I had such a great conversation last weekend with Helen MacKinven! What with Helen being a writer, I confessed that I (along with only every second person) would love to write something fictional. I have never done such a thing, and although I would really enjoy it, I just don’t think I would be brave enough. Before I go on I think it is worth saying that I really enjoy the process of writing. I like choosing my words, and I like editing a roughly written piece to make it read sensibly, so why am I not a natural prospective writer? the truth is, I’m afraid of the nakedness! Not literally you understand, it’s the cold openness of people seeing you as the writer differently or anew. Imagine I wrote a love story or a romance of some kind, what would people think about what was in my head? Would people think I was a closet romantic, would they guess I was about to “come out of the closet”?, would they think my writing was un-serious and trivial? Possibly my favourite novel ever might be Anna Karenina, or Wilkie Collin’s The Woman in White, or come to think of it, maybe Virginia Woolf’s Night and Day; are you getting the pattern here, I like romantic novels, but I would never be brave enough to try to write one even if I had the writing-chops to pull it off! (Just for the record, I love lots of genres of writing, from sci-fi to crime, the former being a disappointing piece of information for my new friend Helen)!
So what is the photo-link here? I found myself thinking a lot about art in terms of how “naked” it leaves us. There is a long-standing question about how much photography is an art form rather than a technical or even trivial exercise? I subscribe to the view that it exists on a wide spectrum that can include both aspects very comfortably, but for most serious photographers their work will contain some artistic merits at least. I then wondered whether all art left you exposed or “naked” to some degree, and indeed whether it was a defining quality of all art that it does this to you? For me in photography this is certainly true, and it is something that I probably haven’t sufficiently acknowledged. The truth is that my photography is constrained by my sense of vulnerability in terms of what I imagine the viewers of my photographs attribute to me when they look at my pictures. This is not the same for all of my pictures. I mainly find landscapes, (when I do them), to score low on my nakedness scale. I don’t feel that they are hugely personal, and indeed they virtually seem to have evolved into a canonical form that allows you to contribute without people thinking “what the hell was in his head when he took that”? They are in fact fairly impersonal. Flower photography, which I have enjoyed a lot of is similar. There are trends in the look and feel of these that mean any picture I post will tend to simply contribute to the body of current flower photos, and again, no vulnerability. The problem is that my favourite photographic form is portraiture. Some portraiture can be fairly anodyne, for example business portraiture. Other portraiture can be incredibly challenging and deeply personal. (eg Mapplethorpe) I like a particular kind of portraiture, natural portraits which attempt to capture people in a relaxed, and at least partially realistic way. I like that because I like people in general, and I like to try to capture what it is I like about them. This is the relatively safe ground I stand on; I try to make pictures of people in a slightly interesting, but not too challenging way. I hope that people will look at the pictures and feel the same sense of curiosity and pleasure in the people, that I did when I was taking the pictures. Critically though, I don’t want people to think that I thought anything inappropriate, or that they would gain any insight into my feelings about the subject beyond what I am happy to give away freely. This may well be limiting my photography, as my fear of being artistically naked, (that means I would struggle to write creatively), may also mean that I am becoming a technical portraitist who is afraid of pushing the artistic side further.
I think there are in general, two sides to this artistic “nakedness”. One is the general degree of “provocation” in the creative sense. Does the image shock, challenge, surprise, make you question, reframe assumptions etc. The second is that we as individuals have a personality and a comfort zone associated with who we are. We can feel a little “stripped” when our own espoused values are challenged. If you only ever take landscapes, and someone asks you to photograph them for a personal portfolio, you may feel that viewers of these pictures will wonder what personal relationship that sudden shift reveals? The same images from a regular portraitist will not even give second thoughts if they are just normal people-pics!
The truth is that while I think of myself as a fairly self-confident and brave individual, in matters of expressive art, I may well be a bit safe and comfortable. Oddly, as an occasional musician, I used to write songs when I was in my teens and early twenties. Whenever I try now, I just cringe at what I am coming up with and imagine what people would think when listening to it. The songs never get off the ground.
What art could we be making if we weren’t afraid?
The picture is one of mine from a 2010 stroll. It is a nice simple, and above all safe landscape.