Thinking about my photography practice

For the past few months, my photography has felt to me like it’s been changing, and not in a good way.  I get my rolls of film back, and there are very few that jump out at me as ones I love, and that’s frustrating.  There are some different reasons behind that, and I’m not sure they’re all bad, but they’re interesting to me.

One of the things I realised recently is I’m not experimenting as much as I have in the past.   “Experimenting” is maybe the wrong word – maybe it’s that I’m not taking as many abstracts, or just shooting for fun.  One of the reasons for that is I’m definitely feeling the pinch, financially, with camera film and processing so expensive, so I’m putting pressure on myself to make every shot count.  I could use digital, but I can’t have fun with it in the same way I can with film:  on one hand, it’s too clean, the images are too crisp and perfect; on the other, I get caught up in looking at the photos as they happen, whereas I can use film to get into a kind of meditative place, where I’m looking, and shooting, and not thinking about how they’ll turn out.  I know, technically I could not look at my digital photos until I get home, but that’s really hard for me to do, because I know I CAN see them.  I could try to work on that.

But the other thing I’ve been thinking about is how my practice has been changing.

Over the last few months, I’ve been shifting how I walk and take photos.  Previously, most of the times I went out, my primary goal was to take pictures, and I’d treat walking as a bit of a dérive, or a meander.  I might pick a place to go, but I was primarily letting myself drift as I felt like it.   That’s still something I’m doing, but in these last months I’ve been doing more and more deliberate explorations – find a place and either go out of my way to have an expedition, or have a concrete goal in mind (for example, walking home from work via the Malago, eg).

These have mostly been longer walks, and my photography on them has been more documenting/recording rather than trying to take an interesting shot.  Of course, I want all my shots to also be interesting, but the walking shots have been about going somewhere new, and bringing back literal snapshots of what I’ve seen.

This means I get the photos back, and I’m inevitably disappointed.  I want the images to be evocative, and provide a sense of place, and I don’t think many, if any, of them do.

(I need to make an aside here:  I am always very, very hard on myself, and I always want to push myself and do better than the last time I’ve done it.  And I very much suffer from wanting external feedback on what I’m doing, for reassurance I’m on a good track, and not rushing further and further down a dead end.  Because I did it part time, my photography degree, including my Foundation, took 8 years, and I really got used to the feedback from tutorials, from tutors and other students.   Of course I need to emphasise that it wasn’t always satisfying – there were the tutorials with 12 students for 2 hours, where the tutors gave the first person 25 minutes, the second 20, and by the time it came to me, they were rushing through as quickly as possible.   Or the ones with just a couple of students, who would have to be cajoled to say anything.   But there were also amazing tutorials hearing about other students’ inspiring and exciting work, and getting the most incredible insights into my own work, and that’s what I miss.   The funny thing is, much as I am someone who really craves external validation, what I miss is the critical feedback too, the opportunity to make my work better.  Going fishing for compliments is the opposite of what I want to do!  But outside of a university system, or being able to be part of a collective, I need to find a way to be more objective about my work.)

But I need to think about the factors that influence this kind of photography.  When I’m meandering on a dérive, I’m mostly going to places I’ve been to before, and I’ve got a goal to take a new shot or angle.   I”m comfortable in the familiarity.  But when I’m exploring somewhere, it’s somewhere I’ve never been before, or only once, or in a different context, so I’m looking with different eyes.

