Field trip – Gran Canaria

I have just returned from a short trip to Gran Canaria, my first visit to this island. It was not designed as a photographic trip, but I did make some images and this report is about the results and my thoughts.

From previous visits to Colorado, California, Tenerife, etc., I already knew the combination of the light qualities, the bright colours and the geometric architectural shapes, are very appealing.

The location for the trip was Puerto Rico, a holiday ghetto, and I did not have a car so had little opportunity to escape or to find specific photo opportunities. However, a few subjects were found.

This image sums up my feelings about Puerto Rico. Pete Seeger’s song about “Little Boxes” comes to mind. This is typical, except that the trees in pots add some welcome variety to the identical white boxes all with blue accessories.

However, I found I was attracted to the blue/white themes as close-up, graphical arrangements.

Or, as here above, a collection of differently coloured geometrical shapes.

These next few images are more typical of my mixing human constructs in the landscape, their narratives and the geometrical shapes formed by the elements.

This final image was inspired by perceiving a confrontation between the army of trees and the powerline. The trees appear hesitant, all bunched up in the face of the single power pole.

The one thing that would persuade me to return to Gran Canaria would be the possibility of a project documenting the banana plantations and farming communities, well away from tourist towns.

Perceiving potential Narratives as a source of composition

This title  describes a situation where my initial impressions of a scene result (usually) in anthropomorphic narratives being applied to inanimate objects and their relationships within a scene. I then compose the image to emphasise the narratives I have seen. I emphasise these are almost instantaneous visions of relationships and potential narratives. These are compositions that I used to consider wholly intuitive until I started this research and began to unravel my motivations image by image.

In this image I had perceived a relationship between the power pole and the children’s slide. The pole appears powerful, upright and, with a high viewpoint, it appears attentive, as if scanning for threats.

The pole’s juxtaposition, relative to the slide (representing a child) made this scene appear to be of a metaphorical parent and child. The parent protective and observant whilst the child slide is bright, curved (stress-free) and enjoying itself.

This next image, taken at the same time as the Slide and Pole above, is all about the violence inflicted upon the hedge.

It was photographed head on, to give the impression of our facing a soldiers’ advance, as on a WW1 battlefield. The soldiers in the foreground have been mown down whilst the tall, strong trees behind (generals perhaps?) are untouched and focused above and beyond the ranks towards a higher purpose.

This is another image seen and very quickly taken because I knew (intuitively?) that there was a story here, in this composition. It was part of my BA (hons) final degree exhibition in 2011.

The painting is of an early, Lord Wraxall, creator of the 600 acre, Tyntesfield House Estate, near Bristol. His wealth and the building of the estate was funded by the import and sales of guano from South America. The house and estate are now owned by the National Trust.

My narrative for this image is founded upon Tyntesfield House no longer being the private home of a wealthy aristocratic family but having been turned, by the National Trust, into a zoo of objects for the general public to gaze upon. Instead of Lord Wraxall’s image being displayed prominently, in a way he might consider appropriate to his standing, it is behind a cord with his face is covered. Not perhaps a dignified situation for the former owner of the house. His image has been reduced to that of just another stately home object with its meaning removed for all except those few who take a direct interest in the history. For me this is an image about mortality, the triviality of our existences, whoever we are, and the world moving on regardless.

Another image where the composition was quickly formulated after perceiving some key factors about the location. First, the rock colours and the conical piles reminded me of treasure. This idea was reinforced by the aggressive looking bulldozer, not looking at us, but appearing attentive, cowering behind its own little gravel pile. Is it protecting the treasure? The final elements that formulated the narrative were the tracks appearing from the bottom left. A few have ventured passed the “teeth” of the bulldozer but more have turned around, not risking annoying the guard.

Conclusions

These are fanciful, anthropomorphic narratives that work for me. I am explaining them here as part of my research, but I have learned that I should not normally provide viewers with such stories as this limits their own creation of narratives. Additionally, if the viewer rejects my interpretation, they may not go on to develop their own.

