“And don’t ever imitate anybody,”
Trees and leaves taken during the Abstract Photography Workshop we run at South West Rocks. Can’t wait to see what this years workshop brings. Photograph copyright © Len Metcalf 2018
“And don’t ever imitate anybody,”
Trees and leaves taken during the Abstract Photography Workshop we run at South West Rocks. Can’t wait to see what this years workshop brings. Photograph copyright © Len Metcalf 2018
“A good traveller has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving."
~ Lao Tzu
Otway Ranges, Victoria. Photograph copyright © Len Metcalf 2018
I often start framing up my photographs by starting with getting one corner right. Mark Littlejohn verbalised it for me, when we were running a workshop with Tim Parkin in the Lake District a few years ago.
Once I get one corner right, my eye flicks through the other three and I move the composition again and again until they are all right. I also run my eye up around the borders too. As Pam says, “go on border patrol.”
By spending time getting the corners right you can concentrate the photographs attention on the main subject. Starting there just makes life so much easier.
Coachwoods and Ferns on Minnamurra Rainforest Walk near Kiama at Jamberoo. Photograph and text copyright © Len Metcalf 2018
“...and then, I have nature and art and poetry, and if that is not enough, what is enough?”
― Vincent van Gogh
Tree at Port Stephens. Photograph copyright © Len Metcalf 2018
Am sitting in Johannesburg airport, waiting for my connection to Namibia. Memories flood back of our trip here last year. So many wonderful people to travel and photograph with. Such special places to visit. Did we really do that much driving?
One week, we were huddled around a campfire in our down jackets. The next at a different spot as it was too hot to be out by nine a.m., and we found cool spots next to granite rocks to shelter by.
Each place we visited took us time to connect with. Familiar places, yet new and strange. South Africa reminds me of the Flinders Ranges or the Devils Marbles. Roadside rest stops even have our eucalyptus trees to trigger that memory even more.
Who you travel with makes the world of difference. Being relaxed with good people makes the world of difference to my creative endeavours. Feeling supported and loved is just as important as the connection with country and subject. Well, it is for me.
Do you know, I have fonder memories of the people than I have for the place? Yet, I ache to return and sitting here reminds me of both.
Struggling tree caught in a crack in the granite. South Africa. Photograph and text copyright © Len Metcalf 2018
After ten days of twice-daily practise with my medium format digital camera, I am finally settling with it. My fingers are finding their way around easily. The buttons have become familiar, as have the dials. I might even start using the aperture ring next.
I am using it like a view camera, leaving the viewfinder off it and religiously putting it on the tripod to use. The flip up, down and sideways screen makes it easy to use the main screen as my only aid.
It’s when the camera gets out of the way that I can fully immerse myself in the creative task at hand of making art. This is so important. I have to practise using it until it becomes one with me. It’s like when the paint brush becomes an extension of your arm and fingers. I need to become so familiar with it, that it almost disappears.
Bruce Barnham describes a camera cuddle to his students; which I have been doing since with mine. Keep the camera out. Use it regularly and practise until controlling it becomes second nature. On the lounge even, or out on your veranda. Keep changing the aperture and learning what your equipment does. Practise taking well exposed and focused images; rather than on creating beautiful works of art. You want to become unconsciously competent with it. It takes time. It can’t be rushed. You just have to keep at it until you get it.
Remember learning to drive a car. You sat next to others and watched and thought “that’s easy”. You really didn’t know what was required.
Later, once you started learning, you realised you didn’t know how hard it would be. But slowly you learnt. You did everything consciously. Everything was thought out. Planned. You did things in the order you were taught.
Now years later, you can drive a car and chat to your passengers or think about the amazing photographs you will create. You probably can’t remember changing gears or using the indicator. You now have your own way of doing things. You have now progressed to unconscious competence. This is your goal with your camera.
The lesson is to practise until you reach this point.
