Thursday, November 24, 2011

Learning to See (space) - Part 6

We are truly never alone. Nor are we truly ever without.
Wherever we are there is always a sense of presence, a proximity to something else, another human, the company of another animal, the structures that make us human and those that do not. We feel  a part of and never apart from the natural world and its diversity and the unnatural world and its complexity. We breathe its air, walk its terrain, swim its oceans, climb its trees, occupy its food chain and contribute to its existence. We also add to it with structures and destruction. There is no escape. Gravity takes care of that.

When we photograph we search for that connectedness. We look into the landscape to find its beauty. We want it to be part of us as if the feelings it imposes will transform us. We hunt the flora and fauna and see ourselves in their behaviour. Their beauty is ours to capture. Our camera scans the seas and sky for signs of life and to verify our existence. I am here. This is what I see.

But what of the space in between, the emptiness, the void that fills the gaps in this connectedness we all seek. Lord Rutherford pronounced: 'There is only two truths: atoms and space; the rest is mere conjecture.' According to modern cosmological theory, Rutherford might have been unaware of a few things but at least he was heading in the right direction.

What we photograph, in Rutherford's terms, is the atoms. They make up the 'things' we seek, the objects of our attention, the focal point and something for our auto-focus to align to. We fill our frame with atoms and molecules. We compose based on Form, the form of solids, liquids and gaseous vapours. Edward Weston suggested Form was everything in a photograph. He, like all of us, have a great attachment to the 'solidarity' of the Universe. Even in the vastness of Space we seek the stars and planets and use them to define its existence.

As I learnt to see as a photographer I became more and more aware of the stuff between the Form, the emptiness that edged to the surfaces and textures of my subjects. This nothingness began to grow in importance as a child becomes aware of the bareness of a crib or a surfer grasps the vastness of the ocean as he stares at the horizon. I wanted to photograph this abyss, this gaping hole that pushed against the frame and squeezed the 'things' from my view.

How do I photograph nothing? Other photographers described this void as 'negative space' as if it took away from the content, as though it meant 'less than' or a subtraction, almost an annoyance that persisted, like a whining child who just won't go away. In an effort to deal with this aggravation they began to use it as a means of visually describing content. It was used to 'divert the eyes' or outline the form or fill the frame as if it was a half empty bowl and you didn't want the contents to be discarded so it was easier to fill the container with whatever was available.

Now, most of the time it worked. We never notice. We are told it was OK the do this. After all, who in their right mind would want to make 'emptiness' a subject for portrayal. Stare at nothing? Who does that? Do we look at a blank wall and wonder at its beauty? Do we stare blankly into the distance and picture its content as interesting and exciting? Would we read a blank page or drink from an empty vessel or breath the contents of a vacuum?

Then I saw it! Brice Marden's 'The Dylan Painting'. You would need to be there. It was what I would image it is like standing on the top of Mt Everest and realising you were on the edge of it all and the rest was space; empty, hollow, endless space. And you could do what you like with it.

So begun my plight. Finding the space and photographing it. It easy enough to find, or so you'd think. Its everywhere. It fills the sky, it holds the ceiling of a cathedral, it keeps me at distance from my foes and it brings me close to my loved ones. How wonderful this space is. It occupies office blocks, streets, rooms, my backyard, the glass I hold and the place behind my mirror. It creeps into every crevasse and fills it with visual splendor. It has no colour, no texture, no form, no properties of its own but it gives life to all it encompasses. We can look into it, or out of it, be in it, on it, under it, surrounded by it or surround it. And like Gravity, it spreads all the way to the edge of the Universe and then it starts all over again, only to return and fill our lives with magic once more.

Still Life - Space and Roses

Walking Space

Breathing Space

Finding Space

Office Space

Floor Space

 Photographing this 'stuff' isn't easy. Its elusive as quicksilver. Just when you think you have it and you pick up your camera, its gone, only to be replaced with a dog or a rock or a family member or a Sun setting on the horizon. If you wait for it, it will never come, if you search for it, it will evade you like the meaning of Life itself. Its the place that needs filling, like a pause in a conversation. There's an awkwardness with a necessity to be 'taken care of'.
'There's a space there. Can you put something in it?'
'It really annoys me when people leave spaces!'
'How much space have I got here. I want to fill it.'
'Oh, look. A space. I'm going to put my big fat arse there. Who needs space?'

