I first struck up the practice of taking photographs regularly during the summer of 2006. I was just back from seven intense weeks in Seattle, USA, where I’d spent six of them at the Clarion West writers’ workshop, locked up in a sorority house with seventeen other writers, producing a short story a week as well as critiquing the work of my companions-in-arms.
My initial reaction when I returned home was a numb inability to write, coupled with a desperate sadness at losing a supportive learning environment. I wasn’t surprised by either of these feelings, because it’s a common side-effect of attending Clarion West, and we’d been warned it might happen.
I still felt the urge for a creative outlet, but for a time words would not come. So, I took up my camera and started taking photographs in earnest, and I also returned to drawing, something I’ve enjoyed since I was a child.
Working on this different set of creative muscles gave my writing muscle the chance to recover from exhaustion, and eventually I could exercise it again. Now, photography inspires my writing while simultaneously satisfying a different creative compulsion.
August in Ireland is when mushrooms begin to emerge (although it varies year from year depending on the weather conditions). I love macro photography, so I started focusing on these incredible life forms as photographic subjects.
Bringing a camera on my walks with my dog has added an extra dimension to my daily foray into the woods: I’m always searching for an image to frame.
When looking for mushrooms to photograph, I generally find that the difficulty is spotting the first one. Then it is as if the veil has been pulled from your sight, and suddenly you see them everywhere.
After years of taking photos of mushrooms in my local area I have a virtual map in my head of where they tend to colonise. Although, they are always surprising me by cropping up in a new location.
One of my favourite varieties is the Shaggy Ink Cap. Last year this duo sprouted across the road from my house. I noticed them as I was driving home, and pulled over the car quickly. I hopped out – leaving my dog perplexed in the back seat – and snapped a couple of pictures quickly.
A lot of the time you are taking images under the shade of a canopy of leaves and shrubs, and up close to the rich humus mushrooms love, which presents the challenge of shooting photographs in low-light conditions. And we are not always blessed with sunlight during what’s optimistically called summer in Ireland.
I don’t pack a lot of equipment with me. I don’t own a DSLR for instance. I’ve always opted for a portable camera I could slip into a bag or a pocket, and pull out quickly when I needed it.
These days I take a lot of my photographs with my mobile phone camera, as it’s on me all the time. ‘The camera you carry is the camera you use’, is a version of a mantra you hear often among photographers.
Mushrooms appear quickly and can disappear just as fast. The main axiom I follow is: ‘Take the shot when you see it’. You may not have the opportunity again.
It turns out to be a good philosophy for life too.
Maura McHugh lives in Galway, Ireland, and writes comic books and prose. Her latest collection is Twisted Fairy Tales, which is available to buy in the USA.