I have now learned to have confidence in my images. If I can develop such complicated, metaphorical narratives from my photographs, then others can also do it for themselves.

Same location, similar content but very different origins

I have noticed that some of my images, whilst superficially very similar, have quite different origins for their compositions. For example, these images, were both taken at Skaw on Unst on the same day:

This image followed a pattern I have seen and used before. I instantly saw its potential as a piece of “Public Art” and arranged the composition to make it look far more like I am celebrating an artist’s installation rather than a mundane concrete support for an antenna – its actual purpose. The positioning of the clouds was also deliberate so as to give the impression that the steel girders are chimneys. Overall, this image was deliberately contrived and composed to achieve a quirky, mildly humorous photograph.

This image, whilst superficially, very similar, had a quite different origin. I did not initially perceive this brick construct as an independent element within the scene. Rather I saw it, halved, as shown here, with the pool of water cradling its base, and the clouds plus the horizons of the land and the sea pointing towards it. In other words, I saw the whole picture as a series of interrelated shapes rather than as individual elements of a composition.

The next diagrammatic version explains what I perceived more clearly.

Was my seeing this a moment of “visual indeterminacy”? It was certainly a fleeting moment of initial perception that was soon replaced by an understanding of the various parts as discrete elements.

From then on, I used my memory of my initial perceptions to compose the final image.

The following image was conceived quite differently to either of the ones discussed above.

I saw this as a pleasing arrangement and alignment of the lines that connected the foundations to the derelict shed and the horizon. It is a consciously composed image where the reality of independent elements has been challenged by moving the camera until the separate components were forced to connect.

The next image has no narrative perceived by me and was seen as no more than a nicely balanced arrangement of disparate elements, in particular the tracks, block houses and the rocks.

It is a conscious design that leaves everything except the stability of the image unexplained.

Here are further examples, from different locations, where I had an initial, short, almost two-dimensional perception of the scene that was then used to construct a final image from my memory of it:

Initial (indeterminate) 2D perceptions

This instantaneous visualisation of the whole and or relationships between elements that exist visually but not in reality is not a new phenomena for me. However, having recognised, in 2018, and understood they way it works for me, I am now deliberately following that path and not trying to over-think the compositions.

Images from the same locations as those above but that were more “traditionally” seen and composed follow: 

 

By “traditionally” composed I mean that I saw what looked like a pleasing arrangement of elements and moved around to achieve the final composition. There was no instant visualisation and usually little “potential narrative” to be developed.

Of course there is narrative potential in this image below. However, at the time I only saw it a an interesting arrangement of the building, the man-hole and the fence. Unlike the earlier scene from this location this is easily perceived as a three-dimensional image rather than being seen in just two-dimensions.

“Potential narratives” as a source of composition will be discussed in a later blog.

Conclusion

The above demonstrates that even at a single location, on the same day, my motivations for making individual images can vary significantly. There are at least 4 different sources of inspiration from my day at Skaw on Unst!

 

 

 

Ansel Adams leaves me cold!

I have admired the landscape photography of Ansel Adams for about 30 years. However, it has never excited me. His photography is always technically superb, but I have rarely found his landscapes images stirring me emotionally. This may sound heretical but, for me, Adam’s images are little more than stunning records of sublime landscapes. The subject is beautiful, but the photograph has little to add to it. What am I missing?

Please note that I am particularly discussing Adam’s large vista landscape photographs and not his intimate floral, tree or architectural images which I do find engaging both artistically and emotionally.  Ansel Adams – El Capitan

Perhaps, like the landscape painters of the Hudson River School who invented, overly dramatized scenes, such as below, Adam’s photographs are somehow unbelievable. Adams maybe making photographs, but their reality feels questionable.Thomas Cole – Scenes from the Last of the Mohicans

In part I believe this lack of credibility is due to Adam’s images not having any signs of human presence. Without such evidence, human constructs or traces, such scenes might as well be invented. Personally, I need to see that other humans have been to a location to believe in it. I am more interested in, and find it easier to engage with, a landscape when there is evidence that humans have interacted with the location. A pristine, “natural landscape” was in Adam’s time and is still a rare if not impossible location.

