Evolution and Experimentation – Current Work

I have not often written much about work I was doing this early in the term.  Partly because I quite often take on other projects or personal work that was unrelated to the MA project I had been pursuing.  However, since I needed to be away from Scotland and the site where my project is based, I have been using this time to explore a different aspect of my landscape work, expand on a project that has been underway for about 12 years, and to push my skills even further.

I have talked in the past about the inspiration Axel Hutte provides, in particular his landscapes which betray no sense of place or time.  Jem Southam is another photographer whose work is similar in the sense that it often belies place and time and yet, like Hutte, conveys a mood and often an intimacy of perspective.

Since I was only going to be back in the US for about six weeks, I also decided to travel lightly and only packed one camera body, Canon 5D MkIV and two lenses, 24-105mm f4 and 135mm f2 along with ND filters and a 1.4 extender.  This choice has the added benefit of limiting the type of photographs I could reasonably take to the more intimate landscapes I intended.

My South Carolina house sits in the middle of a heavily wooded 8.5 acres and over looks a 5 acre pond on the lot adjacent.  I designed the house in 2006 in a style that merged a Japanese and Frank Lloyd Wright aesthetic with some Western sensibilities, but the essence of the house was open flexible space with views in every direction and a clear intent to blur distinctions between space to space within the walls and between the inside and outside.

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I have always loved and photographed the views from the house and enjoyed watching how they changed from day to day, season to season and year to year.  My photographic skills have improved significantly over the past year and it seemed a good time to see what I could make of this very familiar place.  Here are a few examples.

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While I certainly know where these photos were taken and the place holds special significance to me, to any other viewer these photograph can represent anywhere and therefore contain a universality that allows a viewer to imagine or believe these are places they know or have been.  I am pleased with these photos and believe they offer a line of enquiry for my practice in the future.

I took an opportunity during a short stay in New Jersey just after my return to the US in January to photograph a lovely waterfall  I encountered.  I had seen it the prior day, but the light was poor and so when the weather and light became more conducive I returned to the site.

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I choose lengthy exposures and acute angles to capture the nuances of the light and shadows and the differences in the way the water came over the spillway on to the rocks below.  The middle frame explores the varied textures of the stones of the dam as well as those in the river below the dam.  Once again the intimacy of the framing does nothing to reveal its actual location and as such again make it familiar to any viewer who seen a waterfall somewhere.  These too I feel are successful photographs.

I do believe have room to continue to grow and explore this type of photography and can certainly explore the moods that would result from different lighting conditions.  I enjoy this type of work and it sits well as an element within the direction my practice is taking.

 

 

The Path Forward – Charting a Course toward FMP

As I mentioned in a prior post, I have concerns that the project I have been pursuing for the past year and had hoped to take into FMP is looking less and less suitable for that purpose due to delays in the development decision.  While there was always a risk the development would not be approved, I didn’t view that as a problem initially as I saw the project at the outset as a natural history focused endeavour.  A year of taking photographs at the site has informed me that even a full two-year span is insufficient to truly reveal dramatic enough change from a natural history (repeat photography) perspective to create a story that would garner much interest.  Consequently, my approach to the project evolved through each term and moved away from a purely natural history project to one that considered how the land was, is and could be used in the future.  If the development is not approved, then there is not much of a story beyond that which I have already captured.

Had the development been approved as originally planned in June of 2018, the anthropogenic changes would have been well underway, and they would have been nearing completion as I approached the end of FMP.  The current timetable would not see the development complete (if it is approved) until 2021 at the earliest.  I intend to continue work on the project, but I need to consider alternatives for FMP and I intend to use the Informing Contexts module to explore possibilities.

I have been compiling a list of possible projects for some time as things to do after the MA and as I had time during the MA course.  These ideas align with my interests and passions and are consistent with the description of my practice as my understanding of it has evolved.  However, none of the ideas are fully developed and some are less so than others.  Among the candidates under consideration are the following which is comprehensive, but by no means exhaustive.

Bridges

Last May I published a book based on a short-term project completed as part of Surfaces and Strategies.  That book, 19 Sutherland Bridges, focused on a very few of the many interesting and beautiful bridges in the north of Scotland.  Bridges connect people and places and they are, for the most part, taken for granted by the many people that use them each day.  Many people have no idea what those spans look like except from the roadway they traverse.  I took a different perspective to show the bridges and how those structures connected what stood on either side of the span to show them in a way many will have never seen despite the fact they used the bridge many times.  There are hundreds more bridges in Sutherland; old, new, large, small, pedestrian, rail, road, in disrepair or daily use, each connecting one place to another.  This project is achievable in the FMP window and discrete enough to be accomplished.