On Tuesday, I felt this way with the camera. The light and mist were nearly perfect. The mood was gorgeous. My emotional response to my country soared. Without the thoughts of using my camera I relaxed and engaged with my emotions. The photographs flowed. I was lucky enough to share this with Susan. What a wonderful day.
When it’s like this, the images flow and speak for themselves. I hope you enjoy one of the results.
Trees in the mist at Furber Steps, Katoomba in the Blue Mountains. Photograph and text copyright © Len Metcalf 2018
“The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched, they must be felt with the heart.”
- Helen Keller
Furber Steps with Witches Leap in the background. Photograph copyright © Len Metcalf 2018
“When the last tree is cut and the last fish killed, the last river poisoned, then you will see that you can't eat money.”
Did you know the Tarkine is still a threatened environment?
The Tarkine, Tasmania. Photograph copyright © Len Metcalf 2018
I love being in the zone. I find it highly addictive and very enjoyable. Just lovely.
I'm in the zone whenever I'm concentrating so hard that the rest of the world doesn’t exist. I'm totally fixated on the task and thoughts at hand.
I wish it was easier to get there, though. I can’t just switch it on, unfortunately. I would love to be able to do that, but honestly, I can’t.
I need time to settle in a place. This is one reason I love to stay in the same place and travel slowly. Wander. Take it all in.
I start to connect slowly. My sense of place to our country comes slowly. It builds, usually through practise and letting go. Worries fade and the connection grows.
I find that by working creatively in a place, my connection with it grows. I start to see more and clearer. I look deeper and start to feel more.
Getting into my zone means being more connected with my emotions. It’s a process of clearing away the distractions.
It’s when I'm in that zone that my best work flows and if it doesn’t, well, it doesn’t matter. Being in that state is so pleasurable and is even more so when you let go of the outcome.
I think it’s worth reflecting on when you are in your zone. Remember what it feels like. Ask yourself what happened to get you there. Look for complex answers. Then make that your goal for creative pursuits.
Moon over the Flinders Ranges. Photograph and text copyright © Len Metcalf 2018
In the Middle East, intentional errors are woven into carpets because, it is said, only God can be perfect. Is Mother Nature perfect? That, I am sure, is a long discussion in itself.
Does our artwork need to be perfect? As a young man I thought so. Days were spent searching, hunting or creating that perfect photograph. A huge amount of effort and time was spent in this quest. As I aged, I let go. The older I become, the further away from this notion I get.
I realised that it is emotion that speaks louder than perfection. It is my left intellectual, logical brain seeking order and compartmentalisation. It likes everything to be neat and perfect. Unfortunately, I see it everywhere for we have let our rational thinking take over from intuition and emotions. It such an unfortunate plight that intuition has been seen as evil for so long.
When you tune into your emotions things get messy. I believe that is not only a good thing but something to be proud of and celebrate. Creative people often have messy studio spaces. They rejoice in being labelled as an emotional artist. Messy is now considered a sign of intelligence, because it’s how our creative brain works. It appears to be almost random, it plucks things out of here and there. It connects things that weren’t originally connected. It works holistically and spacially rather than in a linear fashion. Perfection is a linear concept. Unless we go into imperfect perfection. ;)
I eventually realised that I had to let go of perfection and aim for emotional connection. Removing tiny distractions removed much of the emotional gravity of the artwork. It would become synthetic and sterile. Striving for perfection was removing the work from its emotional roots.
I can see this photograph in front of many with a critical eye, them telling me to remove the distractions. If I did it may be more likely to score better in a competition. But I have to ask myself, what will I be removing?
Authenticy and honesty, but the main one is emotional connection with the place. I would be removing the rawness that lead me to taking the photograph in the first place.
It would also lose balance.
As I age, I no longer seek perfection, I seek emotional connection. To be honest, it is a much happier and fulfilling quest. The bonus is that there are more beautiful things to see and share and life isn’t as serious as I thought it should be.
