Posted in Flowers, Learning, Life, Photography

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Realisation day (a long read)

If you’ve been following my blog (or even my Facebook feed) over the last few days, you’ll know I’ve been reaching for something … looking for some answers to questions about the type of photographer I am, what I do it for, what I find enjoyment in photographing, if I have any feeling or sensibility for it (notice I didn’t use the word ‘talent’ 🙂 ).

After much thinking and reflecting, and responding to questions Tim posed, I have come to some important realisations.

1. I don’t have to take the same sorts of photos that others take.
This might seem self-evident and hardly worthy of days of contemplation, but for me it’s an important realisation. When I first started taking photos I predominantly photographed flowers. Up close. I even had a few exhibitions of my work and lots of my photos are now hanging in others’ houses. That’s immensely satisfying now that I think about it. But along the way I lost confidence in my ‘style’ or didn’t recognise that I had one, so I started taking photos that looked like other people’s or photos that I thought other people would like … and then I stopped taking photos, or at least stopped taking photos I was really happy with. My realisation came in the shower – that place of many realisations – a few days ago, and it was an acknowledgement that it’s okay to take photos that reflect my way of seeing the world.

2. My way of seeing the world focuses on the detail, not on the environment in which the subject exists.
My portrait work can be slightly confrontational for those who are being photographed. I get in close. I am interested in faces, in the diversity of faces, and what a face can tell us when there are no clues about who the person is or the environment they’re in apart from their facial features; when we can’t see the clothes they’re wearing, or the way they stand or sit. What interests me is the detail. It’s the same in my flower images. The way particular petals curve slightly differently from the others, the variations in colour across a flower or even a single petal, the shapes, the perfectness … even when its dying. They speak to beauty and dynamism and decay and … and life. And my way of seeing the world also involves a process – a process of envisioning, of thinking, of reflecting, of experimenting, of playing, of looking at different perspectives.

3. I enjoy the process.
I started working in community radio in 1991. I was an on-air presenter as well as a producer, a news gatherer and newsreader, an interviewer, and eventually music director. After three years and a move to a new city I had the opportunity to produce and present programs on ABC Local Radio. Throughout my 16 years working in radio, one of the elements I liked the most was getting the technical details right: making sure there was no dead-air, knowing a piece of music well enough to know when to fade it in (or out), making sure there was variations in pace and tempo of the songs across the course of an hour and of the program, knowing how to edit an interview to ensure it was coherent and told a story, leaving space for breaths (my very first ABC radio interview had no breathing space – it wasn’t good to listen to), finding the right piece of music to fit with the mood of the interview … it was in the process of making radio that I found most enjoyment. When I was a drama teacher, I enjoyed the process of developing a production. I wasn’t a ‘find a script and put on a play’ kind of drama teacher. Rather, the students and I (and for one memorable production we engaged the help of the amazing Lisa Roberts) workshopped ideas, played around with images and sounds, how to create them, and how to add them meaningfully into the production. We played around with how to use the space, how to light it, how to confront the audience or how to keep it at arms length. We played and experimented and even if we didn’t know where we were headed at the beginning, or quite how we ended up where we did, we worked our way through a process of experimentation and play and ideas and representation.

When I started taking photos, I enjoyed the process. I enjoyed working out where to put the light, how to reflect it, how to shape it. I enjoyed the process of figuring out which part of the flower to focus on, where to put it in the frame, what else to include in the frame or what to exclude. It was a creative process, and I liked the process as much as, if not more than, the product. It was a deliberate process, one I had to think about because I was so new to it; over time I have lost the deliberateness of the process. One of my realisations was that I need to become more deliberate about my process, because it’s not just the product that excites me; the process gives me a real sense of meaning and purpose.

4. Meaning and purpose.
In some ways I am a very pragmatic person, although I am also an idealist. But the pragmatist side of myself is the one that often causes me to derail. The question ‘but what is it for‘ bounces around inside my head with sickening regularity. The big existential questions are one thing, but to bring that thinking to the little things in life can rob them, I’ve realised, of joy. For me I mean. I’m not talking other people here, just me. If photography is for a pragmatic purpose – if it’s to exhibit or to sell – then it’s important that other things happen: you get clients, you know how to engage with people and make them feel comfortable, you spend your weekends shooting weddings and then the days in between getting the photos ready for the happy couple. You bill people and have contracts and meet people’s expectations. But what if that’s not the sort of photography you want to do? What if you just want to take photos? But what for, was a question I would ask. Constantly. To what end? What will I do with these images? Why am I taking photos? Those questions nag at me, tug at the edges of my mind, wear me down. Why am I spending time and money on this pursuit? What is it for?

