“I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there’s going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up.
“The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if they planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows. And I’m much more a gardener than an architect.”
—George R.R. Martin
At different times in my life, I have aspired to be an architect — first literally, and later, figuratively. Around 13 or 14, I was drawn to the alchemy of architecture. It’s a magical idea — that you can transform a framework of lines on a page into something that you could live within and that might outlive you. (Ironically, I now work in reverse — I distill the complexity of the real world into mere shapes on a page.)
I liked the idea of drawing for a living, and as a teenager, I liked the idea of creative control. I wanted to manifest my will in the world. I wanted to make my mark.
Clearly, I’d read The Fountainhead at a dangerous age…
The idea of battling against a dull, conservative juggernaut — refusing to compromise on my radical contemporary vision — resonated with my teenage self. Upon further research, it transpired that my fanatical devotion to reshaping the future of architecture wasn’t strong enough to withstand the realisation that it would take 7 years just to become a junior architect… (The final nail in the coffin was learning that many architects spend their entire careers finessing the layout of bathroom stalls in suburban office blocks.)
Later, I wanted to become an architect in the metaphorical sense described by George R. R. Martin above. I looked at the work of photographers like Taryn Simon, Gregory Crewdson, and Andreas Gursky with a sense of inadequacy. The precision and conceptual clarity of their projects, made my own attempts at making a serious body of work seem incoherent and lacking ambition.
I knew I wasn’t lacking technical knowledge or practical ability — more that I was suffering from a paucity of Vision. I had a good grasp of lighting, direction, and composition from my time assisting, but I defaulted to taking pictures of the people and things around me. It’s not that I disliked the resulting pictures, but I had a lingering feeling that my practice was somehow unserious, childish even, which made me self-conscious about my approach.
The giants of contemporary photography were working on a much larger scale, and within refined theoretical frameworks. Even the commercial photographers that I admired made crisply-defined personal projects in between assignments. Not coincidentally, their projects tended towards subjects that came with a great one-liner and often a neat twist: female skateboarders in Iran, boxers training in Cuban garages, Pakistani death metal fans.
I magpied about, stealing a frame of this or that, depending on what caught my attention. They built towering structures around a reinforced core of theory stood atop strong conceptual foundations.
I tried to adopt their way of working. I made long lists of project ideas, portrait subjects, of places I could go. I sketched out the pictures that would make visual the themes and symbols at the heart of the potential project. But the more time I invested in making grand plans or researching conceptual approaches, the less likely I became to pick up the camera and make the first frame.
The longer I took to finesse project ideas in my head, the easier it became to persuade myself that they weren’t worth doing. They were too small, they were too grand. They’d been done before. Too expensive, too unimpressive, too old-fashioned, too obscure. This road led to disillusionment and virtually no picture-making.
Worse still, this approach became a barrier between me and the aspect of photography that I’m most in love with: photography grounded in paying intense attention to the present moment. Instead of taking a picture when I felt a special connection to reality, I wouldn’t shoot unless I had a ‘reason’. The stupidest thing about this whole episode is that not only did it have a negative effect on my output, but I didn’t even like the work of the photographers who espoused it that much.
I had confused status and critical recognition with artistic resonance. I had persuaded myself that if I wanted to succeed, I had to adopt the same model. I almost let the plaudits obscure the pictures.
In fact, most of my favourite photographers at the time — people like Robert Frank, William Eggleston, and Garry Winogrand — came from an earlier school of documentary photography, and worked in an exploratory rather than preplanned way. Instead of working like architects, they worked like gardeners. They picked an area of fertile soil to work in, turned it over with care and attention, sowing seeds throughout, then carefully pruned and shaped the shoots that emerged.
I liked their willingness to engage with and accept whatever occurred while imposing on the action as little as possible. They still shaped the mood and meaning of their work with careful framing, timing, and editing, but they approached the world and its visual riches with openness and looseness. Their vision of photography was sophisticated, but they didn’t let it blind them to the fortuitous or idiosyncratic moments that the world offers to those patient and observant enough to receive them.
