Understanding Ansel Adams – at last

Bear with me on this post. It does have a point but you have to get through some waffle to find it.

I took the kids to the beach at the weekend. You may know it – Ceibwr Bay. It is a small rocky horseshoe shaped beach and full of exciting things for children to explore. There are massive twisted cliffs and shreds of fallen rocks all along one side – wonderful to look at but difficult to photography without falling into the ‘pebble in a dimple’ cliche.

Anyway, the kids were playing and I was just sitting there enjoying the sound of the sea and just jotting down audio notes on my phone about whatever pops into my head, when my daughter runs up and says that she has found a dinosaur. I follow her to a clump of rock and smile and nod while she points and jumps up and down. It’s just a clump of rock. And then I see exactly what she means. It does look like a fallen twisted dinosaur. And then, amazingly, all around us you could see dinosaurs. Everywhere.

What struck me was the fact that it took me a second to see what I was being told about, but once my mind had jumped into that way of acceptance then it was opened to a new world. Once you see something and your imagination kicks in then it is as if it switches into another gear and you see again.

And I think that this is what happens to me on the beach at Poppit. I used to wonder why the good shots, the solid and exciting shots, were nearly always in a clump – with lesser shots before and after. I used to assume that it was the light, but I don’t think so now. I think that your mind takes a leap and your imagination opens up and things that you couldn’t fully appreciate become obvious to you. Your eye seems to connect with your mind in a seamless way and there are possible shots everywhere. I remember years ago trying to explain it to someone as if Christmas lights had been turned on all around you.

I wonder why this is? I wonder why we don’t see like this all the time? Maybe it is a form of concentration that cannot be maintained all the time? Maybe it only happens to certain people? Certainly, with painting you reach an almost trance state where you feel like everything is effortless and the work just flows with no thought. I wonder if that is the equivalent in photography?

Or is it like looking at an abstract painting and suddenly seeing the what is being represented and the whole image clicks into place?

Or maybe it is a child’s imagination that can see things like this and we as adults cannot – unless we let them show us, and accept what we see in an unquestioning way?

Maybe that is it. Maybe to see past the obvious we need to have a child’s imagination opening up what has been forgotten years ago? Or maybe that is too much of a cliche in itself – to see as a child etc?

Maybe it is a projection of our own imagination that allows us to imagine what the image could be as we look at it through the viewfinder? To pre visualise – as Mr Adams used to say. Maybe that ability to visualise has a profound effect on your ability to get something new. Maybe the visualisation aspect of taking a photograph is the photographers main input into what is, I suppose, a very mechanical and scientific procedure.

And after saying all of this, I realise that Ansel Adams has said it all before, years and years ago. But as usual just reading about something doesn’t make for the best way of learning something properly and usefully. For me I had to work it through in my head myself. And I had to have my daughter’s input before I realised fully what he was talking about.


Long Term Devotion

I really do think that photographers should try a singular long term project on one location. When I say long term I mean years, not days or weeks. How can you visit a place for 1 day and expect to see the place with any depth?

The process of repetition and failure eventually gives you a more distilled view of the location that you are studying – and in that way doors open, things happen and you start to see and record things your way, rather than the way anyone else records them.

Your work becomes something that you have worked on from the ground up, rather than catching the lift on the fifth floor and joining a load of others on the same ride.

That is why so much landscape photography can look the same, I think – because the level of devotion to the subject just scratches the surface if you visit it for one day – no matter how amazing the location is.

And this is a good reason for photographing what is on your doorstep – or in your home, or on your street, or in your town. It makes a long term project possible.

Either that or go and live by the sea or near a mountain.

Jump & Fly

Teaching photography is an interesting skill to have. How do you go about doing it? There are the basic functions of the camera – the physical settings.
There are the rules and the rule books that can be discussed. There is the history of photography – the appreciation of who has gone before, the struggles they had and the way that they looked at the world in a different way – this can be such a wonderful source of inspiration. But once that is covered, then what? What is the next step?

