Between Inner and Outer Worlds

Townsend, P. (2017) Between Inner and Outer Worlds. In Photographers and Research: the role of research in contemporary photographic practice. Eds. Shirley Read and Mike Simmons. Routledge: London.

Between Inner and Outer Worlds

Patricia Townsend

The making of a new body of photographic work involves far more than the act of taking pictures. It is likely to include stages of preparation and research before any photographs are taken (although this is not always the case) and a process of editing afterwards; but these are much deeper and more complex tasks than one might at first imagine.

In creating a new body of work, photographers not only relate to elements of the outside world (the subject of the photographs, the camera, the prints and so on), but they also embark on a personal journey, which in turn will reflect some aspect of their inner world.

In this essay, I explore the question of how a new photographic artwork comes into being. In my discussion, I draw from my own experience as a photographer, and from a series of 30 interviews with professional artists (conducted between 2011 and 2013), six of whom use photography as the central medium in their practice. The essay situates these personal accounts within a framework of psychoanalytical thinking. But to begin I will describe my own practice, and the making of Under the Skin (1), a photographic artwork which is an animation of still photographs.

The making of Under the Skin
Some time before I began work on this particular project I was staying in the Lake District in the North West of England, in a valley halfway between the mountains and Morecambe Bay, a vast expanse of quicksands, channels and intertidal mudflats. After a while I noticed that I would rarely travel to the coastline. There was something troubling about this landscape for me. It seemed too open, too flat and too vast. Looking out over the great expanse of the Bay at low tide, I imagined myself walking out alone towards the horizon until I could see no land, and wondered what it might feel like to be out in this wet desert, alone and far from help.

I knew that many lives have been lost there, sucked down by quicksand or swept away, engulfed by the incoming tide, which is said to be as fast as a galloping horse. But I sensed that there was more to my emotionally charged feelings about the Bay. It was as if my responses were the tip of an iceberg and that below the surface were unconscious echoes resonating within me, which I could not yet understand. It was this feeling that propelled me to make a series of artworks related to the Bay. Through making the work I hoped to discover what it was about the Bay that made me feel like this.

Initially I did not know how to approach the subject beyond the fact that my usual media are video, photography and installation. I spent long periods of time walking the coastline and finding vantage points that seemed ‘right’. One favourite area at the mouth of an estuary had a small pier from which I could film the incoming tide. Another spot had deep channels in the sand that altered with every tide. I took many photographs and shot many hours of video footage in an attempt to clarify what it was that I wanted to make.

This stage of the process can be seen as preparation involving practical experimentation and contextual research. I questioned whether I should use still or moving image, decided on both and began shooting in different locations, from different viewpoints, in different weather conditions and states of the tide. Alongside my trial photographs and video, I looked into the history and geography of the Bay, to try to get to ‘know’ the landscape as deeply as I could.

This period of research and experimentation was guided by an intuitive sense of what elements might carry the work forward. The notion of intuition, described by the philosopher Michael Polányi (2 ) as “know[ing] more than we can tell,” is often seen as a fundamental principal within the creative process, but it is difficult to define. It is a process that can contribute to the emergence of insight or knowledge in new or unexpected ways; something that can have significant impact on the development and conclusion of any given body of work.

The psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas (3) sees intuition as an unconscious skill that allows the creative person to know where to look in the outside world to find those elements that will help to develop his or her work. In addition to the conscious research of facts and the production of trial images, intuition allowed me to search at an unconscious level too. So the stage of preparation and research included a gathering of unconscious data. Bollas points out that this has an advantage in that: ‘…the intuiting person is unconsciously able to explore lines of investigation that would meet with incredulous disapproval if he were fully conscious of what was being considered’. That is, at an unconscious level the artist is free to make connections between different things in ways that would be censored or ridiculed in their conscious thought. The data gathered through intuition is processed and integrated unconsciously until it is ready to emerge into consciousness as an idea or image for a new work or a new direction in the making of a work.

