Ambiguous imagery with Stephen Mason

Homage to Catalonia © Stephen MasonI’m always in awe of photographers who can capture an image that resembles a work of abstract art, revealing the beauty lurking the landscape around us. Stephen Mason has an eye for angles, lighting and colour that make me want to see my surroundings anew, as he must every day.

His mastery might be better understood when you realise he’s been at this for a little over three decades. “I bought my first camera (a Pentax SLR) in 1982 and learned the basics of how to balance exposure, aperture and depth of focus,” he says. “Initially, I just wanted to record holidays and explore Bristol (his home city) in photographs. However, I soon noticed that straightforward shots didn’t fully satisfy me and I began to explore unusual angles or details in what I saw.”

Light Fantastic © Stephen Mason

Light Fantastic © Stephen Mason

The arrival of digital cameras gave Stephen much greater freedom “to explore creatively by taking multiple shots of the same subject and then looking to see which ones worked. Then, using iPhoto software I began my first experiments in ‘developing’ my own photos.”

Eventually Stephen bought a digital SLR, graduated to Apple’s Aperture software and started to take his photography a bit more seriously. “Even so, I use the tools in Aperture very sparingly – mainly to modify contrast and to crop the original image.”

In a world where Instagram seems to taint most photos I see, it’s refreshing to encounter someone who wants only to emphasise the beauty that already exists in the world.

Untitled © Stephen Mason

Stephen seeks to explores a number of themes through his photography, including  form, movement, perspective and ambiguity.

“Many of my photographs explore visual enigmas in our everyday environment,” he says. “They are intentionally ambiguous. In photography, what you see isn’t always what you get. The eye and the camera see differently. I look for a subject that interests me. I then compose the photo according to how I see it but, when I press the shutter, I know that the camera will see it differently. There’s an excitement that arises from the uncertainty about what will result.”

While many artists present 2D images that we must interpret as a 3D vision of reality, Stephen is aiming to do the opposite of this. “By making use of the camera’s limitations I try depict 3D reality as an abstract 2D pattern or at least to leave the image open to either a 3D or a 2D interpretation,” he says.

Frustratingly, for me at least, Stephen’s passion for ambiguity means that “with rare exceptions I deliberately leave my photos untitled so as not to influence how the viewer sees them. Some people want to know ‘what is it?’ Others want not to know. I usually have an info brochure at my exhibitions which gives information about each photo but it has a very clear “spoiler warning” on the cover!”

Stephen often finds himself surprised by the scenes, or corners of scenes, that capture his attention via the camera lens.

“Many times I’ve gone out to photograph this or that, only to find that I’ve just spent half an hour photographing something else. I just try to stay open to getting lost in whatever I find. My own favourite of all my photos is the one I call Long Division (shown below). I love it because it is so simple, so stripped down and bare, so minimal.”

Long Division © Stephen Mason

Long Division © Stephen Mason

Reflections in water are another visual prompt Stephen returns to time and again. “It is the frozen moment that looks so different from what I saw ‘in time’. For mud and sand, it is the exploration of form, light and the ambiguity of scale. I have had people look at my mud/sand photos and ask if it’s a mountain range from an airliner.”

Untitled (No1) © Stephen Mason Remarkably, Stephen is entirely self-taught. “I’ve never had any formal training or even been on a photography course,” Stephen says. “I’ve always wanted to learn things in my own way. I want to explore my way of seeing and I don’t want to be influenced by an establishment’s idea of how a photo ‘should’ be composed or balanced. I discovered my way of seeing through doing it.”

Stephen has been exhibiting his photos for the past four years, and will be showing his work in his own home as part of Art on the Hill – The Windmill Hill and Victoria Park Arts Trail on Saturday and Sunday 4th/5th October 2014 from 12-6pm. Altogether around 90 artists will be exhibiting in 50 venues, with an extensive performance programme in marquees and gazebos across the area.

Find more of Stephen’s work here

Find a midweek #writingprompt inspired by Stephen’s photography here.

Know an artist you’d like to see showcased on Give me a shout at judy(at)

Midweek writing prompt – juxtaposition

nibble fishI love a good juxtaposition in my creative fodder. This week’s #writingprompt draws inspiration from the idea of people doing things you might not expect, from the nuns jumping on a trampoline, to the child physicist to the hairy tattooed man being pampered in a beauty salon.

