From the Archives – Unfinished Business

A month on lockdown has been enough to motivate me to tackle one of the outstanding tasks on my back burner ‘should probably do at some point’ list – go through my stacks (about 200 in four stacks of 50) of obsolete media (CD-R and DVD-R) dating back to 2005 and transfer my old photographs onto more up-to-date portable hard drives.

It seemed like a task that would require at least a couple of days indoors, and there was normally something more appealing to do with my free time than the repetitive task of going through disc after disc copying files. However, right now I can’t go outside or distract myself with a new set of photographs, so it seemed as well to use some of this time to get it done, safeguard my old photographs just in case I want them for something one day.

So, apart from not leaving photographs on obsolete storage media for over a decade, what did I learn from my trip through the archives back to pretty much the beginning of my journey with photography?

The Easy Part

My first take-away from my delve through the stacks of CDs is that I developed something recognisable as my style of photography quite early on. The very earliest photographs I found, from late 2005 when I bought my first digital SLR, show some tell-tale signs of trying to make pretty pictures of conventional, obvious subjects – flowers, landmarks and the like – but by mid-2006 I had begun to embrace the idea that anything was a potential subject for a photograph, that anything was interesting if you looked at it the right way.

I made a few mis-steps with my visual style over the years in terms of post processing but these are easily remedied with RAW files (even old ones) and with some more mature treatment, these photographs from fourteen years ago resemble work I might have made much more recently. A rejected early draft of the Bio page for this website read “I’m Owain and I photograph stuff, and I do mean that literally. Occasionally people, rarely animals, mostly just stuff.” and my identity as a photographer of stuff and things was safely established by the end of 2006.

It’s nice to know that, if not right from the start then from not long after I started with photography, I was able to find the basis of my way of seeing and photographing the world. My style of photography developed fairly quickly, and I have long since known how to make photographs, photographs which are my own. This was the easy part, for me anyway.

The Hard Part

I realised that I was good at making pictures of stuff, that I could make a nice picture of virtually any form of stuff, but that I wanted to go beyond merely making photographs of … stuff.

How to do this is essentially the question I’ve been trying to answer for the past decade and a bit. Unsurprisingly, given that I’m only just writing about it now, I haven’t really come up with any definitively right answers … I definitely came up with some wrong answers, but in the spirit of being positive and encouraging, I’m going to give myself a pass on those.

Firstly, it’s important to acknowledge that there are, of course, no definitively right answers. It’s also important to acknowledge that my photographs really needn’t be anything more than pictures of stuff. There is art in making aesthetically pleasing or interesting pictures of stuff, and it’s perfectly valid to create visual art which is ‘just’ nice to look at, music (of whichever genre) which is fun to listen to, books which are enjoyable to read.

While I do believe all of the above to be true, I’m not so understanding when it comes to my own work and still aspire to document something beyond the things within my photographs. I’m critical and demanding with my own work, and like many, probably overly so and in ways which are not always constructive. What I’m trying to take away from my trip back to 2005 is something positive and constructive for my photography in the coming years.

My Lesson from the Archive

What I learned from looking back at over a decade’s worth of photographs is how often I did not give my ideas a chance or allow them to develop properly. As well as ideas that I dismissed outright and never even began to photograph, there are numerous examples of ideas which I did begin to explore but then refused (rather than failed) to continue developing. I would make a set of photographs with which I was satisfied and, because I don’t want to be repetitive or beat a dead horse (when in fact the horse is still a foal which hasn’t grown up yet), essentially declare the fledgling project finished – meaning that even if the idea did have potential, I did not spend the necessary time with it, developing the idea and seeing where it might lead.

This also meant that I spent a lot of time photographing with no real focus or purpose. I would photograph anything and everything, but without any real intent, and produced a lot of good, but unconnected photographs which, again failed to add up to the ‘something bigger’ I was ostensibly craving.

