A highkey vertical shot of my shower curtain and loo roll. May 2020 51, 200 ISO, f1.4 & PB Filter. I previously did this bathroom seeing exercise in 2016 and this shot was not among the pictures taken then.
The Effective Lockdown Seeing Challenge
It has been said what happens to us is not important but our reaction to the event is the key point. There is always a range of positive and negative possibilities in our defence arsenal. This is particularly true in these strange times of a global pandemic where we are all self-isolating to some degree. Attitude is everything. Self-isolation has its pros and cons, very many people are tearing up the walls in frustration, loneliness and boredom. If I were living with young children in a high-rise tower block without access to a garden, I don’t know how I might react.
Today has been a big day for me, I walked to the Post Office and sent a copy of The Dark Art Manual to a customer. A photographer friend and client of mine emailed me yesterday saying he is “welcoming this time of extended reflection without time constraint.”
“When something bad happens, you have three choices.
You can either let it define you, let it destroy you, or you can let it strengthen you.”
Personally, my life hasn’t changed vastly in this period of the enforced lockdown the only thing that appears to have changed is a queue to go into the supermarket and pharmacy. I have found as the regime goes, queues have gone, shopping in nearly empty supermarkets in the evening to be more pleasurable. If only someone could teach the minority to use the one-way system then it would be even better. Very quiet roads are a pleasure to drive on.
In other words, how can we use this time of self-isolation to enhance the thing we love, our photography?
We all have picture templates in our heads whether we know it or not. A picture template is your routine way of seeing and capturing subject matter. A pre-set method of choosing subjects and how to record them, if you like. Many photographers talk about picture templates but not necessarily with those specific words. If you were to do a review of 100 of your pictures you would see repeated patterns or themes emerging in terms of chosen subject matter, tonality and composition.
To be able to take new and different pictures you need new and different picture templates. The photographer Robert Mapplethorpe once said, “The more pictures you see the better you are as a photographer”. Therefore, what can we do to enhance our picture templates in this time of lockdown? The Internet is full of challenges relating to this period of isolation. For what it’s worth, here is my fourpence worth to help you see you and take different pictures.
Similarly, I have written more on picture templates in The ABC of CameraWork Manual.
Books – a legacy to mine
After all, now is a great time to dig out all those photography books and monographs you bought decades ago. Dust them off and read them maybe for the first time. For instance, I rediscovered a wonderful book by John Bulmer called “The North” of northern towns and people taken in the early 1960s. John Bulmer was a very gifted photographer who was always in the right place at the right time and knew exactly when to press the button. His compositions are just delightful. I cannot show you one of my most favourite pictures of all time – the Tipton Canal at Dawn taken in 1961, the picture is still very much within copyright. Amazon has one collectable hardback copy for £446. I think I bought my signed copy for less than £20. If you can find a copy for a reasonable price it is very well worth investing in.
On a similar theme and date, I also found “Grafters” by Colin Jones an enchanting book again recording the changing way of life in the north in the early 1960s. Jones was a dancer in the Royal Ballet Company in the late 1950s he took a series of shots of Margot Fonteyn and Rudolph Nureyev. The picture story was sold and published by the newly opened Sunday Times Magazine. Jones asked for photography work and was commissioned to shot a project in the north of England. From there he went all around the world for the magazine.
Books Books Books
Whilst on a rarely visited bookshelf I also found “Looking East – Portraits” by Steve McCurry, “Africa” and “Workers” by Sebastiao Salgado. As well as books on Claude Monet, JMW Turner, Jacques Henri Lartigue, Edward Hopper, Bob Carlos Clarke, Magnum Contact Sheets, Imogen Cunningham, Don McCullin and Victor Skrebneski.
This list is not my entire photobook library just a knee-high fraction of it. We all have books that we bought, looked at once, didn’t read then and thought “I will come back to that” and never did. Lockdown is now is the time to revisit those books. Books contain streams of logical and semi-logical thought. The organised thoughts of a photographer can help each of us uniquely blend our view of the world and how we record our surroundings.
Humans by nature are an interactive species. I long to be able to have a face to face chat over a meal or drink with a friend when the lockdown is finally over. We benefit from collaborating and communicating with each other in a written, visual and spoken form.
“I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading.”
Jane Austen – Novelist
Nudging accepted boundaries
Edges or boundaries of experience are where there is the possibility of new thought or combination of ideas. Progress is made not where we agree with each other but where we disagree in principle. Where we agree, is where we have stopped thinking about how else an issue could be resolved to a more beneficial outcome. Therefore, to have the possibility of new ways of seeing and recording, as a starting point, you have to go to the farthest most boundary of your current photographic practice. Are you ready to move away from your comfort zone for a short period?
