“Time’s Relentless Melt”

I keep coming back to Susan Sontag’s writings on photography and the passing of time.  “All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.”  (“On Photography”, 1973)

I’m drawn to this in my own work, but not in a morbid way.  There’s beauty in it too.  We don’t need to pretend everything is perfect, always and forever.  Let’s not pretend there are no wind farms, crash barriers or wheelie bins in our most beautiful landscapes; let’s not imagine that our faces can remain glowing and youthful forever, and let’s not depict our children as perpetually clean-faced and beaming.  There is beauty in honest reality.

There’s plenty of fear, conflict, and environmental disaster in the world too, and of course that must be explored and reported, must be faced and challenged.  Photography can help do that too.

But it’s alright, I think, when the ceaseless barrage of news gets too much, to detach for a moment and look for the beauty, to wander with a camera, to slice out a moment, and freeze it.

When mortality comes close – whether because of personal loss or geopolitical threat – there is perhaps something reassuring in the permanence of an ancient landscape and an infinite universe. ‘Time’s relentless melt’ is there in the movement of the clouds, in the decay of the forest floor, in the rust and rot of human endeavour – and there is beauty in that impermanence. But those rocks, that sea, the sun and stars – they’re there to stay, for a very, very long time.

Portencross Pier

 

Portencross Castle

 

Sunset at Dunure Castle

 

The Wreck of the Kaffir

The next one is not a pretty picture, and it’s not supposed to be. It is the Turnberry Lighthouse in Ayrshire, on a gloomy day at the back end of a seemingly interminable winter.  A lighthouse immediately makes you think of danger and death, of storms and destruction.  That’s why it’s there, after all. This lighthouse is now part of Trump’s luxury golf resort; it’s the halfway house on the course, and you can stay in the suite for £7000 a night. The manicured greens and slick décor, set in that particular landscape, call to mind Shelley’s Ozymandias, and the vanity (perhaps in both senses) of human power. Knowing who the owner is inevitably brings to mind the precarious state of global politics.

And in the background, if you look closely, the sun’s rays are breaking through the cloud to shine on the magnificent, ancient, volcanic island of Ailsa Craig; rock which somehow puts everything else in its place, renders it fleeting, mutable, mortal.

Turnberry Lighthouse

Interpret these ramblings as you will.  I’m not religious, but if you are, you might have a particular take on it.  For me, it’s a way of changing my perspective every now and then; one that gives me space to breathe, and which softens the relentlessness of time’s melt.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A certain slant of light

February in the UK can be a bit like Bunyan’s slough of despond, I think, all ‘fears, and doubts, and discouraging apprehensions.’

It’s a particularly glum sort of limbo: a flat white is acceptable (arguably) when it’s a coffee, but quite dispiriting when it’s what passes for daylight, every day.  This means that a lot of photography lovers find themselves stuck in a rut, waiting for sunshine-and-lollipops times to reappear before they venture out with their cameras again.

But I say they’d be missing an opportunity.  There are postcards you can buy, and websites you can browse if what you want is pretty pictures.  So I’ve just had a little look at some of my February photos from recent years, and it turns out late winter has quite a bit to offer, photographically, both outdoors and in the house.  Here are just a few ideas.

Snap the snowdrops – a classic February crowd-pleaser, and for this Frank Turner fan it’s ‘the opening act of spring’ even when the ‘season’s acting strange.’  An impromptu dash to the snowdrops at Ankerwycke, improvising with the equipment in my bag gave me this. (You can go for a gentler, prettier look than this by using the ambient light and a wider angle.)  I used a tripod at ground level, and bounced on-camera flash off a giant lens cloth I was holding to the side.

 

Use the sky as a giant softbox.  Those thick white clouds – how beautifully they diffuse the light. Use it for portraits, and if the sky’s too bleak, then don’t include the sky.  The absence of direct sunlight means you can shoot throughout the day without harsh, tricksy shadows interfering.   But to my mind you can’t beat early morning, and happily, dawn is not too early in February.

 

 

Pretend you can paint.  Here I’ve used intentional camera movement to make abstract and ghostly images of trees.  Use a long exposure, and pan upwards while the shutter is open.  Be prepared for a high failure rate with this trick, but remember there’s no right or wrong and you only have to please yourself.

