Finding focus (a love letter to the darkroom)

Good evening internet,

First of all a huge and heartfelt thank you to everybody who got in touch with me in regards to my last post. I’m happy that some of what I was talking about fell on familiar ears (eyes?) and thankful to live in a time and a privileged position where I can post something from my head on the vast blank ether of the web and have people actually reach out to me with words and experiences. I was really quite touched and it was good to get it out there.

It’s been a while since I posted, again, and much longer than I would have liked. I did try and write a post 19 days ago but wasn’t feeling it when I read it back in my head and so abandoned it to the pile of unposted draftlets. Sometimes that happens and I think that’s ok. Generally speaking I have been less inclined to do anything with words recently and I am wondering if perhaps these things come in tides.  For the last month or two language has escaped me (kinda like I used up all my allocated writing in the middle of the year) - but in this instance I think it’s important to direct your energies somewhere they feel more easily applied, like eating, or walking, or sleeping, or thinking. These things are good too.

So, life.  November. It’s been a busy couple of months, as it always seems to be when I look back at time. I most recently helped Paul Fieldsend launch his first exhibition in my place of work Fieldwork Cafe, I turned twenty-five and had three days of non-stop food and booze and loveliness, I was fortunate enough to attend a Masterclass thanks to the Jill Todd Photo Award with Pradip Malde which was fascinating and inspiring and invaluable, we have welcomed new members to Fresh Focus, and throughout all this my bosses have launched a new venture selling carbs and cheese, but perhaps most importantly I was fortunate enough to take part in the Intro to Black and White course at Stills and have absolutely fallen in love with the process of black and white printing. It’s a beautiful thing, and a very welcome break from the ‘virtual’ world - with white light-sources vetoed to avoid fogging paper. The darkroom is a sacred phone-free space. 

And so, because I spent the whole day shut in the dark on my own and loved it, here’s something a bit different:

Finding focus

a love letter to the darkroom in a digital age 

Dear darkroom,

Deep black darkroom. Delicious inky box. I know I haven’t known you for long, and I feel in many ways we haven’t yet reached an understanding I trust we are destined for and capable of and bound to. Many know you better than I, almost all have known you longer than I, and many would scoff at my love; young and naïve. Let them scoff. 

There is little thus far in my life that I could say I revere as holy. I’ve never been much good at prayer. I tried a few times as a child, summoning my most urgent attempt somewhere around the millennium to let god know my budgie was sick, squeezing my eyes and my hands and believing it would reach him directly. Of course, I thought, he would jump to attention. Easy. My budgie died a few days later huddled in the corner of his tiny metal house, a stiff feathery lump that I barely looked up from my Gameboy to acknowledge when mum announced that ‘jimmy was dead’ (and so therefore, was god). 

These days time ticks by in an incessant barrage of information DING oh an Instagram follow VRR VRR you have achieved your daily step target BADABA BADABA two messages at once from a friend I need to speak to, but desire to see in the flesh. I see them all sure, but I swipe them away and forget to respond. There doesn’t seem to be much time for holy ideas, to me anyway, It’s a lot and it’s a little and it’s all the time information from waking to sleep and nowhere in these days and nights of  notification is there really any focus. 

But for you - delicious inky box. Together we are safe in the dark with the whisper of the tap and the hum of light through a lens. Soft humming, a few seconds at a time, like light’s thinking something over, like it’s mulling - and really I am mulling for finally an escape! There are images but they are gentle, they don’t nag or flash but instead need to be coaxed - woven from the magic of light and dust and paper and they are bathed in solution and given life. This must be a holy process, a slow baptism from potential to perceived. Finding focus, solitude, gorgeous winey black. We find a rhythm between light and liquid and I find space in this beautiful, tranquil dark. 

In the darkroom an image takes an hour, or two hours, or more. The impatience of finger-scrolling, media-surfing judgement bends to a process that feels at once perfect and unfamiliar. This is slow, this is soft, this is foolish. In many ways this is magic. I pull an image from the wash and hold it up to look. It is slippery and imperfect and if it were flesh it would cry.

And I know I see you right now in a romantic light quite unfair. I know too this cooing may be uncomfortable to witness and impossible to sustain. But I am unable to cast this roseate light onto my mobile phone and my tablet and my persistent love-hate with connectivity. Perhaps one day years from now somebody will discover this device and write to it too, and marvel at how things used to be birthed from fingers and keys and interactive glass and annoying pinging symbols reminding you are lonely but never alone. I don’t doubt it. 