Returning to my own process, through my experimentation with taking photographs and videos, I decided that I wanted to make a work related to the way in which the channels in the sand change with every tide. Also I had discovered that the original meaning of ‘quicksand’ is ‘living sand’. Then the idea came to me of making an artwork that would bring the sands to life and I realized that I could do this by animating a series of still photographs of the channels. The animation would enliven the still images and convey the idea of a movement over time. I was quite elated by this idea. The moment when an idea or image comes suddenly into consciousness is often exciting for an artist. Grayson Perry speaks of the ‘golden glow’ of the initial idea for an artwork ‘and it’s beautiful and it’s fuzzy and everything is right and it only has the good sparkly bits’. The idea seems perfect because it is still not fully defined and it is not limited by practical considerations.

My excitement began to dissipate when I tried to put the idea into practice and I came up against the practical problems and limitations that are inevitable at this stage of an artist’s process. At this point the idea no longer seemed to be so perfect. My next task was to find the images that seemed to ‘fit’, but I did not yet know what that ‘fitting’ might be. That is, I did not have a clear sense of what images I needed but I knew that if I began to make and look at photographs of the sands they would start to visually articulate my ideas in a way that simply trying to think through alternative approaches would not do. By returning to the same position on the shoreline after each successive tide, I began to collect a series of preliminary images. However, I found that the changes I recorded were too great. The channels in the sands were completely transformed by every tide so that when I tried to juxtapose the images and to use an animation programme to create a smooth movement from one image to the next, the result was disjointed and lacked the continuity I felt I needed. After several attempts, I realized that I would need to find an alternative approach.

I had somehow to manipulate time in a way that would create a more coherent and fluid expression. After a period of feeling stuck and unable to move forward, I had the idea that I could simulate a time change through a location change. That is, I could shoot the images at the same time but at different points on the same stretch of the shoreline. In this way, I could build up an impression of time that was more closely related to what I was trying to achieve. Bearing in mind that this work was to be shown as a moving image piece, I found that the landscape or horizontal format no longer felt ‘right’. I realized that I wanted to create the sense of a wall or mountain of sand, which related more to how the landscape made me feel, and for this I switched to a portrait or vertical format; and further experimentation followed.

At this point there began a subtle shift away from my original idea to something that incorporated additional layers of meaning as I began to discover more about what felt ‘right.’ I had no clear sense of exactly what I was trying to do, but I continued to shoot, edit the images and experiment with different animation techniques. At each stage I evaluated the outcome to find a tangible link between my inner sense of what felt ‘right’ and the actual work I was making.

What emerged from this process was the idea that the animated images should move in such a way as to suggest that the surface of the sand resembled the skin of a living being. I realized that this atavistic sense of the land itself being a living and possibly hostile creature had been part of my initial response to the Bay and the animation technique would help me to articulate that. This realization went hand in hand with the discovery of a particular animation technique that resulted in just the effect I wanted. However, it is hard to say whether the discovery of the technique led to the recognition that this was what I was looking for, or whether my growing awareness of what I desired to achieve visually and emotionally led to the discovery of the technique.

When the work was eventually completed, decisions about the way in which it should be exhibited initiated a further series of experiments, as I wanted to create a specific effect for the viewer – a sense of tension and apprehension. I realized that this called for a large scale image that would tower over the viewer and I decided to show the work as a rear projection in a doorway. My intention was to create the illusion that the room beyond the doorway was filled with unstable sand that might flood out at any moment to engulf the viewer.

My description of the stages I went through in the creation of Under the Skin raises a series of issues related to the question of how a new artwork comes into being. I have said that I was looking for images that felt ‘right’ or that ‘fitted’ but what does this mean? How did I judge whether a new idea for how to proceed was on the right track? What states of mind did I go through on the way? What was the nature of my relationship to my medium?

