Monday, 23 July 2012

Art in the abstract?

Woodland at sunset (4 seconds handheld, no manipulation)
I’ve been thinking a great deal about abstract photography and images in general since reading an article on abstract art in New Scientist last week.  I’m not sure exactly what it is that makes a picture ‘abstract’; in a lot of my photography, I like to explore the grey area between the recognisable and the unrecognisable in the visual image.  Is abstraction a form, or is it a mood?  

To my mind, abstract nature photography usually means one of two things:

1)      It could be a picture of a particular detail or pattern in nature, something which challenges your understanding to recognise what it is.

Pine cone
2)      The picture has been taken with some element of blur, either out of focus, or with a long exposure or movement blur.
Woodland at sunset
(4 seconds handheld)

What seems interesting to me is that these two approaches offer directly opposing means of creating a picture.  In the first, the image is made from showing the detail without the wider picture to make sense of it; in the second, the wider picture is shown without the details in the shapes.  Perhaps we need both shape and detail in order to show an image of visual reality, but what is it that we’re looking for in an ‘abstract’ nature photograph?  Perhaps it’s a picture that forces the viewer to engage the imagination; a picture so general in its content, and so lacking in detail, that it won’t make sense without input from the viewer. 

This understanding of the general is a difference between human nature and animal nature recognised as far back as 1755 by Etinne Bonnot de Condillac in his Treatise on Animals [Treaté des Animaux]:
‘As the instinct of beast make no, or almost no abstractions…And because they make few abstractions, they have few general ideas.’ 
So perhaps abstract art has a deeper sense of humanity; it’s a way to turning the visual image to a more general idea to be interpreted with the most human of imaginations.  In photographing wildlife and nature, I tend to think of myself offering pictures of nature that people are wired by evolution to find meaning in.  Abstraction gives the general idea, without the details, just as the paragraph of a scientific paper labelled ‘Abstract’, tells of the overall form of the whole paper, without the details.  So how do we find meaning in an image so general that it doesn’t depict a recognisable image?
Pine woodland canopy from below

Kat Austen’s enlightening article in New Scientist (14th July, 2012), ‘In the eye of the beholder’, or as the front cover puts it, ‘How abstract art appeals to your brain’, has some very telling findings about the nature of abstract art and the relationship it creates with the human viewer.  In summary, Austen makes a strong case that appreciation of abstract painting is genuine – in scientific studies, people can (on the whole) tell the difference between a picture painted by a human and one painted by an animal (the automatic assumption being that animals don’t do art).
One interesting implication from the British Journal of Psychology (vol. 102, p. 49) is that the human brain responds positively to fractal patterns, ‘repeating motifs that reoccur at different scales, whether you zoom in or zoom out of a canvas’.  Examples such as the unfurling fronds of the fern and the jagged peaks of a mountain are given.  But this goes back further in the history of art: only last weekend, I was presenting some of my own research on the aesthetics and expression of nature in visual art (in relation to music and language), at a conference in London.  I’ve been thinking in particular about William Gilpin’s ‘picturesque’ aesthetic of the late 18th century, which finds expression in the irregularities and imperfections of nature, rather than perfect forms and smooth shapes:

Tho art often abounds with regularity, it does not follow, that all art must necessarily do so.  The picturesque eye, it is true, finds its chief objects in nature… The point lies here: to make an object in a peculiar manner picturesque, there must be a proportion of roughness; so much at least, as to make an opposition [with beauty]. [‘On Picturesque Beauty’, 1792].

As soon as we hear such qualities and visual shapes alone described as expressive, no matter what type of picture they may be seen in, the argument for abstract imagery based upon natural forms begins to make sense.  The great painter and lover of nature Claude Monet once told Lilla Cabot Perry that he wished he'd been born blind, suddenly gaining sight later in life so that he could begin to paint "without knowing what the objects were that he saw before him."
Pine woodland in the rain (photographed out of focus and
underexposed through a rain-soaked car windscreen).
This tendency towards natural forms also suggests that a nature photographer may have the upper hand in creating abstract images successfully, since the patterns of nature themselves are always the subject of the picture.  This also brings to my mind Frans Lanting’s photograph of the big bang which opens his stunning Life project – the object in the picture is in fact nothing more than the rings of a tree trunk, although that hardly matters – the pattern is a natural one and is aesthetically intriguing.

