Letter to Marthinus

Hi Marthinus:

Thanks for your interest in my newsletter. I send one out from time to time. Feel free to check out my blog, which has lots of stuff.

mooi bly


Hi Tony

I met you in South Africa at the one evening meeting we had at the Helderberg Photography club (where you showed the AV’s).

I remember reading some time ago something you posted on picture taking on a blog. You mentioned that taking a picture in Africa where a child’s face screams for care is an easy way to portray emotion and feeling with a photograph, whereas it is very difficult to take a shot of an absolutely beautiful nature landscape and actually really make it speak with emotion and feeling (the reason I want to photograph). So in other word, it is easy to portray emotion with sad pictures and much more difficult with beautiful scenery shots. This is now if I understood you correctly, did I? (was some time ago that I read it). I have also only read a couple of items on your blog, so maybe you discussed this already

My question is, what feelings do you want to portray? I always ask myself what was I feeling when I took the shot? And I want that feeling to touch as deep as possible. Maybe this is not a question, more just I want to hear what you think about it.

What do you feel when you take those amazing nature shots? Maybe I need to understand beauty better, and not just pain. Many times I struggle to portray feeling with everyday things. What do I need to look for?

I actually meant this as a comment on the blog where you challenge to hear what everybody thinks about your blog, but I don’t think it is so applicable anymore. Anyway, would like to hear what you think. And if you discuss things like this on your blog, I’ll love to read everyday!

Kind regards

Marthinus Retief

Hi Marthinus:

Thank you so much for writing to me. I do remember you and I really appreciate hearing from somebody in South Africa.

I suspect, if you read through my Blog posts, you’ll find the answer to some of your questions. For my part that is definitely a case of trying to make
pictures so beautiful that they evoke emotion in the heart of the viewer. I think when you do this, you are treading a fine line between making an original statement and cliché. I think it’s fantastic that you’re seeking to evoke an emotion in the heart of the viewer. I see too many pictures where the photographer is following a formula developed by somebody else. I think its important to inject yourself into your images. Naturally, that means that you have to have some
idea of who you are and what you’re trying to say. And that isn’t easy.

As for what I feel when I’m photographing, sometimes it’s joy, sometimes it’s fear, sometimes it’s pure terror. But at least I’m feeling something! I think to, that an order for us to make the best pictures we can, we have to be prepared to step beyond our comfort zone, be prepared to take risks, and definitely be prepared to cut our own track through the Savannah, rather than following a tried-and-true path. If we follow another people’s footsteps we can only ever walk behind them. And be derivative.

Anyway, thanks for staying with my Blog. I have been away over Christmas, spending time with my family, so the posts haven’t been quite as frequent as I would have liked. I’m getting back into it now, so there should be some more making-of-a-photograph posts in the near future.
I cherish a dream of one-day getting back to South Africa. What is really interesting is when my people ask me how I found the country. Almost inevitably they have this perception that it is dark and dangerous and not for the fainthearted! What’s it like they ask? Well, I reply, it is probably the most fascinating country I’ve ever visited. It’s a big, scary, and incredibly beautiful! The people are absolutely fantastic and the landscape is unbelievably beautiful! But it is rather like the Wild West. Seeing security guards outside banks armed with submachine guns, seeing Hijack hot spot signs outside Witbank, and gun check-in counters at airports comes as a bit of a shock to a Kiwi! Did you feel threatened they ask? No, I reply, I really felt like I’d come home.
Please keep writing-it’s lovely to hear from you!
Best wishes

Tony Bridge

From: Marthinus Retief []
Sent: Thursday, 11 January 2007 2:29 a.m.
To: Tony Bridge
Subject: RE: Hi there

Hi Tony, I really appreciate your email and understand it. Your statement about what you feel and that you at least feel something is a big thing for me. I normally don’t give myself time to feel and then take 30 shots and did not feel a thing. My wife says; think 10 times, shoot once. I think, feel 10 times, think, shoot. I have to feel something if you want your viewer to feel something. I Got a nice quote by Adams:

“A great photograph is one that fully expresses what one feels, in the deepest sense, about what is being photographed, and is, thereby, a true manifestation of what one feels about life in its entirety…”

Which gets to what you mentioned about having some idea of who you are and what you are trying to say, which can be a lot. I have to work at this.

The other thing is what you mention about following in another persons footsteps. I have to work at this as well.

Very glad that you appreciate my country so much and it is actually one of the best descriptions I’ve heard about SA for a long time. Would love to see you hear again!

Kind Regards


From: Tony Bridge []
Sent: 11 January 2007 01:15 AM
To: ‘Marthinus Retief’
Subject: RE: Hi there

Hi Marthinus:

I have to say I’m really enjoying this e-mail conversation. So often I put it out there and from the response I received it is clear that the person I’m talking to either does not get what I’m trying to say or does not want to get it. When I meet the odd person who is obviously receptive to what I’m trying to say, it just encourages me to keep going!

