Dear Photography

A love letter to the still image.

Perhaps it began with exploring the immaculately labelled albums at my Grandmother’s house, or maybe seeing photographs from all of my Grandparent’s and Parent’s travels and lives. Walks in Snowdonia, bear spotting in Canada, seeing my Mum and Dad with their rucksacks, off on one adventure or another, before my brother and I came along. And equally photographs of us all together, on walks, backpacking or cycling trips that my own memory has muddied. These preserved moments are each carefully and lovingly presented in a book to share and look back on. It’s no wonder that when cameras or possessions are lost, we don’t lament the material object of monetary ‘value’ but are distraught at the loss of the image, of value only to ourselves.

Of course growing up I took photographs of my friends on our small 35mm cameras and disposables. But I didn’t stop to consider the significance of photography in my life until I began college, where I chose to study it. This decision was seemingly made by chance, as I needed one more subject to be full-time and it felt like an interesting opportunity. Looking back, the decision was guided by my experiences and fascination with photography up to that point. A Degree in photojournalism, Masters in Photography and an art teaching degree later and I am more in love with the still image than ever before.

I initially wanted to to become an extreme sports photographer, following the ASP surf tour and living life on the road. But it hasn’t always been about documentary images. I spent years delving into the depths of photographic theory, exploring conceptual image-making, experimenting with chemicals and historic processes and pushing my limits as to what I thought a photograph could be. All of these endeavours had a common thread, they usually started with a family image or a landscape.

An old family photograph, scanned, scrubbed to remove ink, stitched through with mending thread, turned into a negative and printed in the dark room. From my project, The Farm, 2011.

An old family photograph, scanned, scrubbed to remove ink, stitched through with mending thread, turned into a negative and printed in the dark room. From my project, The Farm, 2011.

Looking back at my early work, I think it became too much about the medium itself, and not enough about the things in my life that ignite a spark for me. Images that reveal stories worth sharing, or encourage action, or simply ask us to pause in appreciation at the world around us are most successful when they are focused on elements in our lives that we feel passionately connected to. I used to ask my students, “what is photography?” on their first class with me, and without fail, memories and moments were always the most repeated words. Making connections and communicating with others using visual literacy is a skill that requires understanding, empathy, precision, a good eye for composition and the ability to be in the right moment at the right time, or as Henri Cartier-Breson would call it ‘The Decisive Moment’.

Half Dome, taken on my Medium Format Bronica Camera, 2008

Half Dome, taken on my Medium Format Bronica Camera, 2008

During my time teaching, I didn’t take as many photographs. I loved film photography, but didn’t have the resources any more to process and print my own images and I found it difficult moving into digital, it took a while for the spark to reignite without my medium format camera. I tried to spend free time on a long-term project about the life of Thereza Dillwyn Llewelyn and her forgotten Observatory in Penllergare, titled ‘Another Side of Existence’ after a quote from her journals. The project never really took off, despite Thereza’s amazing life as a trailblazer in the early world of photography, who took one of the first photographs ever made of the moon.

In the last 2 years I have simplified my image-making, bringing it back to what sparked my interest in the first place, adventure. That was the common thread through our family albums, although I didn’t know it at the time, and it was what I had originally intended when I began studying the medium. It doesn’t have to be remote expeditions to far-flung places, or necessarily about my own adventures, but more about the feeling of curiosity that encourages us to strike out into the unknown, without the definite possibility of success. In fact failure has become a favourite topic of mine. How we fail, why we fail, and what our response is to that failure. I also like to capture quiet moments, in between what can feel like chaos or uncertainty. I feel most connected to small pauses in our lives outdoors, when we have brief feelings of contentedness, when the light bursts through the clouds for the tiniest moment, and when we realise our own tiny place in these vast landscapes.

I have dabbled with moving image, but I can never seem to find the same joy that comes with engaging in a single image that captures a larger narrative. Perhaps that will come with time and more experiments, but I think for me, my enduring love will always be for the still image.

Yours faithfully

Mikaela

A Sense of Place

You can join us for a weekend of unusual adventures, inspired by photography, literature and curiosity in the Llanthony Valley, Wales, this May:

https://element-active.co.uk/a-sense-of-place/

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