For now, however, perhaps I should re-consider prayer - I shall squeeze my eyes and my hands tight to believe that in this future fuller still of lights and sounds and vibrations and finger-twitching madness, that there might maybe remain a gorgeous black box. A deep dark room. Delicious timeless red glow and shadow, incubating the future, warming the past. It is you, a looking glass - to find focus, to make magic, to look at what is created, and remember quiet. Easy.

Until next time. 



Working Title, realisations therein & unwinding post-festival

Hello web-users far and wide,

It feels like it has been a while. 

There is a lot of really exciting stuff to think about right now and a lot to come which I want to write about, but first I’m going to try and cover a bit of the recent past if that’s ok. I am always behind with this blog and commenting on something from a little while ago, but hey that’s life!

We have seen another festival season come and go in Edinburgh, which for anybody reading from elsewhere lasts the duration of August. The population in Edinburgh swells as the city houses a huge array of festivals and festival-goers. There is the Fringe Festival, the International Festival (which I think kinda started it all), Edinburgh Art Festival, Edinburgh Book Festival, the Free Fringe and a whole ton of other things that just merge into one big mass of all-singing all-dancing all-flyering mayhem. It’s a spectacular thing. I come from a small town in Devon where the entire community calendar revolves around a rotation of club nights and drinks deals. Needless to say for many local residents August is a month to be tolerated, taken advantage of if possible and most importantly, endured. I guess I understand - I take the landscapes of the South Devonshire coast for granted on every level. The ocean is a constant for me, the seaside is part of the scenery so to speak. Being able to go to the beach and swim when it’s sunny is something I have always taken for granted. That is the sad thing I guess about growing up around something brilliant - it just becomes second nature. But for all the positive things I have to say about the vastness of the festival buzz in Edinburgh, you have to be careful in your approach. For the last two years I have taken on secondary part-time work surplus to my full-time position in order to earn some extra money, simply because the jobs are there, it’s a good wage and only a temporary situation. Remember, in the words of our puffy overlord: there is no magic money tree. To participate in the luxuries people seem to take for granted in the city and to continue making images (going to exhibitions, having drinks with friends, having dinner when someone comes to visit, shooting things, printing things, buying this stupid domain etc.) you gotta work for it. Last year I juggled full-time deli work with a part-time flyering position and it refreshed my ideas about what flyering would be like. Generally speaking, the public were pretty pleasant. At the very least, they tolerated my chat. This year I entered into a similar situation with some positivity - but I think a key difference (aside from moving an hour out of the centre) was that I was also trying to plan Working Title and maintain some kind of creative workflow alongside the 70 hour workweek. I so badly wanted the exhibition to be good! I so badly wanted to be good at this mountain of work I had given myself and prove that you can do everything on your own if you want it enough! And I guess in some ways you can, but it comes at a price. I’m no stranger to feeling tired, but this was something else. Forget showering and food and all that stuff, I just wanted to be asleep. By the end of the festival my arms were shaking as I tried to make customers drinks, my mood was controlled entirely by caffeine, every time someone came in the shop I wanted to cry because it meant I had to try and project enthusiasm from a mental pool running totally dry, people I knew would try and chat to me and I struggled to think of what to say back. I wasn’t myself and by the final week I lost the ability to be excited and to be patient and to be pleasant and even to JUDGE DISTANCES!  To make matters worse (although technically better?) both my employers were total sweethearts and so accommodating and I didn’t want to let anybody down.

So I extend a thousand apologies to my colleagues and customers and friends and peers if I seemed spaced out or listless or unable to empathise. August taught me a valuable lesson this year: everybody has their limit. Plus, it ended! It ENDED! And for a week going home after work instead of going to give out flyers felt like the biggest gift. Getting to go and cook dinner and take my time doing it was like being on holiday. Walking home with headphones in and not having to stop and engage every passer-by with information about a show was a luxury. Having the time to pet my cat without worrying about an email I had to send was a joy. There was space for reading and sitting and thinking again. And in this way it was worth it because not only did it help out financially, it renewed a fundamental appreciation of myself, of my capabilities, of my body, of existing. It renewed a gratitude for free time, my comfort in listlessness, in being quiet, in having space and being alone. And that is priceless.

