more enriched for it.

I have made myself a few promises, though. Namely, to try to build on some project ideas I have had, and to carry on with other projects I have started and left hanging. In particular my real film project, which I wrote about here and here (look out for some rollei pictures very soon!); my things to do with your instagrams explorations which I posted about here and here; my collections on colour (which I started here), as well as another photograph exchange idea I have (which I will post about very soon – part of my attempt to re-discover the physical element of photography). And of course, I will continue to post lots of photographs (which broadly fit under the umbrella of ‘my interpretations of a phenomenological approach to photography’), philosophical musings, a bit of creative writing here and there, and my flowers on Fridays.

There, I’ve published it on my blog. Now I have to do it!

In addition, (just for your info) I have started trying to become a bit more active on flickr, and have also set up a tumblr account which I am using to post pictures which represent moments of simple everyday sensory pleasures for me (a cup of coffee, a shoulder-blade, cotton on skin).

Thereby, I hope I am starting to, attempting to, very tentatively, put my finger on this aesthetic, this visual experience of the everyday, the mundane, moments of wonderfulness which I am searching for.

I hope that this blog has been and will continue to be a celebration of the everyday and the ordinary; the vernacular, which photography has the amazing power to capture and bring to light in such unbelievable beauty, for me. These, though, are not the moments which made you laugh out loud or jump for joy. These are not the big things in life. They are the subtle things which might raise a smile, or even just a smirk, that might generate a warm fuzzy feeling inside, make your heart lurch, or maybe even trigger an (inward) sigh… Nothing audible, nothing amazing. Nothing that measures on the richter scale. But the stuff of life. They may evoke a tingling and fizzing of the senses (as much as a photograph can) and, hopefully, spark something familiar, some chemical reaction in the synapses of your brain; a trace, a memory, of something or some moment which you inhabited a long, long time ago.

Finally, I had also planned to start doing some photo book reviews, but realistically this may be something I need to put on the back burner for a while (we have a very busy few months ahead of us).

Anyway, to finish, here is something I started a long while ago and finished the other day, which I wanted to share. It feels quite relevant, somehow, to what I have been writing about here:

Forever blue

Thoughts tangle with memories.
Half-spoken words dissolve
on my tongue
and I turn to watch them
drifting out of reach,
always out of reach

I press my pen nib into the indulgent space before me, but
too hard.
It spreads, splits,
a teardrop of rich inky blue
pooling like a film of oil floating on creamy, naked foam

Forever blue.
It creeps slowly,
seeps and stains.
Octopus blood
on my page

Because Octopus’ have blue blood.
Not the crimson red of
or the hot deep flush of
lust and
longing and

Red of a schoolboy’s crush
A freckle-faced blush
Sun scorched toes
Wrinkling under sandy coves
A first kiss
Lingering moment of bliss
A grazed knee
Or the throbbing swell sting of a bee

Forever blue.
as the endless ocean

Piercing dots
Of forget-me-nots
The sad mournful tune
Of a weighty round moon
Warm hazy skies
Pale and clear
Reflected in a newborn baby’s eyes
Pure velvet breath
Soothes the mottled bruise of death

And (rarely) octopus’ eat their own arms


© images and content Emily Hughes and searchingtosee, 2012

The small things

The man with the magnifying glass… is a fresh eye before a new object [….] it gives him back the enlarging gaze of a child. With this glass in his hand, he returns to the garden, where children see enlarged. […] The details of a thing can be the sign of a new world which, like all worlds, contains the attributes of greatness.

Miniature is one of the refuges of greatness.

Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

It is the task of the phenomenologist, and the photographer, to open our eyes. To shift our viewpoint. To make us look at the world from a different angle, and appreciate the small things. It seems, perhaps, that this is a task that has become more urgent in recent times. As the virtual possibilities of our world expand and distort, seemingly out of our control, there is a contrary need to find some kind of anchor or pivot point – to gain some perspective. And so we turn our gaze to what we know and to what is real; simultaneously precious and vulnerable, yet strong and vigorous.