One of my interests in abstract images has been creating blurred pictures either by handheld long exposures (four seconds is usually good) or simply by shooting out of focus.  So how might the human viewer make sense of such an approach?  Research suggests that people looking at abstract art often claim to be able to see something in the picture, even if they cannot identify what it is.  This is a point made brilliantly by the artist Robert Peppernell (who has been personally involved in much of this research), whose abstract paintings are often influenced by older masterpieces though rendered entirely abstract (compare his Paradox with Valerio Castello’s Moses Striking the Rock).

I love Pepperell’s paintings for their poetic qualities which can be sensed, perhaps even seen, throughout his work, whether or not there is a clear subject in the image.  Good abstract imagery doesn’t just create some sensuous response in us: it can reveal something about the world, perhaps even in a more profound way than realistic photography by hiding the details, leaving only their shadows; the image has a more poetic appeal.  Perhaps it takes a poet to explain, so this is how it was put by Rainer Maria Rilke:

‘Things are not all as graspable and sayable as on the whole we are led to believe; most events are unsayable, occur in a space that no word has ever penetrated, and most unsayable of all art works of art, mysterious existences whose life endures alongside ours, which passes away.’ [Letter of 17th February 1903].
You can sense the overall form more strongly when the details are covered over, just as in reading Rilke’s poetry you might not always grasp the meaning of the words, but you sense the tone of voice.  Sometimes the poetic is more telling.

This is not always the case, of course.  Most of my abstract images have been influenced by the great pioneers of art-photography just at the time Rilke was writing his best work, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  The Pictorial movement in photography was created after many photographers attempted to move the art of photography in line with the art of the Impressionist painters (this is rather ironic, since it’s often said that the Impressionists were themselves attempting to move away from the hard reality of the photographic image).  As an art form, Pictorial photography flourished into the early decades of the 20th century, only to be destroyed (like so many things) by the First World War, in which the emotions of shock, heartache, death and destruction gained a sense of immediacy that had not been seen before.  The photographic image that was most lifelike was able to convey the deepest emotion, even if that emotion was of horror: the disbelief that such an image could be real, competing with the certain knowledge that it was only too real.

Tree by a pond at twilight
(16 seconds handheld)
But of those 19th century photographers, I perhaps identify most closely with the approach favoured by the English school; the idea that the abstract nature photograph should not be manipulated – it should be a true photograph. The photographs of Alfred Maskell and the American Photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn demonstrate this visual mystery created only from blur and texture in a photograph.  The truth of an image is most important now in the digital age when any wonders of modern imagery can be created – some of this is wonderful indeed, but if the point is to reveal something about the natural, visual world, then a fabricated image loses its meaning.  

Good, abstract art will always hold a strong element of truth in abstract art.  These, for me, are photographs which do not lie, but which reveal a truth that is hidden from the eye.  There’s poetry in nature: real poetry, in real nature.

(n.b. none of the photographs in this blog have been digitally manipulated during processing. So there!)

Sunday, 22 July 2012

A cracking shot!

I’ve heard it said that for a photographer, every photo carries with it a memory of the moment it was taken.  So here’s a moment of the day.

The picture was taken on the Isle of Mull.  I was sitting enjoying a break, being refreshed by the gentle feel of highland rain on my face when I heard a tumbling sound behind me.  My camera and macro lens had been balanced too precariously on the hill, and started rolling away.  As it picked up speed, I noticed it tumbling towards the edge of a large drop, the high waterfall I’d just been photographing minutes earlier.  Over it went, I heard a distant crack from below and froze, unable to bring myself to look over to see what might have become of it (this is only day one of a three-week trip!).

The drop had been around 20 feet, and the camera had fallen amongst rocks by the waterfall, landing on the shutter button and taking this picture at the moment of impact.  I was really annoyed – not least because the picture was out of focus AND underexposed (you’d think it could have got at least one of them right, but such are the hazards of shooting in manual mode).  I picked it up, tested that it was still working, and carried on shooting for the rest of the day, determined to do better.