So that is over. Festival is over. And as much as near the end my leg muscles were ticking and my head was spinning I had some fun along the way. And out of the madness came the best thing to happen to me for a long while: Working Title. Working Title was an exhibition organised by Zoe Hamill, Erin Semple and myself, wherein we exhibited work-in-progress downstairs at Stills. This was partly a celebration of a new critique group Fresh Focus, and partly an opportunity to get feedback on a variety of projects we were working on independently. For me this was a chance to finally air my work Chapters of Anxiety and I couldn’t have predicted how transformative this experience would be. Getting a chance to put this stuff out there, on a shelf, was bizarre.  I made this work without really knowing what I wanted to do with it and even whether I wanted to show anybody. Once it was done and on show there was a brief feeling of nausea. I realised how much of my most private conflict was out in a room where I couldn’t see it, where I couldn’t monitor who was reading it and apologise for how self-indulgent it is and make sure they knew I was feeling better now. But swiftly after it was terrifying  it was incredible.  Realising it had been released (and released is a really key word) was incredibly freeing. Both literally and figuratively I took my anxiety, wrapped it up in paper and then left it on a shelf in the basement of Stills. I couldn’t stop smiling. I can’t stop smiling. Talking briefly to people about the books’ purpose and about that period of my life is the only time I have had a way of discussing my experiences and in doing so has made me realise how far I have come. It has allowed me to confront an ineffable subject because I now have an item I can use to try and explain it for me. Further than this though - putting something so personal on any kind of platform has legitimised my belief in self-expression. Chapters of Anxiety is the most honest thing I have ever created, and that has value. It’s not perfect and it’s not very accessible and it’s not pretty but knowing this and still seeing it on the shelf and hearing people respond to it has proved to me that there is some space for authenticity in the art world. I wanted to see something like this, last year, and now other people will. Working Title has allowed me to believe once again in the value of making things. 

So, a little more on mental health before I close. From the end of 2015 and through the entirety of 2016 I struggled with my mindset in private. I am only beginning to understand now through comparison how much trouble I was in, and you realise in little ways. I laugh loudly at stupid stuff in public and it takes me by surprise. I watch my cat and feel a strength of love untainted by the ever-present paranoia he is gonna die and it will be my fault. I am starting to consider the future with tentative excitement as opposed to fear and frustration. I am realising that the world doesn’t explode when you admit you’re struggling. I went into a bookshop and bought two books last week without feeling crippling guilt. Two! I have stopped giving myself a hard time all the time, and stopped hating everything for being so difficult. An excerpt from a letter I wrote to a friend of mine this morning: ‘I hope it brings you joy to know that these days there is more in this fantastic world and in this magic experience that excites and delights me, than there is that makes me feel weak and alone.’ But it’s important for me to stress this is not a decision I have made all of a sudden, this is not a matter of just one day changing my perspective. This is something I was completely incapable of doing last year. I would have read this were it written by someone else and thought ‘oh how fantastic for you but what am I supposed to do with your sense of relief?’. This is something I tried my best to ignore for a long time. I don’t understand mental illness and I don’t understand what was wrong with me. I feel unable to accurately use relevant terminology and whilst we are increasingly being equipped with the ideas surrounding depression and anxiety I don’t feel confident defining things or seeking help. My small attempt to seek medical advice was fruitless and uncomfortable. In this way I’m afraid I have little useful advice to give - feeling better was not a decision made be me, this was not a course of drugs, I don’t have an answer. Instead it feels like a release from something I was not in control of. It was really as if the part of my brain that made me me, the bit that made me occasionally funny and engaging and excitable and naïve, had shut off. I couldn’t access it. I could feign it sometimes when in certain situations but I was in a constant state of fear induced by the knowledge that I was no longer in control. 

You could say it was like being in a car and knowing that the brakes no longer work. You can’t do anything but keep driving. Your options are pretty dicey and you can’t slow down and think about things and you can’t go back to that nice bit you’ve just driven through, you are consistently and terrifyingly powering forward without all the bits of the vehicle working and without the really important bit that puts you in control. Nobody can see that anything is wrong if you stay calm enough until you crash into a tree head first and go flying through the windscreen. I realise I am at risk of sounding like a total moron with this extended metaphor but using it as a vehicle (pun intended) may be useful. In my case I gripped the steering wheel best I could and carried on driving, no brakes, no service stops, no  maintenance - and it played itself out ok. I can’t say if the same will be the case for everybody.

Anyway - fingers crossed for somebody this has been insightful. Reading it back it doesn’t look like it but I intended this as incredibly happy post. It hasn’t been professional or formal or really very good at advertising all the exciting things coming up but I needed to get it out of my system and into the web for those of you out there who don’t feel very professional or formal and who need to hear about someone else’s bad times for a while. My next post will be much more POSITIVE with info about Fresh Focus and my work-in-progress and some photos from Working Title to give you an idea what it looked like.