Tim asked me a question the other day and I answered “Yes I really should”. His immediate response was: “Don’t use should. Use ‘will'”. And that was enough for me. Just that change of thinking. ‘Should’ has an expectation attached to it or a judgement. For me, the final image isn’t the thing I find of most value in the photography process; it’s the process of creating that image. That’s what brings me joy and excites me about photography – about anything creative. It’s in the experimenting, the exploring, the playing with ideas, with ways of representing the world around me (a world primarily of flowers and faces) … that’s where the meaning and purpose of my photography resides.

I went through many years of not thinking that was enough, but if I don’t have that, then I find little joy in using a camera. As it’s my only creative outlet (apart from the occasional piece of writing I do) it’s a very important part of my life.

Last week, for the 52 Week photography project I’m involved in, our theme was photographer’s choice. I decided to photograph a flower and initially I took the kinds of shots other people might take (sunflowers against a white brick wall in a jar) and used one of them for the final image for the project.

Sunflowers and jar
Sunflowers and jar

I like it as an image. But the process of taking it didn’t excite me, there was little enjoyment for me.

So I decided to go back to what I find enjoyment in and took a series of close-up shots. I used light, natural and otherwise; I played around with positioning, with framing, with considering what was important. I was deliberate in my process. What surprised me, no it was stronger than that, what amazed me was the excitement that came flooding back. It reinforced for me that it’s the process that gives me meaning and purpose in my photography work.

So after all that, here is what I came up with. This is not about which is the ‘better’ image, or which one I like the most. This is about which one was taken in a way that gave me a sense of enjoyment, satisfaction and purpose.

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One final note: yes, it was a very long shower! 🙂

Posted in Life, Melbourne, Photography, Portraits

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I spot her as we walk through Myer on our way to Melbourne Central, and quickly say to Tim, “I’m going to follow her”.

But I couldn’t, not without offering to help carry her (very) heavy bag. She talked to me of her son, who had died recently, a (very) heavy burden for her to bear, and of her stroke which had caused her to forget things. We walked a few steps, stopped to talk, and walked on.

She used to work in Myer, many years ago – her first job after arriving in Australia from Malta in 1958. Her father had a Humber and would park out the front of Myer, go to the markets and then pick her up when she finished work at lunchtime.

I heard many stories, always returning to the death of her son four years before at the age of 39. She showed me photos, of him as an adult and as a child. She laughed fondly, before her eyes filled again with sadness.

I asked if I could take her photo, and she took my hand to signify her version of yeah sure.

This is Josette.

Josette

Posted in Life, Photography

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Horizons might seem fixed and unchanging, but what looms on the horizon really depends on your perspective, and where you choose to fix your gaze.

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Thankfully, things on my horizon are beginning to look a little brighter.

Posted in Life, Photography

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Life is like an unfamiliar road that twists and turns through valleys and over creeks and along the sides of mountains. It can be exhilarating, but sometimes a nice straight stretch or a gentle curve can be good for the soul.

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Posted in Life, Writing

2016 Writing challenge: Day #10

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Today’s topic is a free association one: Write down the first words that comes to mind when we say … home … soil … rain. Use those words in the title of your post.

Title: Farm-earth drinking

I used to live on a farm. We moved to the farm after living in Brisbane for a few years when an opportunity arose that my then husband couldn’t turn down.

The farm was in Tasmania, just outside a little town, population: 400.

The farm had a few cows, fewer fences, a lot of thistles and even more sheep.

The farm was on a hill and on the eastern boundary, halfway down the hill, above the river, was ‘the race’. I didn’t know what ‘the race’ was when I first arrived (I didn’t even know what a race was, let alone the race). I discovered that it’s kind of like an aqueduct, but far less grand.

