An ordinary person's thoughts on the complexities of art & life ...

An ordinary person's thoughts on the complexities of life ... or just ramblings from the mind of a working Mum with far too little time to think!

Monday, March 29, 2010

Transform the Ordinary ~ the Beauty of Black and White Photography

I am often asked why I persist with black and white photography when there is colour, in all its saturated glory. However, for me there is still something so classic and appealing about a good black and white print that seems to elevate it above a colour version.

I love working with colour, but sometimes removing colour leaves the eye free to concentrate on the form, structure and the more graphic qualities of an image, though not all subjects work well in black and white. In fact, the true art of black and white photography is in being able to identify the right subjects to photograph. Lighting is the most crucial part of successful black and white photography. Keith Cooper, a well known Black & White Photography specialist said, "When I'm thinking of black and white images, the absence of light can be as important as the highlights. Good deep shadow can give a depth and solidity to an image."

Black and white photography is all about tonality, light and contrast. Photographic portraits in black and white are astutely revealing. In stripping away the colour, they seem to reveal the real, raw characteristics of the subject, while managing to achieve a sense of vulnerability and sensitivity.

In Macro photography, shape, form, pattern and textural details are extremely important. In this genre colour can sometimes be a distraction, whereas the medium of black and white can lead the eye right into the crevasses and tiny details of a textured surface, bringing an edge to macro images.

I have found that simplicity is the key with macro photography in black and white. I look for strong lines, deep shadows and distinct patterns. The more texture, the better the image!
It is often said that a photographer who works with colour needs to learn to 'see' in black and white before he/she will be successful with this medium. We need to be able to see beyond the interaction of light and colour and look at the shadows, the tones, the contrast, the patterns and the textures that are so bountiful in the world around us.

For me personally, exploring the seductive world of black and white photography is enormously satisfying and I learn so much each time I work in the genre. It seems to detach my work from the real world and gives it a wonderful sense of timelessness and drama.
As Ansel Adams, one of the greatest American landscape photographers says: "In wisdom gathered over time, I have found that every experience is a form of exploration."

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Glorious Colour and Light

I took up fine art photography a few years ago to fulfil an urge for creativity that I could not seem to find an outlet for.  After my children had turned into teenagers and I discovered that I had somehow lost the desire for a corporate career, I felt an incredible urge to be creative. I knew that I did not have the talent for painting or sculpting and that I really did not want to start learning the violin or the piano like some of my friends were doing.  I thought about going back to university to study medicine but that seemed too drastic and would take far too much time away from my children. One morning, after some rain, I noticed a clump of tiny flowers in the garden that were sparkling in the sun like little jewels. I grabbed my camera, went in really close, and took a few images. Right then, even before I saw the images, I knew that getting back into art photography, which I had always loved, was the creative journey I needed.

Since then, I have tried to explore the interaction of light and colour in my fine art photography. Light with its many moods and manifestations is the photographer's medium - we write with light. Colour evokes emotion, stimulates the senses and fires the imagination. The use of colour creates atmosphere and can transform our surroundings. Nature offers an abundance of both delicate and vivid colour, and when coupled with natural ambient light, the possibilities for art photography are endless.

Flowers are the most incredible subjects in nature to photograph. There is a whole world of colour and intricacy of design within their fragile frames, and when captured in macro, they present as inspiring and eye-catching works of art.

Lydia M Child once said, 'Flowers have spoken to me more than I can tell in written words. They are hieroglyphics of angels, loved by all men for the beauty of their character ... though few can decipher even fragments of their meaning.'
I will be happy to spend the rest of my life chasing the light and photographing flowers in full glorious colour, attempting to illuminate a little better the mysteries hidden within.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Rendezvous in Venice

Everyone is in love with Venice! It is the one city whose name is always spoken with an accompanying sigh, "Oh to be in Venice!"
I visited the timeless city on water for the first time almost two years ago, and though I was desperate to see the magic for myself, I wondered if it could possibly live up to everything I had heard about it. As we stepped out of the airport transport into the wet evening to await our boat from the Hotel Metropole, the rosy light dancing and shimmering on the water, I knew instantly that the myth of Venice was real.

Meandering up the Grand Canal under the elegant bridges and lined with magnificent old buildings, majestic cathedrals, elaborate palaces and quaint hotels, I was absolutely enchanted by the ancient city. It felt like we had stumbled upon an entirely private world, away from everything I had ever known.

Over the next few days I saw that amongst the incredible beauty, the mystery, the twisting canals and countless charming bridges, the angels and the colours that change each hour of the day, Venice was slowly crumbling, sinking and decaying, yet it was clear that it's essence was still intact and it's spirit indomitable.

