Blogs: reflecting, learning and taking it further

Not so much a blog of the week (or even a thought for the day) but a moment to address one of the most frequently asked questions raised by new students to the OCA: ‘What do you mean reflective? It says I should be reflective in my learning log, how do I know if am being reflective?’ Unfortunately answers like, ‘If you re-read your log in the future and find it helpful, then you are probably being reflective’, do not always help.

Examples help. Here is an extract from Mike Kinder’s post on completing his first OCA course:

“What have I learned in the last 12 months? A lot.

Previously, a photograph was just a simple visual record of a person or event, usually associated with family, holidays, weddings etc. & simply served as a reminder, relying on memory to fill in the gaps (not always accurately or successfully!). I’ve come to realise that it can be so much more – a work of pure visual art, a story, something to evoke an emotion or strong reaction.

Some of the projects, particularly the earlier ones, were things I thought I already knew about from previous dabbling in photography. But I didn’t really know how things worked. Although I’d owned SLR cameras before, I don’t think I’d ever used a wide angle lens. I think I’d only ever had 50mm ‘standard’ lenses for general use & 135mm short telephoto for pretty much everything from landscapes to portraits. Probably why my old photographs were pretty rubbish. I’ve learned that it’s not just how much you can fit into a frame, but how relationships between objects can vary with different types of lens.

An example of a technique I knew about in theory but never put into practice was panning. Although I was familiar with the theory behind slower shutter speeds & panning to follow a moving object, it’s something I’d never really tried. I’d never particularly been interested in photographing action, so I’d never taken any pictures using this technique. What rapidly became obvious was that knowing the theory was one thing, putting it into practice was quite a different matter altogether. I found it, initially, almost impossible to take shots while panning – inevitably I’d stop following the action just as I pressed the shutter release & whatever I was shooting would disappear out of the edge of the frame. Eventually I found a way around this – keep both eyes open! That way I was still aware of the position of the moving object & it’s speed even though my ‘shutter eye’ was essentially blind. It’s still not a particular type of shot I’m likely to take very often but at least I now know how to do it properly if I need it.

Composition was never a strong point of mine – if I was taking a picture, for example, of my daughter on holiday, she’d be in the centre of the frame. Never central enough to fill the frame & make an informal portrait though. It would just be a picture of someone on a beach. I’d now look to make the picture into something more memorable – an informal natural light head & shoulders portrait which wouldn’t look out of place in a frame on the bookshelf, or move her out of the centre & include more of what was going on around – in effect to tell a story of what else was happening on that day. How do I make her stand out from the rest? – make her wear yellow!

As for light – well, light was light, right? Erm, no. Light has colour? Now I know it does & how that colour can vary throughout the day & in different weather conditions. What would have been a dull photograph of a row of shops became bathed in a golden glow from the light of a winter early morning. Nothing special about the shops – just the light. More interestingly, It was a picture I sought out after the projects on natural light, rather than something I stumbled upon & just happened to have a camera with me. Artificial light – switch the room lights on or use a flashgun. Most of the photography I’d done before was in black & white so White Balance was never a problem. Now it is! Think I’ll leave the camera set to Auto White Balance unless there’s a really good reason to change it……

Storytelling wasn’t something I’d associated with photographs before, although it’s a pretty obvious aspect! For some reason I’d never associated the picture in a newspaper with photography!! It’s not a side to the art which I’m entirely comfortable with yet (photographing an event rather than an object) but I’m getting there. Despite reading the textbook & various other books, it didn’t click in my brain until I went to see the Don McCullin exhibition in Manchester. Now that’s storytelling! A single, black & white, not entirely clear, photograph can generate so much emotion – fear, horror, hate, admiration.

The theoretical/ethical/philosophical side hasn’t been particularly easy. I’ve read the textbook 4 times now, cover to cover, & some of it still goes straight over my head. Other things have begun to make more sense as the course has progressed – I probably went in a bit too much at the deep end at the start. Over the period, I’ve collected quite a few books – Frank’s ‘The Americans’ (too far out of my time frame), ‘States of America’ by Michael Ormerod (better – more my era), ‘The Last Resort’ (a favourite) & books of portraits & landscapes & techniques.

So, the big question – Has My Photography Improved In The Last Year?

I’d say so. Looking back on the earlier projects, I’m not happy with them. Things were treated too much as a purely technical exercise. Take a photograph of anything, as long as it illustrates the point I’m trying to make. Technically, it may do what’s required, but that doesn’t necessarily make for an interesting photograph. Looking at the photographs from Assignment 1 – they’re different in style & technique from photographs in Assignment 5 & stuff I’ve done later. ”

One of the things that strikes you here is Mike’s honesty – he is happy to say ‘I thought this, now I think this.’ These makes it possible for him to come back at the end of his next course and say ‘I thought this, then I thought this and now I think something completely different’ or even ‘I thought this, now I am not sure what I think’. But without being honest with yourself and being prepared to ask difficult questions, the opportunity to learn and develop is lost.

While blogs as learning logs for the visual arts have had quite a focus on WeAreOCA, we have perhaps neglected the role of blogs for creative writers. This is something we will be addressing in the near future. In the meantime, it was good to hear this week that Mark Charlton, an OCA creative writing student has been offered a book deal. Mark who blogs on a wide range of subjects that interest him at Views form the Bike Shed, secured the deal, for a book of essays about fatherhood after the Times picked up on this post. Mark has been a student with OCA for a number of years and plans to complete his degree this spring. He is currently a student with Pat Borthwick who he says ‘continues to give me invaluable, feisty feedback.’

Mark has also teamed up with travel writer Rory MacLean and is running a residential course on blogging at Tŷ Newydd, the National Writers’ Centre for Wales, in October. Talking about the course Mark said, ‘It is fantastic to see blogging being taken seriously as a writing form. OCA students will be aware of how valuable starting a blog can be; it’s an easy and dynamic way to share your voice and ideas. But blogging also has the potential to be a serious alternative to traditional publishing, and writing a good blog takes thought and practice. ‘

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