Downtime and Reflection

If I hadn’t already written a post titled ‘Learning to Walk Again’ then that would be a good summary of my activity this week as I’ve been recovering from a bout of sciatica which left me unable to stand, sit or indeed walk for a couple of days. I’m back on my feet (or arse when I’m sat down) now albeit with a slightly awkward gait where walking is more a series of steps that my legs carry out and then repeat rather than an automatic and fluid cycle of movement. Still, it’s good to be up and about, although the downtime wasn’t entirely wasted – I got some rest, read quite a bit, and had some time to organise some thoughts.

This post will include some photographs I made a few months ago now – around the time of my first ‘Learning to Walk Again‘ post – when were allowed out to stretch our legs after two months of lockdown. After being cooped up inside for so long, I was really keen to go outside and make pictures, however when I received these pictures back from the film lab I was initially quite disappointed with what I had produced. Expectations vs. Reality.

I’ve since sat on them for a while, allowing the initial reaction to fade away and enabling me to review the photographs as they are rather than what I had hoped they might be. Looked at more objectively, there are far more photographs that I’m satisfied or ‘happy enough’ with than I first thought. Why was I disappointed? What has changed? What can I learn from the experience?

Anything, Everything and Nothing.

During the lockdown period I consumed a lot of information about photography projects. I looked at books of long-term projects by photographers I greatly admire. I got myself inspired. You might (I definitely wouldn’t) say: I was pumped!

Once our daytime curfew was lifted, I rushed outside to go and make some pictures … unfortunately, in my haste to get outside and make photographs, I forgot to put any real consideration into what exactly it was that I wanted to photograph, and therefore amassed a confusing collection of pictures of anything, everything and, ultimately, nothing at all. I wasn’t really sure what I was looking at but it definitely didn’t bear much resemblance to the coherent bodies of strong work from which I had taken inspiration.

That initial confusion has now faded away and I’ve been able to pick through the rolls and find the successes, and a few ideas or themes that might be worth developing.

I enjoyed going out an making the pictures, I enjoyed the long walks and finding new things to look at after a couple of months with the same unoffensive but unspectacular views, and I like some of the photographs that I made, taken on their own and for their own merits. Looked at in those terms, it doesn’t seem all that bad, does it?

Onwards and (hopefully) upwards.

Never one to let myself off the hook entirely, or too easily, there are still some lessons I want to learn from all of this. Enjoying photography is obviously a perfectly acceptable use of my free time. There’s also nothing wrong with experimentation, trying out new things, and potentially finding new ideas. What isn’t good is allowing myself to use these things as excuses, fallbacks, or sandbags at the outer reaches of my (demilitarised) comfort zone. My initial disappointment came from knowing that I hadn’t achieved what I wanted to, and what I do think I’m capable of if I put my mind to it.

I didn’t put my mind to it, though. If I was experimenting, I was doing so without really considering what the parameters for the experiment were, and what I might hope to produce. (A lot like GCSE Chemistry but with less risk of a gas explosion.) Nonetheless, some of these experiments might be worth following up with more rigorous investigation.

I know how to make good photographs, but I want to go beyond making good individual photographs and make strong, coherent bodies of work. To do that I need to be more intentional, more aware of what it is I’m photographing and why I’m photographing it.

I don’t want to prohibit myself from making photographs when I see something interesting or beautiful, but I do want there to be an overall direction for my work. This was missing from these six rolls, but there will be others – hopefully a great many others – and I get to keep trying, keep learning and keep growing. That’s the idea, anyway.

As well as giving me time to reflect on these six rolls of photographs, I’ve also had time to think about some more general concerns and considerations to keep in mind with my work going forward.

Here and Now.

A thought that I read years ago came back into my mind while I was laying in bed (unable to do anything else) earlier this week. It was in an article by Eric Kim about William Eggleston and concerned the idea of photographing the present moment, the here and now.

Photographs such as those of Eggleston and Stephen Shore are doubly fascinating now due to the combination of their excellent photography and the historical, possibly nostalgic, element of their depiction of a time now past. However, as Eric Kim points out, Eggleston (and Shore) was not photographing an interesting, historical past when they made those photographs. They were photographing what to most people was a fairly mundane and uninteresting present.

The cars, buildings, logos and signage present in the work of photographers like Shore and Eggleston make up a great deal of the visual language of Americana, something photographer Mark Power says he tries to avoid in his contemporary work Good Morning America. His work depicts America as it is today, and not the relics of what it once was (or might have been, at least to some).

When making photographs in small rural towns in Spain, I am photographing in the present moment, it is the here and now – but it is the here and now of places which have, to a large degree, remained in the past – old buildings in towns which are slowly becoming depopulated. This is not the totality of the here and now. There isn’t Americana, but there are visual and other cliches in how Spain is perceived and presented, and while these things do exist here and now, I want to make sure I’m aware of when I might be photographing something I’ve already seen, or somehow expected to see.

Photography’s connection to the past has been written about by far more proficient writers than myself … Roland Barthes for one. Barthes noted that all photographs depict moments that are now past. Nostalgia is almost inherent to the medium but for that reason it is something that I am realising I need to keep in mind and treat with caution. As well as being something of a cheap trick, it can also be historically problematic. A recent episode of The Contact Sheet with Kendall McKenzie discusses an article in The Atlantic about the often romanticised Route 66 and why both the road, and the time period with which it is associated, are not something to be nostalgic about for black Americans.

This is another thing I need to consider when photographing in a country which is not my own, with a history that although I have studied it is not my own lived experience. Mark Power also talks of being a foreigner in the countries where he makes photographs, and while I am technically a foreigner, I’ve lived here for so long and feel so at home here that I almost forget that it isn’t my homeland. Familiarising myself with the culture of this country through friends, films and books almost leads to a false nostalgia (Barthes also wrote about this) for a time I never really knew.

Ultimately, what all these thoughts boil down to is being thoughtful and deliberate in my approach, and considering carefully what it is I’m photographing and why I’m photographing it.

3 Comentarios

  1. Very interesting post Owain. Glad you’re back on your feet after a difficult period.
    Simply going out there and making photographs is the greatest feeling. After that, it’s whatever pressure or expectations you set for yourself (like you mentioned).

    Your analysis on photographic subject or a theme is basically my recurring puzzle and something I try to figure out for years now. I’m a big admirer of Eggleston photographic approach but I’ll agree with you that once you can produce a body of work or a certain project you must feel a certain achievement, like if you were a director finishing a movie or a musician finishing an album…

    1. Hey Yuri, nice to see your name again – I’ve been a bit absent from posting over the summer. I hope you’re well – I’m going to go and look through your recent work now.

      It feels extra nice to be out making photographs when simply being outside is a novel feeling. I’ve had that sensation again this week after my days inside convalescing.

      I think I put too much pressure on myself, but I do think it’s important to have expectations in order to grow and improve. Finding the right balance is, like in most things, the key.

      Glad I’m not the only one taking years to figure out this particular puzzle! What in particular are you trying to figure out?

      1. I agree with you about expectations in order to grow and improve. It’s a normal to have them as much as learning from failure. The main thing is to see your path clearly and stick to the plan and that’s what i find the most difficult to do.
        I’m not a good organizer. I tend to have these moments of idea storming and creativity full on but i do feel that i’m lacking the patience and resilience to stick to a particular theme or long term project.
        When i’m out on streets, the whole world is a stage. In most cases, it’s looking at images after and sorting them in under certain themes that seems to work for me for now…

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