Thomas Cole’s painting does include humans. But it is a painting and therefore cannot be a wholly accurate portrayal of reality. For photographs, there is a long-held misconception that they do accurately record reality, but this has never been true. Since as long ago as the 1840’s photographs have been manipulated and, anyway, every photograph is inherently the photographer’s edit of the world and time, not a whole reality.

Conversely, from the first time I became aware of the New Topographic photographers, especially Robert Adams, and Lewis Baltz, I was excited and felt emotionally connected with their rendering of banal subjects as something worthy of being appreciated and investigated. Somehow, their ability to depict the mundane as (albeit accidentally) beautiful resonates with me. I am interested in understanding what it is they are trying to say about a scene. When I feel they have created beauty out of the banal then I am drawn into the image to try and understand why and to create my own meanings.

However, going back to my original argument, at a recent conference on landscape photography I saw 2 very successful and highly considered landscape photographers showing and discussing their work. They were Charlie Waite and Colin Prior. This was interesting because, like with Ansel Adams, I admire the craft of these photographers, but I often fail to be engaged by their images. Again, what am I missing?

Charlie Waite showed the following image: https://goo.gl/images/amYhtP

My immediate reaction was that the sky was too visually noisy, and this conflicted strongly with the calm, soft beauty of the sand dunes. The two elements seem to be fighting with one another and this had a negative effect on me. Charlie Waite said that his sister had surprised him when she described the sky as “too chaotic”. So, I am not alone! Was Charlie Waite only aware of the drama in the scene and overlooking the emotional conflict?

https://goo.gl/images/KFf4ox  This image by Colin Prior (Liathach and Beinn Eighe) captures a sublime, dawn scene in difficult winter conditions that took real effort and skills to make. It is beautiful but, after a few seconds of viewing, I am left wondering what it is trying to say. There does not, for me, appear to be any meaning, message or alternative way of seeing the world being proposed by such an image. Perhaps my wish for images to convey more than just (accepted) beauty is limiting my appreciation.

Both these photographers, and their success, seems to be predicated upon being able to access and record moments and locations in dramatic ways that most of their viewers could not hope to emulate. Are they selling a dream, an overly romantic view of the world, that I consider to be an unachievable fiction, for most people, most of the time. Are they selling their visions of heaven?

On the few occasions when I have been in such dramatic places and experienced the light, the solitude, the moment then I have felt spiritually uplifted. Note, I am not a spiritual person, so these occasions are rare. However, a photograph of such a time (as shown below) will rekindle those emotions within me but someone else’s images of the same or similar places and moments will still leave me cold. For this image I have a personal connection and knowledge that I cannot achieve by looking at others’ photographs.Krafla, Iceland.

Usually, and perhaps contrarily, when I am in such moments, I will take a single picture then put the camera away in order to fully concentrate on the moment, the experience. For me, enjoying the experience itself is far more important than the recording of it which can never be more than a trigger for an inadequate memory.

 

 

How to define a “Successful” image

In order to understand the conscious and unconscious motivations behind my landscape practice I first needed to decide which images were “successful” and which were not. The thinking here is that an unsuccessful image can be a failure for any number of reasons whereas the successful image probably only has a few contributing characteristics. Therefore, it is the study of successful images that will be most effective as a strategy for uncovering what drives my image making processes. Later, I will need to test these findings against a set of unsuccessful images to look for any inconsistencies of thought or process.

As this is an autoethnographic study aimed at understanding my own practice and my own perceptions, this has to be measured against my personal criteria, not that of other viewers. Initially, the only criterium that I could articulate was that a successful image is, one that excited me at the time of making, a day later, a month later, etc. This, purely emotional, test proved to be a good tactic for sorting the successful from the rest but failed to tell me anything about why one image was good and another just average.

