Friday, 30 January 2015

Born into Brothels

Helen's pick for #2 in our photography movie series was "Born into Brothels: Calcutta's Red Light Kids," a 2005 Academy Award winning documentary film from filmmakers Zana Briski and Ross Kaufman.  I have to confess, I was apprehensive at first, not appreciating what it would have to do with photography as I knew nothing about it before I started watching.  I hunted it down -- finally found it available (in full, for free!) on Youtube, here.

Documentary filmmaker Zana Briski went to photograph and film the prostitutes of Calcutta's red light district. But along the way, she realized that kids were everywhere living in the brothels.  She started a photography class, giving the kids cameras and teaching them how to use them, how to compose, what makes a good photograph.

And Helen, I have to say -- I loved this movie. In terms of photography, I loved that it said a lot about what photography can do.  How each person's view of his or her life is important.  How (as one kid says) a photo may show something hard to look at, but we have to look because it's true.  How holding a camera is empowering, and can lead to the realization that our view of the world is valuable.  The film work in this movie captured the chaos, the crowding, the noise, the dirt, the grim reality of life in that place, too.  So there was the added layer of movie cameras filming, and saying on a bigger level what the kids were saying with their own photos.

It was hard not to get attached to each of the kids -- some so lively and quick, some serious and worried, seeing the reality of their likely futures.  And so watching as "Zana Auntie" tries to find schools who will take them, tries to get one talented boy a passport so he can travel to another country as an award for his artistic ability -- was poignant and gripping.  I'd love to know where those children are today.  (Actually, I went and looked to see if there was any information.  There's an update from November, 2006 here and another from 2010 here.)

I found it hard to separate my emotional reaction to the content from the film and imagery -- which I guess is what good film-making and photography are all about, eh?

By the way, maybe you need to team up with your lawyer/photographer friends to do an exhibit at your friend Nisha's restaurant, to raise money for Kids with Cameras!

So, great pick. I don't think I'd have heard of this movie but for it being on the list and your picking it for us to watch!

Oh - and here's my pick for this coming week:  Ansel Adams: A Documentary Film (2002).  It's also available, in full, on Youtube here.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Responding to Finding Vivian Maier

This post is my response to Diane's post about watching the film Finding Vivien Maier. It will make more sense if you read her posts here and here ffirst.

Dear Diane,

I am so glad you suggested this film. I watched it on my iPad in bed having retired early on Wednesday night while my Husband watched some tedious historical drama. (He loved it, the 'tedious' description is all my prejudice against the Tudors!). It's a treat just to make time to watch a film like that mid-week so that's the first good thing to come out of our joint project. The second is that it was a wonderful inspiring film.

You asked whether it made me want to go out and shoot street photos and whether my camera had a tilting screen to make it possible to do that from waist level. The answer to both is yes. So, I did go out the very next lunch time and have a go and the pictures you see here and very arrogantly) not Vivien Maier examples but my very first attempts at street photography. I learned that finding people doing interesting things in interesting places is quite hard! I am not at all sure I achieved it. ore practice and a copy of The Street Photographer's manual appear to be in my future,

I have to say that I tried the tilting screen but I found it easier and more natural to just have the camera to my eye and if anyone looked at me askance I just kept the camera to my eye as they moved past as if it I was in fact waiting for them to get out of my shot, or I moved myself slightly to a different angle as if I was simply taking multiple photos of a building.  I obviously got more confident as on my way back to work I saw this small girl who was giving her mother some trouble getting her across the road. I simply took the shot and then wondered if the mother who had noticed would be offended. Without really thinking I just bent and showed the little girl the LCD screen and said, "This is what you look like with a crying face look! Isn't that funny? Shall we take a photo of a happy face for your mummy?" The mother thought it hilarious, the child would not pose for me but she did stop crying!  

I took all these photos in colour and converted later in Lightroom and found that it made all the photos much better not to have the distraction of colour. I know that street photography need not be black and white but it is noticeable that it does tend to work best that way, don't you find?