Well, I would say the next step would be to jump and fly – and do it on your own. In fact, I would say that is essential. To do it on your own. There are plenty of people out there wiling to sell advice – and that is great, they make a living at it and do offer great advice. But you have to break from them. Break from your teachers and do something that comes from you. And a good teacher would tell you this too.

Because when you actually think things through and make decisions for yourself, without someone telling you that it is good or bad, without someone telling you that everything you do is wonderful, without someone telling you there is a right way and a wrong way – then you won’t find your way. And you cannot create something new if you don’t do it your way – if you don’t take the harder path.

You have to jump and fly – and be free of everyone else. No matter how good their intentions, you need to be free of them. Otherwise, in some way, they direct you. If your aim is to produce something that is you, something that can be recognised as you, then you cannot be directed by anyone else.

And your mind must be open to everything. The smallest thing, the largest thing. Don’t let your teachers hold you back. Use their teachings and then jump and fly. If you have what it takes then you will discover it soon enough.

Any good teacher would, and should, tell you the same.

A visit to Poppit

After making hundreds of trips to this beach I started to analyse what I actually do there, and for interest I wrote it down. Here it is –

On the West coast of Wales, near the town of Cardigan, is a beach called Poppit Sands. To get to this beach you have to drive through the village of St. Dogmaels and then continue along a narrow rural road for some more miles until suddenly Poppit is before you. Your first glimpse of it comes from high up, and this vantage point helps you gauge what state of tide the beach is in. From this moment you can begin to decide where on the beach you will walk to. You drive down towards the parking place – away from the main gateway to the beach. There you can park, open the boot of your car and prepare yourself. It is always much colder on the beach than you expect. Once dressed you can walk along the muddy path towards the stepping stones that take you across one of the many tributaries that run into the river. As you pass over these stones you begin the see the dusting of sand and the loose gripping grass that tells you are no longer on earth, but on dune. The sandy path leads up, with rough gorse either side and then within a few feet you are there – the beach suddenly opens up before you. Miles of it. The walk then starts in earnest as you get to the dry everyday sand, littered with flotsam and jetsam – sticks, seaweed, strange tangled masses – but never rubbish. Never a plastic bottle or single shoe. Not in Winter, not when the tourists are away.

After the dry and light sand, you pass along a flat and featureless mass of damp sand. Often this has been scarred by footprints and signs of desperate dogs digging. You can now scan the whole beach as it turns along and around to your left. Usually there will be nobody there. Occasionally the odd dog walker or couple out hand in hand. You try to predict their route on the beach. You don’t want to bump into them as you work.

And now comes a decision. Where to shoot.

This is the first of numerous decisions that are made in an instant. How these decisions are made is a mystery as there is often very little evidence to uphold them. It could be impatience, how your general mood is, how cold it is on the beach. It could be any number or combination of things. And yet, when the decision is made it always seems to be the right choice. There is always the confidence that you are doing the right thing. That confidence comes with knowing that you will be back again. You will be able to collect more photos another time. Probably many many other times. You can afford to go with your gut instinct as you will get your chance again.

So, at this point you either stop and unpack, or you turn to your left and instead of going down to the water’s edge you walk parallel to it. No matter which decision you make, you will always end up in the same general location – but in two different states of mind.

If you had unpacked and were walking by the waters edge you will continue slowly and mindfully. You will be in that slightly rushed and excited state of mind. You are ready for what the beach can give you – but are you really? Is your mind really open to the beach just yet? Surely it is too soon and you are already missing things? This is what will be passing through your mind as you walk. Is it too soon? Am I missing things? I must slow down. No, there is nothing here, I must speed up before the light goes and the tides change. This is what passes through your mind. A flickering of doubt. Just for a few moments, and then you continue on. The fact that you return to the beach, and will be returning to the beach over and over again, gives you the ability to just walk on, to relax and to be open to making mistakes. So what if you have walked past an incredible event on the sand? It makes no difference. There will be plenty more, and if it was to be then it would have been. The fact that you missed it just means to that your mind is not warmed up yet. There will be others events later on.