 

Seek out the shadows. The sun will come out, and when it does, you’ll get some fantastic stretched-out shadows.  You can try trees, architecture, or shadow selfies like this one.

 

Go for moody monochrome –  that February feeling, to the power of ten.

 

Pay attention to details.  Stay close to home and examine carefully the things you’d normally pass by without a second glance.  Doesn’t matter whether it’s streets, fields or woods like these – map out a small area and seek out patterns and textures. If you’ve got a macro lens, or a macro setting on your camera, use that.  Your phone will do a nice job on this too.

 

 

Get steamy in the hothouse – actually, no, don’t do that, you’ll get condensation on your lens and that only ever ends in frustration.  Engage your patience, and let your camera warm up for a good twenty minutes before you remove the lens cap.  I always look forward to the butterflies at Wisley for a bit of crazy February colour.  I generally use a macro lens and get as close as I can – be aware though, that plays havoc with your depth of field, so choose carefully what you want to be in focus.  If the insect is very still, and the glasshouse is not too crowded, you can always take several shots:  focus manually on different points and combine them later for absolute sharpness.  To me that’s a bit joyless, so I just go for colour and texture.

 

Support your local florist. If it’s too cold for you outside, cut flowers and a camera can occupy you very nicely.  And if you know me well you’ll know that I like them wilting just as much as when they are fresh.

 

Play with surfactants to combine chemistry and art. You will need: a flat glass dish, water, oil, washing-up liquid, coloured paper, and, preferably, an off-camera flash.  If you don’t have the flash, you can always bump up your ISO instead, and while that won’t give you the same sharpness, you can still have fun playing with colour and shape.

 

Hang out with a friend.  Lure them to a nice big window with your best coffee, and keep a look out for the light falling on their face.  Especially if it’s a lovely north light.  And of course you’ve always got a camera to hand, haven’t you!

 

Feeling solitary?  Make a portrait of someone who’s not there. This one’s for you Ruby, for the bag of bananas always hidden in your bed, and all your favourite old songs.

 

Invite other photographers round, and mess about.  It’s quite good when it also involves camembert and confectionery.

I could go on, but I’m sure you have ideas of your own.  Chinese New Year, with its colours and its celebrations, is a visual joy.  Valentine’s Day too – resist the overpriced cards in the shops and make your own, with images that actually mean something to you, because you made them.  And finally, contrary to received wisdom, you’ll get good results working with small children and animals.

If you’d like to learn more, you can book a place one of my beginners’ digital photography workshops.  No worries if you don’t have a camera – we can lend you one for the day.  I also offer individually tailored, one-to-one photography courses, designed around your existing skills and interests.  Visit katecarpenter.com/tuition for more details.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Self-portrait with shadows

Good light makes me happy, but I am more intrigued by shadow.  I love a monochrome, low-key, grainy look for portraits.

I don’t like airbrushing, find most magazine-style shots uninteresting, and am dispirited that many women around my age are so often looking for fake perfection in a portrait in order to feel good about their appearance.  I’ve found that a lot of women love the natural look – but on other women, not themselves!

There’s a received wisdom that in order to feel “fabulous” or “empowered” as women, we’ve got to look younger than we are, with smoothed-out, flawless, story-less skin.  It’s depressingly rare that this is challenged.  In the professional photography world, it’s often taken as read that women want ‘enhancing.’  I’m constantly surprised that more photographers do not question this.

I’ll be honest – it’s not as though I’m immune to such insecurities myself.  I admit I’ve softened out lines and lightened the eye bags in my own image on more than one occasion.

Recently I’ve been looking at Peter Lindbergh’s collection “Shadows on the Wall.” Helen Mirren, Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore and many others – unretouched, shadowy, grainy.  I think they’re beautiful.

If I want to make pictures like this, then it’s only right, and about time, to give my own face the grainy monochrome treatment that I like so much in portraits of others.  So here I am. I decided not to be afraid of any lines and shadows on my face, or to lament the absence of a jaw line like Robin Wright’s.  I’m wearing no make-up, my hair’s messy and I’m still in my big old coat because I’ve just come out of the rain. My lighting set-up is not exactly ‘forgiving’ to my skin.