Many photography projects develop out of relatively simple initial ideas into meaningful bodies of interesting work. I’ve often dismissed my ideas too quickly and not allowed them the opportunity to develop into something. In going through my archive (old files) I identified several examples of this tendency and I’m going to show a few examples of projects I didn’t allow to come to fruition, as well as a couple of projects which I eventually rescued as I slowly start to believe in my ideas and where they might lead, if given the chance.

Out of Season

I was about to write about my first example from 2010, but when browsing the photographs on the computer realised I actually had an even earlier example from as far back as 2007. In Britain, you’re never more than a hundred miles (maybe less … could google it, probably should google it …) from the sea so while I don’t come from a seaside town we still went there reasonably often. We tended to avoid the summer crowds though and often went out of season, with grey, wet, windy weather the backdrop to empty arcades and shuttered ice-cream stands. I often thought about photographing in these seaside towns in winter, and made a brief series of photographs down in Weymouth in the final days of 2007 … and then nothing until getting on for a decade later.

Weymouth, December 2017.

Now living in Valencia, in February 2017 I cycled down to the seafront after a big winter storm had passed through and made some more photographs of the windswept beach.

Valencia, February 2017.

The idea clearly still resonated with me come late 2019 when I exposed the best part of a roll of film one afternoon down at the same largely empty beach with many of its restaurants now closed for the winter.

Valencia, November 2019.

What I have here is either one very long-term project, or an idea which I have repeatedly not embraced or chosen to follow. It’s even appeared as a possible project in both Black & White and Colour.

Holes

My next neglected project is from 2010, and was successfully confined to that calendar year. My first regret with this idea is not having chosen it (in favour of a considerably worse idea) for my final degree show project at University. My home region is one of heavy quarrying for limestone with both active and inactive quarries scattered throughout the Mendip Hills. As a child I often visited the active quarries with my Dad on weekends to pick up stone or when he was contracted to repair heavy machinery. Later in my teens, my friends and I would sometimes walk, cycle or drive out to one particular inactive quarry to camp and muck around for a while. Somewhat influenced by Ed Burtynsky, I considered the idea of photographing these large holes in the ground which are part of the geographical but also economic and cultural landscape of the region. I made an initial set of photographs at two different local sites, after which I apparently deemed photographing quarries to be something I had ‘done’ and therefore could not do again.

I made one repeat visit to the quarry where we used to camp and hang out a year or so later but only made a couple of photographs, in a different style, while sheltering from the rain in the woods where we normally camped.

I think these show that there was clearly more to be explored, especially with the inactive quarries and how nature is returning to these post-industrial landscapes. (Nature is healing. We are the virus.) In hindsight, I definitely chose the wrong degree show project at the very least.

Unfinished Business

2010 was clearly a vintage year for neglected projects with these photographs dating from September of that year. Due to proximity to her house on the edge of town, my best friend and I had taken to drinking in a pub which was actually part of a budget hotel in an industrial estate, and whose beer garden had views of a roundabout. At some point the state of partial completion, a legacy of the 2008 financial crash, in which much of the industrial estate still remained must have interested me and I remember making a specific trip with camera and tripod to document it before walking to the opposite side of town to another friend’s house … and promptly nelecting to take the idea of unfinished industrial or housing complexes in the wake of a major financial crash any further, again considering my afternoon’s work to be the end of things.

Once again, the idea would resurface … my brain giving me a second chance to take its offerings seriously. Three years later I was living in Madrid and had begun exploring the outer reaches of the city by bike via the Anillo Verde – a 70km lap of the city’s periphery neighbourhoods and their cycle lanes. As well as learning to pay attention to weather forecasts rather than disregarding the idea of 85km/h gusts as absurd, I observed a few unfinished construction sites and stopped to explore one of them one day. All of the pavements and street furniture were in place for a whole grid of streets with no buildings. There was even a train and underground station ready for the envisioned inhabitants of this phantom appartment complex – again, one of many throughout Spain, a country particularly affected by the bursting of the housing bubble – and so I later made a trip out there with my camera and tripod, and the resulting photographs can actually be seen on this website.