Using this methodology, I initially tested ~2500 landscape images taken over the last 10 years and rated just 186 as being successful images. Note, these 2500 images were images already deemed to be anything from excellent to acceptable. Any failures or unacceptable images had already been eliminated from the ~20,000 taken during that 10 year period. Over the next months I added a few recent images and started analysing the successful ones for which characteristics of the scene had “triggered”1 me to make the image and for their different types of “content”2. This was an iterative process which caused me to upgrade some additional images to the successful category and to reject others as my understanding and definitions of the various triggers and contents was clarified. The number of successful images was now 204. However, this process also revealed that not all successful images are equal. I was prompted to further segment the successful group into A, B & C categories based upon the degree of excitement that I felt about an image. Again, this is useful as a working model but is still an emotional, unquantifiable characteristic that needs to be further understood and defined.

There are now just 104 images classified as “A”, my very best images. Re-evaluating these images, I have tried to articulate why they excite me.

First, every one of these 104 images has captured and now evokes the feelings of calm, silence, isolation and insignificance that I felt at the time I made the photograph. These are not negative experiences but a recreation of previous moments in life when I have felt most joyful and free. Like Robert Adams, I too have lived in the prairies of Colorado and can perfectly relate to his comment in the Forward to his book “Prairie” (1978):

“There is everywhere silence – a silence in thunder, in wind, in the call of doves, even a silence in the closing of a pickup door.”  Robert Adams

If I consider one of my images has captured such emotions in the way Robert Adam’s images have done, then I am excited.

Secondly, I am excited when I have perceived something I believe is unique, that I am seeing and interpreting the scene in ways no-one else has ever done before. Often this is where the image reveals to me an “accidental beauty”3 in the arrangements of its man-made and the natural elements or a new perspective that encourages the viewer to ask why, to look for metaphor, to create narratives. As stated by Sean O’Hagan in the Guardian, talking about Robert Adams, I also want to be an:

“artist whose work demands close attention – and a degree of patient attentiveness – from the viewer.” Sean O’Hagan

To do this the image must not just be new but also obviously different so that a reaction, even if it is one of dismissal, is caused. Just like the New Topographic photographers (Robert Adams and Lewis Baltz, in particular) I aim to depict the banal4 as accidentally beautiful. Adams used the qualities of light, Baltz uses the geometrical shapes of buildings, my trope is the juxta-positioning5 of human constructs against apparently natural landscapes.

Definitions

Trigger – my trigger words describe what had catalysed my pressing of the shutter. They are: Design (conscious), Design (unconscious), Intuition, Belief, Recognition and Spectacle.  How these were derived, and their definitions are explained in other essays.

Content – words that describe the content of my images, when later reviewed are: Narrative Potential, Incongruity, Light, Shapes, Isolation and Power/Subordinate. These words describe the dominant elements of the content. Most images have at least 2 appropriate content words. How these were derived, and their definitions are explained in other essays.

Accidental Beauty – is when the unplanned positioning of unrelated objects and elements in a scene cause a pleasing, a humorous or an intriguing arrangement. This is “found art” and not the deliberately constructed compositions of the Still Life artist. The expressionist sculptor, David Smith, described his triggers for accidental beauty as follows:

“They can begin with any idea. They can begin with a found object. They can begin with no object. They can begin, sometimes, even when I’m sweeping the floor and I stumble and kick a few parts that happen to form an alignment that sets me off thinking, sets off a vision”. Smith, D.

Or as described by photographer, Andy Wohl, on his website:

“I do not look for typically “beautiful” scenes; landscapes, flowers, animals but find more potential in the random and accidental arrangements of chairs in a courtyard, a pile of cardboard boxes or the still life arrangement of common, mundane and even homely objects found at hardware stores, grocers, garden supply stores, bait and tackle shops and antique shops.”  Andy Wohl.

Banal – “So lacking in originality as to be obvious and boring.” Oxford Living Dictionaries, viewed at https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/banal on 08/10/18

Juxtaposition – everyone one of my images, other than those triggered by Spectacle, have the juxta-positioning of a human construct or traces against its environment as the key (although, not necessarily the largest) element of the composition.