But here’s the thing – this picture feels more like me than any other that I’ve got, and I like it. This is me, as I am, messing about with shadows in the company of my daughter, and I couldn’t be happier with that.

 

Solitude

Alright, not quite solitude; rather, eight photographers standing in a row.

But you know what I mean.  Eight photographers on a lonely loch beach at dawn, hoping that the drifting rainclouds will cut the island off from the mountains behind it.

I’d never thought much about landscape photography until a recent trip to Scotland.  It’s a different way of working for me.  And it’s got me thinking about solitude.  There’s something really lonely about the landscape photography that I like; I’d love to be able to convey this in my own work.

So I’m hatching a plan to return to the place where I experienced the greatest isolation of my life. Schleswig-Holstein, in the north of Germany, where as a twenty-year-old I lived in a shed, with a radio, a bicycle, and a small flock of geese to watch outside my window.

I didn’t have a camera in those days (or rather, I didn’t have any film.)  If I’d had one, I’d have photographed the flat land, the river, the canal, and the endless mist.  I might have hoped for a glimpse of a Storm-like Schimmelreiter approaching through the fog on a white horse.

I’ve not been back for over twenty years, but I think it’s about time to revisit, with my camera.  And, much as I might like to go with seven friendly photographers, I think this one is a trip to make alone.

 

 

 

The Mirror and the Mind

Lately, I’ve been talking to people about what they think and feel when they look in the mirror.  It’s fascinating.  Sometimes it’s about a cursory check of your appearance on the way to work.  Sometimes it goes deeper, and is about your very identity, your sense of who you are and who you want to be.

Some people are comfortable with it; others find it unsettling, defamiliarising.   Poet John Ashbery writes, “This otherness, this ‘not-being us’ is all there is to look at in the mirror.”

There’s a wealth of psychological research on this topic, most of which I have still to discover.  Art, film, poetry – all of these have explored the relationship between the mirror and the self.

Rachel has been kind enough to go along with me in exploring some of these ideas.  We’ve swapped poems, articles, photographs – anything from fairy tales to poetry, from academic texts to exhibitions about superheroes.  This latest was our third mirror shoot together.   Her acting skills are considerable and she brings all these ideas to bear as we shoot.

I imagine and hope there’s more of this project to come.  I may well be looking for some more volunteers in the autumn, once I’ve dusted down some physics textbooks and worked out some fiddly issues to do with optics and the like.

In the meantime, I shall leave you with the words of artist Nathan Sawaya, in his Art of the Brick exhibition on Lego Superheroes and Super Villains. On Bizarro, the mirror-image ‘negative Superman’, he writes:

“I think you have to be careful of mirrors. You don’t want to look in them for too long.  The longer you look, the less reality you see.”

 

 

Let them stare if they want

Though I really should be past caring by now, I do remain self-conscious about just one or two things in life.  One thing that doesn’t bother me, though, is making a fool of myself for the sake of a shot I’m after.

Don’t misunderstand, I’m perfectly well aware that people look at me strangely. The ramblers in the park, wondering why I’m flat on my back pointing a lens upwards at a hole in an oak trunk. The big blokes with their big cameras at the gig, trying (or not bothering) to step over me as I’m lying in dust and spilt beer. The sweet couple attempting to hide their giggles as I slip down a muddy bank in pursuit of a stag, and emerge, filthy, from the bog, holding my precious camera high in a caked right hand. (Yeah, it might have been nice of you to speak to me, instead of just smirking to yourselves.)

I don’t care about climbing on chairs and tables in public. (If I’m in a school, the pupils always imagine I’ll be in fearful trouble.) I’ll hold a squat, a lunge or a crunch at millimetre-precise height to be on just the level I want.  As long as I don’t shake or collapse, you can stare all you like. I’m happy.

So the lesson?

  • Never wear good clothes on a shoot
  • Appropriate footwear can spare you humiliation
  • Cleanliness is next to lifelessness
  • Core strength is even more useful than they told you
  • Let people point and stare if they want. Your photos will be more interesting than theirs.

But really, I should have been more careful with the goose poo last night. That was just silly.

Photographing Your Baby

If you’ve got a baby, the chances are your phone is full of gorgeous snaps of the delightful creature.

