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Leader Insights – Valda Bailey

Posted on 21st September 2015

For our last leader interview we chatted to one of Light & Land’s longest-standing leaders, Sue Bishop, about flower photography – so this time we thought we’d find out more about one of our newer leaders, Valda Bailey. Valda specialises in abstract/impressionistic photography and in a more recent innovation in the photographic world – ‘intentional camera movement’ (ICM) and multiple exposure photography. Definitely something we’d like to tell you more about!

Let’s start at the beginning - can you tell us a little about how you got into photography originally?

Painting and drawing was my first passion, but I become seriously interested in photography when I was about 14. My dad and I both got hooked on it for several years; we went off to night school together, set up a darkroom in the downstairs loo, and shared the excitement of upgrading from a Canon AE1 to the then much-heralded Canon A1 - they were fun and exciting times. Then life, work, travel etc. gradually intervened, and the camera got put aside until about nine years ago - although I did continue to paint during this time.

I was introduced to Flickr by a friend in 2006, and started off with some fairly predictable work; puppies, flowers, food, garden macro . . . But after a short while I started to become dissatisfied with the images I was making and took up street photography in a quest to find a way of capturing something unique  - something that hadn’t been done a million times before. I eventually came to the reluctant conclusion that my personality is not really cut out for street photography however - I don’t feel comfortable asking complete strangers to pose, and I struggle with the ethics of what feels like ‘stealing’ images of people, so I started looking around for another approach.

So is that how you came to specialise in abstract/impressionistic photography and ICM? What is it that you love about this type of photography particularly?

I had always believed - mistakenly I now realise - that landscape photography represented little more than a series of orange sunsets, misty mornings and milky seas. And that’s not to discredit the traditional approach - just that I found it artistically unsatisfying. A pivotal moment was coming across the work of Chris Friel in a photography magazine. I was immediately and completely transfixed, because I didn’t realise that photographic images could look this way. At the time he was using ICM to blur detail and render abstract shapes in his work, so I set about learning as much as I could about his methods. Doug Chinnery, now a fellow Light & Land leader, was instrumental in teaching me the basics and also in introducing me to Chris; both of whom are now very good friends of mine.

The appeal for me is partly that I’m trying to create with a camera what I struggled to do with a paintbrush! It’s also the freedom to interpret what I see in front of me in a unique way. Clearly an image still has to work as a series of shapes and/or colours within a frame, but I have little interest in a camera club judge’s ideas about how the rule of thirds, front to back sharpness and f/16 must converge in perfect harmony, in order for an image to be deemed successful.

I also realise I don’t have the patience needed for the careful calculations required, nor the desire to try to emulate the studied perfection of traditional landscape photography. I greatly admire the skill and dedication of those who do - it’s just not for me. Although shooting using in-camera multiple exposure is controllable to a certain degree, there are many happy accidents along the way and this is another factor that keeps it endlessly fascinating for me.


How did you get involved with Light & Land?

Charlie Waite got in touch with me at the end of 2014. He made some very nice comments about my work and, amongst other things, asked if I would like to join Light & Land as a leader. It was a huge honour and a big surprise to be honest. Although I had co-led a couple of workshops with Doug, they had come about largely because I was getting requests for tuition and it seemed like the easiest way to field all the emails asking for help, rather than for financial gain. 

Funnily enough, a couple of weeks before Charlie got in touch I had rather decided that teaching wasn’t really my strong point, and I was going to stop doing it. So I had to think long and hard about whether or not I should accept. My misgivings were partly based on the feeling that what I do is quite difficult to teach. The basic camera settings for multiple exposure and/or ICM can be taught reasonably easily, but it’s far more difficult to convey the ‘whys and wherefores’.

My ideas come about as a result of images I have looked at, exhibitions I have visited, books I have read and so on - and I really wasn’t sure if it was possible to teach something so imprecise. I also feel that I am a long, long way from having it all figured out, and wondered whether I was suitably qualified to join such a well-respected organisation! I recently came across this quote by W. Eugene Smith which pretty much sums up my feelings in this respect:

"Never have I found the limits of the photographic potential. Every horizon, upon being reached, reveals another beckoning in the distance. Always, I am on the threshold."

