Limits

To the woods - an embossed photo print

I never used to think about limits, I just did stuff. I’d like to get back to that. This thinking about what I could or could not, should or should not, started when I spent 1 year on a photography commision. A year cycling round and wild camping, photographing all over the UK. Working 18 hour days, 7 days a week, for 11 months. Working, living and breathing in all the best and worst of the British landscape. I regularly spent days wet and shivering never able to get dry or warm, I have a strong love of the sun now, and an intense dislike of being cold. I went through exhaustion and kept going. I pushed through burned out and kept going. And then simply ran out of beans, stopped, empty. I’d discovered my limits and moved them a bit further on. And like any limit that gets broken it leaves cracks and changes.

After I finished this commission I went to to work in a security startup in London. I was having a conversation one day about limits with our CEO, someone who knows all about limits, both engineering and personal. I was telling him it was a useful exercise to try to personally move a 1 tonne boulder. He gave me this look like I was stupid and told me no-one would ever move a 1 tonne boulder, ever. As engineers we both know this is true. I didn’t really know how to answer at that time. It was something felt.

There is a boulder problem (rock climb) in Northumberland called His Eminence. It was right at the top of my grade and even the guidebook described it as a local test piece. I’d been stuck on it, on the same move, trying and trying time after time to get past a break in the rock, for nearly two years. I simply couldn’t get past that move on tiny sloping holds, gravity and a lack of power stopped me. I was out there one day, battering myself on it to no avail when I spotted an old friend of mine who had gone on to be one of the best climbers in the world. I wandered over to catch up. As our chat came to a close he just looked at the climb and said “try levitating at the break”. So I took him at his word, got back on, got to the hard move and just “levitated”. And I went right past the hard move, and I could then do it every time just by trying levitate.

I wish I had remembered this story when I was telling my CEO about limits. He would have replied, and I would have acknowledged the correctness of his physics and biology, that humans can’t levitate. And yet I did, when ever I needed to. Perhaps the thing about trying to push a large heavy rock is not that we can, but we should believe we can and give it a try. Because we learn in the process. We learn to be stronger, to be better, and to fail gracefully.

One of the limits that came from the commission that opened this story was I had hit my limits photographically. I had nowhere to go from that point in time. Nowhere to go technically. Nowhere to go artistically. I stopped photographing except memory shots of my wife and life, which are probably the the only ones with any real value! This left a big hole in my life for 8 years. No real creative outlet, no focus for life. No point in starting anything new as my limits scared me, and I didn’t know how to get past them, or even paddle round their edges.

But I wanted to try pushing the rock again, to explore what might happen, to learn new questions to ask. The answer came from a wonderful book, Hockney A Pilgrims Progress by Christopher Simon Sykes. Here was a person who had pushed through many limits in his life, with joy and abandon. But it wasn’t the person who inspired me so much as the way he thought, about perspective, about time and narrative, about colour, about composition, about art, about his life. And I realised how stupid and arrogant I had been to think I was anywhere near my limits. The ideas started coming. So I would write them down, explore them, make some notes, do some research. The mental health stuff gets in my way, I suddenly lose focus and energy, having to back off and wait for another day. I think my body and mind are now scared of obsession.

And I have finished my first photography project in many years. It’s called To The Woods. The inspiration was the lack of contact that a digital image has with it’s subject. With film, the photons reflect off the subject and embed themselves in the film emulsion causing a chemical reaction. Further chemical reactions result in a print and I can imagine there is a bit of the original analogue subject in the finished print. Not so with digital. I wondered how I could embed some of the subject in a digital print, how I could take the image back to the subject. I wondered if I could emboss the photo paper on the subject. I spent weeks messing around with various printing techniques, wetting and washing paper, pushing and rubbing it, running horrible bits of paper through my printer.

And slowly something came out. The physicality and pigment of the subject embedded in the print, in a form of contact print. Each print is unique and a one off which adds further value to me for a digital image.

The results don’t work too well in a web photograph, and to be honest some of the actual prints are a bit too subtle. But I like the idea, and one of the results is stunning, the contours of the subject pushing through to create a caldera of texture and colour.

Sadly I won’t be doing more though. I might be exploring my artistic limits, but my printer makes horrible sounds every time I print one of the embossed and textured papers. I can push it’s limits, but I think the only result of that will be pushing my credit card limit!

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