But, to return to the film. I had several thoughts stemming from it:

1. One of the people in the film asked: what was the point of her taking the pictures if no one saw them. I think there must have been a point for her or else she would have stopped doing it. I am sure you could get into a lot of psychoanalysis abut her hoarding and was this part of it ,but I am sure the answer is simpler at its most essential level. She must have found pleasure in it. How often do we dismiss that as a proper reason for doing anything? Curiosity, fascination, creativity. No-one would say those were negative words and yet if you exercise them alone people ask what the point is. Odd isn't it? Yet no one asks why people sunbathe on a beach or go to see a film or paddle in the sea.

2. I thought it was interesting that the major art intuitions refused her work and yet an exhibition of it was widely successful. I don't think there is anything wrong with institutions defining what objects they wish to acquire. In fact it makes sense for them to have a policy so their collection is cohesive and so that their funders know what they are giving to. But the fact that the big institutions do not accept a person's work does not in anyway mean it is not of worth.

3.I thought that many of the photographs were interesting mostly because if what they showed about the era in terms of dress and housing. I suspect that many of her photographs would have been seen as mundane and ordinary  (except of course of her ability to capture a particular expression or moment.) I wondered if she knew that? Knew that they were part historical documentation and that their time had not come and would not until after she died? It made me wonder what there is around to photograph that is day to day now but in thirty, forty, fifty years will seem isolated in its time. Or alternatively, what there is that is typical of where I  live that in other cultures will seem different. Even looking at the houses and brownstones in the film made me know immediately it was set in the US. Do we recognise enough the scenes that are around us all the time that are not to be found elsewhere?

I wondered what you might say there was to photography where I lived like that. Fish and Chip shops was the best I could come up with!

So, have you ventured out with your tilting screen yet?

As for our next film, if people want to follow along, I have nominated Born into Brothels. it doesn't sound cheery but apparently its about an amazing transformation that having a camera can bring.


Saturday, 24 January 2015

More thoughts about Vivian Maier

So I've been thinking about Vivian Maier's photographs since I watched the film on Sunday.  And here's what I've been thinking about it:

1.  Her photos conveyed emotion.  To be honest, I've never studied great photographers, I've done more reading on the techniques of taking photographs and processing them.  But I've been thinking about some of VM's photos, the images that have stayed with me -- and I've concluded that the reason they are staying with me is the way she's captured an emotion -laden moment.  Here are a few that have stayed in my mind:

2.  And that has made me think about my own photography.  I usually avoid photographing people.  In part it's a bit of reserve, feeling that it's somewhat intrusive to take someone's picture.  And I think it's related to my being essentially introverted -- my gut reaction is usually  that having people in a picture ruin it, I'd rather see the scene without people!  So it's far easier for me to see art in objects and scenes than in people.  I'm realizing that I need to think differently about it.  But my first impulse (in any art -- photography, drawing) is to avoid people. 

3.  And then I started thinking about the photos of people I have taken -- other than family ones, I mean.  It's easiest for me to photograph kids.  Partly I think it's that kids are so expressive.  It's fun to watch them, and when they're little, their emotions flit across their faces so plainly.  Partly, too, they seem more accessible (in my world, anyway).  Some how having a child enter a scene I'm watching doesn't feel intrusive the way an adult entering would. (Hm.  Perhaps there is an issue for therapeutic exploration here!!)  And then they are usually so involved in their own moment, and they are often so oblivious to people around them, that I don't feel as if I'm intruding to shoot them.  I still am of course.  So is the intrusion I'm worried about my sense of invading their privacy, or my fear of being perceived as intrusive? By the way, you can see the few photos of people I've posted on Flickr here.   And, I'm pleased to realize, I think why I liked them enough process and post them is that they do have an emotional content to them. 