Bibliography

O’Hagan, S. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2012/feb/16/robert-adams-photographer-sense-place  viewed on 7/10/18

Smith D. The Search for Accidental Beauty, a video published by SFMOMA, viewed at https://www.sfmoma.org/david-smith-and-the-search-for-accidental-beauty/ on 08/10/18

Wohl A. Accidental Beauty, viewed at https://accidentalbeauty.smugmug.com/ on 08/10/18

 

Artworks that have long influenced my photography 

These images all had an immediate, emotional impact on me when I first saw them. However, I did not understand and could not articulate why, at the time.

Rene Magritte, The Empire of Lights

I first saw Magritte’s paintings in my late teens and found his strange juxtapositions interesting and often humorous. However, this painting and its composition is a lasting influence. The 2-dimensional, theatre set feeling of the street scene is comforting but also a barrier to the brightness beyond.

Today, this is a compositional trope that I regularly employ.

Andre Kertesz, Martinique

Since first seeing this image in the 1980’s it has been continuously influential in two ways.

First, that sense of mystery and narrative created by the shadowy figure which became the primary inspiration for, and the subsequent direction of my BA final degree project after I came across this scene at Tyntesfield House in Bristol.

Secondly, Kertesz’s seeing and using such strong geometrical shapes results, like in the Magritte painting, in a 2-dimensional impression. There seems to be almost no depth between the handrail and the horizon.

Edward Hopper, Rooms by the Sea

The attraction of this painting is a mixture of the strange, perhaps impossible juxtaposition of the sea and the rooms, plus the 2-dimensional geometric shapes.

Although it is possible to see depth in the image when looking into the second room, most of the majority of the picture is easily be viewed as being 2-dimensional, without any depth. I was so inspired by this painting that trying to reproduce such a strange, inside/ outside, impression was the first thing I tried when I acquired Photoshop in 2003.

Hopper’s works all have a quiet, stillness to them where the viewer can feel like they are being invasive, as if we shouldn’t be looking at the scene. When Hopper’s paintings include people, they are always in private, reflective moments and so the viewer is inevitably a voyeur. Yet, for me, even when there are no people, as above, it still feels like I, the viewer, am an intruder and should not be there. I find that an interesting effect as that is often how I react when I am on-location for my own images. I am always a visitor who is not wholly sure they are welcome.

The next artist who started to influence my work is Andrew Wyeth. His landscapes are very much the landscapes that appeal to me, often wide open, remote and sparsely populated. His works also capture a quiet, stillness, a sense of solitude, even loneliness, especially so in this painting of “Christina’s World”.

The refuge of the house and barn are far off for Christina and she appears to be pleading with them to be noticed. However, the barn has no windows and so is blind and the house has all its windows facing the other way. Neither can see her. Wyeth’s apparently simple compositions are capable of evoking extensive narratives as shown in the next two of his paintings. Unlike Christina’s World, these painting have very little depth to them. They are quite 2-dimensional in appearance.

Without knowing even, the titles of these paintings the viewer is encouraged to make up stories about who, why and how they came to be.

It was the colours, shapes and flat perspective of this scene in Puglia that reminded me of the Wyeth painting and encouraged me to press the shutter. And, like the Wyeth picture there is a lot of narrative potential in the scene.

Although I enjoy much of the work by both Magritte and Kertesz not all excites to the same degree at the images shown above. For images where my primary response has been humour, I am less likely to be inspired by them, even when the narrative potential is significant. As when spectacle (visual drama) is my primary response, humour also tends to be a block to my further investigation into the image’s meanings.

These below, from Kertesz and Magritte, respectively, are such examples.

 Conclusions

The juxtapositions of man-made objects and their landscape that encourage narratives and or create a surreal 2-dimensional visual effect have been key drivers for my enjoyment of paintings and photographs for over 40 years but only now am I starting to understand their significance.

 

 

Further Image Analysis

This image is unusually romantic, for me. My inspiration was Andrew Wyeth’s, Christina’s World, with myself in the position of Christina.

As in Wyeth’s image, both buildings are looking away from or beyond the viewer (photographer) and so ignoring them.

