“The greater the artist, the greater the doubt. Perfect confidence is granted to the less talented as a consolation prize.” ― Robert Hughes
I imagine many of us occasionally have those feelings that we’re out of our depth, that we don’t know what we’re doing, or we’re out of control and being carried along against our will or judgement. Most of the time these feelings are momentary. We attempt to regain control and move on, but what happens to our creativity during these periods of doubt? And what if those periods are not fleeting, but consistent, long term and debilitating?
Following on from the previous post which described the darkness that Don McCullin feels from his years of bearing witness to the worst of humanity, and how those dark feelings are alleviated, just a little, by photographing the land, or creating classical still life compositions, I wanted to explore a little more the idea of how our mental state might affect, and be affected by, our photography.
As is often the case, whilst mulling over the whys and wherefores of exploring these ideas, serendipity played a hand…
Firstly, just a few days after visiting the McCullin exhibition, I met photographer Daniel Russell at an exhibition of his work at Beach Creative in Herne Bay. Daniel is open about living with rapid cycling bipolar and borderline personality disorder, and when we spoke was eloquent and engaging about his condition and how it is affected by his photography, while also recognising the subtle ways his photography is affected by his mental state at the point of exposure. Keen to give something back to the mental health charities that have supported him, Daniel’s exhibition catalogue “promoting the benefits of photography for a better mental health” gives prominent exposure to the charities “Mind”, “Samaritans” and “Take off”, and even arranged for representatives from those organisations to be present throughout the exhibition.
Each image in the exhibition catalogue is accompanied by an extended caption which, in addition to the information you might expect, also details Daniel’s explanation of his own state of mind around the time he made the image, often referencing the bipolar mood scale, which he includes as a guide. It’s a fascinating insight and I think ably illustrates how the urge to create can be a powerful tool in the treatment of mental health issues. There’s a lot of thought and work gone into this show, and I applaud Daniel, not only for his talent for photography, but also for his passion to shine a light onto the subject of mental health and the strides he’s taking to erase the stigma.
The second thing that pricked my consciousness on the subject was a short piece in Outdoor Photography Magazine concerning an exhibition by photographic artist Doug Chinnery. Entitled “Abstract Mindedness” the project evolved as he recovered from a nervous breakdown suffered in early 2018. Sadly, the pressures of the undertaking began to impact his recovery, and Doug had to take the difficult decision to cancel the exhibition for the sake of his health. Despite this setback the project has still been published in a book of the same name.
Doug’s blog contains an honest and moving account which describes the combination of factors that contributed to the building anxiety resulting in his breakdown diagnosis, and how the path to recovery is long and beset with challenges.
Chinnery explains how the images for the project are not necessarily as you might imagine, sombre and dark, reflecting a depressed mind-state, or vibrant and colourful in periods of more positive mood. In his own words: “Such stereotypical results are not coming through – which ties in with this not being the stereotypical illness that many people perceive it to be.” Which is very similar to how I viewed Daniel Russell’s images – they don’t immediately identify as “happy” or “sad” pictures, they’re simply an individual’s artistic expression. Like Daniel, having first hand experience of mental health issues has made Doug keen to help others in similar situations, so he also is supporting and fundraising, for “youngminds”.
These are two different photographers, with different personalities, at different stages of their careers, but their drive to create shines through the unique mental challenges they are dealing with.
Perhaps that part of the mind that makes a person want to create remains largely unaffected by the troubles that grind into the bits that control the general business of getting by in the modern world. Perhaps the brain isn’t evolving as quickly as it needs to in order to maintain an equilibrium with the pace of technology and the modern world. Perhaps that’s why art therapy is such a powerful tool in the treatment and rehabilitation of mental illness and brain injury…
Maybe sometimes we all need to step away from the grindstone, take a few deep breaths and just look at the trees…