I still have a long way to go — I’m working to ground my photographic practice in the present. I don’t want thoughts about the time I’ve wasted in the past to pull me into despair. And I don’t want fears about the future to push me into fantasy. I can’t let angst over a grand plan get in the way of shooting the images that are in front of me.
I want to make work picture by picture, immersed in the present.
Like gardening, I need to create a nourishing environment for my work to take place within, and most importantly, I need to allow myself the time for my practice to flourish. It’s time to abandon the blueprints and get my hands dirty.
h/t to Austin Kleon for the George R.R. Martin quote.
I just released a short film about the painter Gabriela Giroletti. Shot on the occasion of her solo exhibition Breezy at Kristin Hjellegjerde Gallery, London in 2021, it gives insight into her motivations, artistic influences, and techniques. You can watch it here. I’d love to hear what you think.
Happiness is Two Scales by Atoms vs Bits
I liked this reframing of happiness away from a single happy <-> unhappy scale into two scales: one tracking your level of happiness and one tracking your level of unhappiness. This leads to the insight that you can be both very happy and very unhappy at the same time (or at least back to back) and that:
If someone (including yourself) is struggling with low well-being, it’s important to ascertain which of two problems are happening:
- not enough happiness
- too much unhappiness
Agency by Simon Sarris
The always excellent Simon Sarris on how to create opportunities for young people to learn by doing.
The act of creation causes imagination, not the other way around. To understand this is to understand the ecology that fosters the unique. Agency is precious because the lucidities that purposeful work and responsibility bring are the real education. The secret of the world is that it is a very malleable place, we must be sure that people learn this, and never forget the order: Learning is naturally the consequence of doing.
The Shock and Awe of State Sponsored Women’s Fashion by Interconnected
Looking at Shein, the meeting of AI and consumerism, and state-sponsored fashion hacks. Bonkers and thought-provoking.
The maths and design decisions behind everyone’s favourite international paper standard. Nerdy and incredibly satisfying.
Electric Bike, Stupid Love of My Life by Craig Mod
A joyous love letter to the slightly cranky electric bikes that are the objects of CM’s affections. I really want an electric bike. I have so much fun riding lumbering dockless bikes around London that it makes me dream of what it would be like to fly around on a high-quality e-bike. Soooooon…
How to Have Ideas by Oliver Burkeman
A nice little grab bag of interesting things that have been top of mind for Burkeman: idea generation, scruffy hospitality, finding the right counterfactual when judging your actions and choosing ‘aliveness’ when making decisions.
360° Video Portraits of Ethiopian Hairstyles
Beautiful black and white moving-portraits shot in the round. A great concept and DIY approach create incredible results.
I loved this series. Captures the ferocious energy and stress of the kitchen with excellent cinematography and editing. The writing is great, the characters are flawed and relatable, and it’s a brilliant meta-commentary on the love and sweat required to excel. Perfectly encapsulates the aphorism that ‘How you do anything is how you do everything’.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude | The Floating Piers
Lovely set of sketches and photographs that document the conception and creation of the Christo and Jeanne-Claude installation The Floating Piers on Lake Iseo, Italy in 2014-2016.
A Plane over Woods by The Vernon Spring
Elegant and woozy piano noodling. It’s not quite jazz, it’s not quite ambient — just a beautiful audio soup to fall into. I find it very relaxing and perfect to work to.
Fool’s Harp, Vol. 1 by Fools
Warm bells, crackles, tones, and drones. Soundscapes to get lost in. Also lovely to work to.
Actual Life 3 (January 1 – September 9 2022) by Fred Again..
Lest everyone be lulled into sleep by the two albums above I wanted to provide some wall-to-wall bangers to dance around the kitchen to. I’m mildly obsessed with Fred Again.. — he’s the first musician in a while to blow me away with his raw talent and creativity. I get hyped up to his incredible Boiler Room set when I’m grading on a deadline and I relax with his rooftop sunset piano set when I’m reading in the evening. Truly a man for all seasons…
As always you can find all the music from this and previous newsletters in the Art + Attention playlist
Tilda Swinton for CHANEL