Everything has its contrary point. If we find it we can see the world with greater clarity. To see the big picture, we have to look closer, find the detail. And maybe then the answer might have been there, much closer to home than we thought, in our own back garden.

The world carries on producing with overwhelming abundance every year, every season, every day, every minute. Maybe one day it will stop being so, but though the humble spider may seem to balance precariously on the petal of a flower, he finds sure footing there. He knows nothing of these concerns and will continue to strive to survive from one moment to the next. It is all he can do. It is all we can do.

To see the world in macro is to see up close, with a magnifying glass. Like a child playing detective the clues are there to be found if we look closely. Bachelard understood that in order to understand the big things, we must first develop the ‘enlarging gaze of a child’ and turn to the small things in which they find their origins. In miniature the world is the richer, more intense and alive. It is the nucleus, the centre of life.

Thus the beauty that nature’s bounty continually throws forth season after season, year after year can be found if we look in close. Herein lies the rich, ripe, brilliant, voluptuous, fullness of late Spring….

…. A fluffy downy feather in a child’s hand. Almost too light to hold.

A spider’s web sparkling in the moist air. Almost invisible.

A pendulous pair of ripening cherries glinting provocatively in the morning sunlight

Velvety-soft almond pods begging to be stroked

Tall camomiles standing proud and erect as their perfectly rounded golden pads strain towards the life-giving sun, petals dangling elegantly

And then there are the smells which carry on the gentle breeze: fragrant lavender, and most powerful the sweet honey-scented clover, whose heady scent fills your nostrils at every turn

As I wander the gentle murmur of busy buzzing insects contrasts with my lazy mood

The endlessly undulating folds of a full blooming peony

Oh and the poppies! So vibrant and joyful they punctuate the landscape with their translucent orange-red glow, their delicate, torn, paper-thin petals swaying gently in the breeze….

… Nature creates its own glorious poetry. If we look for it.

PS – I wish these had been taken in my own back garden, but they were actually taken near to the b&b we stayed in on holiday in Italy last week, where it seems the sun still shines occasionally unlike here!

© Emily Hughes and searchingtosee, 2012

In praise of toys, and things

There’s no place like home…

It’s been a grey, rainy week, which has forced us to spend more time than is healthy indoors. Consequently, our house is sort of starting to resemble a toy shop after a whirlwind has whipped through it, sucked up its entire contents and spewed them all out again. There are toys, and small tiny child things everywhere. I thought, well, if you can’t beat ’em… and so decided to start photographing the mess.

It got me thinking.

My daughter has a fetish for lining things up. Her eclectic collection of sea creatures, ponies, Barbie dolls, sparkly things and mini beasts are constantly being ordered and organised. They accompany her everywhere: in the car, to the shops, at the dinner table, on the sofa. She also recently acquired a small coconut which Alex had bought to use in our dinner one evening. Her wide, innocent eyes looked on that little brown hairy thing with a pointy nose and two eyes and a mouth (who knew coconuts had faces?) as a new plaything. She immediately consolidated it into her growing entourage with great enthusiasm, much to our surprise and amusement, naming him ‘Nutty’ (Nutty had a friend too, but he, erm, has now sadly departed us to join his small hairy coconut friends in the sky… and yes, there were A LOT of tears shed when daddy got the axe out).

Children are collectors. They are magpies. They like things. Their things are important to them: through them they are informed about their material surroundings; they learn about possession and play; they form part of their identity and they feed their imagination. Their toys are their imaginary friends, their sensory feedback, and their comfort in their small worlds.

Throughout childhood toys are chosen and chewed, cuddled and crushed, traded and trusted, pampered and petted, forgotten and found…. and forgotten again. Attachments are made which will last a whole lifetime; a sugar-sweet honeypot of memories to dip into as we grow older and perhaps we need that extra splash of colour in our lives that children just seem to radiate naturally. Those are times when nostalgia makes us yearn for that familiar feeling of security which childhood provides like a soft, worn blanket.

