My earliest memories of enjoying woodland were mountain biking or building dens from fallen branches with junior school friends. Our time was fun, social, and often filled with both innocent play and youthful stupidity. 25 years later, I returned to the woods in search of a place of solace – to escape the stresses that come with adulthood and be alone, immersed in nature.
I was fortunate enough to find my sanctuary within the chaos of rarely trodden woodlands. Solitude deepened the sense of connectedness to nature, amplified further by slow observation through the eyes of a photographer. With that developing connectedness, came a period of social disconnect.
It’s a story that I’ve since heard from many photographers. Perhaps photography becomes a solitary pursuit so that introverts can re-energise, those that are hurting can heal, problems can be put into perspective, or in times of anguish we might be our most creative. There’s no doubt that the personal benefits of practising photography alone in nature are both profound and plentiful. It can even alter our view of the world and the values we live by.
Over the years I’ve discovered the value of being alone for most of the creative journey – resolute in finding individuality in where I shoot and allowing the trees to help dictate how I photograph them. Often shielding myself from social media feeds, I stubbornly held on tight to what felt like a protective bubble. But I’m much happier and contented than I was 10 years ago, so the padlocked door to my safe space is slowly being opened. Living only 10 minutes’ drive away from Joe Cornish, I was beginning to share the occasional photographic excursion to local woodlands with him. I loved the conversations in the car but the moment we stepped into that magical tree filled space, we parted ways to enjoy the woodland as if we’d arrived on our own. A trusting friendship based on similar creative values developed over a couple of years and in the summer of 2020, the first seeds of an exhibition idea were planted.
What do you want to say?
There’s typically lots to consider when making photographs of complex environments such as woodland. Perhaps most photographs start with a response of, ‘ooo, that looks nice’, when spotting an appealing scene for the first time. This might develop into thoughts on why it has appeal – Where’s the emphasis? What needs to be excluded from the frame? Is there a story to be told? Where may the viewer’s eye travel when viewing the result? On other occasions, our response may be swift and instinctual as we capture a transient moment. Less often do we consciously consider a broader purpose for the photograph beyond solving the visual puzzle.
Sitting comfortably with a strong coffee in hand (and probably surrounded by the crumbs of a delicious chocolate brownie), Joe and I decided on an overriding theme for our woodland photography exhibition – Sanctuary. There are many complex emotions and ideas to consider, but the woods as a refuge – a place of calm and retreat – is the feeling that dominates most of our experiences. However, through our observations, experiences, and developing understandings, we’ve also felt fear, concern, awe, frustration, anger, joy, and empathy. In order to communicate our honest view of nature and some of its many facets, we had to embrace the fact that it’s not always pretty, but at the very least, challenging.
To avoid curating the work by means of cherry picking out favourite images, we first settled on 9 artistically inspired themes which reflect our own imaginative journeys and experiences when studying trees in all weather conditions and seasons. These were:
- A River Runs Through It
- Remains of Memory
- Dark Matter
- Chaos Theory
- The Age of Trees
- Life Cycle
- Gifts of Light
- All the Woods a Stage
Being clear about the message and purpose of these themes was crucial to the success of the exhibition. They offered a framework to help us choose the most fitting and poignant images, which inevitably meant letting go of some beautiful work. It was a level of objectivity and scrutiny in our images that I hadn’t experienced before. Many photographs that we’re passionate about as a standalone piece bring immediate and personal joy, but the value provided in thoughtfully curated sequences may provide lasting meaning to both the artist and the viewer.While the themes allowed us to express our intended messages, they also served as visual breaks within the flow of work in order to help stimulate engagement. Dark Matter was displayed in the darkest part of the gallery, and each print was presented in a wooden frame that had been scorched with fire to darken the appearance for added emphasis. The shift in style provided just enough tension to encourage a change of pace and mood to complement a theme which explored fear, sadness, and environmental concerns.It became clear that one of the key reasons the exhibition worked so well for the viewer is that Joe and I have a shared aesthetic within the eyewitness tradition. We have our individual approaches and beliefs, but our joint message was and is to serve the woodland habitat, rather than our egos. By concentrating on the subject, rather than the photographic process, the photography is consistent in its effort to express what makes woodland so special, and lets the trees tell their own tale.
A Creative Deep dive
After launching my first book of woodland photography in December 2021, I immediately began work on the Woodland Sanctuary exhibition with Joe. Both projects were significant undertakings that I feel have provided immeasurable and long-lasting benefits. The exhibition was a lot less stressful, but more on that later.
Many of us seek more from our photography than enjoyment alone. Perhaps you’re striving for recognition, craving adventure, looking to inform & inspire, or wanting to celebrate an aspect of nature that you feel a strong connection to. The list is endless and evolving. Joe and I have had countless conversations about our artistic goals for the exhibition, and with each conversation comes a new idea or a different way of thinking. I recently remembered this Tweet by psychologist, Adam Grant:
“A good conversation opens your eyes to new thoughts. A great conversation opens your mind to new ways of thinking. A mark of an open mind is being more committed to your curiosity than to your convictions. The goal of learning is not to shield old views against new facts. It’s to revise old views to incorporate new facts. Ideas are possibilities to explore, not certainties to defend.”
This feels like a good point to revert to what I said in the introduction about the value in solitude and attempting to shield myself from influences that could muddy the waters of my own thinking. Perhaps this was a defence mechanism – an attitude of, ‘I must carve my own path’. I still feel safer in my little woodland bubble, but our conversations were invigorating as each idea led us deeper into mining our thoughts to understand our work and take those insights forward to inform future work.
The power of conversation and striving to clearly articulate our intent was particularly evident during our live exhibition tours. My expectation was to regurgitate the same spiel for all 6 presentations, but due to the collaborative effort, something new would surface each time, which inspired new responses from each other. The power of a single word could alter the course of the presentation and ignite a passionate discussion.
The value in a healthy creative collaboration cannot be understated and was the most significant takeaway from the experience. Admittedly, due to my stress levels when creating my book, Gathering Time, I entered the exhibition project with an expectation of further stress fuelled by my perfectionism and perhaps a conflict of interests. However, approached with respect and open mindedness, the constructive conversation served to quash any feelings of angst.
It feels like a huge leap forward from my days of being wrapped up in my inner world. Don’t get me wrong, an exploration of oneself is very enlightening, but there comes a time when further growth happens as a result of curiosity and allowing long-standing beliefs to be challenged.
Collaborations don’t have to be on the scale of an exhibition, of course. Any project that opens a dialogue of ideas and challenging conversation may lead to a revelation. For me, it has enriched the experience of photography by adding layers of meaning with the adoption of new ideas and has brought a new perspective to old ideas. We all evolve with time and experience, but a collaboration might springboard that process.