Thursday, 9 June 2022

Taking stock and taking new directions

I watched a friend’s video about her creative process because when we talked she mentioned it. I’d been watching her videos – her creative alphabet – but hadn’t I think seen this particular video. The previous evening we’d been talking about my creative process and I got some valuable feedback when I mentioned I’d started making paramontages with single images and short poems.

The poems in this case are from a collection titled ‘Before Dawn’ in the introduction to which I wrote:

I started this collection of writerly sketches this year in late July or early August, making individual files in the dead of winter at a time when I’d almost finished working on a series of longer biographical poems titled ‘Winter Nouns’.

I wrote that in August 2021, so about a year ago now, and reading this (and posting it for others to read) makes me reflect on what Basia mentions in her video about trusting the process. I had no idea when I started ‘Winter Nouns’ that I’d feel ready to embark on a different path in my creative journey, a path that’d take me through a landscape where aphorisms and brief observations would dot the horizon like telegraph poles or pine trees. 

Trust is a loaded word however, as living with a mental illness I have to be careful of where forces that seem to come from elsewhere – which Basia talks about in her video – can lead. I have to watch myself for signs that the creative process isn’t leading to a new episode, and this perhaps makes my creative process different from my friend’s.

When we spoke Basia also suggested not spending big bucks on getting art-quality prints made and instead getting lower-quality prints made at a different shop. I quickly rejected this idea because I think that each item I make has equal value. I do so because of the journey. I get prints made so that I can really experience the artwork as seeing a piece of work on-screen in reduced scale lacks the impact of a full-colour print on proper paper. I want to know what I have done so that I can understand it, and a grainy, poor-colour print with borders won’t have the same specific gravity as a good, crisp and cropped print on nice matte paper. So going to Officeworks might save me money but it still costs money and I won’t get the same result as going to Pixel Perfect.

I’ve already talked about the initial spark that caused me to start this journey, and it’s related to my illness. What caused Basia to give me her suggestion to use a cheaper printing alternative is that I mentioned I’d slowed down my production. Well, that was two days ago. Yesterday I delivered about 15 new files to the print shop, so my pact with myself to go slower didn’t last long.

What happened however was that I began to make paramontages with single images instead of assemblages of multiple images. Basia evinced interest when I made this comment during our discussion, and I took from this a valuable clue to my own creative process. It suggested – the raised intonation of her voice, her deciding to linger over this point in our to-and-fro of words – that she approved of this change.

Such approval can be taken different ways. On the one hand it validates what you’ve decided to do but on the other hand it can be read as a criticism of other things you’ve made.

Privileging the individual photo over the assemblage makes me think of a book on Magnum, the photography agency. I bought a book on Magnum yesterday and started to read it. After dropping off the files at the print shop I caught the light rail to Town Hall and walked to Abbeys Bookshop to browse because I wanted biographies on photographers. They have a solid biography section and I saw a memoir by David Bailey which I’ll probably go back and buy later on, but I gravitated to the photography section and bought this Magnum volume instead, putting it in my bag and heading off to Pitt Street to take photos of Australia Square. Once home I cracked it open and consumed many pages throughout the afternoon, taking breaks to work on my things and to watch the news.

Lessons from the book include the fact that Magnum initially only had photographers using black and white. Another lesson is that some of them didn’t crop their photos. The agency has changed over time however and both colour and cropping are commonplace for participants’ work but reading these passages makes me think about what the medium means for me.

I suspect that Magnum would prefer I use single photos with short poems, like Basia. The problem is that I write a variety of different poems, including longer free-form poems and sonnets. I also write prose-poems (like ‘Winter Nouns’) that have their own dynamic and poise. In order to accommodate these works I say to myself that I need multiple images but I wonder if this is really the case. Might it be possible to accompany a longer piece of prose poetry with a single image, instead of the six or seven that I’ve been using so far? 

The ‘Winter Nouns’ extracts have been made at 70cm wide, so they’re narrow and big, and with a two-colour gradient I’ve embellished them to make elements of the photos stand out. What I normally do is take colours that exist in the photos (GIMP, the graphics program, has a colour picker tool that lets you sample a pixel in the image) and use them for the gradient fill. The poems in ‘Before Dawn’ are much shorter at only six lines each. Each line is very brief so that the poems seem to twist and flex in space like little sculptures. Because they’re so brief they lend themselves to use with single images, but the sonnets I’ve written are more like arguments or intellectual exercises. 

Sonnets have a distinct structure that gives them this kind of function. The sonnets I write are in three parts, starting with two quatrains that set up the terms of debate. After this comes a volta where you come to a fork in the road that changes the approach to the subject under discussion. Finally, at the end, you have a decisive couplet that fixes the dialogue in place for all time (or, until the next poem is attempted as a reader).

