Karl Holtby • Visual Mantra

Do you want your images to evoke a sense of mystery? Do you want them to suggest rather than state? Read on to Karl Holtby’s remarkable and inspiring story and, perhaps, benefit from his advice

I was exposed to photography at a very young age. From the age of seven I can remember long nights in the darkroom with my dad, developing and printing his images and eventually, as I got a little older, some of my own. Dad was, at that time, a very enthusiastic amateur who eventually turned professional at around age forty, weirdly drawing parallels with my own life.

Despite this early introduction to photography, I had no yearning to become a professional photographer. However, I have always had a very creative mind and went on to art college. In my early twenties I received commissions to paint portraits, but I never became a professional artist, instead settling in to a nine-to-five job as a draughtsman. Time went by and, until my late thirties, I mostly spent my spare time riding and racing road and mountain bikes and became qualified in other outdoor sports, such as white-water rafting. I was obsessed with fitness, training twice a day most days, with a long bike ride at the weekend. I had excel spreadsheets of my training hours, diet and ‘progress’. To become any fitter, I’d have had to turn professional!

Then, seemingly over night, I became quite ill. I’d been complaining to my doctor for several years of fatigue, dizzy spells, insomnia and tinnitus. I was finding that I couldn’t train as much anymore due to fatigue, to the point where some days I was bed ridden. Eventually, in 2011, I was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s (under active thyroid). Without going into too much detail, as it’s very complex, this condition saps you of all energy. Indescribable to anyone that hasn’t experienced it. As it’s a vital part of the endocrine system (hormones), low mood also becomes an issue. Then there’s the medication itself, with side effects, for me, being anxiety and stomach problems. I continued to get worse, despite being medicated, until in 2013 things became so bad that I eventually separated from my wife.

But this isn’t a story of doom, so don’t give up just yet! With everything falling apart and being unable to pursue my passion of cycling to the same level, I needed something else to do to get me outdoors, even if I wasn’t feeling great. I’d embarked on a degree in conservation in 2008 and had started using my camera more, to record the landscapes and habitats that I was visiting. I’d really enjoyed taking images, even though, compared with today, they were just snaps. In 2012 I invested in some filters and a tripod. Whenever I set out to do anything, I become a little obsessed and, as a result, since 2012, I have lived and breathed photography.

Photography has given me a new lease of life and it is still a very cathartic experience for me every time I pick up a camera. All my frustrations with my health, the very deep emotions of the past few years, all that suffering is released through my photography. Of course, it is very difficult to speak about this as it is so personal – and even more difficult to try to explain how one can use emotion in their imagery.

In 2014 I was at my lowest ebb. I’d decided to go for a walk in Dalby forest in Yorkshire, England. After all the stress of the previous years, I felt as if the forest was all consuming. It seemed suddenly claustrophobic – but then something happened. I had a previsualisation of an image in my head. I flicked my camera in to the double exposure mode and began to click away, framing one subject, such as the branch of a pine tree, then creating the second exposure with a background texture, a tree trunk or the sky for example. I felt that this process would create a confusing image, an image that would hopefully evoke an emotional response from the viewer, and an image that expressed my turbulent state of mind at that time. I called these images ‘Forest Visions’, as I literally had a vision of these images before I’d created them. In 2015, I entered these images in the Black + White Photographer of the Year competition (the first photography competition I had ever entered). To my amazement the images were shortlisted. Although I didn’t win, I was overjoyed that the images had been recognised in such a prestigious competition. At the time, this gave me the confidence to pursue further the idea of projecting our emotions on to the images we make.

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As with many photographers, when I started out I wanted to capture breath-taking sunsets and sunrises. I was up and out the door well before dawn to capture the sun. But, as time went by, I found that these kinds of images didn’t really hold my attention. Sure, a sunrise coming up over the sea is hard to beat and is one of life’s greatest pleasures. On a photographic level, however, I found myself wanting more than the instant gratification of a spectacular sunset. These days it doesn’t matter what time of day I shoot, I always feel inspired. Additionally, I don’t feel the need to get the camera out straight away, as it’s so important to explore a location and settle in to the landscape first.

With most of my images these days, particularly the seascapes, I’m trying to evoke a sense of calm; a zen-like image. This process is the antidote to my restless and often troubled mind. Over the past couple of years I have begun to describe this process as my ‘Visual Mantra’. This visual mantra will, more often than not, be a very simplified version of the scene before me. My images are bordering on minimalism, but with a difference, as I find that most ‘minimalist’ images tend to be ‘minimalism for minimalism’s sake’, with no real emotional content. To create a simplified and uncluttered scene involves leaving more elements out of the frame than one normally would when approaching the subject matter. Negative space is very important, allowing the eye to wander around the scene. It is then a question of arranging the components of the image. The aim of the visual mantra: to create an image where the viewer finds the eye moving around in a repetitive but pleasing way. This could be either back and forth through the image, or in a circular motion around the scene.

As a further example of the use of emotion, in my image ‘Inhibition’, I’ve attempted to evoke my feelings at that time by the positioning of the components within the image. The soft channel of water, leading out to sea, is meant to represent my life’s path. At this point in my life I was feeling held back with certain restraints and the old groynes, which cut across the channel of water, are portraying this barrier which I felt was holding me back. The casual observer would never know my thoughts at that time, of course, but I feel that our emotions can help to create strong, bold and evocative images with a sense of mystery about them.

If you haven’t picked up on it already, I have always had a very keen interest in all things Zen, with eastern art and philosophies heavily influencing my work. Being mindful of the image making process also extends to the kit that I use. For the past few years I have predominantly shot with the SIGMA Foveon sensor cameras. I find that the foveon sensor gives a real depth and unique feel to my imagery; additionally, the prints from the foveon sensor are rich and almost 3D in appearance. Not only do the Sigma cameras such as the DP0 Quattro and more recently the SD Quattro-H suit my style of imagery, but I also find them a real pleasure to use, being solidly built and with all the functions I need, without a myriad of menus that I would never use! They are cameras for the discerning photographer, particularly well-suited to landscape and fine art. I also use Sigma’s range of Art lenses, which are built to the highest standards, favouring the 20mm & 24mm primes.

Overall, I want my images to evoke a sense of mystery, suggesting rather than stating, creating a beginning which the viewer can complete with their own minds.

I hope this gives a little food for thought; a brief insight in to the way I find myself working at present. While this subject is often something that gets discussed on my workshops, I don't like to dissect things too much, be it processes, techniques or kit. Everything should be a natural progression. Techniques should evolve organically and freely over time – and that is something that will happen in different ways for all of us.

I’d like to finish this piece by saying that if anyone is going through hard times, hang in there. Everything really does happen for a reason, even if it doesn’t seem like that at the time. I am now doing what I love because of the darker times that I have been through. Although I haven’t quite conquered this health condition yet, I will get there. On the good days I am still very fit, enjoying climbing mountains and cycling, but photography has taken over and enriched my life in so many ways.

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