The next time you see some space, call me. I might just be able to capture it before it disappears.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Learning to See (Part 5)

In the process of learning to see, ordinary days and ordinary events can often take on a significance that is, to say the least, surprising, if not profound, but certainly extraordinary in their connection. Today is such an ordinary day.
The first event was a simple question posted on a blog.
" Where is your next big travel trip?"

Simple enough inquiry, but the implications in the particular context was that one needs to travel to photograph; to find new destinations, grandeous scenery, interesting people, places of beauty, the obligatory sunset or sunrise on a new and more exciting horizon, captivating architecture or the progression of interesting and dramatic lives and events other than those that fill our own seemingly mundane existence. We need the imagery of the imaginary, the visual spectacle of the spectacular; we need to see and record what we don't have or pay homage to the representation of what we do have: the landscape.

The travelling photographer is armed with a vision we envy. He brings us a world out of reach to many. Like The Grand Tour we plan our lives, in part, to fulfil the dream and return with the booty of other places, neatly parcelled in a digital slide show which will be presented to friends and family on our return.
"See where I have been," and we will sit in amazement at the splendor and beauty of it all.

The second event was as ordinary as the first.
Over the past few weeks I have been teaching my grand-daughter to drive. On the morning of her driving test I accompanied her to the testing station. We had a calming coffee in the local shopping centre beforehand, then she left me in the car park while she went for the test.

As always I had a camera with me. My thoughts went back to the question: "Where is your next big trip?" For me, this was it! Standing alone in a strange carpark in a 'foreign' land. My thoughts begun to shift from the ordinariness of the surrounding (after all, there is nothing unusual about a car park surrounded by offices and shop fronts) to the extra-ordinariness of the place in which I have found myself.

People going about their business, cars coming and going, conversations barely audible over the traffic, trade noises eminating from a shop front, machinery humming away in the background, distant sounds blending into city's white noise. I began to notice the shapes and forms occupying the space: colours blending, shadow and light interacting, textures and tones giving visual life to this inner space buried deep inside the city in which I had spent a good part of my adult life. And somehow I'd missed it.

I raised the camera to my eye and started framing and shooting. Each click of the shutter was, at that time, recording the truth, a beauty that can only be seen from where I stood, not only in locality but in time; my time.

My time to this point was filled with assumptions and stories, memories and recall, words, poetry, events, imagery of my past. I could here my father describing a Rembrant, my mother reading from a Bronte novel, my physics teacher describing the magnetic field of a dipole (whatever that is), my sister reciting a rhyme, Christine re-affirming her love for me. All this guided me to frame within the lanscape.

The present was where I found myself, standing in a carpark, waiting for my grand-dauhter, and the taking of photographs became a verification of who I am and what I can see. "I am here. See this picture. That's what I saw. I exist and the landscape exists at the same time" It seemed a strange place to be, as if I was a time traveller and I was recording this simple landscape to take into the future where I could once more travel back and revisit.

But unlike the painter who composes the lanscape from bits and pieces, my landscape was there in all its 'glory'. My task was to select those bits that play some significance in my view of life. Not what is beautiful but what is true - for me. Beauty would follow.

While standing in the middle of the road framing one of many shots I took that morning, drifting blissfully through my own world, a gentleman approached from the curb.
"What are you photographing?' he asked sincerely.
" The truth" I responded, only after the shutter hand been pressed and I was happy I had captured it as I saw it.
"I used to photograph rock art" he added, with some trepidation, moving back to the curb and seeking safety from the traffic and me.

Everyone has a vision of the truth. We can all find it and photograph it as we see it. When that is done, the beauty will be revealed. Finding your truth may be closer than you think.