Tuesday, 7 August 2012


I was asked recently if I would consider providing some images that were “inspirational”. I wasn’t quite sure whether my questioner had seen my work and had therefore needed to ask whether I might also provide a “line” of inspirational images or, whether despite all they knew of my work that maybe it was felt that I could supply some “inspiration”. I’m not sure what “inspirational photography” is, but if I’m asked I’d like to pitch in, as it were and maybe find something to inspire me that would hopefully “flow through the chain” from shutter to the uninspired looking for a lift.
Partway through a five kilometre trek in the Tyrol recently, cameras cocked and ready I started to think about how many times I had trekked through similar vistas in search of some inspiration of my own. We had taken a room at about six thousand feet in the Italian Southern Tyrol, similar in most respects to the Glacier National Park in Montana, to the Smokey Mountains in Virginia, to the Rocky Mountains in British Columbia. Pine forests that latch themselves limpet like to the sides of mountains whose peaks are often shrouded in mist. Ski-lifts operating over land, cleared like fire break scars scratched in pale green amidst the deep emerald of the pines. Sun-rays like searchlights pierce the clouds that seem at this altitude to scud across the sky with ungainly haste. Lakes that from time immemorial have been fed by a rich diet of minerals and salts offering azure blues and brilliant greens which nestle like jewels, glinting like Aladdin’s cave to inspire even the most flaccid of hearts...
Our first trip to British Columbia was after a colleague had suggested, because he knew I was a keen photographer, that I would “love it, as there is a photo opportunity around every corner”. And sure enough there was, monumental landscapes of sharp edged mountains, waterfalls, lakes lined with pine forests and I “loved it”. I took rolls and rolls of film, all black and white. I knew the aesthetic I wanted, my view of the panorama that I sought was as clear as the snow-melt rushing through the scenes that held me in awe. I started a collection of National Parks in search of Adam’s portfolio; Yosemite, Bryce Canyon, Jasper, etc. etc. and finally at Lake McDonald in the Glacier National Park. I was more than pleased with the shots I had captured and with careful processing both film and digital images soon became trophies to be displayed.

A slightly wider perspective than AA to show the river bad
The first sign of a question came when I noticed something familiar in one of the Lake McDonald shots, it was something that I put to the back of my mind because it was a photograph that I quite liked. It was only when idly browsing an AA book from the shelves at home did it strike me what it was that I had noticed previously. Adams had taken the almost identical shot many years prior to me - see here. Admittedly there isn’t much choice, the shot is taken from the bed of a river that feeds the lake and the river therefore needs to almost dry. It was August and there is only one direction to point the camera – dial the aperture to f32 and set the exposure using a Pentax digital spot meter, develop the film with a tanning developer and hey presto the trophy is bagged!
This pivotal moment made me question what it was I was trying to achieve with photography. I knew at that point that I was dealing in cliché, just like a Cornish landscape, the reality was that I wasn’t bringing anything to the photography that the “real-photographers of the f64 group hadn’t done so much better half a century or more before. The landscapes I was taking were more than technically competent, people liked them, they were inspired to buy them – they still do - but I wasn’t expressing anything with them, they were and still are pretty sterile much in the same way I now feel about Adams/Weston/Cornish et al. This doesn’t necessarily mean that I’ve had an epiphany – I’m not really a believer in magic moments – more that over the past two or three years I have worked out that a lot of what I had taken, initially as personal inspirational shots have now become clichéd to me. These beautifully toned, sharp and passive square photographs I can still admire. I can still be in thrall to the craft of highly skilled monochrome photographers who work the land and to some extent the body to produce beautiful images that people still want to hang on their walls. Wall art. And what’s wrong with that, well nothing if someone feels inspired enough to pay good money to occupy some space on a lounge or office wall with an A3+ print mounted and framed. Who’s to say they are wrong, certainly not me if they are buying from me.
I knew what inspired me when I packed the “gear” along with the walking boots and airline ticket and I wanted others to be inspired by my photography. My inspiration now comes not from wanting to provide Wall Art purchased at exhibitions, from portrait commissions or from web-site updates – these are I feel more to do with a job of work. Personal inspiration comes now from a desire to understand how the world is and how I interpret it, translate it into a coherent narrative that expresses a point of view. My work is clichéd if it only offers a lens that has been pointed in the same direction at a common subject and doesn’t offer a different perspective.

So, some cliches from the Southern Tyrol:

I considered other cliches and started to find them everywhere I looked:

I suppose the thing is about cliche, about all the images that are "captured" is that they are lifeless after they have been"taken". A series of greatest hits doesn't make any lasting sense and this is what I feel about these type of photographs. Adams, Weston and their modern day ilk, that I once aspired after, took extremely well crafted photographs, their technique was uppermost in their minds as they went about their work. But, to me, their work stays in and of it's time, it doesn't stand scrutiny other than their search for technical excellence and the portrayal of the land or body in an idealised way. Having ones picture on someone else's lounge or office wall is a great booster, money gets exchanged and that is an end in itself. It doesn't express anything about me or how I see the world, it's injustices, it's faults, how I fit in and what I want to communicate  narratives that I believe in. I know I am still feeling my way in how to deliver/extract an emotive message from an image, or more likely a series of images, but I am starting to feel as if I am pointing somewhat towards the right horizon now.


  1. I keep wondering if this is more to do with 'familiarity breeds contempt' than 'cliche'. There is the issue though of how emotionality can be expressed. Do you think this is when words add something. Was thinking as well about artists' statements on series and how this affects perceptions (something I want to consider in more detail).


  2. I am sure familiarity does breed contempt, but I found myself looking at scenes with someone else's eyes and that can't be good. I absolutely do believe that words add something. Eileen did some work with text inside the frame and there are a lot who have done that and with great effect. However artist's statements are directional. I have and still do veer away from adding titles to individual images, but I find having the artist statement regarding the intent behind a series quite important I think (I didn't think so before). I do find that I want to interpret for myself, but I think that the pictures AND the statement are two parts of the whole and combined bring the narrative to a more finely honed point.

  3. Do you think it depends on the type of statement though? I'm going to look for some examples to analyse.

  4. Oh, absolutely! I think there are some very good photographers that will be let down by their inability to express themselves verbally, equally I suspect that the reverse is true. I shall look at for some and pass them over.