Wyeth’s image emphases the distance Christina has to crawl to reach the safety of a building. In this image the house is certainly far off but the tin shed a lot closer. However, both are behind a fence and hence difficult to access. Consequently, this is an image was triggered by “Recognition” and “Narrative”.

The next image was inspired by the strange “Juxtaposition” of an empty, concreted expanse surrounded by a high fence in the middle of a wilderness landscape. Why? It seems pointless and reminiscent of the act of Enclosure and the Highland Clearances.

The result is a threatening scene in a benign landscape that I “Intuitively” recognised and composed as I was driving up to it.

However, the narrative I have created is not always the truth as can be seen in this image, taken from Google Earth, Street View. Obviously, this site is sometimes used for storage.

The site itself is the, now unused, end of a WWII airport runway.

Here are 2 similar types of image, one of which I find exciting and intriguing and the other far more of a “record shot”.

This shot of Park Hall, on Shetland, was loosely inspired by the paintings of Andrew Wyeth (see below). I wouldn’t call this a true case of “Recognition” but just that something triggered thoughts of Wyeth when I saw this scene.

However, I am a little disappointed with it. Perhaps because it is derelict, lifeless, and with sightless windows. Whereas Wyeth’s farmhouse paintings are usually of buildings that are alive and occupied, often by named families.

This final image, also on Shetland, is similar to Park Hall except that it is of an occupied and working farmhouse. It may be a much less grand house than Park Hall, but it feels alive.

It looks well maintained and sits on top of a hill, looking outwards in a positive, confident manner. It is the opposite of Park Hall which is hunkered down in the lea of a hill looking blindly into the distance. This image has far more emotional impact upon me than does Park Hall.

 

 

 

 

Analysis of all images taken at Skaw, Unst

I visited Skaw, Unst on 3 separate days. This paper looks at all the different compositions taken across the 3 days looking at why they have been classified as Good, Possible or Rejects.

All the images except one were taken on the first 2 days. Day 3 was spent attempting to improve on previously tried compositions. However, probably due to a lack of careful and critical review of the results from day’s 1 and 2, the third day did not improve upon any of the earlier compositions. The same mistakes were made!

The one image from day 3 that was different and “successful” was from a new location, previously unseen. This is it.

Over the 3 days, 66 different scenes were photographed. I have removed all bracketed and the almost identical repeat compositions from the selection. Classifying these 66 against my “successful” criteria gave the following results:

Good – 21            Possible – 4           Rejects – 41

The “possible” category comes from images that, at this time, have yet to be processed but which appear to meet the criteria for potentially good images.

One thing to note it that the hit rate for successful images versus rejects on this field trip appears to be significantly higher than on earlier field trips. Previously, I would have expected around 10% success rate whereas here it is 32%. Perhaps I am becoming more discerning about my choices whilst on location?

The 41 rejects consisted of the following:

Poor Composition – 30       Technical issues – 3     Too Documentary – 5    Too similar to others – 3

The technical issues were all due to insufficient depth of field for that particular composition. Focus stacking should have been employed.

The Compositional issues were:

  • Composition too busy, too many objects included resulting in a messy image.
  • A lack of visual interest in the composition – it’s just a dull, not even spectacular, a record.
  • Subject too big in the frame. This loses the sense of space, isolation, and calm that (I now know) I want to achieve.
  • The subject leaves the frame on one side (see below). This is similar to the above issue of lacking space, isolation, and calm. This is less of a problem when the “Trigger” for the image has been Design, the key content is “Shapes” and the overall effect is 2-dimensional.

This image is neither one nor the other and its content lacks compositional interest, so it was rejected.

  • Lack of separation or insufficient intrusion of subject across background boundaries. For example, when the roof line of an object is in line with the background hills or does not cross over the horizon sufficiently. These failures result from poor checking of the viewfinder or review of the image at the taking. It is just carelessness.

For example, this image. This could have been a good image if only I had paid attention to the roof line of the hut and it relationship to the hills.

A lower viewpoint or a slightly closer position would have corrected this.

