Kete….weaving a narrative
In the clarity of wilderness light, my mind and my heart are soothed and uplifted by the serenity of creation. These are the landscapes of, and for, my spirit.
-WILLIAM NEILL (From Landscape of The Spirit)
What can I do in the morning?
I can put on my coat;
I can make a cup of coffee;
And light a cigarette;
I can kneel down like a camel
On the grass beside the fence;
I can eat and walk and sleep;
-James K Baxter (from He Waiata o Hemi)
More and more I am convinced that the Great Divide we all strive to cross as photographers involves connecting with our photographs, with the pictures we make. It involves coming to realise that each and every photograph we make is a true and accurate reflection of where we are at that moment. The teacher in me really enjoys working with other photographers to help them make that crossing.
I have just returned from leading a five-day workshop at Lake Waikaremoana in the Urewera National Park, where 10 of us journeyed to make photographs in response to the location in which we found ourselves, and prepare for an exhibition in early 2010. It was a wonderful and truly rewarding workshop which challenged all of us on a variety of levels. All going well, we are going to repeat it in 2010. Getting there involves an arduous 3 1/2 hour journey from Rotorua and the Bay of Plenty. The drive across involves penetrating deeper and deeper into the mist covered mountains, until you seem to leave the known universe. Te Urewera is a mist-shrouded, mountainous and utterly mysterious place, were each corner seems to hint at secrets known to few and carefully locked away. Each corner on the Road (and there are many) is rather like an arched eyebrow that offers you hints and little else. It seems to suggest that there is much to be learned, but that it is up to us to ask all the right questions, and that we will have to work to do so.
Of course, there is all the obvious; the mountains, the deep, wind-swept lakes and the dark foreboding forest. It is as if the landscape only tolerates our presence, and certainly doesn’t encourage any dialogue. It is up to each of us to formulate our own questions and encourage some conversation. But it will not come easily.
I think for the first day or two we all struggled, uncertain as to how to introduce ourselves. I know that I felt as if I had stepped into a parallel universe, into a place which was utterly alien. It was only after a day that I began to sense what was talking to me, and to be able to respond to it photographically.
I wanted to post this workshop at a level above and beyond the winterlight workshop we conduct in Wedderburn each year. I wanted to place more emphasis on individual mentoring and helping each participant to develop their own dialogue with the location. So, apart from an initial lecture on the first night in which we got to know each other, and nightly evaluations, each participant was free to work on his or her own way with ready access to help and encouragement wherever possible. In my former life as an art teacher I used to do this with all my senior art students, so I was really returning to a methodology I had used before.
The theme for the week was the concept of narrative. All of us develop narratives in our photographs, stories we tell either overtly or covertly in every single photograph we make. There are two types of narrative; internal narrative and external narrative. The former is the expression of the relationship between us and the subject of our photographs. This applies equally to landscape, documentary and portraiture-in fact to all forms of photography. Thus, if I am deeply affected (or not) by my subject material, a narrative develops. If I am clear in my response to my subject, then the narrative is also clear. If I am confused about that response, then that also shows. The degree of clarity or confusion is readily apparent to somebody able to decode the narrative. If I am photographing the landscape and the feelings I have at the time are ones of terror or ecstasy, and I translate those feelings into my photographs, then I have written a narrative that can be easily read. If I am photographing through someone else’s eyes, and am not clear on what I am trying to express, then the narrative is either confused or plagiaristic.
But there is another side to the narrative, or to the concept of narrative, namely that of the external narrative. If I generate a narrative that records my response to the subject and keep the finished image in a place where only I see it, then the narrative remains to a large degree internal . If, however, I am considering my potential audience, then I am establishing an external narrative. Thus there are three players in the story; the subject, myself, and the intended audience. The degree to which I take the last under consideration determines the importance of the external portion of my narrative. If a narrative becomes fraught, or plagiaristic or obtuse, it is often because we are allowing the external part of the trilogue to have a greater emphasis then perhaps we would like .
When I come to a new location, looking to create a narrative, then I can approach it in one of several ways; I can bring with me what I know and attempt to impose it on what is before me, to dominate the conversation and make my voice heard to the detriment of the other party. Alternatively I can take the time to sit and listen and offer an opinion when necessary. I can weave a narrative that allows for the opinions and thoughts of the other party as well as my own. I can tell my own story, I can reflect back the story being told to me, or I can examine the place where both meet, and develop my narrative from that. Personally, I’ve always felt the last to be the best option.
So how do you approach a place about which you know almost nothing? Well, it seems to me that finding out about it, by listening to it and reflecting on my response to that is the most productive option. On the second day of the workshop, Jenni Moses, a kuia from the local tribe, Ngai Tuhoe, came down and spent the morning with us, freely sharing her knowledge and insights into the district and the life of the people within it. That sharing gave all of us a point of entry into developing our individual narratives. By taking what we had heard, adding to it what we saw, and reflecting upon our subsequent feelings, all of us began to develop work in distinctly different directions. I think it is going to be a truly amazing exhibition.
For my own part, I was curious to explore my response to a place which affected me deeply on a variety of different levels. Lately I have begun to place less and less emphasis on the external narrative and to focus more (pun intended) on the internal part of any narrative I developed. There is a reason for this: of late that relationship between me, my subject and the subsequent image has become of primary importance. I have blogged at length about how my photographs are marker posts for me, postcards I am writing to myself, to help me see where I am at any given point. Lately my photographs have become distinctly personal narratives, primarily aimed for me. When other people view them and note different narratives or aspects of it, then I am intrigued am fascinated by what they discern. At that point the narrative has become external and multiplied.
Lately, as I photograph the landscape, I am less and less interested in documenting the surface of what is before me, and more and more inclined and involved in digging into what lies beneath. More and more I tend to photograph what is in front of me as a means to expanding the internal dialogue I am having with myself.
We were returning early one morning back to base for breakfast, when we stopped to look at the Mokau Falls near the Visitor Centre. Something intrigued me and drew my attention, so I parked the car and we got out. When you are driving, you get to have a big say in what locations get to be photographed. Something about the falls fascinated me. I spent about five minutes just looking, trying to sense what it was that was speaking to me. In the end I couldn’t quite hear the message (rather like listening to a radio station which is just off-channel), so I used my camera to tune in. It seemed to me at the time that the waterfall was more than just a river flowing down a rock face, that in some way it was a metaphor for all the things we think we see, and all the things we choose not to see. It was as if I was looking at the river of life, rushing by me, carrying messages I was too slow to pick up. There was something both beautiful and internal in watching this movement of the water down the cliff. So, using a long lens, I explored the various parts of the scene. I made perhaps 50 photographs.
When we got back to camp and I had the opportunity to look at the image on my laptop screen, this feeling became even more apparent. With that feeling in mind, and a sense that I wanted to bring out that internal narrative, I worked away at the image, using a variety of Photoshop techniques I have begun to develop, until the narrative became more clear to me.
For me the narrative is a dialogue about the temporal and eternal and the interface between them.