For Kath... Assignment One

Am I an artist?

I don't know. 

Are the photographs that I create art?

Are they art if I say so?

Or if anyone else decides they are?

If they are, then at 60 I am an emerging artist.

I certainly wasn't born an artist and it's not something I would ever have expected to be. I was probably way too lazy and it seems we were a bit too busy getting by. It was something that other people did (like drinking, sport and religion). But I come from a pretty happy home where reading was encouraged. I was good at English at my sink South London comprehensive school and randomly fell into journalism at 17. It's the nearest thing to "art" that anyone in my family has ever done as a job. Writing for a living. 

I am not a formerly educated, never went to college, university or art school and, despite a lifetime of taking pictures, didn't really think seriously about photography and photographs until 2018.

When I tried in my 20s (the early 1980s) to learn about photography, it was so much harder. The libraries didn't ever seem to have the books I wanted to read and very few photo-books I was keen to look at. I gave up and carried on just taking pictures without thinking too much or too hard about it.

Fast forward to 2018 and everything anyone would ever need to to learn everything about photographs, photography and becoming a photographer was available instantly online. Findable, searchable, indexed, linked and very very detailed. I started thinking long and hard.

Now, all the work I make is created to a fairly strict process - it helps me to have a recipe to work to. I look at:  

1. Light and shade
2. Line and shape
3. Colour and texture
4. Movement and gesture

This short but - to me at least - incredibly powerful list whirrs around my head as I look at something that might make a photograph. Then when I find a subject I use it as a checklist. Again, it's used when I sit down to edit.

Technically, I've decided to use one, single camera with a fixed lens, shooting in landscape format with as little cropping as possible. This means there are a whole host of images that I can't really take - but I like the restrictions this places on me. They have become the four virtual black lines around the edge of my creativity, like the 3pt actual ones I've decided to use around the borders of my prints.

I also only really shoot in available light and love the really deep dark black shadows like those you see in Joseph Wright of Derby's work - his 'Experiment' picture is what I strive for using available light and deep shadows. Unsurprisingly I also love a lot of Caravaggio, Velazquez and the Dutch masters. And - I'm guessing - because of this, my subjects tend to be shadows, textures and corners. I'm drawn to them.

Edward Hopper said he was always trying to paint light but it kept falling on things... I think I have the same problem. I love his work too. When I talk about the sort of images I want to produce, I'm not just thinking of traditional artists or photographers I'd like to emulate/copy/ripoff (Leiter, Frank, Davidson). I'd love my pictures to evoke the kind of feelings you get from the work of writers and poets. Tom Waits lyrics, TS Eliot, David Sylvian's music, Dylan Thomas. I think this is what I'm working away at.

With monochrome images I've found "normal" black and white a bit cold - so I've concocted a homebrew of settings into a Lightroom profile (not a preset of edits - more like choosing film stock and developer) that makes them look contrasty and a bit grainy - like they've been shot on film and developed in Guinness. 

I've noticed going through my archive that I also often construct images with a hard line down the centre - either physically or implied. I'm not always aware of it until the edit. I'll put up a page full of them and link it here when I get 5 minutes.

Below are a few of my pictures that I think work well (plus some that really don’t). They aren't necessarily my favourites, but I think they all work well as images.

As I said to you, I try and criticise images on a technical, creative and aesthetic basis. These ones - for me at least - tick those boxes to a varying degree and - I think - have something to say.

Taken as part of a series of camera setting tests while Paola drove to Flagstaff in a snowstorm. Now part of a series I called "Brilliant Trees". I almost bulk deleted the whole lot. Despite the technical restrictions (moving car, dirty glass, snowstorm) it holds together well with minimal editing. Many of the (hundred or so) images I took at this time were blurred, badly composed or had reflections from the window glass I was shooting through. Creatively I think each one works and collectively they reflect the landscape as I remember it passing by. Interestingly, like oriental art, there are no shadows. Aesthetically I think they are rather beautiful and suggest the Japanese woodblock prints of the early 20th century. Like a Chinese scroll painting the image has no real perspective and it looks flat (maybe because of/exacerbated by parallax?). Except instead of the image scrolling past me, I'm scrolling past the image. The whole series is here.

This is the first image I took that went onto form an ongoing project of people watching big football events in pubs. Having randomly wandered into France vs Argentina in a riverside pub in Hammersmith with a new camera I barely knew how to use, I found the only empty seat was at the bar almost under the screen (with no view of it). But I took a few pictures and realised that no-one was interested in me - they were all transfixed by the match. Like the congregation at a revivalist church they were lost in the moment. Despite not being technically very good, I don't think I have ever captured movement and gesture so well since (this was well before I came up with my list). For me at least, it's the one to beat and I now spend my life trying. I was like an early goal. It is also a picture full of eyes.  

For a decade after journalism I worked in film and when I told various friends who still do that I was going to Monument Valley, they all suggested that I take a couple of bits of black cardboard with me - "you'll be used to seeing it in widescreen Panavision - you need the borders". This stuck with me and guess what - they were right. It's almost too much to take in and it absolutely needs a frame. But instead of cardboard I used the balcony of our hotel room to set the the iconic mittens at sunset. Hockney took photographs of the Grand Canyon and was hugely disappointed when he printed them large. He felt this was because of the geometric perspective forced on it by a photograph. He painted it, introducing a psychological perspective and a feeling of space which - lets face it - is what the Grand Canyon is all about. For me, the negative space in this image gives the illusion of space beyond.

