Physicality and art


A good day’s walk makes you feel like your heart has overflowed, that it cannot be contained by the physical confines of the body. It spills out into the trees and hills, it is carried in the wind, winds its way through the air-blown grass like a serpent, runs at your heels like a happy dog. Joy is impossible to describe, for what lifts me may not have any kind of effect on you. But when I walk I feel a part of the world and not apart from it. This sense mixes with everything, I mix with it and, quite literally, en-joy.

Walking, when done in the right spirit, is creative, or at least fills me with the same ineffable sense that something essential, something visceral is happening. It is a feeling that anyone who has created something satisfying will recognise. Moving across the world slowly – from a distance little appears to change, just as an artist’s pencil second by second alters the paper insignificantly – it feels like the landscape and the walker have at the day’s end become a manifestation of more than the sum of themselves.

Travelling on foot gives so much time for mental release thanks to its basic slowness. It creates a psychic momentum which carries one’s thoughts and emotions onward long after the stepping out is finished. It gives a mental space, an openness, which is ripe for fledging ideas and firming up reflections. There is so much in its inherent, rhythmical slowness which is essential to the emotive understanding of all kinds of issues, problems and inspirations. Much of this is also down to the being there, wind on face, earth under foot, straining, feeling muscle and sinew as they negotiate a passage through the elements. The physical engagement transforms everything, makes our sometimes leaden lives golden once more – the philosopher’s stone for those of us who by necessity live our modern lives once removed from the elemental.

Working creatively, too, exercises the same attraction and endows what we do with identity and dynamism. In the hours of engagement with the work we make, our thoughts and actions have mixed so thoroughly with the physical elements of our day, whether they be rocks and air or paper and chemicals, that the result is not just something we have done or produced, it is part of us; full of heart, mistakes, retracing of steps, thrilling views and realisations, emotions, disappointments, challenges, and, with effort and luck, completeness and consummation.

Perhaps, this is why purely electronic media, whilst brilliant, can feel unsatisfying. They lack physicality. Unless their images are printed out, there is no molecular reality to the medium, no tangibility to the product. Like the sibilance of music on CD compared to the tonal richness of live music, it is impossible not to be aware that this is not ‘real’ but is manufactured from ones and zeros. I am strongly pro-digital (in music and in art) because it makes getting 99% of the desired result so wonderfully quick and possible. However, that final one percentage point is increasingly significant to me. In fact it is huge, impossible to ignore and explains why I am willing to spend days and months learning and labouring to get a version of an image which is right not just in its appearance but also in its execution.

The viewer does not care of course. This is the prerogative solely of the creator for only he or she handles the film holder, or winds the crank, and then at a later time with a head full of emotions and remembrances, sees the beauty of the negative held for the first time against the light of a window, later to convert that upside-down and back-to-front transparency into something physical for the world to see. When I have made a print, whether analogue or digital, I like to touch it, smell it, hold it aslant to the daylight to see its texture and appreciate the way that it seems alive as the light deepens the blacks, raises the whites to brilliance. I often take a print and sit with it in my hands, eyes closed, to appreciate its weight and texture in my hands. Without this sensuous appreciation I feel a gnawing sense of lack in what I make and do. Perhaps this love of the physical is misguided nostalgia but I feel rather that it is an acknowledgement of the real, the legitimate and the durable. The pursuit of these three qualities is what I think draws us into galleries when we can more easily view art online.

I for one want to be there as part of the experience not separated from it by signals up and down a phone line or round and round a whirring hard drive. In the just the same way, I want the walk up the mountain with its rain and wind, its sun and stars and not the simply the partial view of some vicarious armchair journey on my screen. The reality and the beauty we desire is not in the ‘elsewhere’ of which we dream. When we get out and place ourselves bodily amongst the sometimes uninspiring stuff of the everyday, it reveals itself everywhere and we can’t help but meet it at every turn. If we are wise enough to take the physicality of the world on its own terms, to watch it, smell it, touch it, describe it in the way that it feels most real – whether that is by walking it, photographing it, sketching it, sculpting it – this physical life and art become fused, indistinguishable and intoxicating.

Quantity and immediacy diminish enjoyment

Sunlit dune and East wind

Sunlit dune and East wind (4×5 paper negative)

Just like anybody else, I am always dying to see the results of an exposure particularly when I have that intuitive feeling that the recently closed shutter has sealed something good or, dare I say, potentially perfect. And just like everybody, I have had my share of disappointing results.

My recently yoyoing health has virtually prevented me from producing anything photographic, and I have had ample time to think about what motivates me to work photographically and to consider what value I feel lies in an image or passage of text once its making is complete. It has been an uncomfortable experience to discover that some of my images seem to be pure peacockery, passingly elegant, sometimes eye-catching, often curious but ultimately irritating and only fleetingly worthwhile.

I have found it fascinating to observe that, thanks to my imposed inactivity, my productive cycle (if indeed anything so close to a flat line can be called a cycle!) has seen a progressively longer gap between the making and the processing, and an even longer one between the processing and the publishing. Now this is enormously detrimental to one’s momentum but strangely it has proved to be excellent for ripening and improving my critical self-view and more importantly allowing me to savour what is good about an image before it goes on display to the rest of the world. It has provided a slowness and a breathing space which the race to publish something often squeezes out. Not that slowness benefits anybody but myself of course but these fallow interludes really do seem to improve the experience of making and understanding the results. They successfully keep at bay external pressures and allow one to savour – and sometimes discard – what has been made in a beautifully meditative way.

The photo shown here is one which, if it had taken the usual rapid route from darkroom to screen, might not have pleased me. I almost certainly would not have understood it or enjoyed its making. In fact the negative was so uninspiring that I very nearly threw it away without printing it at all. But the enforced delay, the occasional reviews of the negative, the playing with the print, the very looking at it and periodically ignoring it brought me to the point where instead of seeing triviality and pointlessness I saw dignity and worth. I think this is intensified by the low number of negatives I have had to work with recently which has allowed an intimacy with each exposure which high-volume production simply cannot create.

So it seems to me now that having lots of images to work with and finding too much ease in their production, with the resulting visual and critical indigestion that this entails can be tremendously damaging to the enjoyment of making. Part of the fun for me in using pinhole cameras is the enforced discipline of slow looking and slow action. But until now I had not realised how much benefit slowing right down might bring. In addition to this, as one’s satisfaction increases so does one’s ability to discern. As in so many other life-enhancing activities such as cooking good food or drinking pot-brewed tea from a china cup, what starts out as merely good is elevated to the heavenly by the right approach.