Teaching adults is quite a different thing to teaching teenagers. So often the adults I get to teach come along to my classes wanting me to teach them how to use their equipment, because they think that will make them a better photographer. They haven’t really taken the time to sit down and think what they understand by the term “be a better photographer “. Some of them are firmly wedded to the idea that better equipment and a more in-depth understanding of the technology involved and photography will lead to better photographs (more often than not these people are male). Others have been in the camera club movement so long that they have lost any chance of developing their own individuality. They are so poisoned by the grading system or the comments of judges on work have submitted that they can’t see past that. It is the rare few who are able to see beyond what they’re doing, or rather what they’ve been told they should be doing, and ahead of the personal strength to strike out on their own. To the best to my knowledge very few photographers of significance have ever gained their own individuality through camera club competitions. One of the nice things I enjoyed about my evening at Helderberg was to see the range, breadth, and originality of the work. Helderberg is a very unique club. Meeting the members makes it plainly obvious why this is so: you are all a bunch of individuals each with your own way of seeing things. Freeman said to me that I would find Helderberg quite different that they are the summa cum laude of the photographic clubs in South Africa. Actually this is a club that stands head and shoulders above any club I’ve ever had much to do with..

I think that you are obviously on the right track. Consideration of self is a pre-requisite to making pictures which are unique, creative (read: reflect the personality of the individual photographer) and ultimately satisfying to the photographer. So how do you go about considering where you are and what you stand for? Well, I have an exercise you can do, if you’re up for it. Buy yourself an A4 visual diary and start writing down your thoughts about photography. When I was an art teacher, this was something that all arts students were required to do. I guess it’s the equivalent of the artist’s sketchbook, where process is brought out from inside the artist and placed on the page. How does a photographer do this? Here are some ways:

1. Carry it with you at all times. When you get an idea about a photograph, or see a photograph that you like or even have a thought about life, the universe and everything, write it down. Let whatever is in your head come out on paper. That might include recipes, bus tickets, songs reviewed or jokes you want to share. Sketch ideas for photographs; you don’t have to produce beautiful work, just something that makes sense to you. One of the great fallacies about being an artist is that you have to be able to draw. Not true. Accurate representation of what you see isn’t in fact necessary, and you might be amazed at the number of artists whose drawing skills are minimal to say the least.

2. Take the time to reflect on what you’re writing down. Print out some of your best images and stick them in the visual diary. Better still, printout some of your West amateurs and stick them in to a visual diary. Now. Take the time to look at them think about them and write them down note the technical issues, note the compositional issues, looking for both successful and (in your mind-this is important) unsuccessful factors as well. Think about how you felt when you made the photograph and write this down. Reflect often on what you’ve written, and write down what you feel when you reflect. This is important!

3. When you get an idea for a body of work, or in our marriage, write that down to. It may be years before you actually use that idea but it’s always there, concrete and outs and the open. Writing your ideas thoughts and feelings down somehow makes them concrete, patterns and pins them to the universe in a form that you can pick up later. Think of them as psychological stickies.

It sounds as if you have a wonderful wife, and from what you have said, it is obvious that she is perceptive, wise, and knows you well! I would listen to her; she obviously has much to offer you.

Another small exercise that I often give to students seeking direction the work is to say this; imagine being at your own funeral. There you are, lying in your coffin with your grieving relatives filing past. On the lid of your casket are seven photographs you’ve made in your lifetime. They are your seven best pictures, and from looking at them, your relatives will be able to reflect on what excited you, what interested you, and more importantly, the sort of person you were. Now use your imagination and try and see those pictures. What are they of? Where did you take them? What were you feeling at the time? What did you want to say (this one is much harder)? Are they colour or black and white? What do you care about? What is important to you? Answers to these questions are all grist to your mill..

Most importantly, write them down.

Now if I may talk about the following in others’ footsteps thing. Every artist does it. If three arts student learns to look at the works of the Masters, to understand what they were on about, and to take from their work those things of importance. It is called the artist’s model. There’s nothing wrong with it; all the great artists have done it. Claude Monet studied the work of great painters; Picasso looked to African art for his ideas, and David Hockney sought of his inspiration from Picasso. Picasso and Hockney are, as artists, distinctly different in both their philosophies and their approach, yet there is a clear link between the two of them. The trick here is to take from your role models what you need (it may be technical, conceptual, or process-oriented), absorbent through emulation, then filter it through your own experience, understanding, and philosophy on life. Do this last thing and you cannot help making work that is unique. Where you can come unstuck is in the emulation process. If all you do is copy what the greats have done then you will never move on. Filtration through yourself is the most important and critical phase.

Again, you need the strength of character, the bloody mindedness if necessary and a certain dogged determination to do it. A good friend and successful artist, Peter Caley, maintains that it takes around 20 years to mature as an artist. If you look at the biographies of the great artists, it is amazing how many of them really only got going from the age of 50 onwards. Ignore the prodigies like Manet, Picasso and Hockney. Munch, Minor White and Atget all really kicked into gear in later life. I cannot help feeling that in many cases, life experience is the spice you need to add distinctive flavour to your work. Of course that means knowing what that spices, that means reflecting on both who you are and where you have been (the one leads to the other) and then consciously using it to inform your own work.