This is the nearest I've come to Joseph Wright so far. I love this picture. The shadows, the movement from the arm, the echo of the print on the wall and the guy drinking. The two bright visible lights add to the composition (i've tried removing them and it doesn't improve it).  It has an energy and and dynamic that keeps me looking at it and coming back to it. There are several conversations going on and everyone is engaged or involved in whatever they're doing.

I have become a member of the DWAA, joining the people who fish off Deal Pier. Being able to spend time - a lot of time - with them over several months, allowed me to just stand there and look. More than two decades as a journalist gave  me the people skills to just be somewhere and observe. Having a camera gives me a reason to be there. Although most photographers who visit the pier just take a few pictures and move on. These images are the first real tranche of what I see as a long term project to photograph something rare and precious: a group of people bonded by a common goal, a handful of rules and time - and where nothing much happens quickly. Like watching light move across the kitchen wall. They are a diverse bunch - I wrote a detailed piece with more pictures here. Next I'd like to do portraits of the members alongside more pictures of nothing much happening in various lights and weathers.  





These agapanthus plants were shot during the early months of the first lockdown. I noticed the low spring sunshine really creating some dense black shadows each day. While they are growing - before they flower - they create these beautiful technical forms. I've had some comments about this image and some of the others I made at the same time - some people saying it's great to see the buds in the shadow on the left and others saying it would make the image to lose them. You can't please everyone... Personally I like the hint of them - this image shows them more clearly than some. I think I've seen images like this on a Greek vase, but despite Google's help I can't find the image i'm thinking of.





Sometimes it's just all about the texture and shadows. This curtain had been hanging in Acton's disused library for almost a decade when we turned it into a community cinema in 2021. The live in guardians had found it and used it to screen off a big window. As volunteers transformed the space over six months it got moved around - it shows up in several pictures I took to document the transformation (the full story is here). It's like a detail from an arts and crafts painting, something that's just laying in the background and filling the space. I love it and had a large cheap print of it - possibly at 1:1 scale - hung on the wall for a while.


Below I will add are some images that don't work at all or as well as they could.

These two pictures don't really work well for a number of reasons, despite being a brilliant opportunity. I stumbled across the temporary fountains on the South Bank by accident and the parents of the kids playing in them were happy for me and the friend I was with to photograph them playing. Let's be clear - this NEVER happens these days. Firstly, I didn't know the camera well enough and I wasn't as across it as I should have been. Secondly I didn't spend enough time at the scene or thinking about the scene. I didn't have my checklist at this point. And thirdly I was with a friend. This is where I learned that photography is not a spectator sport. I allowed myself to be moved along because he had finished. I allowed myself to be pressured into leaving something I knew was worth sticking with. It hasn't happened since.

This picture was taken at the August Bank Holiday Fair on Blackheath in 2018. Technically it's my most/only "successful" picture to date. I entered it for the British Life Photography award and it was commended and shown in the Mall Gallery. People who have seen my work say it's one of my "best". I'll be honest, I don't really like it. Technically it's not a bad picture. But looking at it now I realise there was a much better picture in that scene. It's a great subject and setup but I rushed it and didn't spend enough time thinking it through. Again, I didn't have the checklist (this is why it's so useful as a process/tool). Nothing was going on and I needed - at least - to take a few steps back and a pause for breath. I don't think I had the confidence to take the time I needed at this point. It's an easy visual pun that works.

This is an attempt at an environmental portrait of a friend who works in wine who was cooking us dinner and needed a quick fag break. I really like environmental portraits and would love to get better at them and be able to execute them brilliantly and effortlessly. While I love the idea of a formal portrait, I feel that EPs offer so much more to play with - if portraits are supposed to tell us something about the subject.  They are the passing car that the dog in me will always chase. Here, he's looking in the wrong place - I should have directed him to look over my left shoulder. My position - and therefore where the corner is - is all wrong. The Lichtenstein is a nice touch and the stuff around him is good but could have worked much better if I'd put some conscious thought into it and simplified it (ie: quickly tidied up a bit).

I love mist and fog - it's a gift to any photographer. But days like that happen so rarely and are unpredictable. I spent a good couple of hours down at Hammersmith Bridge one winter morning and it was perfect. But I wasn't. Nothing I shot that day was particularly good. I still look through those images and wonder what I should have done to improve them. I definitely think I needed to be closer to the water rather than high above it. But I couldn't get down to it. Also I think the composition is wrong despite having boats and the bridge and very still water. The one thing that works is the fog. Maybe I was unconsciously thinking "Waaayhey. Brilliant fog. Why try harder?" I don't know. But there should have been a couple of really good images from that session, but there weren't.

I love Norman's. It's Soho Institution. This picture of a quiet Wednesday afternoon has had a lot of love from people. But it's another example of not looking hard enough. The guy in the cap with the book is great, but the coat hanging up and the people on the right ruin the composition. I've done a tighter edit that cleans it up a bit, but it fixes a problem that shouldn't have been there in the first place. Again - I should have at least taken a step back. It may have helped. The really big learning from this for me is NEVER have your own coat in the shot - it always ruins it...



And finally...

This is the picture that did it.

This is the exact moment that everything changed. Having put down a camera in 2009 and picked up and iPhone, this is when I realised that it just wasn't enough. I took this picture in Vietnam and it dawned on me that the underlying frustration and irritation I was feeling about taking pictures there was that I wasn't good enough to take the pictures I saw in front of me and the iPhone wasn't good enough to do it either. Looking at this image sealed the deal.



MT March '23