Perhaps the artist, Turner captured it best when he said: "Elusive, floating, enigmatic, Venice rides in a misty middle distance of muted colours and sounds, a dreamlike place that defies definition and beggars description."

It is a city that has totally captured my heart and I know I will return again and again. "Porta un mio abbraccio a la bella Venezia" ~ Carry an embrace from me to beautiful Venice!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Mahler & Memory

I have always been fascinated by the connection between music and memory. Last week the strength of that connection was really brought home to me when I heard some music that I hadn't heard for many years. I was driving along the freeway, listening to a classical radio station, when the haunting strains of Mahler's Piano Quartet in A minor began to play. As my brain started to make sense of the pattern of those first few notes, I was transported right back to the first time I heard Mahler's piano quartet.  I could literally feel the sounds of the violin, then the cello, viola and piano, peeling back the layers of time, finding those memories buried somewhere in my brain and flooding my mind anew with the sights, sounds and feelings of over 20 years ago. There I was, a young impressionable university student, sitting outdoors on a balmy African evening after lectures, at a Johannesburg cafe with my university friends. We were sharing a jug of chianti and all talking passionately and animatedly about politics and philosophy while some classical music played in the background. The music changed and I remember so vividly stopping mid-conversation and listening ... and then thinking that it was the saddest and most beautiful piece of music I had ever heard! I was struck by the way it affected me and I asked if anyone knew what it was. Ari, my Jewish friend knew it was Gustav Mahler. He went on to explain to me that Mahler's music, along with another German composer, Wagner's, was played over the loudspeakers in the German concentration camps in WW2 and therefore not often enjoyed by Jewish people as it was accompanied by far too many painful memories.  As I listened then to the masterful interweaving of the instruments as that amazing music rose and fell, I could almost feel the sadness and the inhumanity of those camps and I knew that I would never again listen to that music without thinking of Ari's words.

Later last week, in one of those strange coincidences that sometimes crop up,  I heard that haunting music again as I sat in a movie theatre and watched the psychological thriller, "Shutter Island".  The same piano quartet I first heard all those years ago was used to create a tangible sense of dread throughout the film, again with heavy connections to the concentration camp at Dachau, Germany.

Music affects us so deeply. It is such an important part of so many of our memories, tied up in that which we would remember - and in that which we would rather forget.

You can listen to a clip of Quarto Quartet performing Gustav Mahler's Piano Quartet in A minor ~ absolutely beautiful!

Monday, March 15, 2010

Beauty in Biology ~ The fascinating world of macro photography

There is a new reality to be discovered in the fragments of living things.  At school I was always fascinated by the microscope and the way it could show us fragments of life at the cellular stage. The macro lens allows photographers a similar glimpse of that incredible inner world; a whole other universe of shape, colour, pattern and texture.
Theodore Roethke once famously said, "Deep in their roots, all flowers keep the light." The goal of the macro photographer is to find that light and to use it to produce the vibrant, eye-catching images that typify the genre.
'Alien Bugs' ~ Macro image of Poinciana Stamens

The most artistic macro images are those where a very shallow depth of field is used to focus only on one small, but extremely important part of the image, and the background is blurred into a wash of colours. Most Digital SLR cameras and even some compact cameras have a setting for macro photography, usually indicated by the symbol of a flower. And of course, for the enthusiasts, there are the macro lenses, specifically designed to get in really close.

'Floral Explosion' ~ Centre of a Bohinia blossom

I love photographing on the macro level. I find it absolutely fascinating and so much of the Biology I learned at school has come to the fore again. A large portion of our fine art photography business involves macro images as wall art. They look amazing blown up into large prints and framed, printed onto clear glass, or printed onto canvas. Our macro floral images are also used on kitchen splashbacks, for fine art gift and greeting cards, calendars, glass paperweights, place mats, cushion covers, screens - pretty much anything to do with home decor.
Centre of a Blushing Bride Protea

Although I use many subjects to photograph in macro, I am drawn to the beauty and intricate design of flowers. As Jean Giraudoux so eloquently puts it: "The flower is the poetry of reproduction. It is the example of the eternal seductiveness of life."
'Agapanthus Ballet'

Thursday, March 11, 2010

One person CAN make a difference

Just heard an interview with an inspiring San Franciscan man, John Wood, a Microsoft Executive who went on a trekking holiday to Nepal in 1998, and whilst there visited a local school and was shocked at the poverty of opportunity for young Nepalese children. He vowed to do something about it and organised the collection of 3000 second hand children's books which he delivered to the local schools of Nepal. This first step was something so simple in the scheme of things and relatively easy to organise, however it took one man's determination to act upon his feelings rather than to just comment on the lack of resources in the schools.  

