Naked!

9bcc24c7145293007f43a3daab1a63dfThe scary bit of being any type of artist is having the balls to put you and your work out there leaving it open for criticism. This is an issue I have struggled with in the past (and still do). I’ve been accused and found guilty of “holding back” for fear of exposing thoughts and feelings that might make certain readers feel uncomfortable and alter their view of me. But as my confidence has grown (a work in progress, quite possibly a lifelong challenge) I’m getting braver and dare to use strong language and adult themes in my writing. It’s not easy to share writing which some readers might find offensive and this leaves me feeling exposed and open to judgment. I’m not alone in feeling apprehensive about pushing artistic boundaries and when I met photographer, Matthew Boyle, we shared our thoughts on feeling ‘Naked’, in an artistic sense!

Here’s Matthew’s blog post on how he feels about exposing more of himself in his art.

_MG_2803I had such a great conversation last weekend with Helen MacKinven! What with Helen being a writer, I confessed that I (along with only every second person) would love to write something fictional. I have never done such a thing, and although I would really enjoy it, I just don’t think I would be brave enough. Before I go on I think it is worth saying that I really enjoy the process of writing. I like  choosing my words, and I like editing a roughly written piece to make it read sensibly, so why am I not a natural prospective writer? the truth is, I’m afraid of the nakedness! Not literally you understand, it’s the cold openness of people seeing you as the writer differently or anew. Imagine I wrote a love story or a romance of some kind, what would people think about what was in my head? Would people think I was a closet romantic, would they guess I was about to “come out of the closet”?, would they think my writing was un-serious and trivial? Possibly my favourite novel ever might be Anna Karenina, or Wilkie Collin’s The Woman in White, or come to think of it, maybe Virginia Woolf’s Night and Day; are you getting the pattern here, I like romantic novels, but I would never be brave enough to try to write one even if I had the writing-chops to pull it off! (Just for the record, I love lots of genres of writing, from sci-fi to crime, the former being a disappointing piece of information for my new friend Helen)!

So what is the photo-link here? I found myself thinking a lot about art in terms of how “naked” it leaves us. There is a long-standing question about how much photography is an art form rather than a technical or even trivial exercise? I subscribe to the view that it exists on a wide spectrum that can include both aspects very comfortably, but for most serious photographers their work will contain some artistic merits at least. I then wondered whether all art left you exposed or “naked” to some degree, and indeed whether it was a defining quality of all art that it does this to you? For me in photography this is certainly true, and it is something that I probably haven’t sufficiently acknowledged. The truth is that my photography is constrained by my sense of vulnerability in terms of what I imagine the viewers of my photographs attribute to me when they look at my pictures. This is not the same for all of my pictures. I mainly find landscapes, (when I do them), to score low on my nakedness scale. I don’t feel that they are hugely personal, and indeed they virtually seem to have evolved into a canonical form that allows you to contribute without people thinking “what the hell was in his head when he took that”? They are in fact fairly impersonal. Flower photography, which I have enjoyed a lot of is similar. There are trends in the look and feel of these that mean any picture I post will tend to simply contribute to the body of current flower photos, and again, no vulnerability. The problem is that my favourite photographic form is portraiture. Some portraiture can be fairly anodyne, for example business portraiture. Other portraiture can be incredibly challenging and deeply personal. (E.g. Mapplethorpe) I like a particular kind of portraiture, natural portraits which attempt to capture people in a relaxed and at least partially realistic way. I like that because I like people in general, and I like to try to capture what it is I like about them. This is the relatively safe ground I stand on; I try to make pictures of people in a slightly interesting, but not too challenging way. I hope that people will look at the pictures and feel the same sense of curiosity and pleasure in the people, that I did when I was taking the pictures. Critically though, I don’t want people to think that I thought anything inappropriate, or that they would gain any insight into my feelings about the subject beyond what I am happy to give away freely. This may well be limiting my photography, as my fear of being artistically naked, (that means I would struggle to write creatively), may also mean that I am becoming a technical portraitist who is afraid of pushing the artistic side further.

e490b1e7d539d44799209871c44a7befI think there are in general, two sides to this artistic “nakedness”. One is the general degree of “provocation” in the creative sense. Does the image shock, challenge, surprise, make you question, reframe assumptions etc. The second is that we as individuals have a personality and a comfort zone associated with who we are. We can feel a little “stripped” when our own espoused values are challenged. If you only ever take landscapes, and someone asks you to photograph them for a personal portfolio, you may feel that viewers of these pictures will wonder what personal relationship that sudden shift reveals? The same images from a regular portraitist will not even give  second thoughts if they are just normal people-pics!

The truth is that while I think of myself as a fairly self-confident and brave individual, in matters of expressive art, I may well be a bit safe and comfortable. Oddly, as an occasional musician, I used to write songs when I was in my teens and early twenties. Whenever I try now, I just cringe at what I am coming up with and imagine what people would think when listening to it. The songs never get off the ground.

What art could we be making if we weren’t afraid?

The picture is one of mine from a 2010 stroll. It is a nice simple, and above all safe landscape.

 

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5 thoughts on “Naked!

  1. Helen, I know the feeling! I think I said to you already that before my novel was published exposure was my biggest fear, that sense that readers would be analysing me and my characters. I was pretty scared of reality hitting me hard in the face but it didn’t. It was so fine. Lovely in-fact. A relief to set my story off into the world and just move on with another narrative. If that’s being naked in public then it’s absolutely fine. Catch me at a preview screening of one of my films though, surrounded by an audience of critics, peers and media then I’m like a coiled spring. I’m so wound up I might actually break! I guess the not so personal feels more personal in this context. Aye, there’s nowt as queer as folk! Looking forward to seeing you with no clothes on when the novel comes out! 🙂 And Matthew, go for it. Embrace the fear and let your words unfold, it’ll be scary, but as rewarding as your lovely images.

    • Thanks for your support Margot. Yes, I remember you telling me about your fear over the content and now I’ve read your book I can understand why the graphic images and language would make you a bit nervous. But as you say, it’s all part of that scary feeling of being creative and something that should be embraced.

  2. Very interesting post, Helen (and Matthew!). An experienced editor once told me told me that even openly defining yourself as a writer, let alone getting published, can provoke an unhelpful reaction in some friends: is this something you’ve encountered (unfortunately, I have)? If so, have you any tips on how to react?

    • Hi Susan, Thankfully, I’ve not had any blatant negativity to my face from friends but I felt very self-conscious of calling myself a writer initially. I felt quite shy about the label and worried that folk might think I was being pretentious. But as my own self-assurance has developed and I began to get short stories published I felt I’d earned the title. I think that’s helped me project a more confident image of myself as a writer. It’s a shame that you’ve encountered negativity from friends and it would make me question if they really are true friends if they’re unable to support you. My tip would be to turn it back on them, “I’m surprised you feel like that as I expected you as my friend to encourage me to develop as a writer doing something I love”. Maybe they’re jealous of your creativity? Be ruthless and weed out those type of ‘friends’!

      • I think you’re right on the last bit – and I have started to do that. Although it’s not so much blatant negativity as an absence of interest – e.g.: never asking me how the writing’s progressing, although the same people always ask about how people’s jobs are going, or when I say I’ve written three novels, a reaction such as: ‘Really? . . . Actually, I’ve always thought I should write a book one day,’ before changing the subject. Not everyone’s like that, but I’ve been surprised by who is. I used to think it was because most people find it a bit mystifying and don’t know what to say, but there must be more to it than that. I enjoyed your latest post, about going back to your roots. Reminded me of my family, although with us it was always songs rather than stories (typical Welsh!).

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