In the second week of practice my mood, – concerned as to whether I can legitimately continue with the practical work for my PhD – has again affected my photography. I have been on edge and not willing to spend considered time in the landscape. Rather than writing my journal in the field, I have returned to the car to make notes. However, by choosing the theme of Among Trees part way through this period of practice, I have felt more able to keep well away from other people and be discrete in my work. I have since been assured by the University that I can continue my work outside, on the basis that I am doing necessary research for my doctoral studies and have been given documentation to confirm this.
In this context I am reminded of an excellent book by Patricia Townsend called Creative States of Mind – Psychoanalysis and the Artist’s Process which I read prior to commencing the PhD. I would like to revisit this, especially the chapter The Artist’s State of Mind in which she talks about the artist needing to enter a state of mind in order to be productive and creative as the sculptor George Meyrick explains:
“You’re buried in what you’re doing. The outside world doesn’t intrude. It just makes a big difference that you are not disturbed by other thoughts coming through.” (Townsend 2019) p49).
I have enjoyed spending time Among Trees and while my success in terms of image-making has been mixed, looking back I am satisfied I have produced some good work and have learned from the practice experience. My last day working in the field, although short, yielded some positive results, Day 6 photographing the dizzying heights of the tree canopy was successful (Among Trees 4 and 7), along with Day 7, when I visited a more indigenous wood on the mainland, where earthy sweeping paths gave a focus of interest and pattern to the image (Among Trees 14 and 15). I also consider that Day 3’s images (those that did not hit the mark with my supervisors) have an alternative aesthetic quality that I might develop (Essence of Trees 9 and 6). I intend to revisit this work and see if reviewing the post-processing might improve them.
Analyse Practice – Reflecting on Approach – Connectedness and ‘Interiority
I wrote last week about how I need to enter a state of flow in my creative work. I find this easier to do in a place I am familiar with. However, in the last two weeks I have been working in areas I know less well, or not at all, as I scout for potential new locations for my work. This familiarity will take time before I feel connected, but I have made significant strides in understanding more about trees, reading books not just about their physical characteristics but also their place in the landscape, and their historical, social, botanical, artistic and mythological interconnectivity with the wider world.
In Thought Piece 12 – Among Trees, I started to articulate what it is I wish to achieve in my photographic work. Woods and forests have emergent properties, and it is possible to catch glimpses of being. I find, that as I focus on a single tree the wider community of trees withdraws and conversely as I concentrate on a larger group the single trees withdraw as individual components in the scene.
As I continue my work in woods and forests, I want to enhance the sense of interiority of being through my images. I do not want to be an observer looking in but to be part of the network and social life of these natural areas. Hence, the change of name to this collection as Among Trees. Whilst I do not consider that I am yet achieving it, I feel positive that in future practice periods, and with an engaged state of mind, I can achieve this in my imagery.
Reflecting on Ontology – Focus on Outcomes Rather than Process
I spoke above about how the uncertainty about the legitimacy of continuing my work during lockdown has affected both the photographic process and the outcomes of my endeavours. This period of practice and its challenges has led me to think again about my focus on outcomes, because the ontology underpinning my practice suggests that I need to focus on process and the outcomes will surely follow. And, indeed, the more I focus on outcomes the less likely I am to succeed. In order to focus on process, I need to spend more time in the landscape, perhaps without my camera – although it may be that I will feel more confident and comfortable if my camera is ready at hand. I need to look, listen, write record and reflect. I need to focus and allow aspects to emerge and withdraw or unconceal in Heidegger’s terms (Wrathall 2011). I need to maximise my chances of glimpsing the unnameable glimmer (Derrida 1998). I need to make sure that I stay focused on the objectives of my research and photographic practice.
Reflecting on Techniques – Developing Photographic Strategies to Capture the Essence of Trees
During this period of practice, I feel that my restlessness has led to me trying various strategies to get to the essence of trees. I have used the process of reduction significantly in my work. For example, whilst in woods and forests I have used intentional camera movement to reduce attention on a single tree and in so doing, I preference the wider experience of being among trees. By seeking to disrupt attention on individual components I hope to increase the awareness of the collective of trees. I have also used intentional camera movement in a considered way by adjusting the amount of blur depending on the sense I wish to create. In some cases, I have moved the camera quite quickly to mimic the dynamic movement in the trees while on other occasions I have moved the camera very slowly to give a sense of calm and contemplation to the image.
Another strategy of reduction I have used, although not extensively since starting my PhD, is to produce images in black and white and in this period of practice I used this approach while photographing the lone silver birch and the small community of trees nearby. In this case, I used monochrome to emphasise the harsh and hostile environment on this grassy outcrop and to show the threatening presence of the Black Cuillin, with their jagged outline, behind. A black and white rendition emphasises shape and form and without foliage the vulnerability of the trees is laid bare.
In this example, I have deployed a further strategy to get to the essence of Skye more generally and that is metaphor – a strategy supported and discussed extensively in the work of Ortega y Gasset (1925) and Graham Harman (2018). The lone tree is a metaphor for vulnerability, isolation and fragility and conversely for resilience and longevity.
Reflecting on Techniques – Strategies in Post Processing and Presentation
I spoke of my work among the trees and my use of intentional camera movement and blur to access the essence of a community of trees. I have said before that I like to do all my creative work in camera and apply minimal post processing. But, while playing with the clarity, vibrance and saturation sliders in Lightroom I found I was able to further enhance the sense and feelings I wish to convey. When I want to emphasise movement for example, more clarity seems to work very effectively whereas when wishing to focus on the warmth and calm in a woodland then less clarity and less vibrance and saturation creates a more restful image.
On reflection, I need to work more carefully to ensure that standard processing approaches do not detract from the image I have actually created in camera. In particular, I wish to re-process the images of Day 3 to see if a more acute and sympathetic eye might improve them. I plan to work on this aspect of my practice alongside starting to print images on different surfaces over the coming weeks.
As I come to the end of this Critical Reflection of Practice Week 2, I feel that whilst not the greatest two-week period of practice in terms of outcomes, I have learnt a significant amount about myself and my practice, about process and how my ontology informs my work in the field and of course, my knowledge of trees has increased. I have also reflected more on the strategies I deploy and how these will impact on the final outputs, images or otherwise.
Derrida, J. (1998). Of Grammatology. Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press.
Harman, G. (2018). Object-Oriented Ontology – A New Theory of Everything. Milton Keynes, Pelican Books.
Ortega y Gasset, J. (1925). The Dehumanization of Art and Ideas about the Novel. Princeton, Princeton University Press.
Townsend, P. (2019). Creative States of Mind – Psychoanlysis and the Artist’s Process. Abingdon, Oxon, Routledge.
Wrathall, M. (2011). Heidegger and Unconcealment – Truth, Language, and History. New York, Cambridge University Press.