And then, as you walk along side the waters edge you suddenly see, from about 15 feet away, a point of interest. And as you slow a little and move closer, the angle of your sight changes, and you stare at this point, this feature, and hope that it keeps your interest as you continue to move forward. And as you get to within about five feet you can tell what it has to offer. You can see what it would be like inside your camera. And then you place the tripod down once. Never moving it. That is the place that you will photograph from. You have decided the best place to shoot in a fraction. You tilt the camera down, cup the eyepiece with your hand and look into it. The black square frame fills with a shape. It’s lines and curves and details all come together and it shows you what it can be. You can make small adjustments with the camera angle to make the collection of features stronger or weaker. And then you think.

Is this a good photograph? Is this a special moment? Is this a moment that deserves to be imprinted on the film? Will my heart race when I develop this frame? Have I not seen the message from this image a thousand times or more before? Will this image be a strong negative? Will it look stronger upside down as well as reversed?

And then the decision is made. Will it be or will you pass? Are you shooting too early on in the visit? Are you just grabbing a shot to warm up – to get your mind in the right place? Look again. Really look this time.

Is it special?

And then you either click the mirror up and shoot, or you un attach yourself from that black framed world, take your eye away from the viewfinder and move on. You don’t feel disappointed. You feel like you made the right choice – after all, film is expensive. If you decided to shoot you feel a vague feeling somewhat like an excited satisfaction. Nothing too strong. It’s a start. There is plenty of film left for the visit.

You look up and move on. Always checking the waters edge. Is there an interesting event there? No? Checking, checking – always checking. And mainly rejecting what is in front of you. You have photographed that event before. There is absolutely no point in doing it again. A complete waste of film.

If you choose not to go down to the waters edge then you have a long walk out into the far flats of the beach. You always scan the horizon – looking for thin dark lines in the sand. These are often strong shapes and features – exactly what you are looking for. You have to pass a sea of texture in the sands to get to the real meat of the journey – and you have to ignore a lot. It is all there – calling for your attention, but you have seen it before and you know that these images would only give you tepid weak results. So you walk by them, or over them. Always scanning the horizon for those black lines.

Finally you reach the first of the hollows. These are often filled with water, but sometimes on a sunny day you don’t want water in them. The reflection of the water in bright sunlight gives the photograph a maze of white lines and scars. You know this because you have made the same mistake many times before. So you come to the hollows, which are shrimp shaped pools of water carved out of the sand by swirls and flows. You unpack the camera and usually take a quick shot of the first one you see. It is very rarely a good one. In fact, I cannot remember a single visit to the beach where the first shot was worth keeping. It is like a sacrifice. Once it is done you can get to the rest.

Walking around these pools you watch carefully. The light and shadows change the pools completely as you walk around them. You try to imagine that your eyes are the viewfinder and you must look for the strongest play of light on the composition without it becoming overpowering. When you see a strong moment before you, you push down the tripod – just once. You know where it has to go. Then you shade the viewfinder. And go back into that dark square world. It is like being in a tent looking out through a window. Nobody else can see what you are looking at. It is all yours.

After a few minor adjustments you have to decide – yes or no? And this decision is made in a second. You either flip up the mirror and shoot or you pick up the tripod and scan again. No regrets. You have plenty of other opportunities waiting for you – if not on this visit then sometime in the future.

After your first attempt then others follow. But the first shot will have made you aware not to do others like it. Unless there is something that really catches your eye – something really unique.