It used to carry water from up in the hills behind the town to the tin mine at Derby. Even though I lived there in the mid-1980s, I have only just learnt that it was a 48km-engineering feat, built in 1901, and the first release of water took three weeks to reach the mine. Thanks Internet – we didn’t have the internet back then, so there’s no way I could have known that :).

One farmer I heard about used to tie her son to the clothesline on a long line so that he wouldn’t fall into the race when she was milking the cows. Can you imagine the furore that would cause these days? Still, she was keeping her son safe, so props for that, as the hip people say.

Anyway, the race was dry by the time we moved there; it had fallen into disrepair many years before, but was still an interesting feature.

One of the other interesting features of the farm was the sound the earth made after rain. It rained a lot and so I had many opportunities to listen in to the conversation the earth was having with itself when it rained.

It honestly sounded as though the earth was drinking and taking a great deal of pleasure in doing so.

The farmhouse we lived in burnt down a number of years ago and as I happened to be in the neighbourhood (months after the fire, I hasten to add) I thought I’d stop in to see what remained. Only the bath and a chimney remained. But what hit me as soon as I got out of the car was the silence. It was nothing I’d ever heard before. Sure there were the sounds of birds in the distance, and the tinkle of a cow’s bell from the farm across the valley, but the air was unbelievably quiet. It wasn’t something I’d remembered from living there, although with four children at the time, it probably wasn’t silent too often.

And in that silence I heard it again: the sound of the earth drinking.

If you haven’t heard it, head out after the rain, plant yourself on a patch of earth and tune in.

What do you hear?

Posted in Life, Writing

2016 Writing challenge: Day #9

This post should have been yesterday’s post, but I was rushing to get out of the house to have dinner with my son Chase, and so postponed posting this until now.

The theme I have chosen for today is: Take two – Run outside. Take a picture of the first thing you see. Run inside. Take a picture of the second thing you see. Write about the connection between these two random objects, people, or scenes.

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The bird is blue and the leaf is green.

Blue and green must never be seen without a colour in between. That’s what my Sydney Nan used to tell me.

Sydney Nan would know because she was a very stylish woman. Her handbag and shoes always matched. When she was younger she wore gloves and a hat. Every Sunday night she would paint her nails, and they always looked beautiful, just like she did.

I argued of course. But Nan, the sky is blue and the grass is green, and they look good together.

Yes, Sharon, they do. But it’s not the same in fashion, always put a colour in between.

Okey dokey. I knew when to stop arguing with Nan.

Pink and green, on the other hand, are fit for a queen.

Really?

Pink and green? Together? Hmmm …

Nan didn’t tell me that. I read it somewhere.

We have a proclivity for making connections between things. We see an animal act in a certain way and we connect it with human emotions or actions. We see a puddle and connect it with a painting we once craned our necks to see over the heads of hundreds of cameras in a museum on the other side of the world.

We connect a loathing of maths to our high school maths teacher.

We connect our aversion to wooden spoons to the fearful voice of our mother and finding socks under the bed.

We connect the scent of vanilla to our fridge and then make the leap to food and then realise that you’re writing a blog post and it’s after past nine and you haven’t had breakfast and you’re hungry and your mind is fuzzy and you wonder why you don’t stop to eat.

And you connect the leaf that’s been rained on in Melbourne to the rain coming from Tasmania where the bird was given as a gift.

Connections.

Between people and things. Some more tenuous than others, but we can make them if we try.

Posted in Life, Writing

2016 Writing challenge: Day #8

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Today’s theme: What’s the 11th item on your bucket list?

This is a strange prompt for me to respond to because I don’t have a bucket list, let alone an 11th item.

I think about things like this from time to time – the ‘where do you see yourself in ten years’ type question, and the ‘who would you have dinner with if you could have dinner with anyone from the past or present’ type question, and the ‘if you could live in any other time in history which period would it be’ type question.

And do you know what I conclude, when I do spend two point six seconds thinking about those types of questions? That I don’t respond well to those questions.

Maybe I should spend more than two point six seconds thinking about them, I hear you suggest encouragingly.

It won’t work. I won’t do it. I have no interest in questions like that. In thinking about them, in responding to them, in asking them of others.

I worry that it’s a failure of imagination, or an inclination for the serious over the fanciful, or a need for certainty over a capacity to speculate.