I was knee deep in the bog, thanks Mark for the muck boots that kept my toes dry. The Lake District, UK. Photograph and text copyright © Len Metcalf 2018
“Creativity takes courage. ”
― Henri Matisse
Furber Steps Katoomba, The Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area. Photograph copyright © Len Metcalf 2018
It is really important to figure out whose art you like, which artworks you love and who are your heroes. Start a hero file and collect art you love. This may be as simple as a folder on your desktop, either a physical one in your study, or a virtual one on your laptop and fill it with art you love. Years ago I would cut them out of magazines. Today I could do screen grabs or save online images. If it’s an artists work that’s unknown to you, make sure you keep a reference to their name.
Some artists may have a blog you can follow. I use an rss reader and look through hundreds of entries each day, to find something interesting to read and artworks that stimulate my imagination.
I have collected a few films along the way too. Sebastian Salgado’s "Salt of the Earth" brings me to tears each time I watch it.
My biggest collection of art is in the form of books. I am obsessed if I am honest with myself. The to-read list is huge. Mostly I buy monographs and I hunt down particular collections that stimulate my visual appetite.
Why do I collect the work of other creatives? To stimulate my creativity, study how they work, get a glimpse of what is going on in their heads, to educate myself in our common visual language and to search for ideas worth playing with.
It was only the other week I had my head buried in Michael Kenna’s book on Japan, when I noticed that he often tries similar compositions in different locations at different times of the day. Noticing this vindicated my own work habits and routines. So now when I notice myself doing similar work to what I have done before I no longer need to give myself a hard time over it.
I bought his book ‘Holga’ recently too, and like the ‘Japan’ book it is one I am savouring by looking through slowly and carefully. Lingering longer at each photograph. Really looking. Ralph Gibson, apparently, recommends studying for twenty minutes per photograph. Now that is really looking isn’t it? Once you look, then you can really see what’s going on.
Another way I do this, is by visiting galleries and seeing the original artworks. I don’t think you can really appreciate a Mark Rothko until you stand in front of one and feel its unbelievable power.
Identifying and studying your masters is an incredibly valuable part of your learning journey.
I have added comments to this article on my blog, with the inspiration to create a community dialogue there. Who are your creative heroes? I would love to hear.
Snow Gums in the Snowy Mountains. Photograph and text copyright ©️ Len Metcalf 2018
Postscript: It has been pointed out that Pinterest is a really good way of collecting and organising your heroes and inspirations. I have been using it for years. I keep clips of art that inspire me in collections called "boards". It keeps a link to the orignal source which is valuable when you want to know where you got it from or who the artist was. If you install a plugin on your web browser you can save them by just clicking on the red dot that is placed over the artworks while you are browsing.
“When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.”
― Ansel Adams
I love silence when I am deeply connected to places and artworks. It’s not that I don’t enjoy discussing what is going on with our feelings while I am experiencing them. I really love company and thought provoking discussion. It’s just that silence seems to help with reverence.
We were in the Otways at a redwood forest. We were mostly silent as we were photographing the magnificent trees. But what was noted buy us was that all of the other visitors were also silenced by the sense of place when they entered.
A majestic cathedral of huge trees. Worshipers wandering its isles. The place was sacred. We all had the same reaction. It felt revered.
This places is calling for me to return.
Redwoods in the Otway Ranges Victoria Photograph and text copyright © Len Metcalf 2018
Being a good teacher starts with listening. I always start my classes and workshops with listening. I like to find out who my students are. What their backgrounds are. Where they come from and what they like. I do this so I can adjust what I will teach to suit them.
My hardest teaching jobs were always centred around curriculums with dogmatic and set lesson plans. Teaching ethics at my sons school was one case in point. I really struggled teaching to a script designed for novices to read out. Despite the well designed questions and methods it was still very hard to manipulate the material into the students own head spaces.
