In the midday sun we have just done a long drive along a road continually coiling itself into hairpin bends and twisting around the contours of the mountains to find a highly recommended Byzantine church. It is stuck out in a little valley near the village of Kiriakoselia, south of ancient Aptera in western Crete.
The guide book claims that it has ‘fantastic thirteenth century frescoes, as good as any on Crete’. Unfortunately, the church is locked up and, wilting in the heat, we decide to wait and see whether someone else has followed the instructions on how to get in touch with the keyholder. Holiday laziness is setting in…
As we sit on a patch of ground outside the church re-hydrating ourselves and eating lunch, I become fascinated by the challenge of trying to capture the simple scene in front of me. There’s an old olive tree with a pile of slates next to it, and behind a pink stuccoed wall with a flaking, painted wooden double door inset into it. The light on the wall, door and tree is changing all the time, so the scene is never quite the same. I shoot it standing up, kneeling down, in portrait and landscape formats, nearer and further away.
There’s something about the scene that makes me want to capture is as faithfully as I can. But each shot fails to do justice to it. So I take more and more shots and with each one become a little bit more frustrated at my efforts.
My son is also taking shots of the area and he can’t see any value in what I am trying to capture.
Perhaps it’s midday Greek madness affecting me. Is that Pan laughing behind a tree in the woods behind us?
Sometimes the harder we try, the worse things turn out. The more pictures I take, the more I realise they are just snaps, record shots. I try and and compose my shots, be aware of what’s in the frame, attempt to recognise patterns, apply the rule of thirds and other half digested rules. Still they turn out like snaps. I shoot regularly to keep my eye in. I look at lots of photographs. I try and develop my visual sensibility.
What eludes me is how to take better quality photographs, ones that please me in themselves (rather than as a record of somewhere I have been and enjoyed), ones that I would be pleased to stick on my wall at home. And I just don’t know how to make that breakthrough.
Recently I went to hear a renowned photographer of children give a talk. Her story was quite amazing. Her husband gave her a Hasselblad for Christmas one year and she only took 11 frames on her first roll of film (this was way before digital). But the quality of the shots on that roles was remarkable and led to some even more incredible opportunities when she showed the pictures to a local Abbey National branch manager. Apart from the part that chance and coincidence played in her story, it was apparent even in that first roll of film and even though she knew not the first thing about the technicalities of photography, that she had an artist’s eye.
Perhaps that’s what is missing. No matter how much I know about technique, without that innate talent for composition or for just seeing, maybe I will never be able to shoot anything more than snaps. It’s a depressing thought.
Oh, well. I’ll just have to keep practising. I’m nowhere near my 10,000 hours yet.