My muse is never elusive, but she definitely has her moods!
There’s really no point trying to undertake a project if she’s not onboard. For example right now I have several music projects in the pipeline. But they won’t happen just yet because the muse has decided, for the time being, that photography is where she’s at. A few weeks ago she was telling me how I really needed to work on my writing, kept showing me empty seats in cafes and causing the cats to pull notebooks out my library so I could re-work some old lines. But now, she’s off on a imaginary photo shoot, Leica in one hand, Bronica in her assistant’s (yep, muses really do have have assistant muses!) yelling for me to follow her down the Champs de Lysses or 5th Avenue and get practicing my rule of thirds!
Her ever-changing focus of interest shifts can be frustrating but I’ve learnt to live with her ways – and its a small price to pay for the bottomless well of creativity in which she resides. Or maybe (as Cynical Sean would say) its just an inability to remain fixed on one road, thinking that even if you change direction, the miles will mount up and over time you’ll get to the destination and find that you have passed through so many great places and so many great experiences along the way. And so photography turns back into the light of my attention, snap-shotting itself out of the shadows.
I tend to think of photography just the same way I do all art. When you look at a good photo you’re seeing the same forces at play as in good art. Just because machinery has captured that in an instant doesn’t detract from it. To me it’s all about the composition, the contrasts and the subject matter. Over time its documentary nature becomes very apparent and you see how quickly fashion and all the things we surround ourselves with change. It has managed to escape the criticisms of the art world and has infiltrated our existences.
Seeing Annie Liebovitz at work in the Visionaries: Inside the Creative Mind series set off all my neurones associated with photography and the creative process. It’s amazing how much you can learn and discover in a few moments watching a master at work. She is shown working on her 2012 book Pilgrimage, which fell like a stone in the pool of my own memories and inspirations. She says how the process became about “finding out what’s still inside me and you realise how deep the well is, and how lucky I am“. Although I’ve probably paraphrased her exact words I understand the intent well. Time alone with a camera, visiting places that move you enables you to slow the blur of the everyday. It peels back the years of paint that cover the lid of the well of your inspirations and gives you the opportunity to rip it open once more. It caused me to think about the photography that originally inspired me. There was a separate art library in the University where I studied photography. I won’t say ‘learnt photography’ as I had been doing that every year since my Grandfather had bought me a Kodak Instamatic as a small child. Researching the model name just made me realise why my current iPhone photography app of choice, Hipstamatic, had such a familiar ring to it’s name!
The art library was filled with monograph art books and was a treasure-trove of inspiration. Two books come to mind immediately. One was full of black and white photographs of Tibet, the other had some of the early work of Richard Long. The fleeting nature of his work, of paths photographed that might not exist once the photograph was taken, and the natural environments were very powerful. Another seminal influence were the photographs of Fay Godwin in Remains of Elmet by Ted Hughes (1979). The dark contrasts and almost metallic nature of her photographs were perfect compliments to Hughes’ poetry. Actually, I want to say Ted’s poetry because although I never met him, once I discovered his work I understood why many people thought my own was similar. The power of Ted’s poetry has long remained close to me. His stark paring of language does what the best poetry should do, it shouts at you in an unfamiliar way, makes you open your eyes and see the world around in a different light. Fay’s photographs helped illuminate that world and that light.
The list of influential photographers goes on, some originally discovered in that library, such as Man Ray (Emmanuel Radnitzky) and Hockney with his LA swimming pool and polaroid montages. Other photographers sneaked up via their work on album covers, for example Anton Corbijn‘s infra-red work on U2’s Unforgettable Fire and Rob Sheridan’s Nine Inch Nails Ghosts photography immediately spring to mind. There are some images which become really famous without you knowing who the photographer is. A classic example is Alberto Korda‘s photo of Che Guevera at a memorial in 1960. Visiting Cuba was such an eye-opener in terms of learning about the photograph as opposed to the ubiquitous t-shirt image – as was discovering the depth of Che’s revolutionary heart. Another example is Malcolm Wilde Browne’s 1963 photograph of the self-immolation of Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức. Again this was made more poignant having walked the streets of Saigon myself. It also reverberates with the current wave of self-immolation taking place by Buddhist monks in Tibet in 2012. Steve McCurry‘s 1984 photo of an Afghan girl (Sharbat Gula) for National Geographic is another example. It’s interesting that these last two images were taken by journalist/photographers.
Leibovitz however, was at the edge of my radar. I knew she was a famous photographer but had never really took an interest in her work. What is great about a series like Visionaries is that it gives you an insight into the creative processes. We all wonder how similar we are to others, or how different. Seeing how someone, who has excelled in their field of creativity, is inspired, works and the kind of environment they do that in, is something which has always interested me. In the pre-net age when you scribbled lines of poetry or song or made photographs or art it was hard to find similar people with which to share experiences and create community. So, more often than not, you carried on, alone in your pursuit of the muse’s dictum. Getting to see the workings of famous creative people was probably the only opportunity to feel like a bone-fide member of the creative club (from a distance). Of course, it’s not necessarily any different in the post-net age. There is an inherent solitary nature to creativity. It’s why so many artists and writers have to have agents or publicists to interact commercially and socially with the world. So. To me the thing of interest is the creator’s environment and the way they approach their work.
[Before I continue, a little aside about the medium I am writing this in. Let me just say I have already backtracked as far as my thoughts about hyperlinks go in these posts. I was an early adopter and champion of HTML because it offered a way of making connections and pathways through information, something I felt was akin to the way the brain creates neural pathways and connections. I had waited a long time for its coming in 1995. I knew of the similiar work of Ted Nelson and Project Xanadhu. I had read the novels of William Gibson. I had seen the early echoes of the world wide web in Hypercard. All these were forerunners to the methodology of HTML, technological memes, in much the same way that Mondo2000 and Wired were forerunners of today’s convergence of the net and everyday culture.]
So Annie caused me to reflect on my own reactions to photography. How I yearned to make seamless montages like Hockney and panoramic views. How with the advent of Photoshop and digital photography all these wishes have become ridiculously easy to fulfill. Lomography have made a great 360 degree panoramic camera and Hipstamatic continues to put all my other analog and digital gear in the shade. Whenever you watch a professional photographer like Liebovitz at work, you immediately notice the huge camera, the massive flash but are all those things really necessary to create a great photograph?