Often, I take multiple different versions of each image. Am I taking insufficient care when re-composing images?

None of the reject images had been triggered by Intuition! The majority were triggered by Belief (27) but, obviously, I failed to follow through and find either the narrative or the design I was expecting.

Design was the trigger for 13 images, but these failed to live up to expectations.

More Image Analysis

Panda and White Wall. This was a purely “Intuitive” image based on seeing a “Design”. It was seen and taken in seconds, without thought. The boxy shape of the car against all the straight lines and rectangular shapes and, that they are both white was instantly attractive. The juxtaposition of the car’s headrest and the vertical pipe was perfect.

This is a 2-dimensional image with bright but flat light that conveys a sense of quiet, calm. The car is facing the wall which adds to its appearance of loneliness.

Below is another 2-dimensional “Design” driven image. It was the pattern and balance of the shapes plus the contrast between the oranges of the walls with the turquoise of the doors that attracted me Regarding the balance of elements, the vertical pipe is like a fulcrum. On the left is the smaller window but it is also much darker, and so, visually heavier. On the right is the larger but visually lighter door which, added to the dark wall stains (right side) and the electric wiring top right, nicely balances the left side window around the fulcrum.

Again, there is flat light with muted colours giving a sense of clam. However, the open window adds a touch of intrigue and narrative potential to the scene.

The next image is one of my favourites of 2018. It was taken at Stennes on the Orkney mainland in March.

My inspiration was Dutch 17C Landscape painting with big skies and the tiny (within the scene) signs of human presence. The muted colours and flat light indicate a calm, quietness whilst the emptiness surrounding the small scale, human constructs imply isolation and solitude. It feels like the house and stones have gathered together for protection in the wide, open landscape and this juxtaposition of the 4000-year-old stones and the modern, red roofed house adds an element of incongruity.

Here are 2 images that, a few years ago, I would have been very pleased to have taken.

I still am very happy with their technical and documentary characteristics but now feel the extreme dynamics of the composition overpowers any more subtle references to mood and there is little space for enigma. The foreground pipes overwhelm the rest of the image.

Today I find this next image much more satisfying.

The mood, the lack of recognisable context plus the relative scales of the subject and its environment say a lot about my feelings at the time as well as providing significant space for the creation of narrative by the viewer. It is much more than a straight document.

To quote from David Ward, in “Where does the viewer live?” (On Landscape #65 p16).

“…we need to think about how the sensation of being in the landscape is making us feel but we are so often wrapped up in operating the camera we don’t stop to think about how we are feeling or what the landscape means to us. If we fail to think about how we feel, how can we hope to inject feeling and emotion into our photographs? If we can, amidst the rush to get the technical stuff right think, too, about what’s going on inside us then we are taking the first step to creating images that are a reflection of who we are, not who others are. We are all different and if we allow our individuality to come through in our images they will project this to our audience.”

 

Looking at images that failed to satisfy me in the longer term

Up to now I have been identifying “successful” images and trying to analyse why I considered them successful. I will now look at others that failed to appeal to me once I had made them. At the time I thought they would be great but later they were not.

I include some images that, by my criteria, are a longer-term success as a comparison.

The light here was spectacular, and I thought the juxtaposition of the seats half buried by snow would be interesting rather than just a record.

It wasn’t intuitive. I had a “Belief” that this image would work. However, the spectacle and narrative are insufficient to create an emotional connection for me. It is a good record of the moment but little more. It is too obvious and lacking in intrigue.

This image is better. It was also based upon a “Belief” that a good image

was to be found in these fences. There is an element of intrigue in why this awkward and varied collection of fences plus the wall are here and what is beyond the frame. However, I found myself having to make the light more dramatic to focus attention on the shapes rather than the surroundings. The basic composition is not simple, nor strong, enough to provide the mood I was hoping for. Perhaps this is due to the inherent 3-dimensional, realistic perspective of the image resulting from the lack of horizon and the front to back gradation in light levels. It is also an unusually romantic style of image for me.