In the next couple of weeks I am also going to be working to find the best way of putting Chapters of Anxiety online. In the meantime if you would like me to print you a copy, please let me know. I don’t care if we don’t talk any more or if you don’t know me that well I would love nothing more than to imagine my ‘self-indulgent shit vomit’ could be of some comfort. 

Speak soon.

Procrastination, instagram stories & the anxiety of not doing

Do you ever put something off so long it makes you feel anxious? But because you’ve put it off so long already the pressure of actually tackling it builds up in your head, which only makes you less likely to begin? Do you ever write lists to avoid doing the thing you know you should be doing, and waste cumulative hours of your free time refreshing social media platforms you really couldn’t care less about, just because it shaves enough usable time off of your lunch-break to justify not really engaging with more than a cursory thought? I do. And the fact that without ironic fore-planning this blog post has taken me over a month to post is evidence of that. I don’t believe that procrastination is a new thing, nor do I think that social media platforms are solely used for trivial matters, clickbait, self-assurance and stalking - but I do have to confront my own uses of time and imagine that I am not alone in my habitual scrolling. For over a month this blog post has smouldered somewhere in the back burner of my brain and for over a month I have had the nagging notion that I needed to address my procrastination, that I needed to switch on the critically productive part of my brain. I like to think. I like to criticise. I like to engage. Anybody that knows me (or I would imagine, anybody that has casually read this blog) can agree, or at least imagine, that over-thinking things is what I like to do best. And once I get started (now for instance, on a train between Haymarket and Glasgow) I type and type and type, and think and think and think. But something happens in the in-between moments - the period between dinner and sleep, the bit between waking up and putting away the washing - something happens that makes me purposefully turn away from real engagement with ideas. Because browsing Instagram or checking Twitter or logging into Facebook messenger engages some part of my brain but not all of it and not in a way that particularly challenges me - and that’s easier.

I can’t count the amount of times I have opened Instagram without really realising what I was doing, only to instantly realise that it was the very same application I had just closed in order to do so. I open Facebook and refresh without even consciously telling my thumb to do it. My phone is always within my reach. The muscle memory in my hands and some subconscious desire to be engaged with a community - even a digital one - does this without me deciding to take the time to do so. And then back to Instagram, or maybe whilst doing so somebody sends me a Snapchat and I end up watching snap ‘stories’ - which are really the biggest time wasters of all, and disappear after 24 hours of being ‘active’. Why is that? Why are app developers integrating ways of using temporary imagery to express ourselves? It bothers me. Because you try and recall something you saw a day or two ago, or even a week or a month, something that managed to pierce through the shallow (but moreish) images of brunch and of holidaying and #OOTD and #TBT - only to find that it’s gone. The small impression made in this superficial collage of online community information has vanished, and thus is perpetually changing. But what bothers me more is that I wonder about this stuff and yet I conform entirely. I post an Instagram story every now and then to remind my ‘followers’ that I’m here and that I’m ‘active’ but I don’t really know why. Is this all part of a larger social anxiety that we are not achieving enough with our relative wealth, opportunity and intellect? Are we as a Western world of young, talented people just every day trying to justify that capitalism is worth it despite for the most part working low-skill jobs and actually engaging with fewer ‘real world’ experiences? I don’t know. I guess I’m just thinking out loud. 

(YES - that was a funny joke, a reference to the fact that actually this isn’t out loud at all but on a screen, just like everything else these days. At least this will linger for more than 24 hours. Ha ha.) 

My real worry here is a selfish one. All of these half-hours spent keeping ‘up to date’ only push me further and further away from taking the time to make creative progress. Critical progress. Career progress. Physical progress. LIFE PROGRESS. I write a tweet about doing research and maybe take a picture of a magazine. I (triumphantly) share the fact that I have pushed myself to make progress and in doing so it almost takes the edge off the desire to create. Some of that urgency that makes me want to make art in the first place is appeased. If I’m being really honest sometimes sharing your plans for work feels so good and so satisfying and so smug that you never make the damn stuff at all. What fucked up kind of online world is that? The world of over-produced creative fantasies? Half-formed dreams of bigger ideas that end up unsatisfying but with 50+ likes on Instagram? It’s not enough! I did some experimentation earlier this week and was really pleased with the outcome of my prints. It is taking a lot of restraint to not share a picture of this online. YES I hear you, someone shouting at their screen, it’s all about balance! And using social media as a tool to help you. It’s just a shame that our increasingly short attention spans hunger for immediate, disposable content and constant validation of our own purpose. With some 90 million active users of Instagram I don’t think I’m the only one dealing with this conflict. Best case scenario in this strange wanna-be-artist online sphere is that you share the shit out of a project so everyone knows exactly what you’re doing and then when you want to show people in person they don’t give it the attention you crave because they have read a hash-tagged summary of the theme on your twitter account. Worst case scenario you tweet about something you consider making, feel satisfied that people have ‘liked’ your interest, waste the next 6 months of your life observing what other people are doing on the same sites and then never end up making anything whatsoever.

