Feeling Not Looking
Or “Now You Have To Close Your Eyes, Or You Won’t See Anything”
The two-part title comes firstly from a paraphrased quote by Don McCullin - “photography for me is not looking, it’s feeling. If you can’t feel what you’re looking at, then you’re never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures.” The second part comes from the introduction to Jan Svankmajer’s film ‘Alice’ based on Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’. This seemingly paradoxical sentence is a plea to dream, to go within, in order to access one’s own personal imaginative reality.
This is partly intended as a follow-on piece from my last blog where I touched on my difficult childhood because I believe that my incarnation as the photographer I am now has been shaped by those experiences and the measures I took to live in my imagination as a means of escape. It is also a way of sorting my thoughts out in my own mind and is not in any way a criticism of people who follow a different route photographically.
Because of circumstances, I spent a considerable amount of time with my grandparents as a child. My grandfather was an artist and he instilled in me an abiding love for the visual arts - he would take me to galleries and exhibitions, show me books and give me endless supplies of paper, paints, pencils etc. The books of his which I pored over the most were a Thames & Hudson one on the Surrealists, a book on the St Ives artists and a large hardback on Picasso. I think this laid the foundation for my passion for 20th century art. I responded to the ambiguity, the imaginative creativity, the unreal reality and the intensity of feeling. I looked for similar traits in my other great love and escape, books. The authors I came across as a child and a teenager formed the mainstay of my personal mythology. I am only now starting to realise the connections between my imaginative life lived in the head (where I could be safe and happy and free), necessarily inward-looking, and the way that my creativity happens.
I think creativity must be different for everyone, it will have a different impetus and a different way of coming into being; but for me it begins unconsciously. A kind of soup is brewed in the subconscious, the ingredients being images, emotions, experiences, memories, references to paintings, films and books and so on. Slowly this becomes a more conscious thing and I am able to see a whole world within my head which is a kind of palimpsestic decoupage of the sum of my life so far. Things overlap and become covered with other things but, somehow, from all this higgledy-piggeldyness ideas are formed for photographs.
What I hope for is space, ambiguity, room for interpretation. Uncertainty. A glimpse behind the “painted veil” of everyday reality into something other, things unseen but felt. The magic realism which is there if we can be open to it. An imaginative reality. How things are to me. When I read books as a child or daydreamed, I chose which reality I wanted to escape into. I recognise that I still do that now as a photographer. Reality is optional, reality is mutable and this can give rise to interesting tensions, for example in my ‘Flight’ series - the gentle tugging of imaginary wings against the earthbound weight of the body. After all, perception has its problems and its limitations. As a parent I am aware that children instinctively seem to know this and it seems sad that as adults we often turn our back on this open way of thinking. Some kind of dialogue or narrative within the image is also important as photography is not a trick dependent upon skill and technique but a language. Nor do I seek answers - the asking is what matters. Depicting the surface reality holds little interest for me, I want to dig deeper, to reveal what lies beneath the picture presented by the senses. The artist Marc Chagall eloquently explained it like this - “through [my father] I first sensed the existence of poetry on this earth. After that I felt it in the nights, when I looked into the dark sky. Then I learnt that there was also another world. This brought tears to my eyes, so deeply did it move me.” Expressive and non-representational art seems to me to enable us to reach something meaningful which is nothing to do with appearance and everything to do with essence. Roger Fry spoke about modern artists not seeking “to imitate form, but to create form; not to imitate life, but to find an equivalent for life.”
It’s up to each individual to find their own way. I would not dream of imposing my way of going about things on anyone else or even expect many people to understand where I’m coming from, artistically speaking, as this kind of thing is personal and deep inside but that doesn’t matter. I think that if this drive, this need to make images, is about anything, then it’s about being true to oneself. There has to be integrity and genuine feeling. The emotion part is important to me as in the Don McCullin quote, Andre Kertesz also famously said “seeing is not enough; you have to feel what you photograph.” And not just in my own work - if I think about photographers (including the work of friends) whose work I admire then one of the unifying experiences is that when I look at their images I think “that is about me” - not in an egotistical way but because the photo speaks to me - I can identify with that thought, that moment, that emotion. It will probably be an expression of something internal: grief, love, despair, loneliness, desire, hope - we all feel these things at some time or another and by trying to depict them honestly, the personal and the universal become united. In a way it’s also about stillness - about saying “this means something to me, THIS, this moment, this construction - I hope it means something to you.”
I made the move from ‘taking’ photographs to making them some time ago and have never looked back. I don’t accept limitations on what photography is or isn’t or what can be done with it. Whilst I don’t believe that technique or process is the be all and end all of photography at all, I have personally found that I can more easily get the images/ideas I have in my head out of there and into the world by doing it the old-fashioned way. But you do whatever it takes and it doesn’t matter what that is. I like to use film and alternative processes (some of which I don’t do “properly”) because when I make a wet plate or a lumen print - working directly with the image - there is a contact with the materiality of things and, in a way, it’s a kind of birth. The method of making, the hands-on thing, is completely part of it as is the result - a tangible unique thing you can hold in your hand. I love the physicality, the traces of contact which are visible as well as the elements of chance and luck.
In many ways the creative impulse is instinctive and I believe all children are born with it. Why it remains for some people and not others is a mystery but I certainly don’t subscribe to the view that only some people are capable of being creative. Creativity takes many shapes and forms. For me it’s almost a direct retort to the original hurt I suffered as a child - it’s a positive thing to come out of a negative period. Jung said “had I left those images hidden in the emotions, I might have been torn to pieces by them.” So - art as catharsis or therapy? Maybe but it’s far more than that. It’s also about connecting us with our most fluid and vulnerable selves - the selves who we really are or who we might wish to become; it’s about the dichotomy between our physical bodies (and all that they are restricted by and prey to) and our minds which are capable of limitless imaginings, dreams and thoughts.