North Uist - Another Holiday, Another Period of Introspection

Holiday Snap 1, Berneray

Another great holiday, another period of deep introspection, it’s become a pattern. Each time we return from holiday from some wonderful location, on this occasion North Uist in the Outer Hebrides,  I’m left disappointed with my inability to capture what I saw and how I felt. It makes me question my ability as a photographer. Not just ability, but my dedication, commitment and aptitude. It puts me in a low mood. It’s my good fortune that though I may have emotional peaks and troughs I’m not prone to real depression. I feel for those that are.

Self Portrait, Ferry to North Uist

My rational voice knows full well that if you dismiss pot luck, capturing that “perfect” photograph of place like North Uist requires a real intimacy and understanding of the landscape and time dedicated to photography, and that level of intimacy and understanding and time is not possible on a seven day holiday.  I know that to get close to the standard to which I aspire might take many months in the field*, but my emotional voice drowns this out. The reason, it says, is simple, it’s just that I’m not good enough.

* The great American photographer Paul Strand lived on South Uist for 3 months to create Tir A’Mhurain, his book on the island.

Pot Luck, West Beach & Harris Mountains, Berneray

The introspection in its initial form sees me comparing my efforts with others.  I know that simple comparisons - ”is this or that image better or worse”, “am I a better or worse photographer” - are unfair and unhealthy. It’s a fools errand for many reasons. I know this, but still I do it. 

Shell & Seaweed, North Uist

Some might say that there’s no such thing as better or worse, just different. I humbly beg to differ. In his search for the definition of quality Robert Pirsig wrote in Zen & The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance that a thing’s quality (in this case a photograph), though impossible to define or measure, is a direct consequence of the amount of care someone took creating it. In other words you can sense it. This is the problem. I can sense the care others have put into their work-  it’s quality - but I know the lack of care I’ve put into my own, perhaps for unavoidable reasons, but lack of care all the same. 

Emerald Seas, North Uist

If this was the end of the story I’d probably give up photography and find something else to be bad at, but after beating myself up for perhaps a week or so something happens. I see a photograph I like and wonder how the photographer has captured it and processed it. I start to delve deeper into topics than I otherwise might not have done (this time with the aid of Alister Benn’s e-books on post processing). I begin to learn and as I learn I look at my own work more critically and experiment with the processing. Sometime’s what I’ve learned brings a photograph I’d previously dismissed to life.   

Reeds, North Uist

The learning process often goes hand in hand with spending time investigating the work of a photographer I admire; on this occasion Michael Kenna, whose monochrome images are full of care and quality, both in the taking and in the work in the dark room afterwards. There’s a serenity and calmness to his landscapes that resonates, it reflects how I feel when I’m alone in the landscape. Though he has a distinctive style, that style doesn’t get in the way of capturing the sense of place that for me is the essence of landscape photography; it might be a Michael Kenna image, but it’s still Iceland or Japan or the North of England. This doesn’t make me want to become a Michael Kenna clone, what would be the point,  but looking at how he’s placed the objects in an image, how he’s simplified the scene, where he’s positioned the horizon, how he’s balanced dark and light, how these things and more create the overall effect, all these things help me learn and hopefully progress. 

Harris Mounts from Berneray

Having learned something new and been inspired I feel reinvigorated. The mood lifts and I’m ready to step back into the world of photography …  and I tell myself that on the next holiday I won’t take a camera, or perhaps just stick to holiday snaps … though I know I won’t be able to resist the call … and that I’ll repeat the pattern. 

It reminds me of something I realised long ago; that self-doubt and periods of introspection are necessary for growth and renewal, and that admitting your weaknesses is the best way to find strength. 

Holiday Snap 2, North Uist

Footnote:  North Uist and Berneray are stunning locations. My failure to make the most of them is solely down to me. They remain pristine, beautiful and blameless. One day, with more time, I’ll go back and have a second attempt. 

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