Above all, what I’m suggesting requires an open mind and the ability to play. Enjoyment and play, whatever your chronological age makes the learning process more effective. The opportunity to learn something new is destroyed by the mindset that perfection must be gained after a very short time of initial practice.
“We don’t stop playing because we grow old;
We grow old because we stop playing.”
George Bernard Shaw
In addition, Claude Monet spent his whole life as a painter experimenting with the range of lighting and atmosphere at all times of the day, season and year. In my estimation, he painted Water-lilies 110 times of the 1369 known paintings he made. The examples of his work below are from the 28 times he painted Waterloo Bridge. Monet commented it was only worth coming to London in the winter when the fogs occurred. The influence of JMW Turner can be seen in the use of Indian Yellow see below.
“The subject is something secondary, what I want to reproduce,
is what lies between the subject and myself.”
The Seeing Challenge Learning Objectives
The challenge is to come to the end of the usual compositions you normally make and find new ways of seeing by observation, abstraction and expression.
“Do not copy nature too much. Art is an abstraction.”
Paul Gauguin – Post-Impressionist
For instance, as an example of observation, abstraction and expression, Claude Monet as an old man made many paintings of the reflections on his Lily pond at Givenchy. He had gone past representing what the Lily pads looked like to a deeper vein of inspiration. The artist was interested in the difference brought about by the changing light, reflected clouds, atmospheric conditions and wind moving the surface of the water. His whole artistic life was the investigation into how to represent the multitudinous effects of light and atmospheric conditions with paint.
To make this challenge effective is it important to get to the point where you think to yourself “I cannot think of another different viewpoint or composition, I have done everything I know”. This is the boundary of your current picture templates. Now is where the real work starts. This is the equivalent of the artists blank white sheet of paper, what have I got to say?
Been there, done that
The phrase that comes immediately to mind is “familiarity breeds contempt”. Been there, done that and got the tee-shirt (and had the pie, in the case of Watership Down – a film about rabbits, to explain the joke). This challenge is going to place you somewhere where you are extremely familiar with, your bathroom.
The Challenge – is to come to the end of the usual compositions you normally make and find new ways of seeing by observation, abstraction and expression.
Where – your bathroom
Lens – One Focal length lens to be used – say the equivalent of 50mm.
The Number of photos – The more the better, digital is cheap.
Time – as long as it takes to get to the boundary and beyond of your current picture templates without causing mayhem within your household!
Mindset – ask yourself what you normally do and then carry out something like the opposite. There are no limits to what you can change in this process. Be radical. You will need the same attitude or mindset of experimentation when viewing the pictures afterwards.
I was not going to provide an example for the table above, as soon as I do it will infect your thinking and doing with my experience, not yours. This is about you, not me.
Dinorwig Quarry from the other side of the valley January 2020. An unusual 2D composition without a focal point. My usual compositions will normally be looking to enhance the sense of depth and linear perspective. This shot reminds me of the Burtynsky series Urban Mines.
However, I could use the picture above taken at Dinorwig as an example. It fits all of the criteria for a 2-dimensional picture noted below. In addition, it was taken with a 100-400mm telephoto lens from a distance at approximately right-angles to the quarry face in the howling gale provided by Storm Ciara. I enjoyed its lack of scale.
To be absolutely clear, this seeing challenge is not specifically about the perception of depth discussed here, that is only an example. The challenge is to get to the end of your usual practice and start to think out of your personal box. Think about and investigate what is relevant to you.
The illusion of 3-dimensional photographs
1 Wide-angle lens
2 Close foreground subject
3 Leading lines
5 Selective Clarity
6 Side lighting
7 Limited Depth of Field
8 Diffused atmospheric effects
The certainty of 2-dimensional photographs
1 Telephoto lens
2 Distant subject
3 90 degrees angle of view
4 Linear design
5 Global Clarity
6 Frontal lighting
7 Extended Depth of Field
8 Bright lighting
- Use the same open mind as when taking the pictures for the review stage.
- Note down what you did differently to your usual practice.
- Ask yourself where and when the differences can be used again as a tool to give an enhanced range and scope of your picture templates.
- Practice regularly what’s new until it becomes second nature.
We can only move forward by concentrating on changing our creative process. Your current photographic practice will always be your current photographic practice unless you make a firm decision to work towards changing it. Hopefully, the blending of inspiration from a range of sources is the first place to start on this journey. I have written on this subject a few times before with the blog posts.
Please feel free to let us all know how you got on with The Effective Lockdown Seeing Challenge in the Leave A Reply box below.
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Andy Beel FRPS