Postcards are more than pretty pictures

I am on a journey of discovery trying to learn more about the things that shape my photography and influence my choice of subjects, style and locations. It’s a journey I have been on since I received my first camera, a Minolta 35mm with a range-finder focus system – a gift from my father when I lived in Colchester many years ago. The journey has stopped and started many times but always returned to its focus on the outdoors – landscapes, nature and plants.

The journey started again in earnest last year after I decided to embark on a period of study with the Open College of the Arts in the UK which encouraged me to think more deeply about the things that drive my photography and in particular why I am drawn to landscape photography and the natural world rather than, for example, still life or street photography. Recently I came across an essay about photography by Marius de Zayas which struck a chord with me in relation to describing where I am trying to get to on my journey of development as a photographer.

Marius de Zayas makes a distinction between ‘the photographer’ and ‘the artistic photographer’ (http://www.journal1913.org/pdfs/1913_issue2.pdf). The ‘photographer’ is said to concentrate on reproducing what he sees in front of him, striving for objectivity, capturing through the camera an accurate representation of something “outside of himself”. The ‘artistic photographer’ differs by using the camera to capture and express something “that is in himself” incorporating personal aspirations, ideas and emotions along with the visual objectivity of the scene. This distinction struck a chord with me because it described very succinctly where I am trying to get to on my journey of photographic development.

In the past I have used many words to try and describe how I want to improve my photography but when it comes down to it I am just trying to become an ‘artistic photographer’. I want my photographs to show something of me, something ‘that is inside me’. It’s a journey I stumble along. The steps I need to take aren’t always clear but a few milestones have emerged along the way to help me realise when I am on the right path. Sometimes a milestone is a new technique, a new piece of equipment or learning more about the work of other photographers/artists and developing new ideas from that. Sometimes it involves a flash of insight like my ‘postcard moment’. The photographs in this post are an attempt to try and illustrate what I mean by my ‘postcard moment’.

This first image was taken at Winnats Pass in the English Peak District. A favourite place of mine. The photograph is a possible candidate for the postcard stands scattered around the shops catering for tourists visiting the area. For me it arouses all sorts of memories and positive feelings about the area – it taps into something inside me – but not everyone has the same strength of reaction to it. Why not? I’ll try and answer that question by saying more about my ‘postcard moment’.

Winnats Pass, Castleton, Peak District

Thinking about the nature of postcards – why people buy them – has helped me to understand why reactions to the photograph (any photograph for that matter) could vary from mine. A postcard has a number of characteristics that aren’t present in all my ‘postcard images’. Understanding what those characteristics are has helped me to focus more on how I can try to improve my landscape photography.

When someone buys a postcard showing a place they visited and they send it to a friend, a colleague or a member of their family I think they are putting together a ‘package’ that has three components:

  1. the aesthetic appeal of the postcard – the visual appeal of the picture
  2. their emotional connection with the postcard – the feelings and memories they associate with the image
  3. the postcard’s social function – the desire to share their experience with family, friends and colleagues

A landscape photograph that can meet all three properties of a postcard is an achievement I would like for all my images. With this particular one it would perhaps help to wait for more dramatic lighting, a broody sky perhaps, or in desperation even include a person in the landscape to try and humanise it – a sort of visual ‘imagine you were here’ message. Another way would be to try a more intriguing caption perhaps. Bringing those thoughts together I have combined three images into a postcard that I would call –  ‘The Hidden Landscape’.

If I could include a really, really long caption I would reveal even more about why the location is special and hopefully help others understand more about my connection with the image.

My really, really long caption would reveal that although the area is classic landscape photography material today, it has a long history of industrial mining. Over 2000 years ago the Romans mined lead by hand underneath this hill. In the course of that mining they threw away something that has still never been found anywhere else in the world – ‘Blue John’. The Romans discarded the coloured stone  because it had no value to them as they searched for the lead underneath the hills.

‘Blue John’ – a semi-precious stone now used to make jewellery and ornaments – gets its name through a corruption of the name French miners working in the area gave to the stone. They called it ‘Bleu Jaune’ (meaning ‘Blue Yellow’) because of the colour of the stone (that’s what the tour guide will tell you anyway!).  Blue John is still being mined by hand today and you can walk down underneath the hills through the caverns hollowed out by rainwater and touch the veins of Blue John embedded in the limestone rock. Blue John, part of a hidden landscape. Just one reason why the area is special to me.

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