These days I have no lesson plans, instead and twist, bend and follow my students. I work hard at meeting their specific needs. Why fill their heads with useless or inappropriate knowledge. New knowledge has to be timely and targeted so it’s understood. It takes real guts to go into a class without a plan. Without an outcome fixed firmly in your head. It took years of practice to let go.
Being good at teaching starts with becoming an amazing listener. If you teach just to listen to your own voice I suspect your not doing your job very well.
I wonder how listening fits in with performers? Interactions create connections.
Listening is a key element in my photography. I must listen to my surroundings, the environment I am in, to country. This also takes huge amounts of practice and skill development. It takes sensitivity.
One also needs to listen to oneself. To your subconscious and to your feelings.
People who can listen. I mean really listen find the answers, the artworks, the methods and teachings just turn up.
It is truely amazing. Those that can listen will find their answers whispered to them.
Trees on the Donaldson River, off the Pieman River near Corina. The Tarkine. Tasmania. Join me here latter this year if you would like to photograph it with me. This old forest has much to say. Photograph and text copyright © Len Metcalf 2018
I believe the ability to focus on what’s working, the positive is a skill, rather than just an attitude. I am certain that by concentrating on it as a skill, it is easier to learn and master. Perhaps once it becomes second nature and you really start to feel its success then it will become an attitude for life.
People who focus on what’s working progress faster than people who concentrate on what isn’t. Success leads to more success. In as much that failure can lead to more failures.
A really good metaphor for this is driving a rally car down a forest road. There are two types of drivers. There are the ones that focus on missing the trees and the ones that focus on the path (road) they are heading on. It’s the ones with their attention fixed firmly on the clear path ahead that are more successful and are able to drive faster. The person that concentrated on missing the trees is more likely to hit them and will drive slower. True.
It’s the same with skiing. It’s a visualisation trick. You imagine the perfect line. You focus on the right turns at exactly the right spot. You shut out the dangerous rocks, cliffs and trees and don’t even think of them. When you do that you end up skiing the perfect line.
Thd other skiier whom worries about hitting that rock. Who continues to think to themselves ‘I have to miss that rock’, well unfortunately they end up hitting it.
Your brain isn’t very good with the words ‘dont’, ‘miss’, ‘avoid’ and other such negatives. It only hears ‘rock’ or ‘tree’ and guides you towards them.
It’s a real skill to learn and practice.
I can tell you from a lifetime of experience that this works for your creative endeavours as well. Concentrating on what works and your successes is better than thinking about what doesn’t work.
Case in point, don’t spend time unpacking and deconstructing your artistic failures. This is time waisted. Seriously. Don’t seek out constructive criticism of an image that doesn’t work for you. Dump it and move on as quickly as possible.
Instead, study and unpack the creative artworks you think are successful. Work out why they work. Seek out opinions of others as to why they work. As long as they have the skills to stay positive.
Figuring out what works is akin to choosing and concentrating on your successful path ahead.
Believe me it is a skill that can be learnt and one that will ultimately lead you to success. If you choose the path of what to avoid by examining your failures you will crash into these obstacles more often and you may not ever get there. If you do you will be battered and sore.
Instead work on your skills of concentration on the positive. Concentrate on your successes. Think about why you like things How they work.
Lastly, if you have created a piece that is only half successful, then think about the half that works and why. Forget the rest.
Leura gums on the escarpment in the mist. I ache for days of thick mist. Photograph and text copyright © Len Metcalf 2018
Peak bragging is an unofficial competive form of bushwalking. Walking in nature, in the bush is called bushwalking in Australia. I mention tho because each culture seems to have a different name for this beautiful activity. Peak Bragging is an English term I think.
As a bit of a sport it involves ticking off accomplishments on a list. So that the summiteers can gain bagging rights. I must admit to being very familiar with this from rock climbing where various routes achieved become bragging rights and discussion points between climbers. In climbing we called it our tick list.
Todays photograph was taken on top of my first Wainwright. A ‘wainwright’ is simply a hill that was included in walking guide of notable hills in the Lake District originally written up as a guide by Wainwright.