Conversely, this next image, of the fumarole at Reykjanes, is very simple and certainly not romantic. The foreground is wide but almost empty of complexity. Then there is a narrow band of subjects, the fumarole, the wooden staging and the intrigue of a disappearing bus. Beyond that is a horizon and space but little further information. Despite being bright the light is not spectacular. It is very even and lacking in contrast. Consequently, this image is more 2-dimensional than 3d. The perspective is quite flat in comparison to the above and the image has an unreal feel to it as well as a strong narrative potential.

I believe the composition of this image of a temple at Paestum, Italy, works for the same reasons as the image above. All the interest is in the middle of the frame. What is beyond those trees? Maybe a void?

However, I find the clouds a little too detailed and demanding of attention. I think this image would be more powerful with a simpler sky.

Despite the far simpler sky, this next image does not work as well for me.

The composition is good by traditional standards. The light is dramatic and perspective depth is obvious. This is not a 2-dimensional image. It is an interesting record of a place but has little intrigue within the image itself. It is not about the place nor is it about the photographer’s emotions. All the narrative potential comes from the viewer’s knowledge of the history of the subject, not from the photograph itself.

Here are pairs of images to demonstrate the differences between compositions that are “records” versus those that have intrigue and or capture something of the photographer.

This first, of Kalfshammarvik lighthouse, is dramatic, spectacular and records the moment well.

The angle of the waves and of the lighthouse both emphasize the 3-dimensionality of the scene. However, it does not satisfy me as much as the next image, of the same lighthouse. Both images were taken within minutes of each other.

The drama of the light and waves has been replaced by a calm, quiet, stillness. The lighthouse is now facing the viewer and is centred so the image appears more 2-dimensional. The path, snaking its way up the image should counteract the 2d effect but instead just leads the viewer.

The lighthouse could now be a sculpture or perhaps a religious monument (is that a cross at the bottom?), whereas in the previous image its function was obvious.

This image of a derelict house at Eyvik, north Iceland works, for me, by showing calm, silence, and loneliness but its narrative could be enhanced with some additional information.

The small addition of the snow and increased detail for the ditch in the foreground, now provides a barrier to the viewer that enhances the sense of isolation of the house. This is similar to the effect in the painting “House by the Railroad” by Edward Hopper.

This image was an attempt to juxtapose the remains of a WWII building against the Sullom Voe Oil terminal. It was a rare (for me) “pre-visualised” image. It has turned out the way I had planned but fails to excite me emotionally.

As with the earlier image of the fences in the woods, it is very much a 3d image and also needed a lot of brightening and darkening of different areas to create a mood that was not present at the time.

This is a wind turbine on Yell. The lighting here is spectacular and very much the reality at the time. It was an “intuitive” composition based around the narrative of a soldier leading his troops into action.

As with the image of Sullom Voe I think it is a good traditional image with its dramatic lighting but it no longer excites me. I think that is because I find the spectacular lighting too demanding of attention, and this somehow becomes a barrier to appreciating the subtler aspects, like calm and silence, and the narrative potential of the image.

The image below is not excitingly lit or dramatic, yet, for me, it says far more about place and its isolation. I realise now that the size of the main subject in the frame is part of this effect. The large size of the turbine, which is above my viewpoint implies that it has power and control. Whereas, the small size of the turbines below, almost appearing to hide behind the shed, implies a timidity that is reinforced by the vast expanse of their landscape.

These images were taken from locations just a few metres but 2 days apart. They convey very different messages. One is of the turbines taking over and the other of a much more benign presence, that, if anything, adds interest to the landscape. They demonstrate how very different messages can be contrived by small changes in viewpoint and using another quality of light.

Conclusions

I find dramatic, spectacular light can be a barrier to revealing the subtler moods and narratives that I want to convey in my images.

Similarly, too strong a depth perspective is itself a source of compositional drama that distracts from moods and narratives. I tend to prefer compositions that have little depth and are almost 2-dimansional.

The size of the primary subject in the frame can determine whether the subject is the story or whether the story is its relationship to the environment. Size and angle of view are both key to the power relationship between the viewer and the subject.