Man I’ve struggled to write this text. It’s felt like digging a hole from England to Australia. The first few spades full were effortless as I enthusiastically threw them over my shoulder, but the hole quickly became very deep and then I hit ROCK. Now the task of finishing the job has become very daunting and if I’m to continue, it’s going to be slow and arduous. So…I’m going to start this with a paradoxical conclusion, then offer some alternative perspectives on digging …but first the conclusion, “simplicity turns out to be rather bloody complex!”
My messy mind
When photographing in a location, I’ve often observed how my ‘state of mind’ influences the way I see world and engage with it. Now this is a massive topic and I’d be foolish to attempt to cover it here, (man it looks very dark in the bottom of that hole). But more recently, I have observed whilst in the most peaceful locations, ‘self imposed artistic ideals’ creep into and distort my particular view of that reality. These thoughts can be very productive when wanted, but sometimes have become irritants when not, placing unattainable expectations of ‘perfection’ of light subject and composition over what is essentially reality.
To experience a ‘beautiful’ location in ‘perfect’ light is indeed, very special but, ‘the very act of photographing’ the location is further introducing complications on how one engage with any given scene. Often, (even without the camera), instead of enjoying the view, I have a sometimes (self diagnosed), irritating tendency to scout for locations, attempt to second-guess the weather, seek out detail, light and foreground interest. When I do have the camera (if I’m honest most of the time when in these locations) and feel inspired to take the tripod off my back, I’m often racing the fast moving conditions, setting up equipment and looking at the world through the viewfinder.
So why is this a problem you ask? Isn’t it your intention to seek out these locations and try to convey some of the feelings you have in a photographic representation? Well yes, but it’s those very ‘feelings’, that are being distorted by the process, that I want to experience as ‘pure’ in order to attempt to convey. I’ve noticed that often I actually ‘see’ and ‘feel’ more for a location when viewing the ‘image’ some time after its making, when I’ve have had time to reflect, things have slowed down and I’ve allowed my mind to dig deeper into the image and location. Unusually I see and feel things that I didn’t when I was making the image, which is bizarre, as you would think that being there in the flesh enables you to see more, but the opposite seems to be true. I would speculate that on location, our senses can become overloaded and the previously mentioned reasons, all influence the unique filtrated perception of the location.
I do believe that we in fact absorbed the overlooked information, somewhere deep in the subconscious mind, but it is only when reflecting on the imagery later that we begin to process the mechanical representations disentangling the thoughts, laden them with significance, and produce feelings. The photograph then seems not only to be historical record of the place we were. But actively catalyzing the emotions surrounding the experience, digging not only into the very place we were making the image, but deep into the recesses of our memory and dragging out past seemingly tenuously connected feelings.
Now all this mental clutter isn’t necessarily a problem, I suppose it depends on how you choose to look at why you were there in the first place. I do however wonder why we naturally filter out that information? I wonder if we simplify it because we cannot possibly process it all to satisfactory levels whilst there (it that just me?) maybe I need a few more slots of ram, or a better fan on my processor.
But seriously I feel analysis of the seemingly natural way our brains simplify any given experience into manageable chunks, offers us some incite as to a method of improving the ‘power’ in our photography.
A compositional tool that distills meaningful elements
The world is a complex place and the act of photographing it has a tendency to simplify our view on it. By choosing to narrow down the subjects, condensing the third and fourth dimension into two and directing the viewers attention onto a particular representation, is offering us an illusion on reality. A distorted view that has been manipulated by the photographer’s actions and thoughts, in a vague representation on a perceived, often overlooked reality. There is a common misinformed perception that photography is truth, but I digress.
If you use landscape painting as a convenient comparison and I’m thinking of artist such as (turner), the simplification of any given perception on reality, enables the artist an ability to distil the multitude of sensory data coming into the mind and focus on presenting only the ones that communicate the desired message/feelings they want to convey. The very act of rejecting elements is in fact paradoxically focusing deeper ones attention on the remaining.
When a shot is simplified, to clear compositional elements, the smallest details can possess greater power. A simple curve can become an overriding factor in the way your eye moves around the presented landscape. The shape and flow of that line, then has to be of impeccable clarity to retain its power. We as viewers linger longer on smaller elements, expecting and actually extracting more from them. The accomplished photographer, then, has primed the work for the viewer, without them even noticing. The ability for a photographer to expose us to the simplified view is then showing us that they are able to creatively distil the elements; it revels to us that we are looking at a skilled practitioner.
When looking at a successfully simplified photograph, I often get some sense of my eye moving over the scene in a controlled manor. It’s almost slowing the viewing process down and highlighting subtle nuances. The experience forces me to really LOOK at the image and draws my attention to normally overlooked elements. Playing with the juxtaposition of these simplified elements has in it hints of ambiguous purity, and when successfully accomplished it’s a powerful viewing experience.
It is also catalyzing a meditative state
We all seem to lead busy lives these days, attempting to squeeze multitudes of tasks and experiences in. Don’t get me wrong I’m the first to admit cramming my free time full of the things I want to do, places I want to photograph, (doesn’t the weekend wiz by), but are we not missing something along the way? It seems to me trying to reach out to wider and wider locations doesn’t necessarily mean greater rewards, as the essence of each place is being overpowered by its very complexity. Slowing down, concentrating on the elemental, gives the experience more depth. Letting your senses see, taste, smell, feel what it is that you’re doing enriches the experience. (For me that is).
Please don’t make the assumption that I’m arrogantly stating this is the only way to enjoy photography, because extracting pleasure in whatever form, is a respectable goal. But it is my intention, no, ‘need’ to dig deep, push my mind into new and uncharted territory, because I thrive on the unpredictable, and looking into oneself through the implementation and reflection of my photography, it’s definitely not simple but incredibly rewarding.