4.  And THAT makes me think about how (as someone commented in the movie) VM using a waist-held Rollieiflex probably made her street shooting easier.  It looks less intrusive and less obvious to shoot from the waist, versus the obvious "I'm taking your picture" act of bringing the camera up to one's face to point and shoot.  Does your camera have a viewing screen that can tilt out?  Mine does -- and that makes me think that perhaps we should each try using the camera as VM did, shooting from it hanging from our necks. 

Finding Vivian Maier

So, Helen -- what did you think about this movie?

[To our readers -- Helen and I both like experimenting with photography, and recently we came across an article online called "40 Movies About Photography Every Photographer Should See." We decided to watch the same movie within a short time period and compare our reactions.

I was up first to pick -- but the photography movie I most wanted to see wasn't even on the list!  The movie was "Finding Vivian Maier", from 2013.  We compared notes, found we could both access the movie, and decided it was up for our first joint movie venture.]

The movie tells the story of how a young man. John Maloof, bought a box full of negatives at an auction, and was so intrigued by the photographs that he begins searching into the life of the woman who took them. He buys up more of her negatives, and finds (and buys) her storage unit stuffed full with boxes.  She was Vivian Maier, a New York-born nanny and housekeeper who carried her Rollieiflex camera with her everywhere, taking photos with a truly remarkable eye.  So the story unfolds -- of an unassuming woman, her amazing photographs, the effect she had on the people around her.

So what did I think?

I thought it was absolutely fascinating.  The photographs were mesmerizing.  I've never been drawn to taking street portraits, but gosh, I was really struck by how strong hers were.  She captured strength and frailty and love and pathos and all sorts of emotions.  I was also struck by that aspect of art that always draws me in -- turning the most mundane moments of life into art.  It's a special sort of eye to do that, I think.

Were you as intrigued by the mystery aspect of the story as I was?  Finding out who she was -- and I loved hearing about how Maloof was so intrigued by so many photographs that were obviously from the same European village that he hunted and hunted and compared photographs until he found which village it was.

I found the descriptions of her from the families she worked for and lived with interesting too -- but mainly interesting in how different their views were of her.  It made me wonder whether she was different in each setting, or if they had her at different times in her life, or whether it reflected more about the people who described her than it did about her.

Mostly though, I came away feeling that it's important to just take pictures, and keep taking pictures.  In part to develop one's eye, but maybe more importantly to make onself see what's there... to see the art that's in front of us all the time.

I'm thinking one could learn a lot from studying her photographs.  Oh -- the film mentioned how Maloof posted the first photos of hers that he developed on Flickr -- and I've just gone to look.  There are a lot of her photos there.

Oh -- another thing I loved -- how Maloof laid out various collections on the floor and shot them from above -- her boxes. Her paper ephemera.  Her buttons and doodads.  I'm always drawn to seeing collections of things laid out so graphically like that. 

I'll be interested to hear what you think. Did it make you want to get out and take photos?

And now it's your turn to pick!

Sunday, 5 October 2014

They're all just creative tools

When I woke up on Saturday morning, the dream from which I was emerging involved being with you at some sort of garden center where we had been walking around looking at plants and flowers, and we were heading into a cafe for tea and cake.  (I woke up before we even got to the cake counter, gosh darn it!)  But as I was putting on my robe and heading downstairs, I was wondering whether your Saturday morning had been spent at a cafe/garden center, and your Saturday was psychically drifting into my sleeping subconscious.  I would not be surprised, the way we can overlap each other's thoughts so eerily sometimes.

So later, when I'd made coffee and was cruising through my Feedly blog pages, I was bemused to see your Saturday cafe post.  So perhaps there was a psychic overlap.  At any rate, your Saturday blogging spot looked very charming to me from the photos -- although those chairs do look awfully  stern and hard compared to the saggy softness of the Cedar Farm sofas!

