“Photography is self exploration. Every good artist creates what they are.”
~ Len Metcalf
Fern, tree and mist. Leura, The Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area. Photograph and text copyright ©️ Len Metcalf 2018
“Photography is self exploration. Every good artist creates what they are.”
~ Len Metcalf
Fern, tree and mist. Leura, The Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area. Photograph and text copyright ©️ Len Metcalf 2018
I can easily identify at least two reasons I don’t wait for my feelings to surface before starting One is that my head is so full of crap, while the other is about an insecurity about time and needing to start. There are probably hundreds of reasons I just dive in.
Why do you dive right in?
When the right thought / idea comes along you will get the feeling. It can be a jolt of inspiration, a tingle, a flash, a wave. It’s different for each of us.
If your not tuned into yourself you won’t hear it.
It is worth slowing down for it. Taking your time. Listening. Observing. Feeling.
I like to sit and stare, or if my mind is too busy I wander. Take it all in. Feel. Listen. Observe. It always comes. One just never knows when.
Today Cyan and I leave for Esperance. I am so excited that the truck is packed and ready. I have gone minimal with everything so that I can be light and free to roam and photograph. I have pared back my camera bag to two cameras each with its own lens and no spares and no choices. Just spare batteries.
My Olympus has the 300mm (600mm equivalent) ready for birds and animals while the Fuji has the 63mm (50mm equivalent) for all the rest of the photographs I will take. My IPhone X is in my pocket so there is a camera everywhere I go, which also gives me a wider view if needed.
Travelling and driving will help me get to that feeling place. The mental head space I need to be in to create my art. It takes time, time to leave behind the normal every day worries of life.
I plan to write and share my adventures. Hopefully I will create some art to share with you. If you don’t hear from me for a day or two you will know I am camped in some beautiful location waiting for the light to soften. Listening and watching.
Travelling is one of my passions.
It is time to start.
Tree, shadows and sand. Namibia. Photograph and text copyright ©️ Len Metcalf 2018
When we first start out we want to learn everything and we tend to turn to a broad-based education. We read whole books on the basics and try to learn everything we can.
A masterful learner doesn’t do that. They study very specific things that they are interested in. They follow thier interests and the problems they are encountering along the way. They study specifically to solve real problems they are facing.
By doing so you are learning and practising problem-solving skills in your practice. You will find yourself more motivated to learn. Solving these questions will bring you a greater feeling of self-worth.
It is better to be a shining specialist than a mediocre generalist.
How do you apply this to your creative endeavour? What are your loves? What do you want to excel in? What do you need to study?
Sand and rock, The Tarkine, Tasmania. Can’t wait to get back to this wonderland of rainforest and untouched coast. My photography tour is in September this year. http://www.lensschool.com/workshops-tours/tarkine-photography-tour 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
Today, I went to the parent-teacher night at Cyan’s new school, Smith Hill High School, Wollongong’s selective school. Wow. What an amazing place. Full of enthusiasm, inspiration and lovely people. Everyone, from students through to the heads, were lovely.
During the introductions, we were told how great it is to fail. They used an acronym:
To learn you have to FAIL:
I love that. The students start high school and are encouraged to work things out themselves. To experiment, explore, test, push, summarise.
Art is like that. I have mentioned the ‘Tipping Point’ previously. Finding the edge where things start to fall apart. Where they fail.
The thousands of photographs you take that don’t work teach you about the ones that do. There is no such thing as failure, just learning experiences. I take so many bad photographs. Just to get one good one. Hundreds of good ones to get one great one. So many good ones just to get to that outstanding one.
To give you an idea. A week may see me taking a thousand or a few thousand photographs. Perhaps fifty good photographs. Ten great ones if I am lucky. And if I am very lucky, one great photograph. That is a lot of failures. A lot of experiments. A lot of learning. And only a tiny bit of success.
If every day you expect a masterpiece, I can assure you that you are aiming too high. Ten masterpieces in a year is a good year. Well, that is what Sir Ansel said, and I have to agree with him.
Koala, The Otway Ranges. I think I need to do a small group tour there next year, who’s in? Photograph and text copyright © Len Metcalf 2018
Things often come along in your life which are so easy and just perfect. They feel like they have fallen in your lap. That really isn’t true because of all the years you spent getting ready, but when they materialise out of seemingly nowhere, it is just lovely to marvel at how easily they started.
They are so comfortable and so natural. They are just so beautiful.
Life was meant to be easy. It’s just that we have made it hard. Not just us personally, but also society has to hold most of the blame. Spending our lives thinking that it is meant to be hard just keeps us in our places and living a life of unhappiness.
I have just been reminded that Love is like that. You know it’s perfect when it is just so easy, so natural and so comfortable. It arrives without asking, it nourishes you, inspires you and fulfills your life.
