Michela Griffith - Great Britain
If you’d like to see Michela’s images in print, you’ll find details of forthcoming events on her website. She has been invited back to the Joe Cornish Galleries in North Yorkshire for a second solo exhibition. Titled ‘Of Wood and Water’ it opens on Saturday 14 April and will run until Tuesday 22 May 2018. The exhibition will feature personal interpretations of wood and water, made over the past 3 years, reflecting not only the seasons as experienced near Michela’s home in the Peak District and during trips to North Yorkshire, but the curiosity that water has inspired in her practice. If any readers are in the area they are invited to come along to enjoy the various events that the gallery is planning for the opening day.
1. Michéla, you started photographing water in detail and often in the abstract in 2012. Please describe how you found your way to photographic art and how it has changed since 2012.
Photography has intrigued me since I first picked up my father’s camera in my early teens - it neatly avoided my being the subject, but I discovered a whole new way of looking at the world. For a while I was serious, until I had to concentrate on my studies and subsequent career as a Chartered Landscape Architect. But like my shadow the desire to make images never went away and circa 2004 I slipped and tripped down the hobby – passion – obsession continuum. After moving to the Peak District National Park in 2007 photography increasingly became my creative outlet and escape.
My image making changed dramatically in 2012 when I stopped by my local river, the Dove. The few images that I made were unremarkable but I was drawn back and began to experiment with shutter speed. Up until this point I had been using film – 35mm and medium format – and only had a small digital compact, but perhaps this freed me up to experiment. I quickly settled on using a square format and isolating – abstracting – the water from the land. It became addictive. I little knew where it would lead me or how it would change my relationship with the camera.
Water is still the focus of my photography, but recently I’ve been finding new ways to photograph the trees along the river bank as much as the water itself. This has carried over into my exploration of woodland, and my interrogation of individual trees. I rarely make ‘static’ images these days – if my subject matter is not moving, I will move myself or use other techniques to deconstruct the literal and reimagine the subjective. Water has fundamentally changed my way of seeing, and I now look at the land with new eyes.
Ice on Rust
2. You draw inspiration from the landscapes of the Upper Dove & Manifold Valleys around your home in the Peak District National Park, close to the Derbyshire - Staffordshire border, as well as from occasional visits further afield. You prefer to explore small areas on foot and to make repeat visits - familiarity with an area and a connection to the land is important for you. Why do you prefer to work in a well-known area in contrast to getting inspired by new paths?
Even when I had to travel out from the city I found myself returning to the same few places. I’ve always found it helpful to slow down, so walking and photography feel like natural companions. And too much pre-planning felt unnatural to me - I preferred to head out with a broad idea but an open mind. When we moved out here, rather than have to travel in search of a ‘fix’ on days off or wait for holidays, I could simply walk from the door which gave me the opportunity to get to know an area really well, and to keep going back.
For the first 4 years I did the fairly obvious things – climbed the hills, tried to compress wide views into photo format, found the smaller landscapes within and enjoyed the exclusivity of the ends of the day and, when it came, the golden hour. At the time, the locality was not very well known, though it has become much more popular since.
I developed some unexpected constraints – fatigue plagued me and so I went out less often, with less gear, and the hills and dawns were left behind. But I found something in a mundane corner that intrigued me and I will be forever grateful that this happened. My preference for sticking to my local patch and walking to photograph had started to feel like a constraint but close study opened up new possibilities and gave me a clearer artistic focus. So the last part of your question made me laugh a little as I initially interpreted it as well-known in the sense of being known to others, rather than familiar to me - it seems ironic that although I live close to one of the Peak District’s photographic honeypots, I now turn my back on it. Once you stop, once you scratch a little and get under the surface, you realise that there are so many more possibilities than you could have imagined. Photography can sometimes seem to give us too many choices, and by removing some of these we have to be more resourceful to find a satisfactory solution. Working with something less obvious forces us to be more creative and opens up new lines of enquiry, and I would say that this has, for me, provided me with an ever expanding number of new paths. Creative skills require practice. Even small areas are seldom exhausted – only our imagination. Returning to an area helps us get beyond the obvious and find our own personal landscapes.
3. When did you realize your love for nature? Had you already got in touch with nature during your childhood? Has there been a life-changing moment?