The six-line ‘Before Dawn’ poems include one called ‘Round’ which I put with an image and sent off to the print shop. It goes like this:

Like Mother’s
eye, which saw
me everyday

while time
the masterstroke.

The image I used to go with this poem contains the camera I’m holding in my right hand when I take the snapshot. You can see the lens (which is, of course, round) like an eye looking at the viewer at the same time as it’s pointed at the scene outside the bus window, for I was on public transport when I took the photo. 

I sometimes make images with the lens visible. Here is one I made yesterday while in the city.

You can easily see the camera lens in the top of the image, and normally I wouldn’t use a photo like this for a paramontage but because I’d written ‘Round’ I thought to myself as I was looking through the PDF ‘Before Dawn’ resides in that it might do. What is like Mother’s eye? Is it art? Now that both my parents are dead and I no longer have access to whatever wisdom they accrued over long lives am I able to consult with the muse in the same way that I might’ve had a chat with mum when I went over to her place up on the Coast in order to make dinner for the both of us? Are the muses like my parents? Do they look out for me, counsel me, play the role model? Or are they something like a guide, as Basia suggests in her video when she says that the creative process is, for her, like a journey? 

Do I trust them or do I react to them and set off on a new path? What is the role of art, for me? For the moment I’ll continue to make multi-image paramontages but because I have a range of options I can change from moment to moment and from day to day, varying my approach to whatever subject catches my attention. For making art is enjoyable and I wonder if more people mightn’t benefit from it. Instead of gambling or drinking or taking recreational drugs, might people more profitably spend a few hours each day with their muses? Talking about going from the sonnets to ‘Winter Nouns’ to ‘Before Dawn’ to the paramontages I retrace steps leading somewhere, but I wonder if I trust the process or if I am just making circles in the sand.


Basia Sokolowska said...

So much to respond to in this post. Trusting the process is something I learnt over the years of making art. Initially I found myself doubting my decisions and tormenting myself with questions about decisions, which way to go, which image to select from a series of photos for printing up, overthinking, getting impatient, an so on. It was a bit of a torment, as much as enjoyed taking photos - the urge was stronger than me, so I had no choice in the matter, I had to make them. I took me years to develop my own way of working and my rythm, so I understand your doubts and reservations. As for mental ilness - you might find that many great artists suffered from it
(Agnes Martin was a schizofrenic, Louise Bourgoise life was wrought with anxiety, fear and depression, not mentioning Van Gogh, Mark Rothko and so on). In some ways their mental illnnes powered their creativity and lead to great paintings. Art therapy, so popular now is about that - recognizing the power of art making to heal mental ilness and is doing just that. My interest in your new strategy of using one photo and one poem, was not so much approval or a guideline as a recognition and excitement that your creative process, the way you work and the images you produce are evolving, and this is a mark of you being on a journey. Which is fantastic. So just keep going, do what feels right at the time and do not fear. You are protected, you are in the flow, and this is the best way to live a life.

Basia Sokolowska said...

As for Magnum photographers initially not cropping their photographs, I think it comes from Henri Cartier- Bresson, for whom photographing was just "capturing" the moment in his camera. He wasn't interested at all in what happened afterwards, how the captured image made it into a print that is in darkroom work, cropping, printing etc. Someone else did it for him. He is often quoted to say that "photographers are hunters, not cooks". He was a painter (not a good one) hanging our with the Surrealists as they were artistic avangarde at the time. He picked up photography as a medium praised by the Surrealists, for its ability to capture the incongruous, unexpected and illogical configuration of reality.
I think the roundness of the reflection of the lens in your photo is great, (my love of plastic circles might have something to do with it ;-)). I find it adds to the composition of the image and it is a nice inclusion of the photographer in the photo. The photographer who is the author of the poem as well, so it makes your presence more visible and immediate.

Matthew da Silva said...

Thanks for the comments, it's nice to get feedback. I do worry abt things like size and whether the poems will be able to be read from the wall, I'll have to get one framed so that I can gauge the impact of xthe text. You're right about the practice of making art and how it eases anxiety, I find it immensely happy-making to just sit before dawn and do the work required to make these things.

The concrete nature of art is so strange, like the fact of photography itself. When I'm out on the street I worry that people will object to having their image taken and I wish in buses to be able to whip out the machine and snap a picture of people sitting on their seats but I'm filled with trepidation. This anxiety disappears once I get home with a haul of images when I can spend enjoyable hours buried in the flow and it relaxes me no end.