Monday, May 14, 2012

New Look

Well, its not really a new look, more of a change of socks.
The new posts 'Notes from the camera' will have their own home at:
There's a link between each site using the tabs under the banner so you can follow either blog or both - or none.

I'm spreading myself a bit thin so be patient. My brain isn't coping all that well. I keep forgetting to do the things on Christine's list.


Monday, February 13, 2012

Monday, February 6, 2012

LEARNING TO SEE - The conclusion

On any day you could find my mother, in her later years, perched on a seemingly awkward chair on the back veranda or at her bedroom window if The Weather (she would spitefully call it) was not to her liking. The atmospheric conditions could only be proclaimed as The Weather if they didn’t suit her aging, arthritic bones. The rest was declared as ‘just fine’. She would place a book on her lap and a dinner-plate sized magnifying glass in one hand and scrutinize the contents, page by delicately turned page. At that stage of my life I didn’t believe books warranted such inquiry and my curiosity in her persistence took me to ask:
‘Mum, why do you read so much?
‘There is so much to learn and see and so little time left’ she replied, looking at me through her already clouding cataract eyes. ‘I can’t go to these places so they come to me. I can be in Egypt this morning, New York for lunch and warming myself on a sandy beach in Queensland as the Sun sets.’
She would return to her books and leave me wondering about the significance of all this.
‘By the way, what’s for lunch?’ I would add. Significance was never an easy thing to grasp on an empty stomach.
Photography has always been like that: a way of seeing distant places without travelling. It was seen as more literal than narrative or painting. It seemed more real and closer to the truth; like being there as my mother suggested. The world began to shrink when photographers took their cameras to far off places and returned with ‘postcards’ of unbelievable beauty and intrigue from destinations undreamed of by all but the wealthy and adventurous. Coffee table books with titles from Abyssinia to Zimbabwe filled the bookshelves and littered the living spaces we call home (which now seemed ordinary and dull in shadow of such splendor).

There were also endless personal photo albums of past events scattered about the rooms which would be proudly displayed at any opportunity warranting a close inspection of our meager family history. Cousins, aunts and uncles, grandparents, siblings and unknown figures whose name escaped even the most astute memory. There were stories to tell of pride and incest, events and catastrophes, births and deaths, marriages and funerals to accompany every image that lay faded and creased beneath tattered tissue and precariously held in place by gummed corners and pieces of cellotape. Hardly a day would pass without the Box Brownie being scheduled for an airing and pointed at some disgruntled relative or unsuspecting pet.

This personal history is a characteristic of the photographic age. The immersion of our generations into telling stories with photographs with the advent of the fixing of that first image and development of photography to a common, everyday pastime has allowed us to share with the new, remains of the old. The story teller not only speaks but holds the past in his hands. We can see where we came from and what our ancestors looked like. We could, in a way, verify our place in a historically changing world.

We also discovered what things look like. The image through a microscope or telescope, the fields of battle or the depths of the oceans, the world from on high, inside and outside, through, under and over everything possible, was now available for all to see. From the seller to the buyer, the teacher to the student, the scientist to his critics, the artist to his admirers, the traveler in his search for the lost horizon, we all found a use for the photograph in our work, play, business and pleasure to describe what we see and to share with our audience.

We also found another use, less pragmatic, more esoteric yet liberating. We found ways of expressing ourselves, of finding more in the landscape than others could see, more than the hues of a pretty flower, more than a the blue of the sky, the red of a sunset, the green of a forest. We found ways of expressing our love, hate, fear, anger, sorrow, happiness and concern. We discovered that the photograph doesn’t always tell the ‘truth’ or share in beauty. We found that we could influence others, persuade them, sway their opinions, and convince them of matters otherwise. We discovered the Power in a single photograph.

In the almost 200 years we have been photographing we have learnt to see many things in many different ways. It has been an incredible journey for us all. Even if we have never taken a photograph we have still shared in this incredible adventure.

I remember seeing a documentary many years ago when a group of journalists and anthropologists ventured into the Highlands of New Guinea to find a group of indigenous people who had never had contact with people outside their own village. One of the photographers took a Polaroid image of a village member and showed him the photograph. At first the villager was bemused. He had no idea who it was. He then became terrified when it was explained it was an image of him because he thought the photograph contained part of his ‘soul’. Slowly he realized the significance of what he held in his hand and he smiled deeply, shared the photograph with his family.

We can all be bemused by photographs other people take. For that moment we are seeing as they see. Take pleasure in that as much as seeing for yourself.

Over the past 65 years learning to see for me has been accompanied by the photograph. I have learnt to see like no other generations before. I can relish in that.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Learning to See Part 9

This photography lurk is incredibly frustrating.