And so there seem to exist two worlds: the online and the physical. And for me at least it seems a pre-occupation with one, the more convenient perhaps, is affecting the other. You may be shaking your head at whatever device you are reading from but these kinds of questions are going to play out all around us, all of us, even if you grew up in a world devoid of social media and cyber bullying and googling things you didn’t understand. Yes the internet allows a sharing of information that has never been available before. A way of expressing ideas and opinions not tethered to bits of paper and being in one exact place at one exact time. Would you be digesting this text If it weren’t for the internet? It’s a fantastic thing. But I wonder if it is starting to become the product itself and the reality itself as opposed to the tool. Recently I brought a couple of zines into the cafe in which I work. We have a small collection of print material for people to browse whilst having a cake/coffee/tea/whatever. In showing the new titles to my colleague, I was interested to notice that before reading a page she was sharing this new addition to our magazine collection on her Instagram story. I couldn’t help thinking that this was odd - what if Grub was actually a fanzine dedicated to some kind of Donald Trump x Tilda Swinton bedroom action? I mean it quite obviously isn’t (can you imagine that document), and I had already talked it up quite a lot, but it sparked something of a realisation in me. Before starting sequencing or before starting to eat you have to document first! Social media first! Instagram first! There is excitement online and there is an excitement to share. But what of the actual event? The reading? The item? The sequence? I’m not even being critical of social media and this relatively young online second-world but I am observing - interested, and slightly anxious. I’m all for using the internet to celebrate things, to document things, to promote things… but when did this celebration start to over-take the actual experience? The THING should come before the SHARING of the thing. And personally, in my own ‘practice’, it seems to be slipping the other way.

Thoughts? Does anybody else notice that generally speaking we seem to be concerned primarily with the documentation of ‘events’ (in the loosest term: things, work, art, fun) than the actual doing?

And why is that?

Things to look at/listen to that are relevant to these ideas:

Culture Laser: I Wish I Was Lonely

3 years too late discovering this podcast which is a shame because it is a fantastic resource. This episode is from 2014 and features an interview with Hannah Jane Walker and Chris Thorpe, the creators of ‘I Wish I Was Lonely’ - a participatory performance encouraging audiences to reflect on usage and dependency upon mobile phones.

Dear young photographer: ‘Shoot lots of pictures. Be a doer, not a chatter’

Advice from Magnum’s David Hurn for young practitioners. An interesting article, I adore his term ‘an exaggerated sense of curiosity’, and I believe this to be well-meaning. But I found this a little frustrating to read. With over 60 years shooting experience comes an earned air of authority - but this is an authority over a way of shooting and digesting pictures that is changed, and changing, every day. The ways in which we interact with photography is so foreign to the 50s, the 60s - I don’t think telling today’s youngsters to take lots of pictures (when they probably shoot 30+ on their phones every day) is particularly useful. There have never been more images in circulation, ever. If I tried to go a day without seeing an image of something I’d have to stay inside with everything switched off and do very little. I agree that we need to be encouraged to do - but I would say thinking (and chatting) is more important now than ever.

He also suggests going on a 6 month trip around the world in order to figure out what you want to do. Well. Wouldn’t that be lovely. 

Are you Living an Insta lie? Social Media vs. Reality

I will be honest - slightly dubious about this video’s sponsorship from (whose own social media channels are more or less a catalogue of #bedroomgoals #bestfriends #fistpo fashion-baiting) and I know full well that this subject matter is nothing new - but the cause and event style chain we see unfold is something that is obviously very difficult to experience when seeing the world through our own very particular viewpoint. This is what made this video interesting to me - that what we post coaxes our online peer groups into their own form of digital action, making every solo post shared online really a wider interaction between similar cohorts. 

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