Toys, for children are wonderful, colourful, comforting, safe, tactile players on the stage of their imaginations.

Childhood is saturated in glorious Technicolor. Remember that scene from the wizard of Oz when Dorothy first opens the door onto munchkinland? Oh the assault on the senses of that too-rich, too-vibrant, blinding colour! These are the colours of the yellow brick road and the ruby-red slippers, the sky blue of her dress against the chestnut brown of her hair, and the emerald-green of the emerald city and, of course, of the rainbow…. These, I imagine, are the colours of a child’s dreams.

As we grow older our urge to collect and acquire is focussed into more ‘grown-up’ pursuits. We buy houses, cars, technology, jewellery; ‘accessories’ to enhance our lives.

It’s sad although inevitable, perhaps, that as we grow up into adulthood we start to lose that sense of wonder and excitement about the world that a child has, but I’m grateful that I have the opportunity to re-live that now through my own children. My own childhood wasn’t always idyllic of course, but, I like to sometimes look back through a vignette frame and re-capture those golden-hazed childhood memories.

There’s no place like home

*click, click, click*

(yep, I still really really want those ruby slippers…)

© 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


I am re-reading Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida. What has struck me with much greater emphasis this time around is Barthes’ highly emotional response to the subject matter of photography. He realises early on that he will not be able to write on the subject in his usual objective, scholarly style, being unable to separate himself from his own personal, instinctive and of course highly subjective response. He wants, instead, to understand photography in a “primitive” way “without culture”(p.7)  and his language, accordingly, is visceral; at times violent in nature. He describes how individual photographs have the power to induce a range of intense emotions in him ranging from fear and grief to excitement and love (and then at times just plain indifference). The metaphor that strikes me with its force and agression is that of photography as a “wound”:

I wanted to explore [photography] not as a question (a theme), but as a wound: I see, I feel, hence I notice, I observe, and I think. (p.21)

A wound is something painful and unpleasant, but more than that a wound is flesh which has been penetrated. His investigations are not just intrusive, they are brutal, primal, and inextricably linked with being.

So this project – to understand photography – is not just a scientific or scholarly one, it is an essential one; it is phenomenological, and it is ontological. These themes which underpin Camera Lucida are entirely human: life, death, pain, ecstasy. Indeed, Barthes writes of the experience of being photographed (he likens it to being “in parenthesis”) as akin to dying (p.14). This separation of himself from reality, this looking upon himself, or ‘othering’ is truly a morbid experience for him, turning him into a kind of sceptre, and throughout there is a sense of alternating between extremes of emotion on the subject of photography. He is attracted to it (he descrbes in erotic detail the excitement the mechanical ‘click’ of the shutter induces in him). But there is fear there, too. Not in the mechanics of the camera, which is satisfying and comforting, but in the eye of the photographer. The eye penetrates him, and it kills him. Just a little bit.

Barthes doesn’t know how to categorize photography, but he recognises it is somehow essential. In the end he is unable to separate his own self; his own emotions and desires, and his own essential being from photography.

So photography is a confusion of the subject-object relationship, in that we cannot separate it from ourselves. A photograph  “carries its referent with itself” (p.5) which induces this kind of unnerving or perhaps unheimlich experience Barthes has when he looks at some pictures. This carries us neatly back to themes of haunting and death. I have often thought of photographs as kind of shadows or ghosts; little replicas (“little simulacrum” (p.9) Barthes calls them) of moments in time; moments otherwise long forgotten, dead. A photograph occupies its own time-space, or creates it rather, and I think this is quite unnerving.