Who comes to mind? What are they up to? How do they confound stereotypes? And how might that feed into a fantastic short story?

If you write something prompted by this, please let me know by sending an email to Judy(at)socket With your permission, I’d love to share it on

Book review – Re:Imagined

Re Imagined coverIt probably isn’t news that I particularly enjoy work that brings images and text together. In the case of Re: Imagined, co-curated by Robert John and Clodagh O’Brian, images and creative writings have equal footing in an anthology that seems designed as much to be an exhibition as a book.

As one of the curators puts it (I’m guessing Robert, though the introduction isn’t attributed), the book is driven by “the desire to see the world in the unique way we used to when we were kids.”

The collection, we’re told in the intro, came to life via Robert’s marvellous website, “a social art/design project is to re-engage us with the things we see everyday.” Continue reading

How to create outstanding characters

Park on Park Street cr Judy DarleyWith her debut novel Someone Else’s Skin, Sarah Hilary has revealed a skill for creating characters you can really believe in. Here she shares her tip for the craft of inventing people.

Source the initial glimmers

I wait for the voice to come first. I’m with Val McDermid on this: we don’t choose our characters, they choose us. Very occasionally I’ll glimpse something in a character in a TV show, or (more rarely) in real life, which will give me the beginnings of an idea, but more usually it starts with a line of dialogue, or inner monologue.

With Marnie Rome, I wrote her first, then retro-fitted the research and fine-tuning. It was more important that she felt real to the reader than real as a police detective. But I did read a lot of first person CSI-type pieces to get a feel for how she might approach her work.

Someone Else's Skin by Sarah HilaryListen to your character

I don’t consciously devise patterns of speech. It’s character driven, always. Marnie tends to speak quite abruptly and plainly, because she doesn’t have a lot of time or patience for double-speak. But, at the same time, she can be very empathetic, especially to victims. I love writing dialogue, but I tend to do it instinctively; it’s the one part of my craft I’ve never really had to work at.

Get to know all the sides of your character

In my first drafts, Marnie tends to be angrier and tougher. She’s often on the defensive, physically and emotionally. I find I need to dig beneath that angry surface to find the layers of response needed for the reader sees her vulnerability as well as her strength, her compassion as well her determination.

Her traumatic backstory is an important part of who she is, as it drives the narrative arc of the series. Not just what she went through, but how she has coped with it in the past (by burying herself in work) and how she will cope with it in the future (by confronting what happened and what it did to her). It’s a classic rites of passage, in some ways, but it’s complicated because it’s not just Marnie’s journey. It’s Stephen’s, her foster brother’s, too. He’s both the cause of the trauma, and its potential resolution. One way or another, he’s going to lead the pair of them into new territory.

Seek out telling details (such as Marnie’s tattoos)

The tattoos are indelible proof of Marnie’s teenage rebellion, a thing that haunts her throughout the series. Few people have seen the tattoos, which is one of the reasons she acquired them (casual sex is not an option when you have writing all over intimate parts of your body). Stephen has seen the tattoos. Marnie is still learning exactly what that means.

Choose your supporting characters with care

Characters such as Noah, Ed and Stephen each bring out a different side to Marnie. Ed is the one with the hardest task, I think, as he’s trying to help her recover at the same time as respecting her privacy at the same time as being in love with her and wanting to make her happy. That’s a tough, tough gig. Noah is a little in awe of Marnie as his boss, and as an ace DI, but he’s earning her trust, which is good for both of them. Her relationship with Stephen is the most complex one, and it’s the one which will change the most over the course of the series.

In some ways, she’s at her most vulnerable when she’s with Stephen, because he has the power to keep hurting her, by reminding her of what he did and withholding the reason why he did it. Marnie knows she will be hurt, every time she goes to see him. His punishment (long-term incarceration) is her punishment, in that sense.

Likewise, for your periphery characters

For Marnie Rome, these are the women from the refuge, especially Ayana, Hope and Simone. Ed tells Marnie that these women are ‘not her kind of victim’. They ran, and hid. They had to. But Marnie comes to see the strength in the women, different in each one, and I think that helps her to put her own strength (and weakness) into perspective.

