A Penny Drops from Height

September 18, 2023  •  Leave a Comment

“What the hell is she doing?!”, I ask in a strained whisper which, if there had been more distance between us, would have been a scream.  The target of my very British outburst was a woman standing on what a nearby sign informed us was ‘The Needles Observation Point’, which might sound fairly innocuous, but when combined with the rest of the sign, was causing me to get anxious. Beneath the invitation to marvel at the beauty of the Needles rock formation, was the warning ‘Danger! Cliff Edge’.  The woman in question was not only standing on the crudely built platform but was leaning against the only thing between her and a plunge to certain death hundreds of feet below; a flimsy-looking chain-link fence, similar to the ones that surround tennis courts or playing fields.  As anyone who has a severe fear of heights will tell you, one of the worst causes of anxiety is when you see someone else, apparently unbothered or unaware of the danger that you perceive, taking what you see as an unnecessary risk.  Over the years, I’ve seen all manner of this behaviour all around the world, the most anxiety-provoking occasion being a 2-year-old standing on a parapet, holding onto the suicide railings at the top of the Empire State Building.  My palms are getting sweaty just remembering it.  Today, though, I just cannot fathom how someone could miss the obvious, that is, the chain-link fence not being designed to be some makeshift coastal ‘hammock’ for a tourist trying to get that shot of the vista.  I understood the appeal of the view, but not the lengths she was going to to photograph it with her phone.

Eventually, after what seemed like an age, she left the platform and I made the short but harrowing journey to the observation point to take my photograph.  Now, some people subscribe to the idea that in order to overcome our fears, we must confront them head-on.  They see themselves as David Goggins, Wim Hof, or Bear Grylls because they believe they have not let fear hold them back in some way.  Personally, I don’t buy into that idea.  In fact, I’d go as far as to say that it’s bollocks.   For me, fear is an important emotional response that has done a pretty good job of keeping us safe over many years and, as long as it isn’t so extreme that it becomes completely paralysing, is not something that I see we need ridding of.  I generally choose not to go to high places in order to avoid the unnecessary stress, resolving that if there is something worth doing it for, I might consider making some effort.  On this occasion, the view lured me to the point where I managed to get close enough to see the Needles, while shaking like a leaf and reciting the mantra “Don’t look down” out loud.  My wife pointed out that my knees were literally knocking together like something out of a cartoon.

My incredibly average shot of The Needles.  What can I say, I was scared. 

I should point out at this stage, so that you don’t have to Google ‘The Needles’, that we are on holiday in the camper on the beautiful Isle of Wight.  It’s only the second time I’ve visited here, the first being when I was very young, and the first time my wife has.   It is a stunning place that has so much to see and do, that the 4 day break we’re having isn’t really enough time.  However, on what we think will be the first of many visits, there was one place I desperately wanted to see: Dimbola Lodge, the former home of the great Julia Margaret Cameron.  I’ve talked about Cameron before in a previous post because she is one of the most significant and influential female photographers of all time.  A Victorian wife of a tea plantation owner, she had a passion for the medium right at the beginning of its emergence as a new technology and art form, even though she didn’t really start working with a camera herself until she was middle-aged.  Her approach to photographing people was responsible for the shift away from the classical Victorian portrait, where the subject was stiffly posed, concentrating hard on staying perfectly still (often with the aid of a hidden neck brace) and mostly instructed not to smile.  Cameron represented her subject as she saw them, their personality or in some cases the character she was asking them to play.  She often made photographs that were softly focused rather than sharp, or included motion blur because the subject moved during the exposure, but she always made sure that they were beautifully lit.  Given the significant limitations of the camera and wet plate technology of the time, the latter was a serious technical challenge, which often went unnoticed by her peers, who were almost entirely men, and universally dismissive of her work.  While at Dimbola Lodge, she created the majority of her work and many prints made from her glass plates are in a permanent collection on display there.  Unsurprising then, I was very excited to be surrounded by her pictures, largely because of my ongoing studies in which she has featured several times.   