Unfortunately, I’m writing all of this with the benefit of hindsight and a few extra years of maturity which enables me to see things I perhaps didn’t put together at the time, or didn’t understand about the country where I now live. So, you’ve guessed it, what happened again in 2013 is that I decided that I had photographed this one abandoned construction project, once, and therefore it was job done. Classic.

Learning my Lesson

I did say I was going to try and be positive and encouraging. I’ve tried to see the potential in some of my neglected ideas from the past, and poke a little bit of fun at some of my misguided thinking that for one reason or another saw me give up on a project before I had even really begun. I need to learn to believe in my ideas and give them a proper opportunity. The ideas shown above might not have amounted to anything spectacular but I do believe now that there was potential for good work that went unfulfilled. A final positive note comes from two projects which managed to escape the Recycle Bin of my mind, and how I’ve started to slowly change my ways.

In early 2018, while working on my Master’s (in Education, not Photography) I decided to sign myself up for a workshop on personal projects with Magnum in London. I had been dedicating a bit less time to Photography due to Master’s commitments and I decided to invest some of the money I was saving from my frugal student lifestyle into my development as a photographer.

There was also the idea that signing up for a workshop with a prestigious photography agency I greatly admire might push me into either starting or finishing a personal project worthy of the name, something I hadn’t done since (at the very least) University. It didn’t really work out because I spent the following months working on my dissertation (this paid off because I was awarded top marks and an Honours distinction) which I presented about a week before the workshop. It was then that I realised I essentially had nothing in the way of a personal project to show said prestigious photography agency. I made a hasty trip through my recent photographs in search of something resembling a personal project and stumbled upon two vaguely coherent sets of photographs.

The first were made on early trips out through La Huerta Valenciana which had interested me since I moved to Valencia and started exploring on my bike. In what is now my classic style, I had gone out and made some photographs which I actually really liked of the landscapes of smallholdings and irrigation channels … and then stopped dead in my tracks.

One of my early photographs from out on La Huerta Valenciana. I was really happy with these photographs but for some reason refused to make more of them.

The second set that I pieced together were photographs from several different trips to my partner’s home town – Segorbe; different photographs made in the same general location but which hadn’t been conceived as a project … at that point I was just desperate for something to show. Again, I had enjoyed making these photographs, and was consistently drawn to make more, but managed to ignore these signs or ‘my voice‘ if you will (and if you won’t, I understand, I feel like a bit of a knob writing it) telling me that there might be something there for me.

One of my early photographs from Segorbe. For me Segorbe represented a quintessential small Spanish town, and I enjoyed exploring the iconography and cultural landscape of these towns through its streets.

I took these two ‘projects’ to the workshop, which I enjoyed and struggled with in equal measure. I was excited to be in one of the great photography institutions, and to be dedicating some time to my development as a photographer, to spend two days engaging solely with photography. I was also anxious about sharing my work and struck by a bout of imposter syndrome. I’ve never enjoyed showing my work in public settings, and in the second critique session I tried to stay quiet and hope that nobody would notice that I hadn’t shown my work … it almost worked until I was rumbled.

The feedback I received in both sessions was constructive and generally positive – I was encouraged to keep working on both projects (which I still hadn’t really considered to be projects) and, critically, to go back, revisit and explore different avenues and approaches to the same subject matter … exactly what I had historically refused to do. I was encouraged to try and photograph the people working the land in la Huerta Valenciana, as well as the residents of Segorbe. I’m not naturally drawn to photograph people – I love people, some of my best friends are people, but I rarely feel the instinctive urge to photograph them – however, I could see that the advice had merit and would indeed bring a new dimension to the ‘project’ … or indeed actually help it become a genuine project.

The workshop was, in many ways, the wake-up call and a kick up the backside that I wanted and needed when I signed up. It was difficult but it showed me where I had been failing, and what I needed to do to start to remedy that. There wasn’t a clear epiphany or path illuminated before me, and it still took a while for the lessons to sink in. In fact, I actually spent a few more months of sitting around waiting for my great, profound and insightful idea to land in my brain … a patently absurd notion I still haven’t entirely escaped.