I suffer a lot from Photo FOMO, that I’m taking the wrong picture, or missing the right one, and combining that with a limited number of film shots, I can get antsy about what I should take, the opposite of my meditative state, so I don’t even expect the films to come back full of exciting shots – or when I am excited, like shooting a roll of medium format on the Portishead disused railway, and I had such high hopes for them, until they came back looking dingy.  One excuse is my DSLR was playing up, so I was having to light meter by a friend’s SLR, and it didn’t work out for me like spot-metering on the DSLR does, so a lot are dark.  Another excuse is the light was changing so fast I couldn’t keep up.  But really, I just don’t like them, especially compared to my XA2 shots from the previous trip.  And I need to re-calibrate my expectations because I’d specifically wanted to go back for those 120 shots, expecting them to be better than the 35mm – and being 120 film is more expensive than 35mm, it feels like more of a waste. (Of course, now I’m wondering how I can get up there to try the same thing in the Golden Hour…)

So many of the images from recent walks look the same to me – heading forwards, or looking back, down a footpath.  They hold no interest, and look like nothing.  But they’re not meant to be seen as solo images, they’re part of a multi-format documentation.  I know that, and I know that not every image can possibly be a heartbreaking work of staggering genius, but I still want them to be.  And I need to listen to my friend Tracy when she tells me that, and reminds me I’m in the research phase.  Of course I edit in terms of which photos I put on flickr, but every single project needs editing, as each only uses a fraction of the images made – and taking more pictures increases the chance of get usable ones.

But there is another reason my photos might not be as good, as I need to remember that.  The walks I’ve been doing have been between 8 and 20km, and that’s if I measure them in a straight line!  Tracy was laughing at how we probably walk so much more, with the 2 steps forward, 3 steps back to take each photo, and it made me visualise the walks differently.  I’ve been seeing them as straight lines from A to B, but they’re probably more like looking at soundwaves over time, so I’m putting in a lot more steps than the A to B distance would imply.

And doing those kinds of walks over winter mean racing the dusk, or wanting to get to the end.  When Vik and I walked the footpath from Portishead to Clevedon, it wasn’t about racing the light, but just getting tired, especially as we’d been battling brambles earlier in the day, so I just wasn’t as excited about taking photos in the last few kilometres.  Even when it’s not a long walk, I’ve been racing the dusk, like the last time I was in Manor Woods Valley, so I just didn’t have time to hang around and take lots of different shots, as I was losing the light.   That will change, as the days get longer, but still, it changes the feeling of taking photos.

So what should I do going forward?  I need to be kinder to myself, I think that’s a given, and I should look for people I can do crits with.  I think I do need to listen to myself about the fact a lot of my photos are looking the same, and maybe build some opportunities to do more experimenting.  Try to find ways to do it with my DSLR, but also cut back on other spending (no more coffee!  No more going to the pub!) to be able to do it on film.

I do have a problem that my I broke my Olympus XA2.   It’s a small, pocket-sized 35mm film camera, with just 3 distance settings, and it was perfect for the “shoot from the hip”, zen, meditative photography.  I’m not saying I never thought about the shot, or set it up, but a point & shoot is only about the framing, and it’s generally a fast, instinctive photography, and being able to keep the camera in my pocket means it’s relatively discreet.   I’m super lucky that my friend Matt loaned me an Olympus OM2 SLR, but using an SLR is more obvious, and takes more time.  I always take a different kind of photo with an SLR, but I can play with that, surely.  And as soon as I get any spare cash, of course see if I can buy another Olympus XA2, or even better, an XA.

And there are so many photography games to play!  I was thinking that maybe next time I go on a walk along a river, maybe I should only take photos that don’t involve the water, or only shoot the surroundings through reflections in the water.  Or only take photos of textures.   Or play Situationist/psychogeography games, like take a photo every X steps or every 5 minutes, only of red things, or the different surface I’m walking over, or whatever.  (I did think about that on a first-time walk, and it really freaked me out, so maybe I leave it for walks I’ve done before.  I thought about using a separate camera for games like that, but I think that’s cheating, in a weird way).  Maybe I should set myself stupid challenges, to try to get back into that way of thinking.

But most of all, be kind to myself.  I miss being at uni, and being able to (relatively) cheaply print out a ton of little photos, and spend a few hours sticking them on a white wall in different edits and iterations – but of course, I only occasionally had that opportunity.  I miss having conversations with people about our photographic projects – but I didn’t have as many of those as I wanted anyway.   So be kind to myself and keep shooting.   That will be my March mantra.

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