24 December, 2008
'Robin Hoods Bay at Dawn'
Having finished work for the year, I popped over to Robin Hoods Bay yesterday to take the kids out to the beach and call in on Dave Tolcher and family. Although I took my camera with me, I wasn’t inspired to make an image, mostly because I had my hands full preventing the children from taking an unscheduled dip in the sea.
However it did get me reflecting on the number of times I had visited the bay during the year (I have no idea but it is certainly in double figures). Why would I visit the same place so many times?
Well, I think photography is not about the number of locations you bag. I have likened that approach to stamp collecting, because it is certainly not art in my opinion.
For example, if I was interested in ‘collecting stamps’ based on the work of other photographers, I would have been out snapping my pet on a beach jetty this weekend. I mean, it’s the latest thing in landscape photography and it must be great art because it won a competition… (?). No disrespect intended to the winning photographer, but I wasn’t so motivated. Shall we say pet photography on location is not my bag, and leave it at that. Besides, my cat wouldn’t stay still long enough for me to set up the LF gear…
I think that art photography is about developing, exploring and interpreting the emotional connection you feel with a subject. For me, it is not enough to snap the ‘location’, to say ‘I was here’. I can do that with my camera phone. Most of the enjoyment comes from watching my vision of a subject develop – applying the photographic process and seeing what results. Repeat visits to a location or concentrating on interpreting a single subject helps that process, helps you to develop.
The year at RHB started with one of my favourite images of ‘08 – a simple rock portrait that completely surprised me. I knew the composition was going to be sound, but I had not been fully prepared for how the light would transform the image. I exposed two sheets, one with sunlight and one without and it is the one without the direct sunlight that did it.
'Bay Light Reflected'
The rock seems to float. The colour and nature of reflected light finally clicked in my head with this image – and I have explored this particular technique in a number of images during the year.
Indeed I would even say I overdid this particular way of seeing – using reflections – during the first half of the year. Here is another example and was typical of a number of images I made, attempting to abstract the ‘subject’.
I think this idea has some potential and I will no doubt return to this theme but for now it is in the ‘got away’ category, mostly because I forgot to set the film back upright to control the perspective. This is particularly important with reflections and to remember to set the back is my main take away from this particular image. I 'fixed it' in photoshop afterwards (the version I am displaying) but I had to crop the intended image as a result. Not how I like doing my photography.
By the middle of the year, I was getting frustrated with my photography at the bay and indeed generally. I found I was aimlessly walking around locations waiting for moments of inspiration to happen. I was hoping for the ‘lightening bolt of creativity and genius’ to strike me so that I could get my gear out and make an image. I was congratulating myself on not taking pictures in good light when the bolt thing didn’t happen and then suffering private angst afterwards.
I realised despite numerous visits at dawn, I had never taken a dawn image on the beach at the Bay. Why was that? I kidded myself that it was because I hadn’t found the right composition yet or that I wasn’t interested in ‘scenic snapping’. The culmination was a trip where myself and Dave met up with Joe Cornish and Nigel Halliwell. I barely made an image.
The saviour for me was reading a book – Art and Fear
– and watching Joe systematically re-interpret his famous Whitby Steps
picture, because it had sold out. The two things connected in my mind.
'Sand and Rock'
The main point I took from the book was that my art is merely a consequence or result of the artistic process not the ultimate objective. The advice from the book was to focus on the process. In other words, if you set an objective to produce art of absolute genius, originality and surprise every time you try, anyone bar Mozart is going to get disappointed. I resolved to follow my process, make the image, evaluate the result and improve on it the next time.
The main point I took from Joe is that I realised that I had been hiding from my subject. Joe’s legacy of photographs in Yorkshire is fabulous and is a unique personal documentary. I have been heavily influenced by his work. The advice and learning he has given me over several years has been incalculable in my own development. But ultimately I was frightened to photograph the same subjects he had because I felt they would be ‘stamps’ to collect, not my own images. I was resorting to abstracting the images or not making them at all in an effort not to repeat his work.
As I talked to him and watched him work, I realised that was a fallacy and I had missed the point.
I realised that the artistic process is triggered and stimulated by finding a subject and being true to yourself about what it is that you feel about that subject – your emotional response to it. Being inspired and making art from that emotional response is a way of communicating what you feel about the subject, in a way that words can’t match.
I also realised that subject ‘maturity’ is no reason not to tackle making images or art if the subject creates enough of an emotional response for you. The ‘consolation’ in photography is the process itself – in my case watching how my interpretation of the subject develops over repeated visits and sets it apart from other people’s interpretations.
A few days later, I made this image, one of the hardest I have ever made.
'Whitby Steps and Harbour'
For me, it was my most important image of the year – not because of the result but because of the process. It was the relationship between the steps and the harbour that attracted me, both being subjects I have known and loved since I was 10 – first seen on a school trip to ‘Thorpe Hall’ at Robin Hoods Bay.
I realised my photography needed to start with the subject and then I can develop my own way of interpreting the subject based on my response to it. What is more, I can do it with the same subject again and again and again.
I still have times when I wander about and ‘do the lightening bolt thing’. But I also throw myself a bone on most trips - a subject that I want to say something about. I get as much pleasure out of watching myself come to terms with that subject as I do from viewing a good or surprising trannie on the lightbox.
The other part of the bay that opened up for me in ’08 was the ‘other way’. Generally I had walked towards Stoupe and Ravenscar. During the year, I explored the other way with Dave. I think it is one of the best parts of the east coast I have been to.
A word of warning – the tides need to be watched. You have barely a couple of hours either side of low tide before you run the risk of being cut off. We resolved never to walk there alone.
One interesting subject on the other side is a ‘wreck’. The first image I got was on the first ‘wreckie’ (sorry) we made, in flat light.
'RHB Wreck Sketch #1'
A classic case of getting to know the subject. The second go was much better.
'East Coast Wreck'
I still don’t think that is the best I can do and I found several other ways of interpreting the subject once the light had got too strong. Next time…
The coast details on this side are also very interesting. Here is an example, though not all that inspiring to me.
David made one of my favourite images of his at the same time I was making this one - envy :-)
Later on in the year, I finally broke my dawn duck at RHB. In fact it was hard not to as it was probably the best light of any dawn I have experienced anywhere. Nevertheless, I suspect earlier in the year I might have congratulated myself on not making an image again…
Pre dawn I came up with this image which I am quite pleased with.
'First Light over Ravenscar'
Post dawn I switched to a view back to the bay, which half works. The idea was good, the execution was poor. The main problem is balance – I was seduced by the quality of line on the left hand side when I had setup and moved the image too far to the left. It is a lesson in learning which elements of the scene are really important and which are not.
There were many more images made during the year at the bay and I have just pulled out a few of them in this entry. I’ll still keep going to the bay in ’09 so it will be interesting to see if I tire of it as a location or as inspiration for subject matter. I seriously doubt it.