Use your settings to explore aspects of your character

In Someone Else’s Skin, the prison and the refuge are both essential for that: enclosed spaces where it’s hard to breathe, and harder to feel safe. It was interesting, also, to put Marnie into Hope’s ‘perfect home’ with its showroom furniture and its shiny surfaces, and to watch her reactions. And Ed’s flat, with its jumble of stuff and its comfy mess. Setting is great. London is an amazing backdrop to the series, and I’m looking forward to taking Marnie into Battersea Power Station in book three.

Relish the luxury of a recurring character

I found that with Marnie Rome, it gave me the great luxury of being able to uncover her secrets slowly. She’s still surprising me, which is great, as it means she’s surprising readers too.

Create compelling, believable characters

Set goals for your characters, and then put obstacles in the way of those goals. See how your characters react, physically and emotionally. Give them at least five senses, and show them experiencing the world through those senses (i.e. not just rely on dialogue and inner monologue; tell us how the world looks, sounds, smells, feels to them). Get right inside their head, and under their skin, so the reader is right there, too. Even the nasty characters. Never show your hand as the author; instead, wrap your readers up in the story and the cast, as if it’s happening to them and/or to people they know and care about. Make them wonder what happens to the characters even after they’ve stopped reading. That’s the holy grail.

Sarah Hilary1About the author

Sarah Hilary lives in Bath with her husband and daughter, where she writes quirky copy for a well-loved travel publisher. She’s also worked as a bookseller, and with the Royal Navy. An award-winning short story writer, Sarah won the Cheshire Prize for Literature in 2012. SOMEONE ELSE’S SKIN is her first novel, published by Headline in the UK, Penguin in the US, and in six other countries worldwide. A second book in the series will be published in 2015. Set in London, the books feature Detective Inspector Marnie Rome, a woman with a tragic past and a unique insight into domestic violence.
NO OTHER DARKNESS, the second Marnie Rome book, will be published in spring 2015. Sarah is currently working on the third and fourth books in the series. Follow Sarah on Twitter at @Sarah_Hilary

Movement in stillness with sculptor Sophie Howard

So Long © Sophie HowardSome sculptors have the power to halt you in your tracks. Like animals poised to pounce, the stillness of their creations suggests coiled strength, waiting to be released. That’s how it is for me with Sophie Howard’s work, where her explorations of human and animal, especially horse, forms, seem paused only for the briefest of moments while your gaze rest upon them.

Nu back detail © Sophie Howard

And yet, Sophie’s early experience of sculpture was more about the mind than physicality, at least from her own point-of-view.

“On my art foundation course I remember sitting and staring despondently at the first sculpture I made, thinking it was so, so bad,” she admits. “To move on from that most negative state I made myself list the shortcomings and imagine how it would be if it was really good. Then I saw a series of objects stretching into the far distance, right out of sight. I think that was it. It’s like they say about History: ‘Just one damn thing after another.’”

Sophie was just ten when she first managed to take what she saw and turn it into art. “I was painting a tree in my bedroom on a piece of paper with poster paints from glass jars,” she says. “The tree was the old imaginary type – like an upturned broom. I looked out of the window, and saw the extraordinary natural structures of the trees in my garden at once. So I made my trees like that. There was an encouraging response from my mother when I showed her, as she crashed about making lunch. Later I kept going back to look at this painted tree thinking there was something good there, and I was on to something, but not sure what or why. I remember the light in the room.”

Standing © Sophie Howard

Light and the ‘seen’ continue to drive Sophie’s work today, but she also seeks out ways to expose the unseen, as she puts it “nuggets of experience, connections. Last night I saw a singer, whose body sang and told the story of her song as much as the sound and words that came from her. We listeners were reached by her and connected up. That is what I want to make right now. The work I do is in finding the language. Sometimes it works, and connects us up – the subject, the viewer and me.”

Sophie finds herself increasingly interested in working with ceramics. “The way a sculptural style can be described is partly about the materials and what they let us do. I’m getting more keenly into ceramics, so that certainly will make my style more identified with the richly endowed clan of the clay. I’ve heard my style described as classic, though it was a surprise to me. If that means that I use form, line, texture, imagery and scale to communicate, I am happy about it. ‘In the style of Sophie Howard’ would be nice.”

Rise detail © Sophie Howard.