To be fair, it is the smallest hill in the guide, but one that is particularly spectacular. You can imagine at the pub in Borrowdale that night over a pint the significance of such an accomplishment.
You can easily see how Peak Bragging can become quiet a goal for each of a walkers walks.
There seems to be a very familiar trend in photography where certain photographers reproducing famous photographs becomes a form of Peak Bragging. To be honest I find this rather sad and distressing.
I must admit that I get caught up in the excitement of photographing famous locations too. There is one difference, one that I am proud of. I put in a huge effort to come home with photographs that are markedly different from the ones I have seen before. How do I know they are different, well I study what has come before and avoid it.
So I think it is possible to have a tick list of locations to shoot, and to maintain your own creativity. What are your Wrainwights of the photographic world? How hard will you try to photograph them differently?
Golden leaves in autumn on a Larch on the top of Castle Craig, Borrowdale in the Lake District UK. Photograph and text copyright © Len Metcalf 2018
I apologie for the lack of emails for the past three days. I thought they were being sent and didn’t notice they weren’t. I worked on fixing the problem last night and fingers crossed today’s works. I will resend the last three days emails over the coming days. Thanks Susan for letting me know.
Addendum: Peak Bragging is a bit of a Freudian slip I am afraid. Peak Bagging is the correct term. But will leave my post as Peak Bragging because that is the basis of the issue.
I believe that walking is one of the great things you can do as a creative. It helps relax you, it helps you think clearly and with creative zeal. This isn't just an activity for photographers. It is for all creative people, well, everyone really.
Do you know walking reduces anxiety and stress? Not only are there physical benefits of your 10,000 steps per day, but there are psychological ones as well. These should all be obvious to you I hope. When I worked with youth at risk, it was a known counselling technique to walk your clients while you talk to them. They talk more freely and honestly when doing. Actually, any physical activity that engages the movement parts of your body is beneficial. Art therapists use this with sand trays. The physical activity, walking, engages the cognitive, thinking part of your brain, and allows your creative and intuitive parts to work unhindered. It is amazingly effective. It settles me, it makes me feel alive with creative ideas, it clarifies, it clears... It is a pure joy.
I am prescribing two long walks per week as an exercise in receptivity to your creativity. Walk for at least twenty minutes... Wander freely, and try to go somewhere natural and quiet. I do enjoy walking the city at night, though hardly a safe thing to be prescribing.
So when you walk, no music, no phone, no friend, no dog.... just you alone... Give yourself time to think, to explore your mental ideas. Listen to your thoughts. See where they take you.
Otway Ranges, just near the lighthouse, Graeme will remember this one. Photograph and text copyright © Len Metcalf 2018
Yesterday Cyan and I walked the Coastal Track in Royal National Park in Sydney. The oldest national park in Sydney and the second oldest in the world apparently. We did 27 kms in two half days. Not bad for a fifty plus father and my eleven year old son. I was pleased.
Royal National Park is stunning. The views are breathtaking. The visitation is intense at times.
Hopefully next week we will do another walk somewhere else. Canyoning perhaps, Cyan hasn’t full experienced Canyoning yet despite our gentle starts. Will be nice in the heat waves that are coming. We are preparing to walk the Overland Track in Tasmania on his request. Can’t wait. Amazing father son time. Yes there was lots of camera time between us. Lots of special talks that I will hold onto for years to come.
Cyan tells me I don’t winge or complain. Though I do have one major one that really bugged me on the walk. So if you don’t want to read me offloading best to stop here.
I couldn’t help but think about the plastic raised walk ways they are currently installing on the walk. Kilometres of it. Sterile and modern. A sanitized nature experience. Plastic in a National Park, what are they thinking. I can see it now, cheapest path per meter I suspect. It looks like a asphalt freeway snaking it’s way through the bush. Feels totally out of place. It disconnects me from the earth. No natural grounding with the soil. I couldn’t stand it. I really hope it doesn’t catch on and spread through other parks.