The really unique image happens very infrequently. It can come at you from any angle – at any place on the beach. When you see it then you know that it is something good as you approach it. You hope and pray that it gets better as you move towards it and the angle of vision changes. You hope and pray that the sun won’t glare in all of the wrong places – and you hope that the best angle will not be ruined by your shadow. When you get to it you know where to place the tripod and you follow the usual routine without thought until you look through the viewfinder prism and cup your face to keep out any light and you are back there in a magical dark theatre – looking down on a selection of shapes and textures and tones.

It is a wonderful moment. You feel excited, but not overly so. You feel anticipation more than anything. You flip the mirror and take the shot and then you pick up the tripod and move on. No waiting and no second shot. It was all there in that one shot.

Eventually you pass through the collection of pools that always form three quarters of the way out on a low tide. You move onto another flat featureless area which sometimes holds wonderful individual shapes and patterns – if you are very lucky. It is always worth walking out this far to see the flats – just in case. Ahead of you is the recently drained wet sand. The ripples here are everywhere, but you know that they will only give you a trite image and you walk past them. This is usually the point to walk back – taking a different route. But you are also aware that the shapes and patterns in the sand can look so different coming at them from a different angle – so you keep your eyes open and even zig zag between old and new routes, just to check that nothing new comes to your eye.

At this point your mind feels tired and ready for the studio. Once you have retraced your steps there will come a point where you have to pack away your camera and walk back to the car. Hopefully you will have two or more rolls of film in your bag – 24 shots – and on the way home, with the window rolled down and music playing you feel a wonderful satisfaction and calm excitement at the thought of seeing the results in silvery black and white.

Back at the studio it is good to mix up the rolls taken during the day and then let them sit for a few days or even weeks. There is no rush – the images are not going anywhere – and I will still have rolls of film from earlier visits to develop.

Little Doors of Happiness


Sorry folks, but this post is all about a discovery I made recently – so it is all me, me, me.

I find it strange how different personal work often has a common root.

I also find it strange how we have to dig into understanding our own reactions to things to get answers as to why we do what we do.

It’s as if we have to examine ourselves to find out why we come to results that are based on intuition. It is as if our minds give us ideas that come from nowhere, and then after analysing the results it all becomes clear. It’s like a game of catchup with ourselves. For example, and this may sound strange, but I have a mental image of little doors of happiness inside my mind. These doors are opened by the strangest of memories – the first half hour of Planet of the Apes, Philip Glass music, sunshine on wet concrete, blurred images of the moon, the moon landings themselves.

These memories have a very important part to play when I take photographs. I think that they are all from my childhood – late 1960s to early 1970s. And they all open up little doors of warm comforting happiness in my mind – and these feelings are transferred into decisions made when taking and making photographs. I mean, I even get motivated by cars driving through deserts, nuclear explosions and old footage of people in 1960s clothes. Those few years seem to have stuck with me somehow.

Strange isn’t it?

And yet, for me, it is essential to know what these feelings are and to recognise what is happening when something triggers them.
I have to be able to notice them and then record my reaction to them somehow. The easiest way for me is by using photographs.

This is true for all my work – it took me a while to realise it but every project that I do, from Poppit Sands to dark blurred images of the sun all have, at some time or other, opened up those little doors of happiness – triggering a memory that is so completely and utterly comforting and wholesome that inspiration just appears and off I go.

And that is my point of this post. I didn’t fully recognise this until a few weeks ago. I had an idea what was happening, but nothing concrete. But now I know. It all comes from memories – the photographs allow me to recapture feelings occurring when I was about 7 to 10 years old.

I wonder if others have these little doors of happiness, and I wonder if they realise what opens them.


Being honest with yourself

If there is one thing that I have learned while taking photographs is that there really are no limitations. No limits to what can be photographed, no limits to how things are photographed and no limits to the number of people telling you how to photograph. There is no ‘best’ way to do things. There cannot be. There is only the ‘honest’ way to do things – and if that way is followed then there can be no limitations, because it can take you anywhere.