I am delighted that using a different brush has changed your painting experience!  I went and looked at the Rafael Soft Aqua brushes -- I do not have any but now I must try one or two!.  Your colors do look much brighter and I"m glad you're getting the look you want, not to mention the satisfying feel of the brush you like!  I often really like how something looks (color and value wise) when it's just painted and still damp ... and then, of course, it pales as it dries and I don't like it as well.  I know that learning to anticipate how it will look dry as you paint wet is part of the watercolor learning curve.  And learning how to go back in and add more depth with more darks is, too.  Seems like the last stages of anything I sketch are always about MORE DARK.  MORE DARK.  STILL MORE DARK.  And then I tip over into ACK, MUDDY MESS.  It's a fine line, that last stopping point.

When I was in Washington two weeks ago, I did a bit of sketching and definitely struggled a bit with painting a lot of beigey-brown shells, and getting the darks right.

Anyway.  I'm going to try some of those brushes. (By the way, you will laugh at this.  I just paused to go look again at the brushes, I put a few in the online shopping cart and got  a message:  "Congratulations!  You are just $86.14 away from free shipping on your order!"  I stopped myself for shopping for $87 worth of additional art supplies which I no doubt could have found quite easily.)  I know a lot of people love the waterbrushes, and I carry a few for the total convenience of the water-with-you-at-all-times aspect... But I don't like the color results I get with them, they feel far less predictable to me.

And I love your bulb recipe page!  Very clever and charming!  And bright!

Congratulations on the new camera!  I have (now, because of you) read about the new mirrorless cameras and they sound great -- capable of great photos AND light and compact.  You asked about how I decide to sketch or photograph.  For me, it's about my mood, and how much time I have.  I view them as very different activities, actually. 

Taking pictures, for me, is more about capturing something in the moment.  It's a sort of fast thing.  It's not that I don't take time, or think about what I'm doing.  And really, it's the seeing before taking the photo that is the part that takes time.  I'm consciously choosing what I want to photograph, and thinking about different angles or light or what settings would give me the result I want.  I do snap a LOT of pictures -- I am not inclined to stand and ponder and fiddle with settings and then take 2 pictures.  (I went on a photo walk with someone like that once.  I think I took 50 photos to each of his.)  Anyway. And while traveling, I use my camera as a way of capturing images as I go.  For me, it still makes me look at things differently, notice color and pattern and light and value in a more specific way.  But I can snap a bunch of photos and keep going.

Sketching is a whole different thing to me, although there are overlaps in the seeing and thinking.  I'm still noticing color and shape and pattern and such.  But when I set out to sketch, I know that I will want to sit somewhere for a bit of time and just relax and draw and paint.  I'm looking to find ONE thing or scene that grabs me and makes me want to sit and explore it through drawing and painting.  It feels much more leisurely, and so far anyway, I don't like having to sketch faster than I usually do, or hurry to sketch that scene over there, and then that building down there, and then that clump of people over that way....  I know there are people who love recording things that way, and their fast sketching is a shorthand communication for them.  Maybe it's because I've not learned that approach and haven't tried it much, but for me the enjoyment of sketching has a lot to do with the sense of peace and meditation as I sit and really study what I'm drawing, being in one place and absorbing the ambient sounds and smells as I draw.

So, choosing to sketch or photograph?  It depends on my mood and what I feel like doing, plus it depends on how much time I have.  When I traveled with my sister, some days we set out knowing we planned to pick somewhere and then sit and sketch. And other days, we knew ahead of time that we were going to go and walk around and take pictures, and then come home and sketch, mostly because it was so dang hot and we wanted to be back inside in the worst heat of the day.

You asked if I ever do both sketching and photographing in relation to the same subject.  And at first I thought that no, I don't usually -- unless I sit down to sketch somewhere out in the world, and take a few photos of the sketch subject in case I run out of time or someone parks smack in front of my subject which seems to happen ALL THE TIME.  But then I remembered that when my sister and I were in Yosemite earlier this summer, I did do both.  There is so much gorgeousness to see there, and we only had a day there.   So we both took tons of photos.  Here's one, for example:

(You can see more here.)  But we wanted to just sit and BE there, too, so we planned some time for sitting and sketching, too.