To be honest, art is exactly the same. You spend years, or even a lifetime, working on yourself and your art, learning and growing. Then one day, an artwork turns up so easily. It just falls out of you and everything comes together magically to be something wonderful. If you noticed, you can use this to set your direction.
My best work was and is easy. It just flows out of me. The work that took blood, sweat and tears I only think is good because I remember the hard work that went into producing it. The artwork becomes the symbol of this struggle.
Why do we continue to choose the harder path, when there is a happier and easier one there? Well, we probably missed that turn, we are so focused on our goals we had blinkers on when we walked past at a run. It’s why I like to wander life and take the time to see, to listen and to experience.
Our tree, well our first tree, for there will be many more. Thank you for being so comfortable, so natural, so easy. It’s because of that I know how special it is.
Light painted nude and Morton Bay Fig, Sydney. Photograph and text copyright © Len Metcalf 2018
A hiatus in your creative outlet is a great thing. I don’t mean planned breaks but those ones that just turn up and you naturally down tools for a period of time.
They are a great thing because they allow you to recharge, regather, rethink and contemplate. They allow your concious thinking to catch up with your subconscious.
Personally, I have always found them so valuable. I return with vigour and with an extra zest that is stimulating and uplifting. It allows you to miss your passion.
I have found that it improves my work too.
My longest hiatus was between 1988 & 1997. Yes roughly ten years without photography. It was fantastic from one perspective, the only one that matters in my humble opinion and that was a huge improvement in quality. During those years my visual language grew, I matured and grew older. I could see my work so differently.
I think I let go of a lot too. I didn’t try as hard and was able to connect with my emotions much more readily. My work after this huge break took a monumental leap forward in quality. Before and after are like chalk and cheese.
Have you ever done something intuitively well, and as you thought about it your performance has decreased. Well, I think my hiatus allowed me to go back to being intuitive again.
Of course ten years without your creative outlet is probably way too long. Luckily for me teaching is a creative outlet and those intervening years were full of creativity and design.
Short breaks are also fantastic. A month or two brings me a fresh renewal. Don’t worry about them. Enjoy them. Know that you will return with invigorated passion when you are ready. They are healthy and normal.
Bombo Quarry, near Kiama, NSW, Australia. Photograph and text copyright © Len Metcalf 2018
My first real praise file was a folder where I collected all the letters from my staff, thanking me for the outdoor education programs I designed and managed. Reading them got me through difficult times. In those days they were handwritten, which gave them a certain magic that is lacking in today’s digital world. I still have them and writing this reminds me to read them again. I wonder if I can still read running writing. ;)
I have a box of cards and letters from clients and camera clubs. They usually send handmade cards with their photographs. The box is very precious. It is incredibly beautiful to open and wander through the years of memories in there. The handwritten words are full of life and heartfelt appreciation.
Another praise file is a collection of references from teachers and colleagues. These were once used for job applications and invaluable in my career. I was so pleased I asked for them along the way. For really important jobs, I asked referees to specifically highlight aspects I wanted to emphasise.
Recently, I showed a class this point in a talk on creativity. It suddenly jolted me into feeling that I wasn’t doing that well with my art, nor my teaching. So I started a folder in my emails simply called “a praise file”. I started putting every complimentary email that I received into it. At the moment it is growing quickly as I am getting such lovely letters from subscribers to my daily inspirations. It is heart-warming.
And that’s the point isn’t it? To be heart-warmed by your work and what you can do for others. It is a huge self-esteem boost. It’s indescribable how special each one of those words of praise is.
Keeping and looking through them during those moments of self-doubt, is a magical pill that instantly lifts and corrects one's mood. .
Untilled photograph from the Flesh and Stone series. Taken during last years Fine Art nude photography workshop in the Blue Mountains. I am running it again this year. Photograph and text copyright © Len Metcalf 2018
These were very hard and long lessons to learn and bring into my working practice. The huge cost of film and working with a large format camera for so many years in some ways hindered these lessons, but also in the end taught them to me.
I would spend all day wandering around with my camera, scared to take it out and use it, being fearful of wasting precious money on film. Yet, when the conditions and feelings for a photograph were right, I went straight to work and photographed quickly. Once I had the shot I moved on. So there was a lot of time searching and waiting for the feeling to arrive, yet once it was there I created very quickly.
Afterwards, I would pile up the films until I had a decent amount before processing them. Sometimes it would be six months worth before I started to see them. It might even take another year before printing them. I still have a back log of films to process and an even larger backlog of ones to print.
Fast forward to today. I have managed to go back to a similar process, which for me works very well.
I spend an inordinate amount of time searching for that feeling of beauty. Once it’s there, is strong and I am in tune with it, I start with abandon. I work fast and free. Now I take as many photos as I need to feel satisfied. Working fast gives me a closer relationship with my emotions rather than my cognitive thoughts.