I’ve read all the books of late (it seems), searching for a resolution to this hindrance to my artistic endeavours only to find myself in a deeper quandary. Nothing fits. My efforts dissipate like pigeons in heavy traffic. My results are a misfit of misaligned, malnourished oddities waiting for the judgement of those to whom it can to be thrust upon and those that can’t be trusted to be objective: me.

Some of you who find it within themselves to feather praise on some of my photographs (mainly relatives, friends and those whose taste still allows them to wear stripes with checks) may suggest politely and encouragingly that I am being too harsh. After all, denigrating oneself is a trait all artists develop as part of their self-examination. Appropriating praise is apposite; languishing praise on oneself is garish.

But in the face of current thinking within the photographic fraternity I find myself drowning in a sea of rules, guidelines, suggestions, recommendations, lists and liturgies on how to improve my photographs and I just don’t get it!

Maybe I never have ‘got it’. My art teacher at school, Ken Reinhardt, suggested, in the light of my attempts at wielding a bush or pencil, I might consider my options and head for the woodwork classes where at least my handiwork could be used to warm myself if all else fails. Outside his critical view I found solace in the camera, more as a scientific tool for recording the miracles of nature in the working class, treeless streets of western Sydney.

There was no ‘art’ intended here. Point and press, then leave the rest to fate and the corner pharmacy who would, for a few shillings, turn the views of a young boy into blurred and blackened images to be cherished, if only by me.

Then came the ambition to be like others. Magazines and news print displayed masterpieces of photographic style that took my breath away. National Geographic, Life, Vogue, Playboy (for the articles only) and the like, all created a great deal of angst and anxiety within my pubescent sole. What I would give to photograph like that (as well as dealing with some other compulsions a growing boy might have)?

So I followed the rules, or at least attempted to. Concepts like ‘balance’ and ‘contrast’ meant nothing to me. Curves, diagonals and point sources evaded my vision. Negative space seemed more astronomical or mathematical. The Rule of Thirds was about as much use as a Band-aid on a battle ground. And the Golden Rule was lead in my shutter finger. I saw none of this in the viewfinder of my trusty Rolleiflex. All I saw was ....... life. People, buildings, hills and gullies, flora and fauna, all interacting as they do, passing in and out of my life as they do, allowing me to see it all on the ground glass screen and occasionally record what I saw for my amusement and possible prosperity.

So, like many of the things I did not understand as a young man (Shakespeare was bewildering, Byron was baloney and women! Well, what can I say?) I cast aside the idea of ever becoming an accomplished photographer and concentrated on photographing what I saw instead of what I couldn’t see.

There are those that say my photographs fit the ‘rules’ anyway. It’s as if I have no choice, as if I have a ‘geometry gene’ attached securely to the 19th chromosome or some such place and it was inevitable that I fall into the paradigm bestowed upon all those who pursue photography with any serious intent. Their reasoning for me having taken photographs which do not fit their prerequisites for ‘good’ composition is because, subliminally or subconsciously, I ‘know’ the rules and choose to break them.

All this may be true, for it is not for me to know what I am thinking when taking photographs. I’ll leave that to someone more astute. What I do know is that the pursuit of life as I find it is far more fulfilling than any quest for the perfect picture where all the numbers have been considered and the composition has been formulated instead of the image felt. What sits before me is not presented as compositional elements to be placed in the frame in a manner befitting a draughts-person but a set of circumstances for me to take in and ponder, reflect and wonder. Sometimes I will choose to record what I see. I don’t know why I enjoy it so much. Maybe it’s because I don’t have any rules to follow, just feelings to express.

My physics teacher told me that light enters the eyes for us to see. Apparently, back in the old days when everything was deemed to emanate from the body, the soothsayers suggested that we see because something leaves our eyes and falls upon the objectives of our vision, illuminating it in some way. I know this not to be the case. My physics teacher was very convincing. But maybe ‘seeing’ is that mystical material, that ethereal quantity, that indefinable fabric of thought that stems from looking and letting out sole project its wonder and mystery onto what is there.

Maybe there is a little bit of magic as well.

Sunday, January 22, 2012


I never thought this pursuit would be so challenging; this photography. After all, we all ‘see’ and photography can only be one step past that. Press the button. Record what we see. Then why is it that disappointment follows so often. If frustration would be a reward for endeavour then surely I am a rich man.

Thomas Mann defined a writer as ‘...a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people’. I wonder if he thought similarly about photographers. This characterisation unquestionably and clearly befits my persona.  Certainly I consider myself a photographer; for better or for worse, successful or not, richer or poorer, and certainly until some demise falls upon me. Even if a lengthy span of time enables me to take advantage of a ‘Grandfather Clause’, then so be it.  Yet one would expect the challenges of my chosen malinger would be more fruitful than, say, yesterday or last week or at the birth of my first (and only) born or when my pet rabbit was committed to history as it peered into the lens of my Box Brownie. Yet with each passing day, the gap between what I achieve and what I seek widens with every click of the shutter.