Looking at Sophie’s body of work, it’s clear that the potential for movement is an enduring force. “If dance and horse sculptures are my poems or songs, then sculptures of the torso are the single words,” she comments. Horses and the way people connect with them seems to epitomise something deep in us. Natural magic would be a way to say it. I dance tango, so I witness and experience fine physical things with my body, and see and feel the dynamism, subtlety and power of other dancers. Making sculpture, which is static, of something that moves but has such rich form and meaning is what engages me.”

from the Lasses series cr  © Sophie Howard

Sophie is currently embarking on a new venture called Hours. “I’m building a new home and creative space,” she says, then amends: “Well, I’m one of the people commissioning builders and others to build it, not doing it myself.”

Hours is scheduled to open early in 2015. “It will be a place to show art and design, including work that has a positive ethical element. The space will also be available for people to meet, entertain, practice yoga, show a film or inhabit for other purposes. It will be a fine and flexible space with big windows, oak floor, underfloor heating and its own washroom and kitchen. It overlooks Lewins Mead, in central Bristol. We will live upstairs.”

That sounds pretty magical to me.

“For my own work, I’m bringing together some different strands,” Sophie says. “Horses are involved, and a collaboration  with a very special poet and performer. I am not sure what the outcomes will be, but for me it is about ideas that have come from mythology and archaeology, combined with positive psychological power, and how to manifest those things in sculpture. I am discovering that there are surprising and rich ideas about what goes on between people and horses.”

Path © Sophie Howard

As she comments, these ideas are not really new, but rediscovered, she says, explaining that she’s interested in “the nature of the raw relationship between a person and an animal, rather than the functional model of a horse as beast of burden, performer, farm worker…. I have begun a series of sculptures that will include a wider range of possibilities than my horse pieces to date – and some have no horses in at all. So far the first arrivals are some pretty fierce lasses with a range of wild hair dos, and some very proud looking fat ponies. It’s surprised me how the figures have leapt to life.”

Find Sophie at The photographs of the sculptures shown in this post were all taken by Jen Lo.

Know an artist you’d like to see showcased on Give me a shout at judy(at)

Midweek writing prompt – the end of summer

Tunisia cr JudyDarleyAs we reach the official end of the UK summer, here’s a dark holiday #writingprompt for you.

A couple are staying in a luxury hotel in Tunisia. Early one morning, the woman, or the man (or perhaps they’re a same sex couple – it’s your choice) wakes before their lover and meanders outside for a wander. But they’ve only just set foot on the tile path that leads to the private beach when they hear a hubbub break out just out of sight ahead.

Do they dare investigate? What do they find themselves caught up in? How is the situation resolved? And how does this impact on the half of the couple still in bed?

If you write something prompted by this, please let me know by sending an email to Judy(at)socket With your permission, I’d love to publish it on

Writing fuel courtesy of Barú

BaruI feel like I’m about to embark on a snack review by Leonard of Community fame.

Hmm. Let’s Potato Chips. They’re a buy.

I’m a natural grazer, especially when I’m writing, particularly if I’m tackling a particularly challenging feature or story. This week I discover BARÚ’s Belgian chocolate delights, including Belgian chocolate-coated marshmallow clouds that provided just the right blend of luxury and whimsy to keep me going. According to the literature that arrived with them, the signature marshmallows “are made using a carefully developed recipe that includes real honey and ground vanilla pods to create a soft, light, melt-in-the-mouth experience.”

I can agree with that.

Baru sea salt caramel marshmallowMy favourites ‘clouds’ were the ones topped with a blob of buttery sweet sea salt caramel, but even these couldn’t compete with the ‘Dreamy Hippos’ – so cute, and bitable! They’re crammed with fruity flavoured caramel that nudges the poshness up a notch, and, best of all, each box contains three individually wrapped treats, so even if you generously let your partner gobble one, you’ll have a spare for the next day, or perhaps the next five minutes.

I love the packaging too. The artwork looks like it could have been inspired by a particularly exquisite children’s book. I wonder what the hippos are daydreaming about.

Baru hippos

In the words of Community’s Leonard, “they’re a buy.”

Find BARÚ’s chocolate-coated marshmallows and caramel-crammed hippos at Waitrose, Harvey Nichols, Wholefoods and independent retailers from £2.99 per box.