 And now that I think of it, we did the same thing in the little gold rush town of Columbia on that same trip.  We walked and took a lot of photos.

 (More of Columbia here, btw).  But then we also made a point (well, I insisted!) to just sit and sketch, too.

Oh look, I took a photo of this very scene before I started painting.

So it turns out that I did both.  And they felt like totally different activities to me. 

What do you think?  How do you anticipate using your camera versus sketching?

By the way, I've heard some longtime sketchers say things that struck me as rather disparaging of the process of photography, and I've always disagreed.  Things like photography being like mindlessly xeroxing while sketching is thoughtful, individual interpretation, that sort of distinction.  And I think it's absolutely wrong and reflective of ignorance about the artistic process that can be involved in photography.  So I know that in the sketching world, some people express disdain for people who use cameras or choose to photograph a travel experience rather than sketch it.  I think that's just silly.  Both are ways of seeing and capturing and interacting with the world in front of you in a creative way.

 I put that photo up top, by the way, because you can see the reflection of me taking the picture in the glass.  A subtle selfie!  Seemed appropriate for this post.

By the way, you know that by the time this posts I will be on my way to a quilt retreat.  In the past I've tried to do a sketch each day, which has usually involved wandering outside and spending an hour or so drawing and painting. I'll bring my camera and sketching supplies as usual, but this time I suspect I'll take a lot more photos and maybe not do too much sketching, as I have a lot of sewing I want to get done.  I'll let you know!

Also, I'm glad that you posted. I've missed our TT4T postings!

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Cracked it!

Dear Diane,
Hey! How are you?! I couldn't get a table at our usual BocBoc cafe so I am re-trying a farm shop about fifteen minutes away. I came once and it was not that good but I am giving it a second go. As you can see its more countrified than our usual place and the chairs less comfortable but it was a nice sunny drive through country to get here, and its a quite place to blog and journal for a while so that's fine.

But look, I just have to show you this, I am so excited. You know how much I have struggled with  sketchbooking ( is that a word?) and how I like the immersion in the process but tend to be really disappointed with my output at the end. Well, I declare myself 95% happy with this spread. And the 5% unhappiness only relates to the ink smudges. They happened because my Platinum Carbon pen had been on a flight and like all fountain pens tended to leak a bit on first use after landing. Must be the cabin pressure or something. I didn't notice it was on my fingers. But, then again it reminds me of being on holiday so, maybe I am only 3% unhappy.

And in a roundabout way it was the holiday that made this page so happy-making. When I was in Florence I visited an art shop looking for useful souvenirs. Anything art related I didn't already have. And I ended up buying some Softaqua watercolour brushes by Raphael because they said they held twice the amount of colour of other brushes. And boy, do they! Much of my previous dissatisfaction - even after swapping to Daniel Smith paints - was my inability to get bright solid colour and to control fine lines. Turns out it was my brushes.  I don't know if, once post don line, this iPhone snap really shows it but there is a big difference in my work with these high paint  load brushes. I love them! You can get these brushes in the USA here and the UK here.

Now I need to find a good travel holder for them:)

I had had the soiled stained notes I scribbled(about what bulbs I had planted where)  set aside to write up into my garden journal for a week. Meanwhile I was debating whether or not to sign up to the storytelling class at Sketchbook Skool, simply because I am saving up for new camera lenses and I thought maybe I should put the cash in that direction. Then, hours before the class started I signed up on a whim and watched the first class early this morning in my PJ's. I have discovered that using Apple TV to watch on the full sized screen is a very good thing to do. And of course that class, on documenting a recipe ( or effectively) a creative process inspired me to go immediately and do this page.  I was amazed when I surfaced and realised I had spent nearly two hours on it. Where did that time go?!

[interlude: My soup came and it had an onion bhaji in it which was weird but absolutely fantastically delicious! If had dot photograph because of the strong side light from a window. I  am glad I tried here again!] 