It was said of Ansell Adams that, after spending many hours in his darkroom, processing the results of many days of photographing his beloved landscapes, he would occasionally burst into the daylight holding a freshly exposed and still dripping print and utter excitedly ‘I think I have got it’. How nice that must have been for him. How rewarding. How pleased with himself he would have been. And if we were to ask him (in the figurative) how often does that happen, his reply would undoubtedly be: ‘Not often enough’. He seemed content, at least comforted, with the occurrence of such manifests at least ten or twelve times a year.

I ask myself: What is ‘it’?  What makes the difference between a print Adams might have left hanging in the darkroom to falter and fade under the influences of time and the vapours of the fixing tray and the one he chose to proudly display to us all. Does ‘it’ have a name, a shape, a texture, a place within the frame, a colour, an identity at all? Is it tangible or ephemeral? Does it have a formula or form?

 Is it the muse, the Loreli who calls us from the broken waters, the angels who ride the silken beams of light that fall from dusted skies?

Or is it the black of death, the mystery of dark corridors, the rage of a rampant thought that carries a crowd to their destiny, the wake of a father over a spent son.

 Is it the blossom of a new rose, the smile of recognition from a friend, the fresh skin of a teenage girl or the glisten of muscle above an opened hearth?

It seems each photographer has their own elucidations into the subject matter of their endeavours; their own version of ‘it’.

Some lay claim to beauty (whatever that is), others explicate with such ordinariness that it’s difficult to understand why it is so painfully evasive.  There is a suggestion of passion (assumingly on the part of the photographer), of personal expression, of love for and of the object or subject in question. Others talk of ‘the moment’ as if each moment holds the magic as a conjurer contains a rabbit in a top hat.

For those of a more technical and analytical persuasion we might hear them talk of composition, balance, and Gestalt in the same way we might consider items on a shopping list. Finally, we bear witness to those who hold tenure over the latest in digital image recording. They seek reprisal from those who might find photography a more artistic venture than that of algorithms and optics.

For many, it is the recording of memorable events. We do this with such vigour that it is hard to imagine any of us escaping the ravages of dementia before the week is out. From babies to birthdays, parties to parades, holidays to homelands, visitations, ceremonies, pets, people and public events. Nothing escapes our internment of such everyday events.

And what do we do with these metaphors for our daily lives? We plaster them on Facebook or store them in dark and dusty corners of the house (or the electronic equivalent) until a disaster hits. When the fire threatens, a Force 9 gale removes the roof or a magnitude 7 earthquake shakes us from our foundations we grab the kids, the cat and the photographs and head for shelter.

Because whatever ‘it’ is that is contained in those precious moments that we lovingly recorded, it is worth something to us. ‘It’ is our memory, our record of the past, our ancestors, and our history. It describes, explains, expresses, pleases and pleads. For us it can be the words we do not have, the feelings we cannot express, the knowledge we accumulate, the journey we take.

What Mann wrote in his definition of a writer may well apply to us all in some form or other as we seek to express ourselves more fully. For some, the process of writing may be just too hard, so we choose to photograph instead. In this way we allow the viewer to find their own words for what we see. The photographer’s burden is to find the image that says: ‘this is it’ for all of us.

We all continue to search for ‘it’. We all have our own version of what ‘it’ is. The Holy Grail was easier to find.  Jason had less trouble finding the Golden Fleece. The Meaning of Life and the origins of the Universe are less elusive. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stop looking. Whatever path we take will take us there and each will know when we have arrived. And when we do, we will speak as Adams did, shake of the excess fluid and hang the image out to dry, pick up our camera once more and continue along another path of frustration and disappointment.

Why? Because that’s the way we are.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Learning to See Part 7

My great-grand-daughter, Nevayah, (it's one of those New Age made up names designed for rock stars and super models) is one year old; just. What a delight it is to watch a child grow. They learn so fast. Movement, sounds, tastes, reaching out, finding things; ‘milestones’ her mother calls them. I wonder if there is a metric equivalent. The modern mother knows all this. Nothing is left to chance. Each advance is mapped and coordinated like a Photoshop workflow.
‘She’ll start rolling over at 10 weeks and 3 days. Exactly 8 days later she will discover her toes,’ her mother reports. Any delay in progress is a disaster. A step ahead is celebrated as if the child has been selected for Eton or the next Moon landing. A genius is in the making I hear them say: mothers competing for ownership of the brightest and most advanced child.
‘My child is smiling.’
‘Well, mine can hold a spoon.’
‘Can yours say “abomination”? Mine can.’
‘Yeah, well my boy translated the Koran into Japanese yesterday’.
‘But can he pilot a Lear jet?’
And the creche skirmishes continue.