For those interested in such things: Canon 7D with 100mm f/2.8 macro lens, ISO 400, 1/250sec at f/2.8; no manipulation.
(Please don't try this at home.)

Friday, 13 July 2012

Grey Squirrels: in the bad books!

Grays, a nut and me.


It’s another quiet, calm, weekday morning and I’m breathing in lungfuls of fresh breeze as I lie on my belly with my camera.  About ten inches, no more, in front of my lens, is a grey squirrel feeding happily on a nut that I’ve just handed him.  A mallard is padding round in the background after seeing a mass of squirrels converging for food all around me, and wondering what all the fuss is about. Moments later I feel a ticklish sensation as another squirrel climbs up onto the back of my legs, walking slowly up my body, up to my shoulders before resting on my head (these guys certainly know how to get your attention when they want food).  When I shake my head, he jumps off, and it doesn’t surprise me to find that this is the dominant squirrel of this group, bolder, cheekier, more confident than the others.  He is possibly more endearing to me in making that close connection with me that makes days like this so much fun.  Ethically, it’s right and proper to keep a proper distance from natural creatures, but sometimes I can’t help but take the opportunity to stroke the fur down his back as he eats; he is completely unmoved by it.  He’s not scared, though he doesn’t appear to gain any pleasure from the contact either.  Our contract of contact sits entirely on their love of food.  Nothing else.

The hunt for red’s not over.

This is how I’ve spent a great many days this year.  I had set out at the start of the year to make a project of photographing squirrels of both red and grey varieties in England. Nevertheless, the greys here are ubiquitous, while the reds are consigned (by the greys) to small pockets of the country and photographing them requires more planning.  And there’s the problem with grey squirrels.  Much as I’m enjoying my time in the company of these little grey mammals, I have mixed emotions about celebrating, photographing and feeding (in abundance) a species which has done so much harm to our country, driving down the number of native reds all but to the point of extinction, and causing untold damage to many natural places ever since they were introduced just over a century ago.

Nifty raids of grey

I’ve been thinking about this over the last couple of weeks in particular, with the passing of the 4th July celebration for American Independence.  A century after the declaration of Independence was signed that the first grey squirrels were released into the England to make their own bid for freedom and independence.  For many residents in modern Britian, grey squirrels are generally thought to be as British as afternoon tea; they are a common feature in our landscapes whose presence here is unquestioned by many.

Upon they’re introduction in 1876, however, they were a mere novelty from our close friends over the Atlantic, although it didn’t take long for them to become deeply unpopular.  There’s a passage in Louis de Bernières’ (he of Captain Corelli’s Mandoline) book Notwithstanding: Stories from an English Village which sums up the opposing views as well as anywhere:

Joan and Leafy exchanged glances, and the former summoned up her courage. ‘Polly dear, I can’t help wondering why you have this thing about squirrels.’

Polly puffed vehemently on her pipe, and the pointed the stem at Joan, stabbing the air with it for emphasis. ‘Rats,’ she said. ‘Rats with fluffy tails.  Tree rats. Vermin.  Full of fleas.  Disgusting.’

‘Oh, I think they’re rather sweet,’ said Joan, unthinkingly.

‘It’s the songbirds,’ explained Polly. ‘You can have squirrels or songbirds, but not both.  These grey squirrels eat the eggs, and they eat the heads off the chicks.  Nice and crunchy, you see.  I’m voting for songbirds.  Bugger the squirrels. Got to get rid of them. 

Polly’s prejudices are played out more aggressively in the story: this passage comes just after she recounts recently shooting a grey squirrel in the garden (I’ve spoken to several nature lovers who are happy to do this, although much of this results in inhumane killing that most conservationists agree this will have no significant effect on the dominance of grey squirrels).  Her prejudices may have been a little too severe however (there’s also a darling cat in the house, which is more likely to be the perpetrator, but don’t tell Polly!).