I remember playing outside, summers spent in the garden and as a family walking the dog around the local reservoirs, but nothing specific at an early age. My mother liked visiting ‘stately homes’ and whenever possible I would escape outside into the grounds and gardens at the earliest opportunity as I found the interiors stuffy and not to my teenage taste. I think the two key moments were looking down the lens of my father’s SLR (especially the 70-200mm zoom) and the window that opened up for me, and a first year university trip to the Scottish Highlands (a good enough reason to study in Scotland if you ever needed one). We went in October and I still remember the quality of the light and the colours of the land against a leaden sky. College studies meant spending quite a bit of time outside, and this was part of my working life. The majority of holidays with my husband have been to cottages in quiet places and using these as a base to walk and explore. Many of my memories of holidays with my parents are of driving to visit places, so I think my preference to explore on foot comes in part from this – I may see less, but I will see it well. So my relationship with nature comes in part from what I’ve done, but mostly from spending time in the landscape.
Nature as Artist
4. You create a very unique look because you use your camera as a creative tool. This is completely different to the typical documentary view of a landscape photographer. Why is this kind of photography more satisfying for you?
Water has altered the way that I view my camera - rather than being a box that records the landscape, it is a tool that lends itself to creative interpretations. Including subject movement in my images reinvigorated my photography and has allowed me to combine the early love that I had of drawing and painting with my long-standing passion for photographing the landscape. It has also changed the way that I look at the land. The appeal of the conventional representative view diminished – for all the care taken, and whatever the merit of the light, both vistas and details seemed, somehow, lacking. It took me a while to work out why. As a landscape photographer I had learnt to exclude movement, to shoot aperture priority, to use a tripod. A moving subject meant changing first to shutter priority, and then to manual; digital with its variable ISO gave me a freedom that I could not have enjoyed had I stayed with film. Taking the camera off the tripod also gave me a more dynamic way of working.
Our experience of the land and of nature is proportionate to time and nothing is ever the same twice. We seek to show beauty in a moment, the edge of the day, the turn of the season, but in chasing the transformation that light can bring we overlook what it is that makes each moment unique: time. As landscape photographers we tend to go to extremes – short shutter speeds to freeze the moment, or long exposures of several minutes. The new land that interests me is the area in between: the dynamic landscape and even my experience of moving through it. Photography becomes more experimental, more raw – and perhaps as a result more attuned with nature. I’m increasingly looking for an impression, a mood – and in a strange way the less my images ‘look’ like photographs the happier I am.
5. You also love drawing and painting. So you seem to be a creative person in several ways. Please describe the importance of creativity for yourself? And what about creativity for human beings in general?
Creativity for me is freedom from imperative; the opportunity to build on and rediscover childhood interests; enjoyment; personal fulfilment. Creativity has allowed me to find my voice as a photographer and as an artist, and given me confidence in my abilities.
My enjoyment of drawing and painting goes back to my teens and led me to choose a career that offered me something more than my aptitude at school for sciences and maths might have otherwise resulted in, but I now lack the confidence to pick up a pencil or paintbrush. As children we have no fear of failure, as adults we self-limit our creativity. As we grow up we absorb social and cultural norms and we are more likely to focus on getting the “right answer”. Non-creative behaviour is learned (there’s a famous study by Dr George Land that showed the effect of this). We become creative by experimenting, exploring, questioning assumptions, using our imagination and synthesising the information gathered.
Creativity – as an extension of ourselves rather than as a mechanism for problem solving – requires us to have satisfied our basic needs. Collectively it enriches our lives and our experience of an uncertain world.
It`s in the Trees
6. Are you inspired by other photographers, by music, novels or art in general? Or is nature your main source of inspiration?
When I made ‘straight’ images of views and details I would have immediately said Joe Cornish and David Ward, but the river has taken me away from representation. There are people I admire – Valda Bailey and Chris Friel being notable in inspiring many to reconsider the photographic image – but the work you see came as a result of allowing my curiosity to lead, and closing myself off from what others were doing (I wasn’t on social media at the time). I’m now much more aware of who is doing what, but I have no desire to replicate their work and am more interested in finding my own views of the world. My inspiration comes from nature. A willingness to ‘play’ and to fail is important.
7. You`ve been a part of several exhibitions. And your photos also have been featured in a number of magazines. How important is making your pictures available to the public and getting response for your work?
Up until 2013 I made images for myself, for enjoyment. I had no destination in mind, no desire to commercialise my images. But then the images said ‘print me’ and even ‘show me’ and then other people seemed to like them. The river led me to do things that I had not previously had ambitions to do (to join a professional artists’ group, offer images for sale, hold exhibitions and have my work featured in galleries). A series of fortunate events, that also brought me to On Landscape magazine through writing about my work. Exhibiting and sales were never my motivation; they have come about through a natural evolution of the direction that my photography took and the feeling that I had a body of work (Liquid Light) that had the potential to be exhibited. I don’t think I would have taken these steps if I had simply continued to produce vistas and details.