But who would I have dinner with? If it could be anyone, how do I choose? What if I chose someone who wanted to eat dogs’ breath and cucumber sandwiches? Could I take that risk? And what would we talk about? What if I chose a non-talker? Then where would we be? Sitting opposite each other, chomping away in silence, me wondering how I ever thought they might make a good dinner companion and them wondering why I disturbed their eternal rest.

And which period of history would I choose? On what basis would I make that decision? How much would I need to know about periods of history to be able to decide? More than I do now, obviously. Would I get to choose my status? I mean, living in 1771 would be okay I guess if I could be a landed gentry, but I don’t think I’d like to travel to Australia on a convict ship. Especially if I was a convict. What if I chose a period of history that hanged witches and I happened to be a witch? Or if I went back to the Renaissance period but ended up in South Australia at that time?

So that doesn’t work for me either.

And if I was to put together a bucket list I would have to know an awful lot of things about an awful lot of places and/or activities. Out of all the things that it’s possible to do or see, how do I choose? On what basis would I narrow it down to just ten? Or eleven in this case.

STOP THE PRESS

It’s hit me. An idea for my bucket list! Not the whole list (are you crazy) but the number 11 thing.

So here it is: [big fanfare]

My number 11 thing on my bucket list is to be more like Murwillumbah Nan. If you didn’t meet my Murwillumbah Nan you really missed out. She was funny, and humble, and kind, and generous. She called her grandchildren darling, and had the softest skin. I didn’t ever see her in pants, only dresses. She didn’t like talking on the phone much. She hated having her photo taken, and she loved poetry. She wasn’t stylish, she wasn’t flashy, she didn’t use bad language, and she was warm and loved by everyone. You weren’t allowed to say bad things about your family when you were with Nan – she wouldn’t hear it. She told great stories and loved to laugh and she lived a simple, good kind of life. All 94 years of it. We held each other and cried and cried together when we knew it was the last time we’d be together.

So there you have it. The 11th thing on my bucket list of one thing.

Be like Nan.

Posted in Life, Writing

2016 Writing challenge: Day #7

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Today’s theme is Ode to a playground.

My little oasis was there for me when I needed a place to hide, a place to sort through the thoughts whirling through my head, a place to work out excuses for my terrible, terrible behaviour, or to take time out from the turmoil of life as a ten-year old. It remains an integral part of my childhood, a place of both safety and stomach-lurching glee.

I could swing away my troubles within its white-rail fenced perimeter, feeling that frizz of pleasure as I put my head back as far as I could while swinging as high as my little legs would push me. Dragging my hair along the ground, sitting up suddenly, winding the chains into a tight corkscrew and then whirling like a dervish as it unspun.

I could spin away my troubles on that thing you had to hang on to and run beside then jump on when it was spinning faster than you could run. The thing that was best when it was only you there and not a whole bunch of other kids wanting to push it faster and faster till you knew you were going to have to sit really still for at least three minutes and seven seconds before you could walk coolly away.

I could slide away my troubles on the big metal slide that would burn the backs of your legs in the summer, and take some time to warm up in the winter. I would rush head first down the slide, or feet first on my stomach, ending up in a rather crumpled heap at the bottom and rush around to the ladder to do it all over again. The slide was also great for swinging under. I’d hold onto the slide from underneath, then walk my hands up till my legs were swinging from the ground. Each time I’d try to go higher and higher.

I could seesaw away my troubles on the long wooden boards with a funny handle on either end. Some people think that a seesaw is play equipment for two, but you can do a lot of balancing on a seesaw when you’re the only one there. Or running up one side and down the other. Carefully. I was already in trouble; I didn’t want to get into any more!

The black wattle tree with the sticky sap was the only downside to that oasis of stomach-lurching glee.

A white fence ran around the outside, one rail. You know the diagonal sort that made it difficult to hang upside down from? Paling fences separated the park from the houses that backed onto it, the houses that were on my street where the Bywaters and Brunswicks and Aulsebrooks lived.

The paling fences are still there, but there is no longer any white rail fence, no ugly, sticky, sappy black wattle tree, and no swings, slide, see saw or merry-go-round. Just an empty, grassy space with a single, solitary piece of play equipment.

That play equipment might be safe, but it wouldn’t help any ten year old swing, spin, slide or seesaw away her troubles.