The first pair of greys in Britain were released in 1876 is Henbury Park, Cheshire, followed by five more pairs in Bushy Park, London in 1889.  However, none of these pairs lived up to their associations with fertility (according to Japanese mythology) and they soon disappeared without trace.  As far as we know, they died spinsters. 

The Climb and Sprawl of the Woburn Empire

So the first successful introduction was in 1890, where 10 more animals were introduced to Woburn Abbey, which quickly spread out (and, yes, Woburn Abbey is also the birthplace of afternoon tea, so it’s not difficult to see how the little critters could have become Briticised as they bred and spread…I’ve been staring into space for the last five minutes wondering if I can get ‘jam’ into that sentence too,  but I should probably conserve my original topic so as not to jar the writing).  The site at Woburn has in fact played host to many a foreign creature, since (in a strange twist of irony) it now boasts a safari park within its grounds.  The squirrels were not fenced in however (and as far as I know, they won’t make a habit of pulling the windscreen wipers of your car) and Victorians wrongly thought they would be a great addition to the country. It was after 30 more releases across England, Scotland and Wales between 1902 and 1929 that their unpopularity really set in.  In 1929, Eric Parker, who also gets a mention in de Bernières’ story as the last man to see a red squirrel in the local village, called for county councils to launch an extermination of greys.  This was followed in 1931 by the launch of the Anti-Grey Squirrel Campaign, and since 1938 it has been illegal either to import a grey squirrel into Britain or to keep one in captivity.

Polly’s prejudices in the de Bernières story might be a little exaggerated, although the destructive tendencies of these creatures are well documented.  In addition to their role in eradicating the population of red squirrels in many parts of Britain, they’re often seen stripping bark from trees which can result in the tree being maimed for life.  Nevertheless, it might also be added the deer are responsible for this same behaviour and are by no means demonised for it with the same degree of prejudice.  The strange conundrum, however, is that this is behaviour unique to the British greys; those greys (or grays) in America leave the trees nicely in tact so why they destroy our trees is something of a mystery.  They don’t seem to be doing favours, although many current approaches keeping back their numbers are aimed not just to create spaces for our native reds to continue thriving (particularly in ‘island communities’ such as Anglesey and the Isle of Wight where numbers are easier to control), but for gamekeepers to ensure that the food left out for pheasants is not hoovered up by the shady-tails before the pheasants get close.

A tail of two squirrels

Nevertheless, it does give the grey squirrel some hope.  We might find ourselves taking a dislike to the behaviour of these squirrels as misfits in our British ecosystem, but that clearly doesn’t give us sufficient reason to dislike them as an entire species.  Our delight of watching squirrels eating at close quarters is something we share with our ancient ancestors who named the creature after its tendency to sit in the shadow of its big, bushy tail (the Ancient Greek word skiouros [σκίουρος] literally means ‘shadow-tailed’).  This is an idea which has influenced a great number of my pictures over the course of the year, as I’ve tried to find new ways to capture the shape of the squirrel and its tail.
Spending so much time in their company has been a real eye-opener, however.  They’ve become so accustomed to me and my carrier bags full of food that they don’t think twice about climbing onto my head, sitting on the open palm of my hand (they’ve realised now that that’s a good way of hogging all the nuts) and crawling over my back whilst I’m lying on the floor trying to photograph them. 

They have long established themselves as cheeky blighters.  There’s an old Norse story of the squirrel as a mischief maker, creating strife between the serpent on the ground and the eagle at the top of the tree, specifically the Yggrrasill (the tree that holds the nine worlds).  This vision of their silhouettes shooting up and down trees are break-neck speed has been a common sight for me watching them.  So like so many of my ancestors going back over millennia, watching these squirrels in such detail has been a source of great fascination. 