His commitment and vision has changed the lives of those Nepalese children and since then he has continued to take education to the world's neediest communities in the form of books and has set up 'Room to Read', a nonprofit group that builds schools and libraries for children in Asia. "There are nearly 1 billion illiterate people in the world," says Wood. "My goal is to help 10 million children achieve literacy by 2010."
There are so many simple things each one of us can do in our own communities to make this world a more tolerable place for even just one needy person. Just imagine what could happen in this world, if a few thousand people followed John Wood's example.

Taking photographs that inspire

Recently a friend asked me if I would teach her how to take photographs. That got me thinking and I realised that I know very little about the technical side of photography. Sure, I understand the basics, but beyond that I am a novice when it comes to the techniques employed in photography.
Photography for me has always been a passion and a way to communicate how I see the world, and it is only in the last couple of years, with the encouragement of my friend and business partner, that I have taken it more seriously and have begun to sell my work and take commissions. I am entirely self-taught, which may or may not be a good thing.  I rely almost totally on my eye for composition, exposure and lighting; I have never explored the use studio lighting, preferring to use natural light wherever possible; and I almost never use a tripod which I feel hampers my creativity. That said, I do appreciate the magnificent and inspiring work that other photographers create in studios and with the benefit of tertiary study in photography.

 'A bug's world' ~ a tiny metallic beetle on a tulip stem caught my eye. I loved the colors and textures when I went in close

I believe that fine art photographs need to be inspirational. Generally they are framed to be displayed on walls and need to speak to the viewer or they may just as well be patterned wallpaper. Each photographer sees and interprets the world in a different way and it is these differences that make photography so interesting and not merely records of moments in time. There is a thread of commonality amongst good photographers - a love for their craft and their chosen subjects.

'Fine Gold' ~ extreme close up of the gold tips of a burgundy daisy

For me the secret to taking images that inspire is to be open to seeing things differently each time I look at them. Sometimes an opportunity will present itself quite serendipitously and I need to make sure I am ready to take advantage of that fleeting moment when the light changes or I look up at a familiar building from an unusual vantage point and see the perfect framing. And sometimes, as happened yesterday, I am doing something quite ordinary like slicing a red pepper to put into a curry, and as I sliced it in half, the light in the kitchen made the pepper glow and I thought what a wonderful macro image it would make. So out came the camera and I shot the image. After a minute or so, the light disappeared and the pepper just looked like a vegetable again.

Everything can inspire ~ It depends totally upon your point of view!

'Brand New' ~ I wanted to communicate the angelic, soft, downy feel of the tiny creature so went in close and used the soft early morning light coming in from the side of the stable

'Ballerinas' ~ I was walking through an arts festival in a park in Indianapolis when I stumbled upon these dancers waiting behind a curtain for their show to start. The light was just perfect!

Monday, March 8, 2010

Understanding despair

Portrait of a temple beggar ~ Renee Hubbard Fine Art Photography

I remember once, while living and working in Malaysia, I  had a discussion with an Indian colleague on the rise of terrorist activities and what would make people volunteer to become martyrs. At that time I was of the opinion, like so many of my contemporaries, that the simple answer was belief, indoctrination and hate. "You are so wrong," he said to me, "it is despair - becoming a terrorist and then perhaps a martyr is sometimes the only way for them to transcend their lives of utter hopelessness, a way to triumph over the despair, bitterness and passivity."
It is difficult for us as citizens of the free West to imagine what that level of despair means, to go through your whole life struggling to survive, without hope. Travelling through some of the third world countries gives us a glimpse but we cannot fathom the depths of despair without living our entire life in a refugee camp in India or Africa where there is no comfort, no fresh water, no jobs, no food, only the weight of those killed in your heart and the constant knowledge that your life and the lives of those around you count for nothing.
We live in a world filled with contradiction and inequality, and despair is rampant. Today, more than ever, we need to teach our children to be thankful that they are free, to appreciate who they are and what they have, to be tolerant and empathetic, to listen to and stand up for those for whom this world is intolerable and to always treat people, whoever they may be, with respect and understanding.
Arundhati Roy, Indian author of The God of small things, puts what we need to do as responsible citizens of our confused world into perspective:
"To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never to forget."

Friday, March 5, 2010

Technical perfection or inspiration?

It's strange when you read something that so utterly echoes your own thoughts and feelings. A few days ago I read the blog of a Lighting Photographer, '' - Five things music can teach us about lighting. He always has very interesting articles on the technique of good lighting. This day he addressed the similarities between music and photography. He says: "One of the ironies of music is that when it is technically perfect, it is often utterly uninspiring!"

