On photography

Few months ago, in a moment of madness I decided to enter my photos in an open art show. I have been taking pictures for a long time, and I know that they are not bad, but when I made that harebrained decision, I didn’t know if they would be good enough, or interesting enough – and I still don’t. It is by far the hardest aspect of bringing your work under the public eye, the making yourself vulnerable for the potential embarrassment of others looking at the things you have created and finding it lacking.

Framing my botanical prints – annoying and boring, but ultimately rewarding work. For whatever else my pictures might, they are definitely well-presented.

It is an interesting process, going through about five years’ worth of photos – I’m embarrassed by how often the same images repeat; how many times I have gone to the same locations, photographed the same views. There’s also the sense of how little direction, beyond capturing beautiful light or colour or texture, anything I have done has had. I wasn’t making progress, other than taking better flower photos, because I was taking flower photos.¬†This spring I found myself making the conscious decision – the daffodils and the bluebells and the cow parsley would bloom, and my camera would stay in its drawer, and I would enjoy them by looking and smelling and experiencing them. I had enough pictures of them to lean on to if I wanted to.

I early on decided that I will only show pictures shot in the Oxford University Botanical Garden; I had made the decision to enter the art show during the those gloomy, soggy days of last winter, and the Botanical Garden represented the ideal summer – herbaceous borders, flower meadows, beautiful vegetables, low-hanging sun of the summer evenings. The pictures I set out to pick would, I was hoping, buzz with bees and insects and show the cycle of the season from the freshness of spring to the decay of autumn. And some of them indeed do – there are the globe thistles full of wasps and the coriander flowers full of cardinal beetles, other images that didn’t make the cut but had impressive gatherings of bugs of every kind on them.

After I had made that decision to enter the show, I knew one thing immediately: I would show portraits on the side of my pictures of flowers. I had an instant, definitive view of what kind of portraits – they would tell a story, a narrative of a relationship, in five frames. I would shoot them in the Botanical Garden. They would have hazy, VSCO filter colours and dreamy atmosphere, and they would be perfect.

I never shot a single one of them.

Yet I knew, even if I had never done any portrait photography, that this was something I needed to do; I had created a point of transition, and this way I would be forced to follow the new path. I scoured friends lists and asked for favours, messed around with a camera and other gear, and I learned a great deal by forcing myself to do it all. I was surprised by how strong my ideas were, and how well I could make them work. I discovered that the most beautiful people aren’t always the most photogenic. That some people can’t pose, but in that brief unguarded moment they relax, they give you something wonderful. That you can ask for anything of people who trust you. Are the pictures I took technically flawless? No – there’s too much and not enough light, perhaps the contrasts are too stark, the backgrounds awkward. Am I happy with them? Yes – there are some pictures I have taken for this project that I think I can look at years from now and be proud of.

Herb grace o’ Sundays – Unvarnished
runs from 23 June to 6 July in the Oxford Festival of the Arts hub as part of the Magdalen Open.

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