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Cornwall in October: Experimenting with Abstract Expressionism

Another adventure in my ongoing journey of photographic experimentation. I had been nervous about the woodland workshop last month as I mentioned in my previous blog, but as I travelled across Devon and into Cornwall last weekend for another event organised as part of the inspiring Responding to Light event at Make South West in Bovey Tracey, I was a real jumble of anxiety and excitement!

I was going to Bude for a workshop led by Valda Bailey, an innovative, expressionist photographer that I have long admired. Valda's approach to creating an image is unique, and she has a distinctive visual style. She combines multiple exposure, intentional camera movement and complex post-processing to create abstract images that evoke a strong emotional response. Finding out about her approach seemed to fit well with my current project on female abstract photographers and what attracts the female gaze.

I am aware that Valda has developed her creative practice over many years, evolving her techniques in response to technological innovations both in the cameras and in the post-processing software, and that she is a leading expert in the field of abstract expressionism along with her colleague Doug Chinnery. Engaging with her images online has made me see the world in a different way, but when I visited the exhibition of her work at the Responding to Light event, seeing them as prints was even more fascinating. The multi-layered effect within each photograph gives such depth and means that they are so absorbing and intriguing to view. That made me even more curious to find out how Valda does it! And I was going to spend the day with her!

As I drove across the moors, the rain and mist came down and I wondered whether the workshop would be cancelled, but as I headed to the North Cornwall coast, the sky started to clear. My heart lifted as I saw the sea ahead.

We were a group of ten eager to learn from Valda. She clearly explained the process of capturing multiple exposures in camera, and the effects that different blend modes and AWB settings can have on the final image. I had listened to tutorials on this before, but I found that I now could understand it. I was relieved that Valda was not only a good photographer but also a good teacher! Although she did rightly keep reminding us that she was sharing in a few hours what she had taken years to learn and that we would need to keep playing and experimenting to find our own way of using in-camera multiple exposure. A good reminder.

I started with a logo on the cafe wall and was surprised at the outcome. The way that the overlaying images cut across and made a range of abstract shapes was fascinating.

As you can imagine, after that initial surprise, sorting out the camera settings and working out the practicalities absorbed most of the morning for me. Never mind the quality of the images, I wanted to learn the basics. And Valda was on hand as I struggled through. The other challenge was that I had not been to Bude for many a long year, and so the photographic possibilities were exciting me and I wanted to capture lots of 'record' shots too! The surfers on the wide, golden beach, the waves against the rocks, the colourful beach huts, and later in the day, the low sun creating amazing silhouettes and light splashes on the sea. I had to remind myself why I was there and resist going off on a tangent.

I started with the beach huts and managed to get some interesting overlays. These were with bright mode and up to 5 images. Bright mode preserves the brighter part of each of the images:

I also played around with going up to 9 images (just because my camera can!). I think I need to have clearer understandings of the process though and some came out quite muddled. I liked the shapes and patterns on this one, and the colour range:

I then experimented with dark mode (the bright areas of images are eliminated and only the dark areas of each image are overlaid). I found these came out very dark, and I have had to make adjustments in Lightroom to improve them - all part of the learning! In these two images a key difference was the selection of different white balances which led to the variety in the colours:

For me these were too cluttered and busy. I also tried some ME of the beach, not very successfully, as you can see with these images. I think I was rushing too much, and now I have seen what happens when I combined the beach and the waves in angles, I can have a play at another time.

I did rather like the effects I got when I focussed on the people on the beach and in the water, especially the boy in the bobble hat who is walking on the sea! :

And then I spotted some colourful buildings in the town behind us - what a fantastic subject for multiple exposures, a lovely mix of shape and colour bright in the sun.

Again I played around with the number of images and also the white balance and got a completely different effect. I was getting hooked!

After a lovely sociable lunch, I found that in the afternoon I absorbed myself for a good hour taking multiple exposure images of the roofs of the beach huts. I had worked out that the sunlight on them created triangles of light when I used bright mode, and by moving the camera to a different angle with each shot in the sequence I was building up an abstract image! My first steps on the path.

I wondered how to change the mood of the images and went for a really warm tone:

Followed by a series where I altered the kelvin to be really cool:

and I was amazed when these appeared. For me they are telling the story of the sea overwhelming the beach huts in an end-of-the-world storm, much like the chaos on our coast today due to Storm Ciaron passing through:

At the end of the day, still eager to experiment, I tried out another multiple exposure technique that I had been shown by Rose Atkinson when I went with her on a photowalk in Wells. Using continuous shooting mode, holding the shutter button down while moving the camera across a scene creates a 'staccato' of repetitive images that are almost abstract yet retain some of the detail. I went back to the beach huts to see what I could capture and here are the results:

And I finished with a bit of ICM and a silhouette as I said goodbye to Bude, promising myself I would soon return:

Overall, it was an amazing day. Wonderful to meet Valda and hear her talk about her photography to the group with such enthusiasm. Her response to many of my questions was 'well, it depends'........ Initially frustrating but as the day went on, and she talked thorough her thinking and how this informed her process, I began to understand why she gave that response. It does depend...... on what I have noticed in the scene before me, what I am feeling emotionally, what I am trying to achieve in representing it, what effect do I want, how much abstraction I want, how much detail to retain ........ the possibilities are endless. And that is before I even start the post-processing!

A lot more learning to do be done, but very grateful to Valda for coming down to the South West to lead this inspiring workshop.

I have discovered that in-camera multiple exposures require a good technical knowledge of the settings of the camera to get the required effects. It is also important to know what effects the different blend mode will create, and this will only come with practice. Above all though I need to work out why - do I want to create a mood, tell a story, reflect different aspects of a scene in one image, combine the subject into the landscape, portray both motion and stillness together, be symbolic and metaphorical........ So although it is an experimental and open-ended way of taking photographs, there is also a lot of thought behind it if you want success.

Here are some useful links that I have found if you want to have a play yourselves:

and here is a podcast where you can listen to Valda talking about her photography:

and a video of Doug Chinnery demonstrating Intentional Camera Movement and Multiple Exposures:

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תגובה אחת

Valda Bailey
Valda Bailey
03 בנוב׳ 2023

Thank you for the kind mention. I love the images you have captured with the sun on the buildings and the triangles of light. Dark mode is tricky - you may find it helps to overexpose the first few images in a sequence. You can always make them darker. But if the darks that get laid down initially are too solid, there is nothing more you can do with them. Lovely to meet you - I hope you continue to enjoy the creative challenges of this way of shooting.

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