By Darren Lewey
A relationship that can be celebrated at the start with perhaps a difficult middle period and then a shared understanding of limitations and finally acceptance. We often have high hopes for new work at the beginning, so what seems initially interesting then becomes less so once we gain some objectivity through time. Still, our projects are part of who we are, so I always allow time to look back on them with affection. Take time to reflect on your previous work, enjoy looking at the images, and learn from them.
Make a project locally and concentrate on one geographical area
It is not the only thing you should do, but it’s a good one. Ideally, as you evolve both personally and as a photographer, you’ll approach it in different ways revealing many facets over time. Learn to embrace the more mundane and ordinary at first glance. It can sometimes take quite an effort to overcome your instincts, but the advantage is you can make it yours. Check out John Gossage’s The Pond. Here you can see a highly artistic mind at play delighting in the small details. The images are mostly grey and of nondescript places, but you’ll get the strong sense that he’s in control of the frame, and of course, he had the central idea in the first place, which is the tough part.
Choose something that is non-iconic and perhaps from the outset, not easy to photograph. Think with intent about what the right approach is for it. It may be specific and unique to each project.
The first is an absolute must in my book. Icons can still be on your agenda but understand for you why they are. Can you still personalize the image-making? Choosing a photographically challenging location is partly for the masochists among us. It requires being aware of and working around our ‘baggage’; the need to always get a photo and the kind of image we think we should get, both of which we should keep in check, although not dismiss. The pressure is good, and pictures that relate to our project plan are also good but not at the expense of enjoying the process of seeing. You need to balance looking and seeing.
Have more than one project on the go. The dips and slack in one will be offset by the other(s).
It allows a natural flow around blocks and short attention spans. I have found this to keep the demons at bay if, like me, you need to have photography as a constant companion. Also, a project over a sustained period will allow some reflective time, which will feedback into time on location. It’s not a sprint. The best work viewed by people who can articulate why they think it is, more often, is produced over months solidly in the field or over years of occasional trips.
Form is paramount
What is form? The combination of aspect ratio, perspective, and framing relating to the geometric shapes, lines, shadows, etc., in front of us. The landscapes we work with are often chaotic. I see excellent work that can distill this but much less where the form is upheld throughout a sequence of images. It’s really about showing that you, as an image-maker, are in control. Mostly as a viewer, that’s what I look for in a photographer.
Dissonance and harmony interspersed throughout a sequence without any sequential progression or understanding of their place will knock back appreciation from the more studious onlooker. Learn to see what your shadows are doing as well as your key lines and of course every area of the frame counts, even the parts that appear empty. The form is not solely based on how you compose; it’s about what’s in front of you. Can you develop what you can see?
Seek visual consistency throughout a project.
I can get to know more about a photographer through their image selection and sequence building. I’m interested in how they see it. Consistency in framing reinforces that understanding. The subjects can vary as can the location but still ‘that’ frame on the world shines through. Choosing a variety of formats, aspect ratios, and lens choices within one project can make this more difficult, so simplify your set-up and approach. Then in another project, you can change these to something else. Occasionally in sequences by photographers, I see many visual ideas all going off in different directions. It’s a personal challenge to filter these down to develop fewer but in more depth. One benefit of formal study is mentoring, which can help feedback and facilitate this self-critiquing.
What makes a good amateur photographer
During my ten years both guiding and tutoring nearly 500 workshop guests, I’ve understood that the more inquisitive and open the individual is to listening to new ideas and absorbing these, the more interesting photographs are made. Begin to search out image-makers for reference and take a course with someone whose, not in your knowledge orbit who offers you a new way of seeing. Creating a personal project, one that gives you pleasure and you have a strong connection with, is the first stage. From there, you can choose to open this up to a broader audience, including peers. To do this successfully, I would suggest contextualizing your work and understanding where it sits alongside similar image-making. Landscape images are ubiquitous, of course, and without human interest, they need to offer form, as mentioned. To do that, you need to continually personally strive to push the combination of composition and subject in new directions.
Concept and projection.
Ideas are the lifeblood of the art world, and concepts are an inherent part of this. But a football coach’s tactical plan will work only as far as the other team’s interference with it. A successful concept or project formed away from the field will need to evolve and develop once up and running. Too often, newly qualified artists or photographers have an acute awareness of concepts, but with imagery that feels contrived and lacking exciting form, it’s not form first but an intellectual rationale that shines through. More typically, I see photographs where the photographer has imbued an image with meaning generated via feelings or memory that has been concocted post location and one that the image does not communicate except in their own mind’s eye. The tension between achieving some kind of concept while maintaining an interesting form is the preserve of great photography.
When one project seems to be drawing to a close, begin a new one.
It’s essential to offset the feeling of impending emptiness through having nothing to photograph. If you’re working on one or two projects, then start to look for a third. Even having the idea that this will become a reality, without immediate access will help to offset any gloom. Hope is worth a lot. We can mull over possibilities in our minds. Eventually, it’s almost certain the project produced will bear little relation to what you imagined, which is fine.
The northern end of Essaouira, Morocco, used to be the fully productive industrial end of town. The largest clothing factory employed several hundred, making amongst many items, woolen garments using English lambs’ wool and jeans. Closed for 15 years or so, many men who now work in its shadow amongst derelict buildings inhabit a reclamation area as resident self-taught artists or bric-n-brac sellers. Their makeshift spaces are built from the discarded materials they also sell and create art with. The area is earmarked for future development, but the menfolk who spend their days here are part of the fabric of Essaouira's life and offer a glimpse into the local culture and the domain of men, which will one day pass.
Returning once again into my local forest has provided new inspiration. I had been preoccupied with cut down trees back in 2016, but aesthetically the range of images seemed finite at that time. However, the mandatary ‘lockdown’ of March/April 2020 enabled me to look again very much closer to home. Still, this time venturing in a different geographical direction, one that followed sandy narrow trails, quite at odds with the rocky greater forest around them. These paths are referred to by locals as the old river, a gathering basin from the shallow slopes either side.
The slightness of a northwards river track, perhaps no more than a meter wide at its core, is a useful source of fire materials for the local villagers. Felled and left to dry for months and years, branches and trees render a two-tone color palette for a photographer’s eye. The trees species here at variance to the forest just a few meters beyond it. My attraction was drawn to recently cut material, which still held some color.
Shapes and form as always become paramount, and photographing in overcast conditions is a necessity to reduce overall contrast. These river paths extending from the village and within the greater forest of 125sq kilometers offer a unique exchange between flora and man’s intervention.
Darren Lewey took up photography in 1981 with a home darkroom and then subsequently attended art school, college, and university to study photography and film making. He’s a passionate photographic educator running workshops in Morocco and Spain via his website. Catch his new online courses here.
You can see more of Darren's work