Human beings have a marvellous number of ways to express themselves creatively, and the business of being a ‘creative person’ is complex. What one person finds fulfilling as a way of expressing him or herself creatively, holds no appeal whatsoever to another. As a culture we also find it acceptable to pass judgement on the creative choices and expressions of others, with some pursuits or creations derided by critics as lacking creativity or originality.
I always remember my art teacher revealing that she felt that music was the highest form of art. She thought this because art could be figurative, and it uses realistic or partially realistic forms to evoke recognition and reaction within the viewer. We see a painting of trees in the sunshine, and – if it is well-executed – we will tend to recall our own memories of trees in the sunshine, along with the emotions that this memory evokes. Even abstract art tends to have some figurative inspiration, which can often be discerned by the choice of colours or by the particular arrangement of abstract forms on the canvas or paper. Music on the other hand, she argued, could evoke sadness, or joy, or fear, by the particular choice of key, tempo and dynamics, even though there is no obvious reason why a loud section of music in a minor key, should make the listener feel a sense of threat or forboding. It is quite interesting that people form opinions on the validity of other people’s creative expressions…Is my painting genuinely unworthy, or does my critic simply not ‘get it’, because his experiences, points of reference, opinions and emotions, are different to mine? There are some pieces of art or music that are almost universally acknowledged within our western culture, as being worthy and wondrous creations. But in an entirely different culture viewers and listeners would not relate to them in the same way at all.
My own choice of photography as a creative expression also gives me pause for thought. I’ve spoken briefly in a previous post about my past experience and thoughts about writing: Throughout my childhood and adolescence I was a prolific creative writer, but have only made a handful of attempts at novel and poetry writing over the past 18 years. I also used to sing in a choir, make things from paper (cut-out dolls and decorative winter snowflakes, for example), sketch, knit, crochet (a little bit) paint (not very confidently), and – ever since my grandma bought me my first proper camera at a fairly young age – take photographs. The only one of these things that I do with any degree of regularity any more, is take photographs, which I now do every single week.
Whilst watching the TV series Masterchef I was struck by how many contestants described cooking as ‘creative’ when asked to describe their reasons for entering the competition. There have been many variations on a theme of ‘I work in an office now, but I want to do something creative’. As a person with no talent for cookery, and who enjoys eating but never really thinks about the process of ‘creating’ a recipe and meal, I began to realise that there may be many activities that we don’t acknowledge, but which people use in varying ways every day, to express themselves creatively. A person with a carefully thought out home might not be an interior designer, but they have used their own unique sense of aesthetics to create an environment which they find beautiful, or relaxing, or stimulating. Or even the process of parents raising a child. Whilst they are hopefully helping that child find their own voice and way in life, by making choices about the experiences and opinions, places and people, to which they expose their child, they are undoubtedly shaping and guiding the child’s development through life.
On a recent trip – the photographs of which I have yet to process – I was thoroughly struck when I realised that some of my drive to capture an overview of a place, was because I also wanted to be able to describe it in words afterwards: I wanted to remember the particular way the trees were arranged, and the slope of the land, because I felt it would somehow feature in my writing about the place. I wasn’t sure whether that would simply be a part of my writing to accompany the photographs in my blog, or – who knows – if I write another story, perhaps the place will feature as a backdrop to part of my plot. This reminded me strongly of a time I went out in the rain with my dad as a little girl, to draw out rough maps showing the layout of the housing estate where my granny lived, because I wanted to use the estate as location for a story I was writing. However, I feel that there is certainly more to my desire to take photographs, than as an accompaniment to writing.
With all of this in mind I have started to think about what is going through my head and heart, when I take photographs. When I assess how happy I am with my work, what is it about the photograph, that makes it a success or failure to me? With photography there is certainly a technical as well as an artistic side. I won’t tend to be satisfied with a photograph I have taken if the focus is not good, if the exposure is a little off, if I have overlooked a problem with my composition. But after that, what else is there?
I realise there are two main – and linked – reasons why I am moved to take a photograph purely for myself (as opposed to commissioned work). One is to capture a nuance of light that I find beautiful; that lifts my heart with a little joy or wonder. Perhaps these images are more likely to have an abstract component, often picking out a particular detail and the way the light plays on it. The other is to capture the essence of a place where I am enjoying spending time, and impress its more practical details – such as the way a group of trees is situated in the landscape – into memory. Often I will – not completely consciously – be combining these two elements.
On now to this particular set of photographs. My husband and I had felt a little lacking in inspiration for our personal photography, due to a combination of factors, not least overwork and overtiredness. We were feeling the ill effects of withdrawal from photography, and determined to go out and take some photographs. We didn’t want to travel far and tire ourselves out, so we compromised with a choice of location that didn’t light up our eyes and minds with creative possibilities, but was close by and at least held a few small points of interest. It is a small area within the industrial estate near to our film lab, owned by a coal authority, with a mud path through young deciduous trees, leading to a series of interconnecting ponds and reed beds.
As you’ll hopefully see further on, this area has a slightly quirky, semi-industrial feel, but in this little corner, nature was looking beautiful, with a wintry glow of sunshine backlighting the soft, pretty green moss. When shooting film with backlighting, flare can be quite a problem and can easily destroy colours and contrast, so I was very careful in how I lined up the shot, trying to include what I wanted to within my composition, whilst positioning the sun in such a way as to avoid flare. The fact that it was quite a technically challenging shot to execute perhaps contributed to the joy I felt when I saw the image, and realised that I had managed to capture the light perfectly, just as I remembered it. When I look at it now, several weeks later, I’m still transported back to the happy moment when I saw, and felt a touch inspired and lifted by this little view. Impressionist painters were inspired to use painting to capture the nuances and beauty of light. For those who may see painting as a higher form of creative expression than photography, yes, the skills I’ve used here are very different to those of a painter, but why on earth does that matter?
How ‘creative’ has my endeavour been in this case? These may not be the most original set of images, the most thought or emotion provoking, the most dramatically beautiful. But does a creation really need to be any of these things? I would be very happy if anyone else feels somehow transported or a little able to feel the experience of being at this quirky little place, by looking at these images. But equally I want to feel happy if they do this for me alone. So perhaps the only ‘criterion’ for creativity should be that it feels – in some way, small or large – like a worthwhile and positive expression of something within ourselves as the creator.
Images shot on Rolleiflex 2.8F/Fuji Reala and Kodak Portra 400VC film/UK Film Lab/Frontier scan