I eventually, and still reluctantly, embraced the idea that I needed to work on something rather than wait around for the definitive, great idea that would define and bring purpose and meaning to my photography. This is in no way an original notion – it’s one I’ve heard numerous times and probably need to hear repeatedly until I finally fully accept its truth rather than resist in the destructive counterpoint which sees none of my ideas ever living up to these lofty expectations.

I believe the catalyst for getting to work with the ideas I already had, or photographs I was already making came from another weekend trip to Segorbe. I walked around on a quiet Sunday morning and photographed the empty streets, decaying buildings and faded beauty of the old town in soft, winter morning light, and made another set of photographs with which I was really pleased. Something within me wanted to make these photographs, it was time to start listening to that something – it might even have been that elusive inspiration.

One of the first photographs I made in Segorbe with the idea of a project in mind.

Having accepted that it was time to get to work with what I had, I also remembered my other neglected project presented at the Magnum workshop and realised, belatedly, that there was another idea I had right on my doorstep that I could work on. Living in Benimaclet, I only had to walk about ten minutes to be out in La Huerta – something I often did anyway – so there was no reason not to use some of my free time to go out there and make photographs.

A photograph from my first set revisiting La Huerta Valenciana.

I spent a few months working on creating material for both of these projects. On Friday mornings I would walk out on La Huerta and keep making photographs, often of the same fields but with slightly different light or crops in different stages of growth. I remembered the advice from the workshop and tried to approach people I saw working in the fields and ask if they minded me making pictures while they worked. On weekends when we went to Segorbe, I would continue to walk around the town making photographs there.

After a few months of working with both projects simultaneously, I reached the point where I felt both satisfied with what I had created, and that I couldn’t really go much further and decided to call time on them both. I’m happy with what I created, and that I gave both ideas an opportunity to grow and develop beyond single sets of photographs created on one day into a larger body of work. Neither is an earth-shattering, groundbreaking piece that is going to fundamentally change the world, but both are photographic projects I can be proud of having created. Going through my archives has made me realise that I didn’t give the same opportunity to a lot of my other ideas, and that, going forward, I need to back my own ideas, listen to whatever it is that tells me to photograph a particular subject, and see where that takes me.

I’m writing all of this because I do hope there’s a message in it for others as well. If you’re reading this (perhaps a big ‘if’ at this point) and are a photographer or an artist of any kind, a writer, an illustrator, a musician, then I hope that the realisation I’ve had with my own work might be useful to you too. If you have a project or an idea, believe in that idea, work with it and make it happen. We all have a perspective on things, and yours is worth giving time to, worth exploring, and worth putting out there – whatever it may be, whatever it may look or sound like. Don’t give up on your ideas before you’ve seen where they might lead. Give yourself, and your thoughts and ideas a chance.

3 Comentarios

  1. Hi Owain! Thank you for this fantastic post. I bet you put quite a lot of effort in there. It’s a fascinating breakdown of one’s photographic learning experience. As I was reading, I could identify with some things you went through.
    You have a great advice in the end which totally makes sense but hard for some to follow.
    P.S. I love your Beach series and a “Dead End” project.
    Yuri

    1. Hello Yuri! Thanks for commenting. I’m glad you enjoyed the post and could identify with some things – I hope there were some positive lessons in it for you too, as there were for me.

      I did put quite a lot of time into it, thanks for noticing! About three days off and on, writing sections and then coming back to revise them. I was quite pleased with the result though. Thanks again for the kind words.

      I’m the first to find it difficult to follow that advice … it’s a lesson I’m still trying to learn, and took me a long time to even realise. I think it’s very difficult these days, when everything is so instantaneous, to work on something for a long time and delay the urge to have it ‘finished’. It’s a skill I want to work on going forward.

      All the best to you Yuri. Stay safe and well!

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