The hunch

It becomes clear from my narrative of Under the Skin that my response to Morecambe Bay was a very personal one. From the beginning it became a space of imagination for me. The psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott (4) was interested in the relationship between the inner world of our subjective experience and the outer world that is available to us all. Sigmund Freud (5) had stressed the division between ‘phantasy’ and ‘reality’ (roughly corresponding to inner and outer worlds), but Winnicott’s great contribution to psychoanalytic thought was that he proposed the existence of an intermediate area of experiencing where inner and outer worlds co-exist. He observed young children with teddy bears or pieces of blanket that had a special significance for them and he coined the term ‘transitional object’ for these playthings. The child invests the object with something of his or her own inner experience so that it is both an object in the outer world and part of his or her inner personal world at the same time. Winnicott thought that we all need this intermediate area of experiencing which he called potential or transitional space (6). Older children access it through play, and as adults we can find it in a number of experiences including religion and the arts.

We can also access it through our response to landscape. I had invested the landscape of Morecambe Bay with aspects of my own inner experience, so that there was an overlap between the external reality of the Bay and my inner world. Morecambe Bay became a transitional space for me. But, beyond this, I also had an intimation that the Bay might provide the means to find a form (in the shape of a new artwork) to correspond with what I was feeling. I will use the term ‘hunch’ for this. If we think of an ‘idea’ as a specific sense of direction (possibly in the form of a mental image) then the hunch is something less clear. I define it as a sense that an interaction between inner and outer worlds is taking place and the accompanying intimation that this could lead to a new artwork. As one of the interviewees put it:

I knew there was something I wanted to do but I couldn’t really say what it was until I’d got to that point where I did it right. (Sarah Pickering)

The making of a new artwork is an attempt to find a form that ‘fits’ the hunch (7). In the search for this form the hunch will gradually become clearer and may develop into an idea, a more specific picture of the possible artwork the photographer wants to make. In the making of Under the Skin, my hunch developed into the idea of making an animation that would bring the sands to life. In my subsequent process, each stage of experimentation can be seen in terms of an attempt to find a form to fit my hunch.

As the work progresses, the artist may find that one idea must be abandoned in favour of another idea that corresponds with their hunch more closely. It is this willingness to explore the possibilities that keeps things fluid. Sticking rigidly to one idea may limit the potential for the work, a notion echoed by one of the interviewees:

I plan stuff out, but it’s not a rigid plan because I know it is going to change, it always does through the doing. (Sian Bonnell)

In my own process, the idea of bringing the sands to life by animating still photographs seemed to fit, but as the work progressed and the hunch became a little clearer, the landscape format no longer felt ‘right’ and a switch to portrait format was necessary. The animation editing technique that I had just discovered felt ‘right’ because it created an effect that fitted the hunch. At every stage it was essential to be open to the unexpected. If I came across something surprising as I was taking my photographs, it might point to a new possibility. If my editing programme behaved in an unexpected way that seemed at first to be a problem, it might turn out – as in practice it did – to be the very effect I needed.

The photographer and the medium

The photographer has to find a way of working with the medium, to follow the hunch towards a form that will eventually return to the outside world as the completed artwork. This medium may include the camera, processing of film, darkroom equipment, means of digital processing and printing, test prints and so on. All these pieces of equipment and processes have their own characteristics that can both limit or open up new possibilities for the photographer, as the photographer enters into a dialogue with the medium. The medium responds to the actions of the photographer and the photographer in turn responds to the results the medium produces.

I have found Adrian Stokes’ thinking about the relationship of artist to medium useful here. Stokes was an art critic, initially writing in the 1930s, who wrote about his own experience as a viewer of art and architecture. He also wrote about the ways in which artists engage with their materials, differentiating between two modes of working that he called ‘carving’ and ‘modelling’.(8) For Stokes, these are not merely techniques, they also reflect the artist’s attitudes towards, and responses to, the medium.

According to Stokes, modellers use their medium in a ‘plastic’ way to mould it into a preconceived form. They impose their own vision onto their material. Carvers, on the other hand, have regard for the intrinsic properties of the medium and enter into a struggle with it, taking away from it to reveal the form within, allowing it to take on a life of its own. Carving establishes the artist’s medium as ‘out there’, as possessing its own characteristics separate from those of the artist.