What types of trips, and where, have you led for Light & Land so far – and what do you have planned for the future?
When I agreed to teach with Light & Land, it was on the understanding that the workshops I led would be in tandem with Doug Chinnery. We get on very well, we have very similar outlooks when it comes to photography and we are both able to bring something slightly different to the class. The first one we listed was a bluebell workshop in the UK - it sold out very quickly so we hastily added another the next day, which also sold out with some speed. My first tour for Light & Land is coming up this autumn in the Cairngorms. I’m very excited about it because I know the light and colours are going to be wonderful.

Doug and I also have Northumberland, Jersey and the Lake District listed for early next year. Northumberland has sold out and the Lake District has only a couple of places remaining as of time of writing, so we will need to have a chat about what we want to do later on in 2016! We have discussed Ireland and possibly Bruges or Ghent, but nothing concrete has been agreed. We recently listed ‘Impressions of London’ - a one day urban workshop offering a creative take on street photography, and the speed with which it sold surprised us both.


As a professional photographer, what other types of work do you get involved in?

I’m currently working on a book project and have taken part in three exhibitions this year. Things have snowballed somewhat since Charlie got in touch! Interviews come along now and again, as do private sales. I also get requests to give talks at camera clubs, but after a few valiant attempts I’ve reached the reluctant conclusion that lecturing is very definitely not for me! Just as I know with absolutely certainty that no matter how much tuition I receive, I will never be able to dance with any sense of rhythm or sing in tune, so it is with public speaking. I have not one shred of capability or aptitude for it whatsoever. That’s just the way it is.

I have never really gone out of my way to look for recognition, so I’m very fortunate that so much has happened for me in the last year or so. In a bid to be a little more proactive, I have galvanised myself into enquiring about the possibility of a solo exhibition next year, with encouragement from a few kind people whose experience and wisdom I greatly admire. I’ve already had a couple of very positive meetings with galleries, so we’ll see where it goes.

If someone is thinking about specialising in abstract/impressionistic photography and ICM, what advice would you give them to help them hone their skills? 

Any camera can be used to make ICM images; all that is needed is a ND filter to slow down the shutter speed, and even this is not always necessary, depending on the light. Multiple exposure is a little more tricky, as the images I make are merged together in-camera using a variety of blend modes.

Most cameras will only offer an average blend mode which combines the images one on top of the other with the first image still being slightly visible when the sequence is complete, but my camera also offers a bright mode and a dark mode. Essentially this means that when shooting in bright mode, all bright tones are prioritised throughout a sequence of images at the expense of any darker tones. The reverse is true in dark mode. It is this that renders the abstract shapes and unusual colour casts in the image. It is a similar principle to the way layers are combined in Photoshop, and while similar effects can certainly be obtained using software, I have never been able to produce anything I am happy with when working this way.

There are several Canon cameras offering bright and dark blend modes. Pentax have cameras which will shoot in bright mode, as I believe do some Olympus cameras. Some Sony cameras utilise apps, one of which is a multiple exposure app. But although it offers about six blend modes it will only combine two images, not multiples. In terms of subject matter, perhaps the best way to start is with a view that has clear cut lines, strong shapes and not too much detail - maybe a seascape or some hills. Try moving the camera around, horizontally and vertically, and see how differing camera movements impact upon the image produced.

I would also recommend looking at the work of many artists and photographers for inspiration. A very small selection of my favourites are Chris Friel, Alexey Titarenko, Keith Carter, Paul Kenny, Ernst Haas, Wynn Bullock, Jay Maisel and Klavdij Sluban. Then the Light & Land tutors I have to include are Charlie Waite, Doug Chinnery and David Ward - amongst others. Favourite artists are Bonnard, Cezanne, Chagall, Matisse, Picasso, Van Gogh, Rothko, Frankenthaler, Klee and many more.

One last question – please could you give us your top three tips for this type of abstract/impressionistic photography.

The following thoughts are meaningful to me, but I think they are useful whatever type of photography you’re interested in.

1) Look at paintings as well as photographic images. Many years ago I used to spend an inordinate amount of time poring over reviews of lenses and cameras, convinced that the minuscule difference between one system or another would miraculously transform me into a better photographer. I realise now that this time would be far better spent reading books and looking at images.

2) Commitment. Keep on keeping on. I will happily sit in front of the same tree for an hour or two trying to get it right. One of my favourite quotes is by Samuel Beckett - "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”

3) Search. Keep asking questions. Wynn Bullock said “How can you expand unless you search beyond what you are at the moment? The most useful thing to me that I think is most useful to everyone is that they continue to search. Searching is everything.”  This inspires and frustrates in equal measure, because the more I discover, the more I realise there is to learn!


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