Of course, whilst falling down the creative well like that is always a good thing, at the same time its not always possible for me to find such  a long time in one go.  And that brings me back to photography.

I know you love both your camera and your sketchbook and I am eagerly awaiting the delivery of my new Olympus mirrorless camera. So, I was wondering: when you are out travelling, or indeed, if you are pottering at home, what factors influence your decision to sketch or to photograph? Do you ever do both in relation to the same subject? How does the process differ for you?

I paused watching the Sketchbook Skool videos to make some toast and thought : I should draw this toast making process. Then I thought: but then the toast will go cold! Maybe I should take clever food photographs of my toast. But then, because I am still at the point and shoot stage and eagerly awaiting proper lenses and time to read my pile of photography books, I thought: but maybe a styled photo of toast isn't actually that quick. I don't know. Guess I will find out as I learn!

It will be interesting to see how the two different ways of making an image make me feel, how I experience the different media. Because I think for me a lot of making art is about that - how it makes me feel. My Softaqua brush trial gave me a "Yes!! At Last!" feeling.  Which I think ought to be celebrated with apple and berry crumble Don't you?  I'll nip down and get them. Do you want cream or ice cream with yours?


PS Something else deeply satisfying I learned whist typing this post. If you are in iOS 8 on ipad or iPhone, if you go to settings - general - keyboard - edit you can delete that IRRITATING emoticon key on the new keyboard that I kept hitting by accident. 

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Seeing fast and slow


This morning I did this sketch for my lesson in Sketchbook Skool.  The semester's theme is "seeing," and the lesson was to sketch something "fast and slow": fast being a first, fast, loose painting of color to get a shape, and slow being (after the paint dried) a slowly-drawn, detailed line drawing over the top of the colored shapes.  It's a clever assignment, I think, because it does make one think about the different ways of seeing -- a quick glance, a fast impression of color and shape  versus a careful study of details.  And it was fun, too.  It reminds me that wonky is not just good, but darn fun.  I want to do more of this.  Have you tried it yet?

As I was doing this, I was thinking how the fast glance vs careful study of details applies to life, too.  Emerging from a 20 year marriage, I am often struck now at how things seem so different to me.  When I was living it day to day, caught up in the whirlwind of work and child-rearing and keeping clean laundry in the cupboards and making 3 meals a day for everyone, I think my sense of what I was doing was like that fast glancing. Sure, I was in the middle of it, and I tried to stay in the moment, especially with my daughter, and I tried to notice and appreciate the details of every day.  (I think that's why I got so immersed in photography years ago.  It slowed me down and made me stop and look at things.)  I saw a lot, I know.  But I suppose it's like what you see from driving somewhere in a car -- you  are moving along at a good steady clip, you're appreciating the scenery, but you can't absorb things really closely.  You're just moving too fast. 

But now, as you know, I've found myself looking at certain things in a different way.  How my husband and I related to each other, how we communicated, how we handled important or wonderful or hard things, how we challenged each other, or ignored things that were hard... How figuring out our daughter's special needs and how best to help her with things acted, in some ways, as blinders, too -- I know I became so focused on her and parenting and schooling that I just didn't have the capacity to look beyond that.  I have come to understand that I was consciously looking past an awful lot.  And I know, now, that that is a very common reaction to living with an alcoholic, and that embracing denial is not just a coping mechanism but in some situations a survival strategy.

When I was drawing this clock -- which I've had for about 25 years and which sat in my office at work for the whole time I was there so I glanced at it a zillion times a day -- I noticed for the first time that the roman numeral 4 on the clock face is represented as "IIII" instead of "IV."  For all the time I've had this clock and looked at it, I'd never noticed that before.

So it's kind of perfect for me to be thinking about "seeing" right now, as that is what I am doing in a new way on a whole lot of levels.  It amazes me how art processes can parallel life lessons.

And that's what I'm wondering -- have you had the experience of some art process or lesson paralleling something non-art related in your life?  Does reflecting on art or making art cause you to think in new or related ways on other aspects of your life?