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.

 

 

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 11- Do too many cooks spoil the broth?

Perhaps the same is true with tutors, or not.  I have simmered this stew for a couple of weeks now as when I initially conceived it I was reeling from all the completely different flavours that had seemingly been dumped into my pot.  It seemed everyone had a different view of my work and not always did I get a clear understanding of how it might be made better; only that it wasn’t right.  There were exceptions thankfully, like when Cemre took several of my proposed WIP photos and arranged them in a particular sequence in a horizontal grid and then explained why she thought that worked.  In other cases, one tutor would like a particular photo while the next thought it was rubbish, and in other cases, I was told what I was trying to communicate wasn’t clear but without much more in the way of explanation of why or what sort of things might make it better, other than try arranging them differently.

To be honest I felt confused and lost, and even at moments a bit angry.  It was clear something wasn’t right, but I didn’t know how to fix it.  With advise sometimes so diametrically opposed, I didn’t know which direction to go.  I had to in the end, step back, lose the emotional attachment to my work and reaction to the criticism and figure out how to sort through the various comments to determine if there were any common elements among them, discard the outlying and off the wall remarks (there were some doozies) and integrate what was left to something I felt I could action in curating and editing my portfolio.

The first insight I was able to distill was that what I was showing was too diverse and divergent in theme and aesthetic.  It was said in different ways and it took some time to understand that “I can’t read your visual language” was similar in meaning to “the macro work is distracting and disconnected from the larger scale work”, or “photos in this series have a very different feeling.”  I had to admit, I didn’t really know what I was trying to “say” with my photos.  My project is big, maybe too big, and it contains a number of different aspects at this point.  I have so much to say that I ended up saying nothing because the breadth of this story from a final project perspective (and yes, we are a long way from that point) cannot be told in 18 photographs that I have now.  At the end of the FMP, it may be possible to tell this story in a relatively small number of carefully curated photographs.

I also had been “hung up” by the fact that I got into this programme as a natural history photographer, even though it has never been the only thing I have done, and it is not the only thing I want to do.  It was clouding my judgement in curating my portfolio.  It is somewhat ironic, because I have always hated labels and I have spent my life defying norms and expectations.  Why should I allow myself to be pigeon-holed now?  So once again something else to let go of.

I did finally work it out on my own I think.  At least I took a decision, cut away a lot to arrive at a portfolio that is I hope worthy of submission.  It is a few paragraphs in a chapter of what might eventually become a novel or perhaps a short poem, but it seems to be coherent and cogent.  That I got there is a testament to the progress I have made thus far in the course.  I couldn’t have even had this discussion several months ago.  When I felt I had the pot on with no recipe, thankfully Cemre slipped me a couple of key ingredients that allowed me to decipher the rest.  Photography, like cooking after all is art and the flavor combinations are limited only by one’s imagination.  Baking is science and there isn’t much latitude in the recipe. I didn’t want tutors to hand me a recipe after all.

Do too many tutors spoil the broth?  At first, I thought so, but each was bringing their favourite spice to the kitchen and in the end it was up to me to understand the implications of using that particular spice and make a decision whether or not it belonged in my stew.  There were times when they made it tough to get around the kitchen to be sure, but once I cleared them out, and some of the inappropriate spices in my cupboard, I was able to put together a pretty tasty offering.

Work in Progress Portfolio

My work in progress portfolio took quite a lot of editing and went through several incarnations before it came to its final version.  I began working to compile the portfolio several weeks ago reviewing the hundreds of photos I took during the module; both those that were direct project work and those that were not.  I undertook several side projects that included field trips to other places for wildlife photography, a commissioned project for a breeder of dressage horse, projects that were prompted by the curriculum, and projects related to organisations I support.  I undertook experimentation particularly in macro and super macro work as a way of capturing the smaller inhabitants of Coul Links.  I also began trying to become more comfortable photographing people as I have come to realise that my project work will ultimately require it.

The first iterations were organised around a conceptual framework that included looking at the land from a bird’s eye perspective, a human’s eye perspective and then a bug’s eye perspective.  The idea was using a very broad views from above, flatter views from the ground and then very close up views of the world beneath my feet.  I also tested a Powers of Ten type concept where I had photographed the same view with increasingly longer lenses and narrowing perspective intending again to ultimately get to the world beneath my feet since I had spent a fair amount of effort on the macro work during the term.

I had also continued my repeat photographic work at Coul Links throughout the term and there were discernible changes in the landscape, however, I was struggling with a way to condense a sizable amount of work over 4 months into something meaningful in 18 or fewer photos.  So the second iterations attempted to show some of the landscape work intermixed with some of the normal wildlife and macro work.  When I showed those compilations to tutors and peers, there was almost universal agreement in one form or another that the breadth of perspectives was not communicating a clear story or a consistent visual aesthetic.

Along the way late in the term, I tested a concept showing a golfer “playing” the proposed routing of the new course as it is today.  I had the idea that I would desaturate those images to give a historical feel to them.  That concept got both good and bad reviews and, in the end, I decided the desaturation was too heavy handed and essentially a trope that wasn’t setting the groundwork for my ultimate story.  Tutorial comments and some additional research into social landscape photography that led me again to Dorothea Lange’s work revealed to me though that my project needed something more than just the natural history approach I had been taking.  I realised that what was being argued and what was at stake for the future of Coul Links is about how people have and will interact with this land.  That caused me to pour back through my aggregated work again and find those few photos where I had managed to incidentally capture people on the links.  At this point I still had some wildlife photos in the mix.