Every photograph of your baby is special, of course, and you’ll enjoy looking at them over and over again. But what if you want a photograph that’s more than a quick snap on a phone?

One option is to go to a studio for a professional shoot. At the moment it’s fashionable to Photoshop the little things into tin buckets, or have them floating in a neutral-hued softness, all glowing skin and cute headwear. These certainly have a charm and require considerable skill to pull off.

Or you could engage a photographer to come to your home – perhaps a ‘lifestyle’ photographer, who will capture your family more naturally than in a posed shoot. It’s like a cross between documentary photography and a more classic portrait, and lots of people love it.

I’m not sure I fit into either of those brackets. I admit I’m not terribly interested in Photoshop manipulations. And I don’t much care for the word ‘lifestyle’ in any context, thanks to an English teacher at school who had a horror of it.

But this is my approach to photographing babies, and you can try this too, even without a fancy camera and special equipment. These are not ‘rules’ – just ideas.

  •  Put the playthings somewhere there’s good light. Window light is my favourite, especially if it’s a north light. You can use a reflector (a piece of white card will do) to bounce the light into shadowy areas of the baby’s face.
  • Follow the baby about – on the floor, in a baby seat, in a parent’s arms – and get a variety of views. Again, always look out for a light.
  • Get down onto the baby’s level and look right in their eyes. Much more interesting than always looking down from above. (If you’re outside, don’t worry about getting dirty. There’s so much laundry you’ll never remember an extra load– but a great photo is with you forever.)
  • Get in really close and fill the frame with a tiny detail.   A portrait doesn’t have to show a face. If you’ve got a macro setting on your camera, use that. (It’s the small flower symbol.)
  • Include favourite soft toys. Children enjoy looking at these as they grow up.
  • Look for the love. Images that show family bonds are really precious.

And if you want to get technical:

  • Babies’ movements are faster than you might think, even when they’re not yet mobile.  If you want clarity, keep your shutter speed relatively fast,  at least 1/250th sec, but preferably faster.   If you want a bit of blur, to show how fast that fist was waving, take it slower, perhaps 1/80th or 1.60th Experiment, and see what you like – it’s your picture.
  • Think about how much you want to have in focus. Sometimes you might want to show a couple of big, sharp eyes, with everything else gently blurred. If so, you’ll want a nice wide aperture (lower f/number.) The other advantage of this approach is that it blurs out all the background clutter there is when you have a baby in the house.
  • If you’re photographing the baby with other people, think about whether you want them all to be in focus, or only the baby. If you want everyone to be completely sharp, use a narrower aperture (higher f/number.) Alternatively, stick with a wider aperture (lower f/number), and focus on the baby alone. This can look really appealing and is also a nice metaphorical comment on who really is the centre of this world!

AND FINALLY

Print those photographs! It’s all very well storing them on your phone or on a hard drive or even on the cloud. But that’s a risk, no matter how good your systems are. Print them out, date them, put them in an album – or even just shove them in a shoe box and stick them in a cupboard. One day, those prints will be like treasure.

 

 

Villers Hill

This is the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery at Villers Hill, near the village of Villers-Guislain in northern France.

On April 14th 1917, alongside thousands of others, a soldier was killed at the Battle of Arras. One hundred years on, to the day, two of his great great grandchildren laid a wreath on his grave.

The card on the wreath reads, “from your grandson, great grandsons and great great grandchildren. One hundred years; we still remember.”

Like all CWGC cemeteries and memorials, there’s a stillness, a calm and a peace about this place, despite the horror that unfolded here a century ago. Even on the bleakest of days, there’s a warmth in that stone that catches the light and glows.

 

Darkness Visible

 

To satisfie the sharp desire I had

Of tasting those fair Apples, I resolv’d

Not to deferr; hunger and thirst at once,

Powerful perswaders, quickn’d at the scent

Of that alluring fruit, urg’d me so keene.

 

 

 

Rachel says she’s not as brave as she may look. But I think it’s pretty brave to bid at a charity auction for a photoshoot with a photographer you don’t know, to set about constructing a story together, and shoot it in Windsor Great Park early one morning, to the bemusement of passing cyclists and runners. This was great fun, and I’m already looking forward to our next collaboration.