Agapanthus Ballet

I have a young daughter who loves music with a passion and she cannot envisage doing anything in her life other than becoming a soloist. She is young and she has only been playing her instrument for a few short years, but it is quite obvious that she has a gift. However, she is not like any of the other gifted young musicians we have come across who display amazing technique at such young ages. My daughter is developing her technique but her focus has always been on communicating through her music, on touching the hearts of her audience. She makes mistakes and her technique is a long way from being considered perfect by those in a position to make those judgments, but when she pulls her bow across the strings she makes you feel the music in a way that cannot be taught.
I feel exactly the same way about photography. I have no ambition to present technically perfect photographs that win international competitions. My goal is to achieve images that make an impression because they are alive, believable, interesting, original and have a raw, almost random quality to them - a bit like the feeling we get when we stumble upon something unexpectedly good.
As Strobist puts it, "The world is not perfect. Unless you have an overriding reason to the contrary, your lighting should not be totally perfect either. Get the feel you are looking for, then scrape up some edges. Find and create some randomness -- introduce imperfection if none is there."
I believe it is that imperfection and the raw passion of inspiration that makes music, art, and indeed the world, such an interesting and exciting place to explore."

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

On music and poetry ... and imagination

The Yarra River at Dusk - Melbourne, Australia

Today I listened to a reading of John Keats' poem Ode on a Grecian Urn, which was preceded by an elegant Chopin Mazurka and then followed by a haunting Chopin Etude. At first, it seemed quite surreal and completely out of place, listening to 19th century words and music while fighting the traffic on a busy modern freeway -  but as I was drawn into the poetry, it began to feel just perfect. What a wonderful haven for the mind and soul in the middle of a hectic week. I have always been a fan of the poetry of John Keats and I remember so clearly a university lecture on his poems. I can still hear the lecturer's insightful comment that made so much sense to me ~ When reading the timeless words of John Keats, we are compelled to imagine more than we can fully understand.
Having our imagination engaged is what draws us to music and poetry, and indeed to art in all its forms. Imagination gives us the ability to look at any situation from a different perspective. It enables us to mentally explore both the past and the future and it fosters the growth of our thought patterns and creativity. We can do absolutely anything with imagination. The Greek writer, Plutarch wrote: "What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality". Born of intelligence and creativity and fired by passion, music and art have the power to reach deep within us and act upon our souls by igniting our imagination.
JK Rowling, the creator of Harry Potter, in a recent address to Harvard Graduates said: "We do not need magic to change the world. We carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: We have the power to imagine better." What better reason could we have to surround ourselves and our children with poetry, music and art?

Ode on a Grecian Urn
by John Keats

Thou still unravished bride of quietness!
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flow'ry tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endeared,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal -yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
For ever warm and still to be enjoyed,
For ever panting and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloyed,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead'st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by river or sea-shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of its folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e'er return.

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou sayst,
“Beauty” is truth, truth beauty, - that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Creativity in Photography

With the rise in popularity of Photoshop and digital editing of images by photographers, I have become even more of a purist in wanting to preserve the integrity of the art of photography. Photography for me is to shoot an image as I see it rather than heavily manipulating the image afterwards to get what I intended. Make no mistake, digital photography is fantastic and has made working as a photographer so much easier in so many ways. However the creativity seems to have moved from the eye of the photographer to the enhancement of the image in post production.

With this in mind, I have been looking for ways to keep me focused and creative in my work without  becoming involved in digital manipulation of my photographs. I have been seeing the terms ‘vintage’ and ‘retro’ thrown around a lot in photography and design magazines and forums. Usually this is translated into sepia images, the use of soft focus and lately, High Dynamic Range effects, which can be seen in quite a few of the top wedding photographers’ portfolios.

When I was still at school and first interested in photography, I had a really basic camera that produced slightly under exposed and highly saturated photographs with vignetted edges and a very grainy look. I could not do much about adjusting exposure as the camera was so basic that you had to ensure that the light was right for the scene before you shot as there were no settings to change. I got some amazing surrealist style images from that camera, as well as hundreds of rejects!  Those days I lusted after a polaroid camera which I finally got my hands on in university, buying one as soon as I could afford it. I loved using that camera and watching, while waiting impatiently, as the images slowly developed right in front of my eyes.

Last week, with a bit of time on my hands, I decided to experiment with my macro lens to try to recreate that saturated surrealist look with close up shots of flowers. I played with the exposure, slightly under exposing the images while greatly boosting the saturation and ISO in the camera menu. The resulting photographs were very different to my usual macro shots but after looking at them for a while, they were surprisingly good to my eye – really punchy with a raw, vintage feel - pretty similar feel to those images I took with that old basic camera. 

Landscapes and candid portraits are next, and perhaps even a wedding - that is if I can find a client who wants something a little more creative and unique!