In his early writing Stokes thought that artists were either carvers or modellers and at that stage he valued carvers more than modellers. However, he gradually came to realize that he could not maintain this clear-cut division. Eventually he concluded that all artists must to some extent try to impose their ideas onto the medium and are also affected by the behaviour of the medium in response to their actions.

One of the artists I interviewed describes his dialogue with his camera in terms that fit with Stokes’ thinking:

There’s something about the positive feedback you get from putting a pencil on a page. For me that relates to how I want to use the camera. And you know, I suppose there is a kind of relationship between the sort of touching with the eye or touching with the lens …. there’s a nervousness … will you be able to find a way of holding that within the limitations of what the camera can do? But then pushing what the camera can do. (Dryden Goodwin)

Goodwin looks for ‘feedback’ from his camera. What does it have to say to him? He knows that the camera has its own characteristics that will impose certain boundaries on what he can do and this gives rise to some anxiety. If the camera refuses to give him the effect he wants, will he be able to push it beyond its normal capabilities? Following Stokes’ model, he employs both ‘carving’ and ‘modelling’ modes as he enters into a struggle with the medium, pushing it to its limits to achieve whatever he has in mind (modelling) whilst also respecting and responding to its behavior and feedback (carving).

Play and playing

The photographer then, listens to what the medium has to ‘say’ to him or her. Sometimes it responds to the photographer’s actions in predictable ways and sometimes it asserts its own properties and does something unforeseen:

It’s about the happy accident but it’s also about recognizing something when it’s coming towards the surface where you can catch it if you’re aware enough of how crucial it can be to what you’re going to make. (Liz Rideal)

If the photographer has a fixed idea of what they want to do, the unpredictability of the medium may be frustrating but if they are open to new possibilities it may be the happy accident that makes the work. This openness or flexibility is described by another photographer in terms of play:

I am very interesting in playing. Right at the beginning of a piece of work I might have a very vague idea of what I might be interested in… My camera is my tool and I will have made a decision before I begin about whether the piece (if it is eventually going to be a piece) is going to be done with a certain piece of equipment to begin with. I often use a pinhole camera…but even before that there’s a sort of play action whereby I’m not sure what equipment I might be using…. Although I go at the start of the residency with some particular idea to get me started….throughout my time I would be playing so there would be a whole lot of photographs that I just take with no idea if they are ever going to go anywhere….I am always collecting images that at some point I may pull out and it may become a piece of work. …. I know what I’m looking for but I know it’s going to shift. (Gina Glover)

The initial ‘idea’ is ‘very vague’, perhaps more a hunch than a specific image. It gives the photographer a sense of knowing what to look for but any more specific idea that arises from it is provisional and Glover understands that ‘it’s going to shift’. The vague idea or hunch initiates a series of experiments, both in the imagination and in the outside world.

To begin with there is the ‘play’ of the decision about which equipment to use. Imagination encourages playing with the idea of using a pinhole camera. Would this produce the desired effect? If not, should a digital or a large format camera be used? This may lead to trying out different equipment and a comparison of the results before making a decision, or choices may be made on the basis of experience and imaginative ‘playing’ with likely effects. That is, the artist may imagine possible effects and mentally ‘play’ with them to explore different possible outcomes.

Having chosen the equipment, the project then moves on to a different sort of experimentation, this time with taking the photographs themselves, ‘playing’ not only with the subject matter of the images but also with angle, lighting, framing and so on:

There’s a whole lot of processes I give myself. Have I looked at this building from the other side? It’s a really good discipline to do. …It’s this whole business of trying to make work with fresh eyes .. by either calming the brain and letting the brain become empty and therefore the eyes see something differently or you’re just allowing the eyes to see what you’re trying to make by a different light, by different locations. (Gina Glover)

Here Glover is entering into a dialogue with the medium following a ‘vague idea’ or hunch but also alert for any new direction that might emerge from experimentation with the camera. In looking through the viewfinder from a particular angle, does something unexpected appear and if so, does it fit her hunch? She knows that it fits when she sees the image in the viewfinder and feels that this is what she was looking for all along but she could only recognize it once she saw it.