My project is complex with a number of different elements that in the end could potentially comprise distinct independent stories, or could be combined in different ways to create one or several stories.  However, all that complexity and diversity in the type of images I am capturing makes creating an interim portfolio that stands on its own thematically and aesthetically a challenge.  I had to overcome the inclination to try to show it all, because I was ending up showing nothing.  I had to let go of emotional attachments to my work and any pre-conceived notions about what type of genre(s) I fit in as a photographer.  I had to begin looking at my work in a completely different way than I ever had prior to this course.  Fortunately, the critical theory readings that seemed in many ways beyond my understanding during Positions and Practice when augmented by the many additional readings during this term had somehow begun to coalesce into something comprehensible and even useful. I was moving in the correct direction, but I still wasn’t there as I learned when reviewing drafts of my portfolio with tutors.  While I had come closer on selection of work there was still a sense that it was not yet organised and displayed in a way that communicated effectively.  My last one-to-one with Michelle left me utterly confused at first and feeling lost as to how to proceed.  I was limited by the structure of my SquareSpace website that wouldn’t allow me to organise my photos in grids or groupings and I didn’t know at first how I was going to overcome that limitation.  Ultimately, I found my way back to Abobe Spark as it allowed me the flexibility to create a layout that would allow me to communicate more effectively.

The final iteration integrated elements of the repeat photography with a twist, and was also intended to introduce the exploration of how people are interacting with the land.  The twist was packaging work that looked at the same areas of the landscape but from different perspectives rather than the traditional repeat photography approach of identical perspectives, and which included photos made in different months.  I did do the classic repeat photography work taking all the identical perspectives at different times, but chose not to show them that way.  I also made a conscious decision to not include wildlife in this portfolio.  I have shown the quality of that work in past submissions and was able to show examples of what I had done in the Oral Presentation.  It was time to do something different.  I hoped that approaching the portfolio this way would begin to show how the landscape changes in subtle ways throughout the year, would illustrate my various methods of image production while at the same time carrying an aesthetic that was cohesive and introduce ideas about how I might move forward in showing how various people use this land now and might use it in the future.

My portfolio can be found at the following link:

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Week 11 – Breakthrough

During last week’s webinar with Cemre Yesil, she noted how the photos I showed her as part of my WIP portfolio that included people were more powerful.  Now several days later after working through the selections for my portfolio and exhibitions and trying to find the story, it suddenly occurred to me that I may have been approaching this story from the wrong angle entirely.  I started this journey thinking of the Coul Links project as principally a natural history project and that I would observe and document how the landscape and its inhabitants changed due to natural and in response to anthropogenic changes.  And there is some merit in that yet, but that approach doesn’t speak to the root of the controversy that has dogged the site and the planning application for development over the course of the last three years.

As I thought about Cemre’s comments and looked at hundreds of photos, I realised the crux of the controversy is a difference in opinion about how the land should be used and by whom it should be used.  This land has seen many uses over time.  It was home to the Dornoch Light Railway for many years.

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Until 1989 it was a fully working farm when the displenishment sale relegated it to grazing land and haylage harvest.

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It had a tree plantation which was harvested many years ago and the remnants of which can still be seen today.

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It has been used by the landowners to hunt deer and waterfowl, though under the proposed development that will cease.  The abandoned light railway bed is a walking path, and myraid path and trails from the village of Embo are frequented by walkers and their dogs.  The beach ahead of the foredune is spectacular and draws locals and the many visitors who stay in the caravan park just to the south of Coul Links. The northern end of the property along the Loch Fleet estuary is home to tens of thousands of wintering birds.

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So it is clear that this land has seen many uses over the centuries.  Now there are many who would see the landscape altered slightly to allow yet another use as a golf course without denying the current uses, except for the hunting.  The developers intend to preserve and enhance access for walkers and nature enthusiasts.  The wintering bird populations will not be impacted as the golf course will close in October and not reopen until April each year and the majority of the birds are not actually on Coul Links proper in any case.  Grazing will continue.  The opposition groups however fear the introduction of a golf course on a small fraction of the total acreage will irreparably harm the site and I believe they are also afraid non-golfers will be excluded from the site as they have been at the Trump golf course in Aberdeenshire.

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So, though I am somewhat surprised to admit, the heart of this story is actually about people and their interactions with this land.    Yes the landscape will change with the seasons, the weather, climate change and inevitably with some form of man-made change.  Wildlife, flora and fauna, will be affected by natural and anthropogenic change in any case and it is only a matter of degree as to when and how much, but they will adapt in almost all cases.  Natural succession is evident across the landscape and land ungrazed quickly returns to wild and overgrown state.  There will still be those interested in seeing the bird populations that will use the land.  At the end of the day though, who uses it and how will it be used in the future is where the broader interest in the story lies.

So while it is a bit too late to alter what I have done for this module, I will be shifting my approach somewhat going forward to capture more of the aspects of how people are currently using the land and how that changes along with the landscape in the future.