What I have noticed among all this scurrying for child supremacy is that there is a distinct lack of interest in the child’s development in ‘seeing’ past the initial concern that the eyes are functional, they are the colour of at least one of the parents and there is no more than two. Learning to see appears to be taken for granted. Yet outside the speech centre of the brain, the visual cortex is the largest single area of the brain dealing with function other than movement and sight is responsible for 80% of sensory input and learning for a sighted person. For some strange reason we expect it all to be working perfectly from the moment the child sees the light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak.
 I’m a curious person, so I watch and learn from my great-grand-daughter. Maybe she can teach me a thing or two about learning to see.

She stares; intently, wide-eyed, glaringly, as if everything is new: as it is. As each object, place and face comes into view she takes in what she sees and places it carefully into her memory. Objects become familiar, recognizable, and repeatable. She begins to search, looking for things she knows exist in her memory. She connects those visions with places and experiences. Relationships are formed. She learns to see in conjunction with her other senses. She learns to know where objects will be and what they mean. She learns to associate the real with the symbol. A photo on the wall, a representation of an animal in a story book, a reflection in the mirror, another human, someone she knows: herself.

The process is slow at first, blurred slightly by the physical restraints and then by the experiential limitations of a child. Her eyes dart back and forth across the vista in a never-ending search for meaning. When a connection is made she reacts. A smile, a puzzled expression, a sign of fear, a moment of hesitation, joy, anticipation, excitement. She learns that seeing is a way of finding out. She learns to enjoy the experience. Eye contact between other humans is rewarding to her. Seeing becomes rewarding.

You and I know where this is going, of course. I have grand children and children of my own who have all been along this path. They learn to see and recognize shapes and colours. They establish preferences and partialities for certain objects and people. They learn to associate words with objects and they learn to speak those words. They learn to read. They learn their language; to put ideas into words and describe what they see. At the root of all of this learning is the sense of sight. A child without sight learns all of this by an entirely different process and the other senses must fill in the gaps where lack of vision leaves the learning spaces void of stimulus.

As this learning process continues the child learns to focus. In a somewhat confusing and over-stimulating visual world, the child must learn to isolate those things which are important and ignore those things which are unimportant. We teach a child to concentrate their attention.
‘Watch to the front’, the teacher says.
‘Keep your eyes on the traffic’, warns the parent.
‘Look at me’, the sibling demands.
‘Stop looking at that’, you will hear the crier call.
We learn to be selective in our vision. That’s a very important skill for us all. Its necessary for our survival.

As we grow and develop we begin a new process of selection based not on visual isolation but one of cognitive isolation where our already existing learning begins to select only those things which we find relevant at the time. This selection process is influenced by our memory, understanding, beliefs, customs and knowledge. In a sense, our vision seems to narrow. We no longer see with the eyes of a child but of an adult. Our visual input is the same but our 'vision' narrows.

This new vision can blind us. We drive without noticing where we are. We don’t recognise people we know. We ‘don’t see the nose on [our] face’ as my mother used to say. We read and re-read the same lines in a book. Something seems to appear out of nowhere. ‘It’s been there all the time’ I hear Christine say. How did I not see it? It’s a peculiar phenomenon that is characteristic of us all.

And what of the photograph?

We give the image a passing glance. It doesn't 'interest' us so we move on. We may ponder long enough to notice something.
'Nice flower'.
'I've been there'.
'Don't go much on the dress she's wearing'

We might consider the image in our own light.

'$4m for that! My kid could do better'

We may have some knowledge which we can apply.
'Interesting PoV' the budding photographer observes.
'That horizon could be a little higher.'
'Nice and sharp!'
Were not these people’s vision blurred by their own experiences, knowledge, biases and expectations? Did they take the opportunity, as a child might, to seek new experiences, to expand on what they already knew, to 'see' as other might, to search the frame for detail, clues, connections.
The photographer presents us with a view of the world, neatly packaged withing a frame. That particular view is is unique. It has never been seen in quite that way and from that point in time before. The photographer sees something worth recording, worth sharing, worth expressing in his/her own particular way. This is the visual fingerprint of that particular place at that particular time by just one person. And how do we respond? 'Nice colour (it'll match my curtains)'.

The adult often sees and endeavours to eliminate what they don’t understand, comprehend or believe. We resist the relationships for fear of misunderstanding them. We ignore the symbolism for fear of stimulating our own feelings. A dead flower is a dead flower and not a symbol of loss or mourning. A fallen petal cannot be a moment of sadness. A white vase doesn’t show us purity of form: its just a vase. Something seemingly out of place is a mistake and needs to be corrected.

If we learn to see as the child does, we open a new world to our vision and add to our own experiences. We learn about people and places. We see the connections and relationships. We share in a world as no other generation has ever done before. Don't let the world pass you by. Stop for a while and ponder. Learn to see as others do.