Having taken the photographs, yet another period of ‘play’ follows in the editing process as the photographer experiments with the images and decides which work together, which combination fits the hunch:

[It’s] kind of like a muddy vision – not super clarity. It also exists as single images or combinations of images and that’s kind of fun as well, that it has got these different lives, these different potential ways of being resolved. (Sarah Pickering)

Although Pickering says that this stage can be ‘fun’, this ‘playing’ is not carefree. It is a serious business involving a great deal of hard work. It may also involve periods of boredom and frustration and call for painful decisions, such as the decision to abandon a direction that is not working:

I’ve learned you’ve got to get rid of your favorites quite often. In fact you have to get rid of them… You have to realize that they don’t work…I suppose it’s like a pruning. You’ve got a bush that you like and you have got to chop off a bit that’s not working, even if it’s a lovely bush. (Sian Bonnell)

A certain sort of concentration

The word ‘playing’ implies a particular state of mind. When children play, they are lost in a world of their own. They are in a state of total absorption in which their toys are both part of their inner drama and remain objects in the outside world. They are in the transitional space described by Winnicott. The photographer, too, is in a state of absorption while working with his or her medium. When I was on the shores of Morecambe Bay taking photographs and, again, when I was absorbed in editing my images, I felt myself to be in a bubble of time, separate from my everyday life. One interviewee describes her state of mind while working:

The whole point is that you don’t force the concentration. You let that happen… It’s about a certain sort of concentration. I think when we say the word concentration we think about this forced thing that’s really directional and really trying to understand…whereas it’s much more like looking at a Poussin painting and letting it just come into your eyes and understanding. That is deep concentration and it’s quiet and it’s very personal and it’s very private. (Liz Rideal)

This is reminiscent of the educationalist Anton Ehrenzweig’s (9) description of a particular state of mind that he sees as integral to the process of art making. This state involves a ‘flexible scattering of attention’ and ‘unconscious scanning’ that he describes as ‘dedifferentiation’. In this unfocused state the artist is able to hold all the diverse elements of the work in mind at once. According to Ehrenzweig, artists fluctuate between focused and unfocused states of mind as they work. Both states are necessary as the artist needs to experience the work as a whole but also be able to focus in on a detail.

Another way of thinking about the unfocused state of dedifferentiation is to see it as an opening up to the overlap between inner and outer worlds. The psychoanalyst Marion Milner (10), who examined her own efforts to draw and paint, describes a state of ‘illusion’ or oneness between her and the painting. Milner is not talking about illusion as a mistaking of fantasy for reality but rather of a state of mind in which such distinctions do not apply. Moments of illusion are “moments when the me and the not-me do not have to be distinguished. Moments when the inner and outer seem to coincide.” These moments can occur at any time during the process of making the work. Dryden Goodwin, who draws on photographic portraits, describes this experience both in his studio and whilst on location:

So it was about the drag of the drawing device on the surface that actually set up a particular physical sensation that put me in a certain state, or whether I would wear a magnifying visor in my studio to look at a photograph and draw on the photograph…so my sense of my body behind my eyes would then dissolve …. similarly when photographing on Oxford Street there was a sense that I was hovering in space. Again a sense of the body dissolving behind the camera this time. (Dryden Goodwin)

This is a graphic description of moments of ‘oneness’ as a sense of the artist’s body ‘dissolving’. According to Milner, experiences of ‘oneness’ or fusion are an essential stage on the way to ‘twoness’. In other words, it is the experience of ‘illusion’ or oneness that allows the artist’s process to progress so that artist and artwork can arrive at ‘twoness’ and the finished work can stand on its own, separate from the artist.

