We purchased the Old School Gallery at Muker village in the Yorkshire Dales in England at the start of April – trees without leaves, flowers still to bloom. May brought the first motorhomes, tents and men in shorts venturing up the dale, sure signs of spring. Early summer turned the famed Muker wildflower meadows into a sea of buttercups, clover and wild geranium. The heather fuelled purple haze of late summer has come and gone. Now, at the start of October, the leaves are turning red and starting to fall. The icy grip of winter, my favourite season, is just around the corner.
It’s 06:30, the light is filtering through the blinds and I am half-awake as the alarm goes off. I wander through to the kitchen, switch on the kettle and take a look out of the window. In upper Swaledale, looking out of the window is the only reliable weather forecast! The moods change within minutes, a downpour one moment, brilliant sunshine the next. Today the light looks promising and there is interest in the sky.
I walk up the path that takes me through the meadows, cross the bridge and head out towards Keld. The village of Muker shrinks behind me, gradually disappearing from view. I start to climb steadily, my breath heavy, my legs still needing to shake off the lethargy of the early morning. As I trudge by, rabbits scatter to the safety of their burrows, a lone Roe Deer on the other side of the Swale watches warily. I haven't got a specific destination in mind, just a general direction; it’s a morning for exploring, for location seeking. As I walk I find myself constantly scanning the landscape for abstract forms and patterns, half closing my eyes to simplify the scene.
During the months since we opened the gallery, we’ve had some wonderful conversations about art with the people who visit us, all of whom have their own views, likes and dislikes. To my mind, this is the enjoyable thing about art, its subjectivity. Of course, there is a basic technical competence, but once that hurdle is overcome, beauty really is in the eye of the beholder. This gives free-range to opinion, debate and controversy, art’s fundamental lifeblood. Sure, as with music or literature, the deeper the understanding the richer the experience, but it is that initial encounter with a piece of music that moves you. The why, and the deeper appreciation, comes after. With all this subjectivity flying around, what does it mean for our gallery? Quite simply, we need to offer the widest range of styles, mediums and subject matter, and we relentlessly search for new and original work to showcase. Should photography be part of the mix? Is photography art? Well, I guess it depends on your definition of art!
I pick my way over the puddles and rocks strewn across the track. I have gained some height and will soon need to decide on a destination. In my rucksack I can feel the weight of the Sigma SD Quattro H. It has been a while since I carried such a relatively large camera, opting instead for a small, light, simple life over the complexities of lens choices and filter systems, but the prospect of a large Foveon based sensor, wrapped in a weather sealed body with a decent EVF, proved far too tempting to pass up.
I would argue that some of the most recognisable, powerful and moving images from the 20th century are photographs, and if art is not simply about aesthetic beauty or technical competence, but about conveying a moment, a mood, an emotion, then photography, with its immediacy, intimacy and candidness, is perhaps the most powerful artistic medium on offer. So, why did we find, as we visited galleries across the north of England, an almost universal absence of photography? When we asked the question, the answer was stark; photography doesn’t sell! To me, this did not entirely ring true, but there is a fundamental truth behind it. Photography’s greatest gift, the democratisation of art, is also its biggest curse. With an estimated 1.7 billion photographs taken in 2017, as Grayson Perry so delightfully puts it “We live in an age when photography is raining down on us like sewage from above”.
I stand at a fork in the track with a decision to make. With no specific image in mind – photography for me is an exercise in discovery rather than pre-planning – I am free to roam. After a few seconds deliberation I head up a barely visible path. The path soon peter’s out and I’m confronted with a barbed wire fence. I hop over and land beside the stream. Looking up I can see that it falls down a series of drops as it carves its way down the hill. I start the scramble upwards.
So, what do we look for in an image? What compels us to hang a photograph on our gallery wall? Well, it is no different to any other artistic medium. It starts with you, the photographer. Your passion and dedication needs to be infectious. The British art loving public isn’t just buying a picture, they are buying into you! The more passion you have for your work, for the medium, for the subject, for your artistic vision, the more you are able to transmit this to the customer and the more chance you have of selling your work. After passion comes distinctiveness. Does your work have a distinct, recognisable style? Is your artistic signature embedded in the work? Developing a signature style won’t come immediately or easily. It is a journey; one that may take years of experimentation, development and study, both technically and artistically, until something emerges that is unique to you.
I climb a series of small waterfalls, inspecting each as I pass. Eventually I stop at one that looks promising. From this vantage point I can look down to the dale below. Swaledale for me encapsulates the Yorkshire Dales like no other. There is a permanence, closeness and ruggedness to the natural geography, echoed by the features man has built upon it; the iconic field barns, solid dales longhouses, mile upon mile of drystone walls, and tightly knit villages with cottages huddled together for warmth and protection against the elements.
Passion and distinctiveness, absolutely necessary as they are, won’t in themselves sell your work. What transcends all the above is a connection. People buy art when they form an emotional connection and the more potential connections the more desirable the work becomes. Emotional connections come in many different forms but perhaps the most important are: to a place and time, to an artist and to the discovery of something new.
A sense of place and time
As we are based in Upper Swaledale, the most obvious connection is to the iconic scenery; the field barns, meadows, Swaledale sheep, stone villages and towering fells, that draw so many people to Swaledale each year. Visitors want to take a piece of it home with them when they leave.
A second connection is to the artist themselves. I have lost count of the number of visitors who return to the gallery because 'they once bought a painting by so and so' or better still 'the artist signed their work at an exhibition'. People want to feel like they know the artist, they are not just buying a painting or photograph, they are buying a piece of you. Once the connection is established, they will remain remarkably committed to your work.
I take off my rucksack and mooch around; I am looking for something but not sure what. The scene is promising but the composition needs something. I explore different angles and viewpoints, all the time the light and landscape it falls upon, is changing.
It is not looking good. I am missing that wow moment, that feeling when you go around a bend and the scene stops you in your tracks! I take a couple of pictures but I’m not convinced. Still, it feels like a promising location. Perhaps if I’d scrambled a little further up? Perhaps if I had a little more time to explore? Perhaps if I had arrived at a different time? I make a mental note to mark the location on the map when I return and put the camera back in the sack, it is time to go.
So far we have yet to mention the camera, lenses or filters. To the buying public, technical details are irrelevant, but equipment is important to you and me as photographers. Why do I use Sigma’s Foveon sensor cameras for shooting landscapes? For their quality! If I do my job well, if I work hard, I know that I will be rewarded by superb image quality, vibrant colour and exquisite detail. There is a distinctiveness about a Foveon image, a different look that I love and that customers are undoubtedly drawn to.
I scramble down the way I came, it is more awkward than going up, but I eventually meet the barbwire fence, climb back over, find the path and make good progress down the hill. I re-cross the bridge, go over the style and the houses of Muker appear on the horizon. Ten minutes and I’ll be back at the village. Who was it that said the best journey is the journey home?
As I write this I’m constantly asking myself whether if I turned up to a gallery with a portfolio of images would I pass the tests, would they take on my work, and the honest truth is I that I just don’t know. I took the easy option and bought a gallery!