Being in the company of any animal that accepts you totally, provides you with a privileged view of their extraordinary behaviour, behaviour you will never witness simply by watching them on the bird table.  Within each colony of squirrels is a very carefully organised hierarchy, both within the colony as a whole and within gender groups.  It isn’t simply about one squirrel being more dominant and bolshie than others – there isn’t a distinct pecking order, it’s much more subtle than that - but it’s possible to witness the way in which certain squirrels make room or simply give way to other individuals as they feed in a group, and as I get to know the individuals in a group of 10 or 12 squirrels, the relative roles and positions of each within the groups becomes clear through the consistency of their behaviour.  They threaten each other regularly with little noises and squeaks, most often by chattering their teeth with great dexterity (one sound in their vocabulary of 11 distinct noises which you will only hear by being within about a metre of them) and occasionally, if one oversteps the mark, they will fight each other (I’ve even had two fight me on my chest whilst I was lying back on the floor). 
Our greys are certainly here to stay, and it seems that they have now become ‘our’ greys, though some are still not convinced.  (As an English person, it would be hypocritical to dislike the greys for pushing reds into the far corners of our country since it’s what we did to the Celts years ago!).  For me, working with individual animals as closely as I have with these, it’s impossible not to have some level of admiration for them – I’m not talking about the ‘cute’ factor, either.  I’m talking about building up an intuitive understanding of their behaviour within the world as they see it within the makeup of their societies.  Perhaps I’m reaching the territory now of superficial blah blah blah, but I’m writing this because something deep inside me cries out that I need to justify myself for having developed such an interest in the greys.  Do I need to justify myself? I’ve still not decided.    

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

The Small Things

It being nearly July, it seems useless to invoke some Bridget Jones-esque set of New Year’s Resolutions, or even to resolve the problem of unresolved resolutions.

"New Year’s resolutions: will obviously lose 20 pounds, put yesterday’s muddy wildlife watching clothes in the laundry basket, launch a new website, launch a new facebook page. Equally important, will photograph lots of sensible new subjects whilst continuing to maintain attachments with otters, swans, deer, friends, family, alcoholics, workaholics, emotional book-wits, great tits, blue tits, long-tailed tits, long stories, short stories, tall stories, and will especially stop procrastinating over starting a new blog that embodies all of these things."

Oh. And there’s the problem. My blog. It’s been sitting staring at me all year (like so many other things I haven’t done). I don’t want to fill it all with long and tall stories, but a few of the other things on the list might be nice. So here goes:

Happy New Year! Welcome to my blog! Ready to continue?

Why so long in getting started? Well, it’s the small things in life, isn’t it, that eat up all the time. Travelling back and forth, several hundred times between two sides of the country (I now seem to live on both, more of that in a mo), remembering to eat, remembering to drink, remembering to think, remembering to blink and swallow and not to swear. There.
But it’s also the small things in life that provide so much interest in what I photograph. They don’t have to be small in size – but, you know those little things, events, moments, weeks, that pass you by without your realising there’s something great there. You know when cape-wearing wise people usually with long beards or shaved heads tell us to stop and appreciate what is around us? And you know when you hear cape-wearing people talk and resolve to listen and do as they say, but then you realise you’re meant to be somewhere else in ten minutes’ time, and the new resolution goes out of the window. That reminds me – my resolution and my year.
It’s been quite exciting this year for me. Life changing events have taken hold, no longer working full time, a virtual rebirth of my state of mind after a near death experience (my poor car wasn’t quite so lucky), not to mention that my wedding on the horizon (v.g.), so a new direction beckons. And it’s all led me to move house from one side of the country (hence one journey in that direction); but continuing to still work some music jobs on the other side of the country to where I now live (hence all the others).
But for someone like me who’s interested chiefly in discovering wildlife on the doorstep, it’s always exciting to have a new doorstep – and here’s mine over in Nottinghamshire. So I’ve spent much of this year just getting to know the local area, finding good sites for all sorts of little critters, but ultimately finding all the little critters that are often around any site, if we stop to look. Commonplace creatures that we should perhaps learn to connect with, rather than take for granted and ignore.

As I said, it’s the small things in life that give places and moments the real meaning. And the thing I love about photographing wildlife is that it makes you stop and look around at the things you wouldn't otherwise make time to see. So here’s to the small things in life, in all our lives! And here are some pictures of some of them. There’s a high chance that if you’ve left the house today, you’ve walked past many of these little guys, if not all of them. Shall we play critter bingo? How many did you see?

It’s Sunday tomorrow – why not take the time to stop and look?