I suppose that you could call it being open to new ideas, or to be able to follow your intuition. Maybe you could call it a way of thinking in an unusual fashion – or making strange leaps of imagination. Wherever these ideas come from, they must come from within you and they must be you.

I imagine it as a bit like that cartoon cliche where the cat in the toy train is laying the track in front of the train as it moves along. You are not sticking to the rails that others have put down, you are discovering and laying down the track as you go. And you decide where you place the track by following your honest, true feelings.

The tricky thing is that following yourself can lead to quite a few crashes. It doesn’t matter. Just keep on going. It is so much better to have just one year of following your own crazy ideas than to have ten years following someone else’s.
And thinking about this made me wonder why it is so difficult sometimes to understand what artists in general are talking about. They can talk in such a way that can alienate you and confuse. They often seem to make no sense at all. This is because they are deep inside themselves, and their process of creation is so wound up with their essentially unusual way of thinking. It is as if they have discovered their own language to allow them to make work.

Now, this is so often mocked and taken advantage of by artists who have not delved deeply inside themselves – they can basically talk any old bollocks and if you don’t understand it then that only proves how deeply they have thought about the subject and how little you actually know.
However, this fake arty talk cannot get an artist very far. They get found out. The ones who talk honestly about their work and themselves can always be spotted. The ones who try to sound deep but who have not been deep inside themselves just end up in knots.

But the honest artist or photographer doesn’t have to speak in a certain way or act in a certain way. They can keep their thoughts hidden – their inner process hidden – their honesty hidden. And that leads to quite a charming, humble and fascinating person. Someone who seeks things in secret. Someone who doesn’t need reassurance or to discuss what they discover to see if it is valid. They don’t need to work using old processes, or new processes, or unheard of processes. They just need to do what it takes to get the results that they have been looking for – that special moment that gives you your reward. And that is something well worth going deep inside yourself for.


Are personal goals important?

As with any other art form, photography takes the photographer on one hell of a journey. We’re all doing it. We’re all moving forward towards something or other. For some there are goals to achieve, for others there are places to visit and photograph and for a few it is a business with profits to be made.

Observing how other people are managing with their journeys is fascinating. There are those that produce a small amount of work every year and you hardly hear about them – until they suddenly appear everywhere. There are those that lecture and talk and talk and lecture and exhibit and exhibit and exhibit. There are those that retreat into their own worlds and never seem to come out. There are those that tweet and tweet and tweet and keep on tweeting.

Each of these approaches seems to suit the individual. The way that they approach their work often comes down to their personality – they have all made a conscious decision about how they want to move forward. And it seems to work. You have those that use every trick in the book to get noticed – and you also get those that actively avoid any social media but still manage to get their work seen and sold. There are those that follow the rule of ‘fake it ’till you make it’ – which are often so obvious but still manage to inspire the self belief that the artist needs to move themselves forward.

There doesn’t seem to be one ‘true’ way to move along on your journey. It seems to come down to what type of a person you are.

And I can think of examples for each of the above approaches where the artist has made it – where they have reached a certain status – and then it is all straightforward and easy – right? No, I don’t think that it is. I think that there are many many false summits on the photographer’s journey. And then it becomes a journey that is tested on how you can handle these false horizons and still push forward. You have to fight on.

And this, I think, is where the true love of what you are doing comes through. Because to keep on going with your own approach you have to have a lot of self belief, a short memory when it comes to disappointments and an amazing love for what you do. It almost has to be like a family member – or a partner. You have to love it. You have to need it in your life. It is like any relationship – it has its rough times – the trick is to work at it until you get past them.

And this is where some approaches come unstuck. It seems that you can only reach so far if you are making art without the fundamental ‘love’ that needs to underpin everything that you do. If the art is secondary to making money, to making friends, to being popular, to massaging the ego, to travelling the world, to giving you a wonderful lifestyle – then it is as if the most fundamental building blocks are missing.

However, if you put your desire for creating above the desire for personal goals – then maybe that is enough to see you through to the end.