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Morning Pages

A couple of years ago I read a book called Gravitas, by Caroline Goyder. I read mostly on the Virgin train travelling from Wigan to Glasgow on a Monday morning. I was always happy when I could get a seat to myself and spread out, relax without worrying the person next to me would want to squeeze past to visit the loo. (I always book aisle seats.)

One concept that really stood out in the book was something called Morning Pages. As soon as I read about it, I closed the Kindle App, launched Notes and started writing my very first Morning Page.

It’s very simple. You write for five minutes, anything that comes into your head. Then stop.

Julia Cameron first came up with the idea of Morning Pages. Lots of other people have written about it since. Tim Ferriss has written about it, and calls it Journalling. About the practice, he says “What I needed was a daily and meditative practice of production, like the tea ceremony.”

I enjoyed the process, and eventually tried again, but this time I did it in the evening – making it an Evening Page, as it were. Then my enthusiasm waned and a month went by before I did another. I continued in this similar sporadic fashion until I had five in total, spanning about eighteen months. After that I didn’t do any for another year.

Recently, I started again, but this time wanted to do it in a more planned way as part of my morning routine, which is already pretty ingrained. Every morning, one of the first things I now do is spend five minutes writing a Morning Page.

What to write about

It doesn’t matter what you write about, as long as you write something, continuously for five minutes. I just start writing about whatever is on my mind the instant I open my note-taking app. Some days it will be a frustration hanging around from the previous day, other days it will be a hope for the day to come.

For example, my first Morning Page after the long break was about an impending meeting that appeared in my work calendar. It looked vague and sinister and my mind immediately began conjuring up negative thoughts that had to be exorcised. Of course, the meeting was nothing to worry about in the end.

Has it helped me?

I haven’t been practicing with Morning Pages for long, but already I can see some benefits. My mind feels lighter, and my focus clearer. It’s a sort of purging experience, getting your thoughts out first thing in the morning. A kind of morning ablution.

Since I started I have felt much more productive, and more able to concentrate on what I want/need to get done that day. I procrastinate less, achieve more, and actually feel more content and satisfied.

Morning Pages are so easy to do, and take up so little time, so just get started and try it. It’s worth getting up five minutes earlier so you can fit it into your day.

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Notes from Susan Sontag On Photography

I recently came into possession of a copy of Susan Sontag’s On Photography, and was delighted to see it contained hand-written notes made in pencil by a previous owner. It has that wonderful musty ‘old book’ smell, and I’m finding it fascinating to go through, picking up on some of the notes and highlights.

The copy itself isn’t that old. It’s a Penguin Modern Classic with a reissued date of 2008, so it’s no older than that. The original was first published in 1977.

Essay #1: In Plato’s Cave

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Another interesting underline in the first essay:

  • The camera is a kind of passport that annihilates moral boundaries and social inhibitions, freeing the photographer from any responsibility toward the people photographed.

Essay #3: Melancholy Objects

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Some more interesting underlines from Essay three:

  • Photography is the inventory of mortality.
  • Photographs state the innocence, the vulnerability of lives heading toward their own destruction, and this link between photography and death haunts all photographs of people.
  • Photographs turn the past into an object of tender regard, scrambling moral distinctions.
  • A photograph could also be described as a quotation.
  • Photographs – and quotations – seem, because they are taken to be pieces of reality, more authentic than extended literary narratives.
  • Photographs furnish instant history, instant sociology, instant participation.
  • A set of photographs that freezes moments in a life or a society contradicts their form, which is a process, a flow in time.
  • Life is not about significant details, illuminated in a flash, fixed forever. Photographs are.

The following seems to sit very nicely with documentary photography, which I’m particularly interested in:

The photographer’s ardour for a subject has no essential relation to its content or value, that which makes a subject classifiable. It is, above all, an affirmation of the subject’s thereness; its rightness (the rightness of a look on a face, of the arrangement of a group of objects), which is the equivalent of the collector’s standard of genuineness; its quiddity – whatever qualities make it unique.

Essay #4: The Heroism of Vision

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Some interesting underlines from essay four:

  • It became clear that there was not just a simple, unitary activity called seeing (recorded by, aided by cameras) but “photographic seeing”, which was both a new way for people to see, and a new activity for them to perform.
  • The proper moment is when one can see things (especially what everyone has already seen) in a fresh way.
  • Moralists who love photographs always hope that words will save the picture.

A particularly wonderful line that really speaks to me about my own practice:

Photographic seeing meant an aptitude for discovering beauty in what everybody sees, but neglects as too ordinary.