Windmills

Following on to my interest in interactions between humans and nature, the significant move to cleaner, renewable energy production has resulted in a proliferation of windmills.  While windmills have been used in many countries in many forms for hundreds of years, this new generation of turbines are cropping up offshore, on mountainsides and hilltops, where once the vistas were unhindered and purely natural.  While there is no question our planet needs to find alternatives to fossil fuels, cleaner energy, like everything, comes with a price.  This project would explore from a neutral perspective, like Burtynsky, the landscapes and seascapes that have the mark of human activity imposed upon them.  Once again, this project is manageable in scope and could be accomplished in an FMP.

Fly Fishing in the Highlands

Fly fishing for salmon and trout in the Highlands of Scotland is important as both a pastime for many and as an economic source for some.  In keeping with my interest of how people interact with nature, and as one who enjoys fly fishing, I see this project having possibilities along the lines of David Chancellor’s work.  Capturing the dynamic world of fly fishing in the beautiful settings in which it takes place perhaps along with stories of the ghillies and fisherman interests me as a project and is again one with manageable scope and achievable as an FMP.

I plan to further research and explore these ideas during this module and experiment with some locations and methods of approaching each in order to test their viability as projects and visual interest as subjects.  I see each in my mind’s eye, but I will need to determine if I can translate that vision into meaningful work.

 

Week 3 – Reflections

Social Media:  I have used Facebook for a long time mainly to keep in touch with friends and family and occasionally to feature photographic work I’d done, but as  had no aspirations to making it a proper business, I never pushed that on FB.  I have had an Instagram account for some time as well, but had rarely posted anything there.  Despite that, I had over 50 followers when I began posting current work this week.  I don’t see Instagram necessarily as the vehicle that will bring me work, but I know the added exposure and distribution of my work is a generally good thing.

I was not keen on the Viral Image task either as an on or off line exercise.  I live in a very small Scottish burgh and the idea of plastering an image around town even on the few proper boards let alone across the breadth of the conservation district seemed to me to be an act of defacement that I couldn’t bring myself to, particularly since I am already well known within the town and I think it would raise more issues than benefit.

Webinar with Sophie:  I had the luxury of a one on one with Sophie this week as I was the only person signed up in that slot.  I sent a link to some of my current work to Sophie so we could discuss where I was and where I needed to be going.  I was a very helpful discussion.

First Sophie was encouraged by the non-project specific work as she sees it as useful to training my eye as a photographer and keeping the fun in the work.  She asked if I find it easier or more difficult to do project work and my reply was qualified.  I have diverse interests photographically as I mentioned in an earlier post.  I also find it quite easy to turn those interests, whether on an afternoon’s shoot or across a longer span of time into projects.  That is something that has changed dramatically with this course.  Previously I rarely saw my photographic work as anything other than the individual photographs I made.  Now with almost every photograph I make I can see an outcome; how it fits or might fit into a larger body of work or end product.  Each photo inspires me to bigger ideas because I always if there is one scene that captures my attention and my camera, there are more to be found.

The qualification was with respect to my MA project work which has been a bit more difficult due the circumstances associated with the planning application.  I am a bit stalled on the repeat photography elements of the project since little is happening after the project was called in by the Scottish Government for additional review.  On the wildlife side however, it is the beginning of the “Highland Gathering” of birds that winter on Loch Fleet and the north end of Coul Links.  While it is early in the migration and only a small fraction of the birds have arrived, I have had some really successful shoots already.

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Sophie then asked how I feel about photographing people and I replied that I have always been a bit uncomfortable with it, but that I had been making an effort, with some good results, at doing more; particularly outdoor environmental portraits.  Sophie challenged me to set a target of  8 or 10 portraits as part of my work and as we were talking I realised how many people use the north end of Coul Links and the perimeters of Loch Fleet every day their dogs, enjoy the outdoors, or watch the birds and marine mammals that inhabit that patch of land and sea.  In fact, I missed an amazing opportunity last Wednesday because right where I set up to photograph birds, a gentleman and his wife were encamped behind their estate vehicle with two chairs a wee tea table and a spotting scope.  When I arrived the gent was intent on birding while the lady sat comfortably in her chair reading her Kindle.  It would have been a perfect photo and because I just do not think about photographing people I missed it.  At least four other people came up to me for a chat about what was out on Loch Fleet and likewise never thought about asking if I could take their photo.  So lesson learned and in response to Sophie’s challenge I will be looking for those opportunities over the coming weeks.