By working fast I am trying to skip the thinking that often stifles my creativity. My thoughts don’t get much of a say while I am working. Feelings are the goal and head state I am aiming for.
When I have finished I let my work sit. Often it sits in the camera for days. Then onto the computer. If there is no pressing need I leave them for months and even a year before I really evaluate them. I am trying to forget the taking and what I was doing.
I want to experience my work as new again and not judge it on what I was trying to achieve. I will explore this idea deeper at another time.
For now. Try working faster. Create fast. Evaluate slowly with time. Design quickly and decide slowly is an old creative adage that is really worth following. It may take years but I hope you get there. It makes a huge difference.
Myall Lake foreshore. 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.
I used to think I had to understand what I was doing before I started. Why was I drawing or painting? It seemed that was what was pushed into me at art school... What does it mean? Why are you creating it? My feeble excuses about it being in my heart didn't seem to get heard.
What seems like a lifetime later I have realised that its ok to work from your heart. To not know where you are going is a method in itself. To let your art teach you about you. I read another lovely quote last week about the dream you had last night answering tomorrows questions. Or even questions you will ask yourself in a year or two's time.
Your art is like that too. Well, assuming your anything like me. My art is so far ahead of my conscious thoughts I am still catching up on what it means. Seriously. It teaches me about who I am, what I am thinking and about what is going on in my world.
I know some of you will think I am quite mad in thinking this. But let me assure you it is true for me, and also true for many artists, writers, and photographers. You don't need to understand now. What you need to do now is work hard and make lots of art. Make art that moves you. That connects with you on as many levels as possible.
It connects with your hand, your heart and your head...
"You learn how to make your work by making your work … art you care about -- and lots of it!”
David Bayles & Ted Orlando Art and Fear
Waratah, Mount Wilson, The Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area Photograph and text copyright © Len Metcalf 2018
Comparing yourself and your art to others is dangerous. It can lead to decreased self esteem, anxiety and excessive worry. Yet we all seem to have our moments when we do. Why do we keep doing it then?
One of the places photographers love to do this is with equipment, cameras, lenses and in particular printing paper. We also love to compare our work with others. How often have I heard “That’s so beautiful, I wish I could do that.” Easy, you probably could, but do you really want too. Is that really a good complement to make.
Camera comparisons are only useful if you are buying a camera. Otherwise why bother. Lens comparisons are only useful if you are going to buy a new lens.
I fall into the trap of thinking new equipment is going to make me a better photographer or that it will magically make my work better. Actually it never does. My quality often goes down with new equipment as I struggle to figure out how it works.
My advice. Buy less equipment and use what you have longer.
When we compare our work with that of others I am not sure it is so cut and dry. Is there something we can learn by looking at the creativity and technical skills of other artists. I think so. Yet, you don’t want to be doing comparisons, you want to be learning and seeking inspiration. Don’t compare yourself.
Instead ask, what is it that you love. What visual language codes are being used. What attracts your attention? Why can’t you stop looking at it? What compositional techniques are being employed?
More importantly ask what captures the attention of your heart and mind. Explore your thoughts. Ask what is creating / triggering your emotional response?
Study the ones that grab your attention and skip the ones that don’t.
But, don’t compare with yourself.
Andrea on the nude workshop last year. Photograph and text copyright © Len Metcalf 2018
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
There is an unfortunate misconception that there is only so much creativity inside someone. People fear that it is in limited supply. That you need to be careful not to use it all up. Luckily this is so far from the truth of the matter.
Creativity feeds itself. The more you use it the more you get. Probably the best metaphor is the opening of synapses in our brains. New neural pathways. The more we use them the better they work.
Creativity is transposable. For example day dreaming and imagining things in one part of your life helps you in your artistic endeavours as well. Being creative in your artistic life will help you in your work life as well.
Personally, I find it comes in waves that washes over me. One may be a wave of ideas to write about, or an easier way to thiink about my writing. At other times it may be for a new series of artworks. And at others it may be being caught up in the act of creating artworks. I have learnt not to worry too much about what each wave is, but to go with it and enjoy where it takes me.
The point is to try and incorporate it into your life as much as possible. Be creative at every twist and turn. It’s important that once it starts you follow it. Take notes. See where it leads you. Even frivolous ideas are worth pursuing because they feed other creative ideas.
The worst thing to do is to shut them down and resign yourself to their uselessness or their in appropriate timing. Concentrate on embracing them and using them as inspiration. You never know which of these thoughts will bring you the creativitie idea that changes your life or better yet, the lives of others.
Follow and nurture every creative thought. For they will feed and inspire more.
King Fern in Kissing Canyon in the Wollemi National Park, part of the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Wilderness. 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