Essay #5: Photographic Evangels

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Some interesting underlines from essay five:

  • Despite the efforts of contemporary photographers to exorcise the spectre of art, something lingers. For instance, when professionals object to having their images printed to the edge of the page in books or magazines, they are invoking the models inherited from another art: as paintings are put in frames, photographs should be framed in white space.
  • Photography, like pop art, reassures viewers that art isn’t hard; it seems to be more about subjects than about art.
  • Photography entered the scene as an upstart activity, which seemed to encroach on and diminish an accredited art: painting.

Essay #6: The Image World

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Sontag’s essays on photography are considered one of the classic starting points for anyone wanting to learn more about photography than simply how exposure, focusing, and post-processing works.

To-date I have read most of the essays, and have found them hard-going and academic, often needing to re-read sections multiple times in order to understand what is being suggested. Having said that, I do believe what I have read has made me think a bit more about why, what, and how I photograph something – and I am now especially more aware of the thorny issues of representation and otherness.

The book ends with a ‘Brief Anthology of Quotations’, and I will end this post with my own favourite quote, by American photographer George Tice. This pretty much sums up my own photographic experiences:

As I progressed further with my project, it became obvious that it was really unimportant where I chose to photograph. The particular place simply provided an excuse to produce work … you can only see what you are ready to see – what mirrors your mind at that particular time.

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An Interview With Myself

Introduce yourself

Hello, I’m Brian. I like to take pictures and I nearly always have a camera in my hand.

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How and when did you get into photography?

I’ve been taking pictures since I was a child, so most of my life. Digital photography wasn’t around when I started and my parents didn’t have much money so I couldn’t photograph as often as I would have liked. I remember borrowing their cameras when I was little, and learnt about exposure, shutter speed and aperture using a Zenit-EM. When I started working I bought myself a 35mm Canon SLR, then digital came along and I was delighted to switch over. I have taken many thousands of photographs since then.

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How would you describe your work and what are the ideas behind your images?

I have tens of thousands of images in my archive, some good, some not so good! In terms of genre I tend to switch a lot and have tried landscape, beauty, fashion, portrait, street, and documentary photography. Some of those are single images which stand-alone, while others are groups of images that work together. I usually start off with an idea of some kind, either for a single image or a project, and try to construct my pictures around that idea. However, they are not deeply conceptual and things don’t always come out exactly the way I intended!

Some of my images feel a bit safe, and I really have to push myself to produce more gritty, edgy work. Interestingly, the type of camera I use can make a difference. If I’m going for a snapshot aesthetic, using a compact point-and-shoot seems to help me achieve that. If I’m looking for something more crafted and painterly where quality is essential, I’ll use a DSLR. That’s not always the case, but it’s often a starting point.

My work is often described as quiet, calm, and peaceful. These are actually personal qualities of mine so perhaps it’s true that photographs are really a reflection of the photographer and not just about the subject.

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What do you think of genres in photography? Do you consider yourself a documentary photographer, street photographer, or portrait photographer?

Probably a combination of all those things, so essentially just a photographer.

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Which photographers inspire you?

So many! William Eggleston, Garry Winogrand, Stephen Shore, Alec Soth, Martin Parr, David Bailey. That’s naming just a few famous ones. Less famous contemporary photographers who inspire me are Bieke Depoorter, Carolyn Drake, Mark Power, Peter van Agtmael, Rob Bremner. I’ve just realised most of those are Magnum photographers.

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Would you describe your body of work as consistent?

Probably not, because I like to try different things. I do struggle with this at times, as everyone says to make it as a photographer you need to specialise. However, in my defence I recognise that I don’t need to be a professional photographer to make good pictures. Actually, I think it’s probably easier not to be a pro, so you can keep experimenting and shooting in any direction you like, free of commercial pressure of any kind.

I have noticed that my work is sometimes pictorial, sometimes documentary, but nearly always moody with lots of contrast, depth, and layers. Perhaps that’s where some consistency starts to come in, but I do mix things up and change my style quite a bit. I have been known to go minimal!

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Do you prefer single images or projects?

I like both, but there’s something incredible about the project work of photographers like Alec Soth, Bieke Depoorter and Carolyn Drake. When you get a great series of images the whole collection adds up to so much more than the sum of the parts. Synergy!

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How do you stay motivated?

I sometimes go through dry spells where I’m uninspired and don’t feel like making pictures, but I always come out the other side. Taking my cameras on days out or holidays usually helps to unblock my creativity.

Advice for people getting into photography?

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you need to be a pro. You can make beautiful images in your spare time and have a tremendous amount of fun, stress-free, while doing so. Also, don’t get too hung up about only shooting one thing. It’s so easy to get stuck in a pigeon-hole as a street photographer or horse photographer or whatever. Just be a photographer and shoot whatever you want to!

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