I still make images for myself. I have to be professional about what I do and the expenditure that comes with that, but I’m fortunate not to have to make my living through photography. It would fundamentally alter my approach and in all likelihood remove the joy. I am genuinely delighted by the reaction my printed images receive and never take sales for granted - you are, effectively, waiting for someone who shares your taste to walk into the room, have the means to buy a piece and have the wall space to hang it and it’s very rewarding when this happens. But it is equally pleasurable to meet new people and have conversations that would never have happened had I not taken that decision to put my work on a wall. It’s a pleasure to be able to show people something that they do not expect of photography, to hear them exclaim that they ‘thought it was a painting’ and to reassure them that what they see was created in camera and not at the computer. I’m particularly delighted that so many artists like what I do. Not everyone will – and that’s fine – I just like them to be judged for what they are in print and not as a photograph; the camera is simply a means to an end.
A Small Deceit
8. You`ve interviewed several photographers yourself for On Landscape magazine. Do you think that a personal insight into the thoughts of an artist can help others to make their work more profound?
Funnily enough I referred to this in a question for a recent interview, though I would say that it is more about developing as an artist than aspiring to be profound. People are often inspired to reproduce the images that they see when perhaps they can learn more from the thinking behind the images and the words of the photographers. Creativity is about the process as much as any product – the ideas sparked, the train of thought, exploration – so while replication may help you learn the craft, it is unlikely to help you develop personally.
Ask yourself why you photograph? Why are you drawn to particular places or subjects? Why do you choose to use a particular technique or method of interpretation? What do you hope to achieve? Our images are as much a statement about ourselves at the point in time that they are made as about our subject. However much you think your photography is about subject or place, sooner or later you will realise that it is and always has been about person. The camera when used well is simply a tool for self-expression and creativity is highly correlated with self-knowledge.
..And have you been able to possibly even grow as an artist by yourself due to your work as an interviewer?
My contributions to the magazine came about through writing about my work, and the evolution it was undergoing at the time. Researching the interviews – over 60 to date – has broadened my awareness of other photographers and their work but it hasn’t affected my own practice as I was already well along my own personal path. The changes in my own image making – from record to interpretation to re-imagination – and my experiences of exhibiting do however help me conduct the interviews through the insight that it affords me.
9. Photography often isn`t completely accepted as a form of art. What do you think about it? How can photography emerge from the shadows of other arts?
As long as there is a clever little bit of equipment involved in making images I think that is always going to be difficult. Photography is perceived to be easy to do and readily reproducible. How many times has someone said ‘you must have a really good camera’ if they like an image, as if the equipment makes the creative decisions? Equipment will only really ever give us a record. It can be argued that the advent of photography freed painters up to move away from representation (the camera could do it so much better) yet two centuries later we haven’t as landscape photographers moved on that much. You can be a very capable photographer without being an artist.
Whether or not photography is considered art varies from one country to the next, and also with what you chose to photograph. Contemporary fine art has little regard for natural beauty or even how well something is photographed. If it reflects the human condition or can be associated with it, photography stands a much better chance of being considered seriously by curators and critics. That doesn’t necessarily equate to something that will lift your spirit or that you would want on your wall. I think there is a gap in understanding about how the contemporary art world works and if you haven’t had a formal education in photography at college or university but have come to it through the love of making images then it’s a difficult one to bridge.
What Remains of the Day
10. Final Question: This project is called "Vision and Life". What do the terms "vision" and "life" mean for you, Michéla?
Vision isn’t about what you choose to photograph but comes from being yourself. It’s about seeing, not technology, and realising that vision in print form.
Life is energy and change, evolution and adaptation, persistence and growth.
Life is something we frequently take for granted; only when we or those close to us suffer ill health or misfortune are we reminded that it is uncertain, unpredictable, precious and finite. Life is our path through this world: initially we are guided by others as we learn to make our way, then we must take responsibility for ourselves before we reach the point where we should help others. It is for us to decide if we want to follow, or to lead, but at some point you’ll realise that life only has meaning if we are true to ourselves and not a shadow or imitation of another.
So I guess that for me they’re both about honesty and openness, and hopefully being the best version of yourself that you can be. My images are in a sense now less truthful of the world, but a better reflection of myself. Finally art is getting the upper hand over science for me!