I am re-energised about my project and really appreciated Sophie’s encouragement and advise.

Week 3 – Some non-Project Work

I belong to a local camera club which has some excellent and highly knowledgeable members and which has been a good resource over the past few years.  Guest speakers, technical workshops, and peer and outside judged competitions have been helpful in increasing my knowledge, inspiring work in different subject areas, and learning about how others see photographs.  Monthly competitions, some with specific themes and others open to all subjects, are conducted with colour, monochrome and creative categories.   The latter requires manipulating a photo in a way to create an image that could not be seen in the real world and have been useful in increasing my skills with Photoshop.  This month’s topic was “Road Vehicles” and while in Rotterdam a couple of week’s ago, I spotted this row of “hire bikes” inside an architecturally unique building.  The scene caught my eye and lent itself to a really interesting composition. It is one of the best photos I have ever taken. The photograph below titled “Geometry Lesson” was selected as the winning photograph in the Colour category.

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Geometry Lesson

In the Creative category I entered a heavily manipulated photo of a Sunbeam Supreme taken at a Classic Car Rally stopover in Dornoch, titled “Smile for the Camera”, which placed second a close one point behind the winning photo.

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Smile for the Camera

While neither of these photos have anything to do with my project work, they actually speak volumes about me as a photographer and the diverse interests I bring to my practise.  Yes I do a lot of natural history work and I do really like photographing wildlife, but when I have a camera in my hand I am drawn to interesting movement, colours, shapes and light like a moth to a flame.  Even in my wildlife work, it is these same underlying factors that draw me to trigger the shutter.  And I want to have fun with my photography, even if it brings income, it can never be a drudge or I won’t take the work.

Week 8 – Pushing Boundaries

After reading Vilem Flusser’s Towards a Philosophy of Photography and considering many of the comments from my tutor about my work being somewhat predictable and expected, I have been pushing myself to find photographs that have not been taken and that are unexpected, and to find my own unique voice as a photographer.

Since my entire project was fundamentally “predictable” in that it was focused on repeat photography and wildlife photography, two areas where it is exceedingly difficult to be particularly unique, I thought I might have to consider ways to be more creative in my approach.  One of the interesting aspects about the planned golf course at Coul Links is that it is already largely there and while different grasses will be planted in specific areas, the topography of the land will not change dramatically.  The teeing grounds, bunkers and greens along with most of the fairway contouring have been formed by nature over centuries.  In fact it is entirely possible that people have already played golf on this links land just as they have been doing on the Dornoch Links 3 miles to the south for over 400 years.  What if the ghosts of golfers past are lurking and just waiting for their links to re-emerge and be again uncovered from the overgrowth that has occurred in recent decades?

In a radical departure from my normal “indexical” (Sontag, 1977) and ontological approach to my work, I wondered “What if a ghost of a golfer were wandering this ground today along the proposed routing of the new course?”  An idea for a variation on repeat photography formed in my mind; “Could I photograph a golfer in traditional garb with hickory clubs of 100 years ago on the Coul Links proposed routing today, before any changes are made and then come back after the changes are made to take the same perspective with a golfer in contemporary kit?”

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The First Tee

In this first photograph I desaturated the colour about 70% to give the photo a feeling of being in the past.

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The First Tee

In this and the following photo, I left the colour levels as shot and dissolved portions of the golfer’s image to  create a ghost-like effect, but left the feet and hands in the present as if the ghost were enjoying walking and playing a game on once familiar ground.

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The Second Tee

 

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The Second Green

In this photo I used a combination of the dissolved golfer’s image, again keeping the hands and club in real time and desaturated the image slightly.

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The Tenth Tee

In this last image, I used the desaturation technique again to a slightly lesser degree to preserve a better feeling of the landscape while conveying the aesthetic of an older photograph.

I am not certain yet which of these techniques carries the most impact, though the surrealism of the dissolved images feels perhaps too much a departure from my practise.  The desaturated images when paired with the future images on the completed course will convey a lovely sense of the Links (the sand based stretches of ground that serve as the link between the sea and the arable land beyond) then and now, as well as the links to the history of golf in Scotland which has been played on this type of land for more than 500 years.  It is a departure from the strict natural history dimension my project has had, but I believe it has merit in the ability to show the landscape in a some way other than the “postcard” photograph and convey the story of the transformation of this place in a different way.

 

Flusser, V. (1983). Towards a philosophy of photography. English. London: Reaktion Books Ltd. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0031-9406(10)62747-2
Sontag, S. (1977). On Photography. Penguin Books. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13398-014-0173-7.2