There is a parallel between Milner’s concept of illusion and Winnicott’s idea of transitional space. Winnicott’s concept of transitional space contains within its name the idea that it is associated with movement, with transition. For the baby this transition is from a sense of oneness with the mother towards a sense of twoness. So the photographer’s ‘play’ can be thought of as a movement from a sense of oneness between photographer and medium or developing artwork towards a state in which the artwork is finished and separate. As the process progresses the artist experiences the artwork as more and more separate from the maker. Finally, it takes on a life of its own and is ready to be launched into the outside world. At that point yet another phase of playing is necessary as the photographer chooses the way in which he or she wants to show the work.

Some final thoughts

I have tried to show how the journey of making a new photographic artwork involves a movement between the outer world of shared experience and the photographer’s inner world that depends upon an interweaving of the two in the transitional space described by Donald Winnicott. The photographer starts by feeling drawn to some aspect of the outer world. This signals that there is an overlap with something in his or her inner experience and gives rise to the sense that this particular aspect of the outside world will provide a route towards a new artwork. I have called this the ‘hunch’ and have suggested that the process of creating the artwork can be seen as the search for a form that will fit the hunch. The artist translates the hunch into the artwork through the dialogue with his or her medium and so puts it back into the outside world.

Once the artist has separated from the artwork sufficiently to let it go out into the world we might think that this is the end of the artist’s process. We might suppose that the artist can now leave this work and move on. Indeed, this may be the case but sometimes the artwork raises further questions for the artist and these questions call for another work in order to explore them fully. Occasionally a particular artwork seems to have a special significance for the artist. If the artist uses a medium such as painting or sculpture, where each work is unique, these may be works that are not sold but are retained by the artist him or herself. The artist wants to refer back to this particular work because it seems to have further potential.

Here I am talking about a situation that is different from that in which an artist creates a body of work that is intended from the outset to give different perspectives on the same subject. It is also different from the situation in which artists may have a single central theme in all their work and spend their life exploring different aspects of the same subject. In these cases, each artwork is a separate exploration of the central theme. For example, my piece Under the Skin is one of several different works I have made which relate to Morecambe Bay.

But if the finished artwork not only provides a form corresponding to the artist’s hunch but also touches on further areas of the artist’s inner world, the artist may feel the need to start again from what they might expect to be their finishing point. The creation of the artwork began when the artist was drawn to an element of the outside world. Now, it seems that the new artwork itself acts as an element of the outside world that resonates with the artist’s inner experience. This generates a new hunch and a new process can begin.

End Notes
1. Under the Skin was shown as an installation at the Blue Gallery, Brantwood, the former home of the English writer, artist and social reformer John Ruskin (September to October 2013). It can be viewed here:

2. Michael Polányi. 2009 (1967). The Tacit Dimension. (Re-issue edition). University of Chicago Press, p. 4.

3. Christopher Bollas is a psychoanalyst and writer. His writing on intuition appears in Bollas, C. (2011). Psychic genera. The Bollas Reader. A. Jemstedt. London, Routledge

4. Donald Winnicott was a psychoanalyst and a paediatrician. Work referred to – Winnicott, D. W. (1953, 1986). Transitional objects and transitional phenomena; a study of the first not-me possession. Playing and Reality. Harmondsworth, Penguin

5. Freud used the term ‘phantasy’ to denote unconscious fantasy. See, for example: Freud, S. (1908). Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume IX (1906-1908): Jensens’s ‘Gradiva’ and Other Works, 141-154.

6. Donald Winnicott referred to ‘transitional objects’, ‘transitional phenomena’ and ‘potential space’. Later commentators have ascribed the term ‘transitional space’ to him and now ‘transitional space’ and ‘potential space’ are used interchangeably.

7. Strictly speaking, the developing artwork does not give form to the ‘hunch’ itself but, rather, to an aspect of the artist’s inner world together with the corresponding element of the outer world that gave rise to the hunch.

8. See: Stokes, A. S. (1934). The Stones of Rimini. The Critical Writing of Adrian Stokes Vol. I (1930-1937). London, Thames and Hudson

9. See: Ehrenzweig, A. (1967). The Hidden Order of Art: A study in the psychology of artistic imagination. London, University of California Press.

10. See: Milner, M. (1969). The Hands of the Living God. London, Hogarth Press, p. 416.