Looking back at Cameron's famous portrait of Charles Darwin.  You can see Sir John Herschel in the background. Both men were in her social circle

We use the word ‘inspiring’ a great deal these days to describe actors, directors, painters, etc. but it’s a generalisation in many cases.  In a similar way to ‘iconic’, which I talked about previously, our glib throwing around of the word almost devalues its meaning and masks the people who really do help us improve.  For example, I am inspired by my photographer friends every time we share work with each other, but we don’t go around declaring that we are inspirational to each other.  Inspiration is a personal thing that forms a connection between people, resulting in some change, however small, to how they go about something in their lives.  Cameron does inspire me to look more closely at what I’m trying to represent in the subject, and her work fits very neatly into the idea of collaborative portraiture, again something that I’m currently learning about.  During this visit, however, I was struck by something else that on reflection should have been really obvious to me.  Cameron frequently took her inspiration from literature related to a variety of subjects.  Her famous work, Idylls of the King, which was described as an ‘illustration’ of her friend Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poetry of the same name, represents her visual appreciation and interpretation of the written word.  When we think about it, how we interpret a poem or fictional novel is based upon what we personally bring to the reading culturally and experientially, which is an area described at great length by post structuralist philosophers like Barthes and linguists like de Saussure.  Our cultural identity defines our understanding of the meanings of words and their place within contexts, so that a Westerner would see something different to someone from the Far East if reading the same book.  The story would be the same, but their visualisation of the characters, the situations and key plot points would have to be managed by, say, the language translation to achieve some kind of balance.  How many times have you read a novel and subconsciously imagined a character being played by a favourite actor?   When a film screenplay is made from a text we are familiar with, the writer focuses on the key plot points or character arcs to create something that is ‘based on’ the book.  We see the subsequent movie and sometimes the result doesn’t seem good enough, doesn’t connect with our appreciation of the source text.  If all that weren’t enough, sometimes we see issues surrounding some books and film adaptations where they are banned in certain regions of the world because of a specific connotation of some element of plot that causes offence.  In some cases, their titles have to be changed because the intended meaning may not be the same in another language or culture. If interpretation is in the eye of the viewer, then it’s reasonable to assume that a photograph inspired by a text includes a significant level of the photographer’s interpretation before it reaches its audience.  This was what struck me about Cameron’s photographs of Tennyson’s poetry.  They are her representations of what the poems meant to her, collaboratively shaped by Tennyson and his publishing editor, but unique all the same.  When we see the images from Idylls amongst her other work, we can see Cameron’s creative style come through in those interpretations.  This was my moment of the penny dropping, which caused me to question, as I did with the woman at The Needles, “how did I not see this in front of me?”  The answer was that I was aware, of course, but that it just didn’t register with me as important until I was confronted with the work in a gallery space.  Exhibitions are curated to present the viewer with a flow that takes them through an artist’s body of work, in this case Cameron’s entire career.  The sequencing is carefully planned so that the viewer can see connections between frames, and the pictures are captioned with the additional context to aid the creation of the viewer’s own narrative.  Here, I was seeing the images, recognising Cameron’s ‘voice’ and thinking about how I might incorporate literature into my own work in a way that represents a story and how I feel about it.  I’m currently working on this year’s Self-Directed Project (SDP), which is about the importance of the Pride movement in the modern era, in particular within my local community, and in the context of an ever-changing, increasingly intolerant society.  There series will comprise many portraits of people in the LGBTQ+ community as collaborative representations, some images from the event, and still life photographs, other media etc.  However, I’m now also considering how they could visually include more about the many written stories about the community, both positive and negative, without being riddled with plain old metaphors.  This might help to reveal more of the emotions within the community and set an historical anchor in terms of the quest for rights.  In essence, can Cameron’s work inspire my own?

I’m not going my experience at Dimbola as an epiphany, but more a recognition of something that might appear to be the obvious to everyone, but had gone unnoticed by me. Photography is such a vast medium with may different strands of creativity within.  Navigating them can often be a little overwhelming, which keeps us firmly in what we see as ‘our lane’. Perhaps once in a while we need a big sign that reminds us of this as an obvious hazard as well as indicating the potential gold we can find if we take a step outside of our fears.  I’m keeping this firmly in photography though.  Just don’t ask me to go up a ladder to clean anyone’s guttering anytime soon.

For more on Julia Margaret Cameron, check out this The Julia Margaret Cameron Trust.



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