I was also honestly horrified at the damage the contractors had done in installing them too. One would think the main reason for installing them was for erosion control. Yet a few sticks dropped in the old path seemed to suffice. Plastic left overs dumped beside the track. Loads of supplies helicoptered in and placed onto and crushing beautiful plants with an open space right next to them.
Pathing a track like that is an opportunity to reroute the track to more visually interesting routes and ones away from roads. To let old pathways regenerate. We walked for 500 meters next to a bushfire road on the raised plastic track just two meters from the road. Unbelievable.
Winging over. I imagine many of our tourists are thankful for the beautiful walkways that make the Walk feel safter and more defined. Just not my cup of tea.
Sawpit Creek picnic area Kosciuszko National Park, an area with gorgeous walks and beautiful trees. Oh. Yes, it is meant to be all soft and moody. ;) Photograph and text copyright © Len Metcalf 2018
One of my great joys is photographing from a moving platform. A car, a train a ferry perhaps. There is an extra adrenaline rush from having to work fast. Seeing compositions develop and trying to time them right. There is always the disappointment of missing many too. As in life, when you take bigger risks the rewards may be greater but the falls are bigger too.
Here I am shooting from a small boat on the Donaldson River in The Tarkine Wilderness deep in the West Coast of Tasmania. It’s one of my favourite places. Three meters of annual rainfall means it is wet and very very green. This is one of my highlights from my Tarkine Photography Tour. I have slipped it into this years program in the hope that I can go again.
For me this is Dr Suess’s Truffler Tree. My favourite book to read to kids and start the conversation about deforestation, the need for conservation and for healthy logging practices that maintain biodiversity.
I ask our boat captain if the Tarkine is safe and he tells me it is. But unfortunately it isn’t. Only a very small area is preserved in National Park, while the rest may have a fancy name that sounds like it is, it clearly isn’t. Logging continues as does mining. Most is gazetted waiting for further resources to be removed. Unfortunately the fight for the Tarkine isn’t over.
There is a sense of urgency for me to record this beautiful place just in case a politician decides its fate with a signature and a careless motion. There again is this sense of urgency, the moving target. Capture it before it’s gone.
“I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues” said the Lorax
Donaldson River, Corina, Tasmania. Photograph and text copyright © Len Metcalf 2018
Creativity can be such a head game. Hundreds, if not thousands of ideas swirl through the head of a person endlessly. Yet it is what you do with these ideas that sets one person apart from another.
It it is a misconception that they need to be completely visualised before starting. They don’t need to be fully imagined. By starting with them, in the process of creating them, you figure out where they are going. They tell you where to go next too. It is a process and a wandering journey, yet one without the clearest route or destination. So the destination is a book or an artwork, a performance or series. Rather than a fully visualised and meticulously planned journey.
I am trying to apply this approach to my writing as it works so well with my photography. I wish I had the confidence and foresight to do this with my drawing and painting. But no one pointed this out at the time, for it was something I had to learn along the way.
So how do I use this knowledge? Well, it is easily summed up with the words ‘Just start’. They say a journey of a thousand kilometres starts with a single step, and you can now see why this ancient proverb is so meaningful.
It is definitely an art to stop worrying about the final form and just getting in there and starting. Letting the process of making inform you of the direction to continue in.
I write down as many ideas as I can, one bounding off the other. They come in spurts and pour out in a flood. I try to record them all without judgement. Latter, I wander through them and grab the one that inspires me at the time. That becomes my start.
When I wander with my camera the same thing happens. Lots of ideas, slowly one surfaces and becomes the starting point. Hours latter I finish, the act of creating has lead me somewhere I hadn’t imagined.
You don’t need a finishing point, what you need is the starting point. It’s ok to start with the vaguest idea. The key is to just start.
One tree, the Snowy Mountains near Jindabyne, Australia. Photograph and text copyright © Len Metcalf 2018