So there are a couple of catalysts for this blog, a large part of it follows on as a result of several months of personal discovery culminating in a recent workshop, but partly it’s in reaction to some recent twitter discussions of topics as varied as ‘sketching’, ‘photographic snobbery’ and ‘arty bollocks’…more on those later, but first a bit of context about the last few months.
I started keeping a notebook a while back, specifically a photographic notebook. I wanted to capture the occasional thoughts I was having about my own photography and explore a few ideas, themes and questions. Over time it’s turned into a jumbled gathering of thoughts, images, ideas, questions, blog ideas, angst, self loathing, project titles, quotes, principles, references and other bits and bobs. This in and itself was and continues to be an insanely useful exercise, I can heartily recommend it to anyone, but imagine my joy as a highly convenient and timely opportunity arose to attend a workshop with Eddie Ephraums and Paul Wakefield based around the act of keeping a photographers notebook. It was an opportunity too good to pass up so I duly booked onto it and simply carried on writing my own personal brand of drivel between the soft, black covers of my moleskine.
Now I’m not going to bleat on about personal discovery, or other such ‘arty bollocks’ here as the detail isn’t overly important in helping with what I’m trying to get across, and it may or may not arise in another blog depending on how I’m feeling. However, what I do want to share is something about that workshop, in particular what I took away from it, and hopefully draw some parallels to ‘sketching’ and ‘arty bollocks’ in particular…honestly stay with me on this one.
The main premise of the workshop was for the attendees to keep a notebook in a style they saw fit whilst trying to address two key questions set by Eddie & Paul, then bring it to the workshop, and discuss it with a bunch of like minded loons. Now, a workshop with homework sounds like a bit of a commitment granted, but I was already invested in this notebook process so for me it wasn’t an issue, although as the workshop approached I will admit some mild trepidation about sharing some parts of it with complete strangers, and also some concern about answering the questions that had been set.
What became abundantly clear upon starting the workshop was that everyone there had a completely different approach and level of commitment to the whole notebook thing. Some used a set of prints to cover a particular project, someone used an online journal, another an iPad, another a whole collection of different notepads for different projects or topics (note to self…potential to develop a significant revenue stream by opening a notepad store next to where he lives…sorry Jim), some had barely written anything at all, and I had simply used my moleskine as a day book as I have done for most of my professional life.
The thing is, every person in that room, including Paul and Eddie, had a different approach to keeping their notebook, and a different set of content they included in it, and as a result each notebook clearly represented something of the character of the person who authored it. Critically though, as we were sharing those notebooks amongst the group, each and every approach had something you could take away and add to your own, a snippet or nugget or concept that you could use to enrich your own notebook ninja skills.
The group was also not made up entirely of landscape photographers, there were people who shot street, reportage, architectural or documentary as well as or instead of landscape. There were people who were definitely artists, some who were literary authors, and some who were a mix of the two or none of the above. It was a rich and diverse set of talents, thought processes, approaches, technical skill levels and backgrounds all brought together on the coast of Scotland, and all willing to chip in and voice their thoughts and add their input.
As the week went on, we explored a number of mini projects and exercises, and as a group we reviewed them and bounced ideas off one another. Not everyone agreed all the time, but I’m sure everyone took something away from other members of the group, no matter how small or significant. Everyone listened, and everyone wanted to learn, not just from the venerable Wakefield and Ephraums, but from all members of the group…and here’s the important thing for me, at no point did anyone say that the way someone else did or approached something was wrong because it wasn’t how they did it, at no point did anyone criticise someone’s use of a word and say it was wrong or inappropriate because it wasn’t how they chose to use it, no one said someone else’s approach was invalid because it was different to theirs, and no one claimed their work was more worthy than anyone else’s and that’s simply because everyone was right.
There is no wrong way to describe the elements of your own photographic approach and practise, what works for you is right…for you, how you choose to shoot is right…for you, what drives you to make images is right…for you, the way you see the world is right…for you, the amount of meaning you choose to attribute to an image is right…for you. This whole game is about what you want to do, and anything you choose to see, say, do or not do is entirely right and valid.
If you want to use the word sketch to describe a step in your own creative process, or as a label to attach to an image you’ve taken, then great, that’s something that means something to you and your own personal practise, if it doesn’t resonate with you then fine, so what, it doesn’t matter it’s not a part of your personal practise so why get upset about it?
Likewise when people complain about ‘photographic snobbery’ and ‘arty bollocks’ in landscape photography. Having an image-making practise driven by other creative pursuits such as poetry, literature, painting or music doesn’t make it ‘arty bollocks’ by default, it simply means for that person, for that image or for their work in general they feel a connection or influence that is entirely valid…for them. Similarly an image isn’t necessarily full of ‘arty bollocks’ by default if it’s complex or more difficult to access. Equally a staggering vista draped in breathtaking light isn’t necessarily devoid of ‘arty bollocks’, again it’s the photographer or artists choice. A complex image of flatly lit trees and a sunset lit mountain vista are equally as worthy and valid as one another, they are just different and as a result different people will respond to them in different ways. Ultimately if what you create meets the goals you have set yourself then you’ve succeeded…pat yourself on the back and crack on.
If you shoot landscapes because you like to represent the staggering view in front of you then good for you, if you choose to shoot the underside of suburban hedges with an obscure Peruvian film camera in an attempt to convey how a particular poem touched you when you read it then again, good for you, all power to your elbow. I’m not going to waste my own time and keyboard life by typing angrily from my own ivory tower telling you all that you’re wrong or that I don’t like the way you use a particular term, or software tool or ‘on trend’ technique…instead I’m going to look at what you do, listen to why you do it, and learn from that, and maybe even impact my own practises as a result.
As a result of that workshop, the feedback I gained from it, the insights others generously gave me, the journey travelled with the whole notebook keeping process, and thanks to a number of conversations with other photographers about direction and personal goals, I’m now more able to understand that I have my own set of influences, behaviours, preferences, goals, craft and creative processes that I combine together into my own photographic practise. I also know that the various elements of that practise will change and evolve over time. It gives me a framework from which I can understand my own work and learn from the practises of others. If that sounds like ‘arty bollocks’ to you then I’m sorry, it’s really not intended to, it’s just something that feels right…for me…which means it’s right, and valid…for me.
I suggest having an open mind and a questioning attitude is not a bad place to start from, and we can all learn from all the other photographers in this bitchy, angst ridden community of ours…although you’re more than welcome to completely ignore all of this and keep carping….after all, that’s valid too, but forgive me if I choose not to play.
Hell I’ll even tolerate those of you who use the term ‘tog’…personally that’s a crime almost as heinous as using Comic Sans on your website…but that doesn’t make it wrong….except for the Comic Sans thing….that will always be wrong 😉