And that means using a visual diary.

Marthinus, I hope this is of some use to you. As I write this, it occurs to me this is something everybody reading my Blog should see. I would very much like, with your permission, to be able to publish it as an ongoing discussion on my Blog. Before I do that have ever I need your permission to include both your statements and questions, so that people can follow our conversation and provide their own take on it through the comments. If you’re strong enough for this, please e-mail me back and I’ll get it underway. What I would really like is for you to supply one or two of your own pictures. I need them sized to about 600 pixels along the long side, at 96. dpi, and in sRGB colour space. Pick one or two photographs are to be happy to share with the planet.

Lovely to hear from you. I hope this was somehow. Let’s keep this conversation going.


Tony Bridge

Hi Tony

Thanks for the practical guidance to keep a visual diary. Already started. You have an excellent way to explain things, I can actually understand! Also you don’t leave it at saying what is the thing to do, but explains how and why.

I think the most difficult thing you could ask me to do is to choose one or two of my images and sent them to the planet. It is not that I have thousands to choose from, but I tend to have difficulty to choose (in everything in life). Normally I’m afraid to choose one image and then on the end I don’t. Want to start with a bang, most of the time can’t and then I do nothing. But I know I have to start anywhere in order to progress to somewhere I want to be. So here are two images:

the-sea.jpgTitle: The sea. When I took this image it reminded me of a movie I saw by Guiseppe Tornatore, called “Legend of 1900”. If you haven’t seen it, please do so. To quote a sentence from the movie where a Frenchmen explains what incident changed his take on life. He was walking up a hill and for the first time he saw the ocean. He explains that he heard the voice of the sea: “The voice of the sea, it is like a shout, big and strong, screaming and screaming, and the thing it was screaming was: Life is immense, can you understand that, life is immense.” It is as if these “trumpets” are screaming the same, a silent scream, the person in the photo does not hear it, but the birds do. This is almost a life statement for me: “Life is immense”.

empty.jpgTitle: Empty. I was actually doing photographs for a wedding and the couple decided to have their shots taken at this old farm. I had a look at the area and there was enough potential. On the day, a warm day in summer, that we did the photographs, I stumbled upon this cement chair. It is a smaller version of what the chair normally looks like, a very standard 70’s outside chair for people in South Africa. It was standing next to an abandoned green swimming pool and the whole area were overgrown and full of old leafs as it gathered over the years with no maintenance. I sent the couple to a spot I knew and made a couple of images. Tried it at a third from left, lower angle etc. but the best one was this one, the way I saw it first. Just there, and empty. Reason being, when I saw it as I walked around the wall it showed me how I actually felt inside that day an actually the last couple of months that time. It actually gave me shivers and I knew I had to photograph it, just the way I saw it.

Not sure if you asked for explanations for these. Hope you can do something with these, I can also send others. I know these won’t do very well at club competitions!

Hope to hear from you soon.

Baie dankie



  1. Hi Marthinus and Tony. What a great conversation and thank you for sharing it (and your images and emotions) with the planet!

    Tony – Wow – That is the best explanation I have seen and that you have given for the creation of a visual diary. You have been trying to get me to do this for a few years now! And it is something that one will have to make time for – one could call this “me time” I suppose. It isn’t the creating of the photo as you say – it is the why and what you feel – and write it down – Sounds like a good 2007 project to me! But where to start when one is lost for “really meaningful words’!?

    The other thing was that I saw Harriet’s exhibition in Christchurch this week. Awesome! Certainly she is a young photographer to watch out for as you have said in the past. She has used that visual diary to great effect and shown it in her exhibition.

    Best wishes to you both

    Comment by Barbara — January 18, 2007 @ 8:04 pm

  2. Tony: You seem to have a pretty good summing up here of things you’ve either said or written about at various times. It’s good to have it all in one place. It’s sent me searching for my visual diary, too, not only so I can begin using it again, but to look over things I wrote about but which came to nothing. I hadn’t thought that they might be useful at some later time – just saw them as ideas that didn’t seem to work, or ended up being irrelevant to what I was trying to do. I know that when I did keep the diary regularly it was a great help. Putting thoughts into written words – at least for me – always helps clarify them and often generates new ideas. You’ve suggested a much wider use of the diary, too, whereas I had limited it to photography only. I like the idea of “psychological stickies”. That’s a great expression.

    Can you expand a bit on “treading a fine line between making an original statement and cliché”? I think I understand what you mean, but I was surprised to see you refer to it as “a fine line”. Far from a fine line, there seems to me to be a yawning gulf between, say, your Wairua exhibition images and cliché. Is it partly to do with the quality of the emotion? That felt by the photographer as the image is made, as well as that generated in the viewer? (For example, a deep heart-felt one as opposed to a warm fuzzy, perhaps?) Producing something with a different (metaphorical) perspective, although the subject matter may be similar, is part of it, too, I guess.

    It’s great that you and Marthinus have put this out here for all of us. Thanks to you both. I hope it continues.

    Comment by Peregrina — January 30, 2007 @ 11:18 am

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