The Great Photography Debate

Stitched paper flowers a la Helen Brownett, Mantlepiece
Stitched paper flowers a la Helen Brownett, 'Mantlepiece'

While I was in Nottingham with my mother over Easter we went to the Living Threads textile group exhibition at Trent College, Long Eaton (, open until 30 April (closed for Royal Wedding, 29th April).  It was a great show (as it always is) with an extraordinarily high standard of work and very beautiful pieces, and gorgeous examples of traditional embroidery (who could fail to love pigs done in contemporary blackwork?).  Like all great shows it makes you want to dash out and do something yourself as soon as you can.  But on the way in we were told there was to be no photography.  The reason given was that people ‘can manipulate other people’s designs’.

This is a thorny one, I think, and it’s a discussion that I have had a number of times on a number of committees.  Should we let people take pictures or not?  I understand the argument on both sides.  It’s true that people steal ideas and that for those who make a big chunk of their livelihood from giving workshops or selling, this can be a real problem.  My friend Liz Hewitt invested in some lovely brochures of her work and so didn’t really want people taking photos of their own.  If there are postcards for sale it strikes me as courteous to buy those rather than ‘steal’ photos.  People shouldn’t profit from other people’s ideas, other people’s intellectual property.  I fully accept that.  But being a conscientious academic, I can also see the other side and I wondered why it galled me quite so much not being able to take photos of inspiring things.

I think it was the turn of phrase: ‘manipulate other people’s ideas.’  It led me to wonder what exactly this work was made for.  Clearly a lot of it was for sale.  But there was stuff that was very definitely NFS.  And this was an exhibition, a public showing.   So what then?  Makers love to share.  They love to show what they have done.  Making and showing is communicating.  What do we want to communicate that we don’t want copied?  Surely not just gasps of admiration and approbation.  Don’t we want to circulate ideas and have them increase in strength as they do?  There aren’t that many truly original things to say about landscape or mermaids or crumbling brick walls.  We only have our own spin on it, our own interpretation, and my take on your idea is mine and always will be because work of the hand is always unique.  There is also quite a bit of interest in copying as creativity at the moment – creative swiping, adding to and amplifying.  As I blogged a couple of months ago, I think generosity of spirit is something we should aim for in our work.  I don’t mind who uses pictures of my work.  Take it and do something interesting with it.  Credit me if you have a conscience, but your work with my work won’t diminish what I did in the first place.  You can manipulate my ideas all you like and I would be interested to see the results.  Those continental philosophers would tell us we are all copies of copies anyway…  Modern life is simulacra…

The upshot was that I got out my notebook and (horror) a permanent alcohol-based brown pen which was all I had with me, and made some sketches.  I was taken by two things.  One was very small prints of trees on organza which were then applied in layers to make a landscape, and the other was a panel with punched paper flowers with straight stitches and beads.  I thought I had better go home and have a go before I forgot (give a man a fish and all that).  So I made a version of what I had seen (largely from a pack that I bought from the exhibition sales table) and the result is in this post.  Maybe this is the creative compromise.  Not a straight photo, but my own version.

More paper dogroses
More paper dogroses

Which is pretty and fine and worked and allowed me to experiment and so on.  But what was more interesting to me was that the leftovers, my version of sequin waste, will come in useful for another project that I want to do: guerilla art or aesthetic activism.  So the strips of watercolour paper that are leftover can become bookmarks to be left for people to find and to encourage them to do something:

Potential bookmarks
Potential bookmarks

Being quite so conventional, I am slightly nervous of activism, but I want to have a go as an action research project, and I could easily start with these.  So, manipulating another person’s image has turned out to be generative and to be about doing something new, which is pretty much why I think making is so important.  Making is about connecting not hugging stuff to yourself or delighting in your own skill.

And here are some exquisite cards I bought and hope you enjoy!

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