Anyhow, I digress (albeit it willingly) and need to pull myself back to Barthes and his concepts of studium and punctum, otherwise this blog entry will not make a whole lot of sense…. here we are back to the idea of photograph as wound. Whilst studium is described as a kind of general interest in the idea of a photograph (the way we might be interested in something when we ‘study’ it, so in quite a detached way); the punctum is the bit that disturbs all that and leaps out at you, excites you; the pin prick of surprise, the question mark – the bit that gets you in the gut. It is, in essence, the emotional response – the element of surprise. Of course he describes it so much more eloquently, so I shall refer you back to his wonderful words:

…the photographs I am speaking of are in effect punctuated, sometimes even speckled with these sensitive points; precisely, these marks, these wounds are so many points. This second element …. I shall therefore call punctum; for punctum is also: sting, speck, cut, little hole – and also a cast of the dice. A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me). (p. 27)

This photograph of a dress hanging outside a second-hand shop is my attempt to illustrate punctum. The street scene in itself is fairly ordinary; a quiet residential suburb of Berlin – a few cars, grey buildings, a beautiful sunny day the trees cast dappled shadows on the cobbled pavement below. The shop owner has decided to display her wares on the street. She has saved one special dress for prime position; hanging from the awning it catches the eye immediately (studium?). It is the dress of every little girl’s fairy-tales: romantic, swishy, twirly, frothy and flouncey. It makes you feel good just looking at this dress. And the way it dances there provocatively in the gentle breeze is so pleasing to the eye. The happy accident, or the punctum, for me is the perfect shadow that the full bloom of the dress casts below in the direct sunlight, drawing the eye to the fore of the picture and then back up to the dress again. Not so much an intentional detail, as I recall, it provides that extra little ‘oh’ of joy; that “sting” of surprise. The other thing I like about this capture is the way the dress juxtaposes with the banality of the street scene almost as if it has been superimposed upon it. The way it’s floaty ephemeral-ness sort of jarrs against the ordinariness of the row of parked cars. Maybe that is the punctum? Now that I close my eyes and look at it again, maybe that is the thing that works on me.

I wouldn’t be so bold as to suggest that I have succeeded in demonstrating Barthes’ theory with this image. Of course there are many photographs in the book which he uses to illustrate it much better. But I am working towards it… let’s call it an attempt. Let me know what you think…

Text: Camera Lucida, by Roland Barthes, published by Vintage, 2000 and originally published in 1980

© Emily Hughes and searchingtosee, 2012

Capturing the spaces in-between

A  photograph: a note, a thought, a flicker, a shadow, a shade, a glimpse, a glance, a moment, a blur, a trace, a shot, a capture, a fragment, an instant, an etching, a sketch, an inscription, a quotation, a resurrection, a memory…

 … What is it that lies in the space in-between?

A daydream? A keepsake?

A secret time-space, revealed to the eye, captured and stored inside.

The concept in phenomenological thought of bracketing as a reductive process, allowing us to examine things up close was introduced by Edmund Husserl, the father of phenomenology. Seeing things in parenthesis is of course what we do when we take a photograph: our eye selects a scene, something interesting; we take the picture; the picture becomes an object in itself; we put it in an album, on the wall, on flickr, or facebook to share with friends and family. It has been divorced from its original context. It has been re-claimed and re-contextualised. 

I love this picture, which I took in Berlin, of a girl reading on a step framed by a jungle of vivid green, punctuated by billowy white roses. I feel like I am peering into someone’s secret space every time I look at it. I think it makes you wonder, too who she is, why she is there and what she is reading. Does she sit there often? Is it her space? Or is she a tourist like me, who just came across a nice place to sit, like I came across a nice shot? What is her story? What was she doing just before, and just after this picture was taken? Is she happy or sad?

I suppose the point I’m trying to make is that it doesn’t really matter, because it was just a fleeting moment, in-between a zillion other moments, and I have used the capture I came across and borrowed for my own purposes, so it’s part of my story now.

© Emily Hughes and searchingtosee, 2012

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