Sunday, 23 October 2016

A Stranger Comes To Town (On Landscape)

I have published another piece in the online journal On Landscape, "A Stranger Comes To Town". It's pretty much identical with what follows, but please do click through and give the journal some traffic: it's a worthy enterprise with some interesting contributions from dedicated landscape enthusiasts. To see all of everything you'll need to sign up for a paid subscription, but a lot of the articles (like mine) are "free to view", provided you take up a free subscription. I was particularly pleased to make contact with cartoonist Tom Gauld, whose work I admire, in order to get permission to use his strip "The Hills" in my article.

A Stranger Comes To Town

Postcard from Powys: Llynheilyn Lake, March 2016

Someone, it may have been Tolstoy, once claimed that there are really only two stories: "A Person Goes On A Journey", and "A Stranger Comes To Town". This was obviously intended to be provocative, but there is a debatable truth in there, and it strikes me that a similarly reductive provocation might be applied to landscape photography.

A couple of years ago I had an exhibition in Innsbruck, Austria, and on the back of it was invited to do a ten-day residency in the city. I was hardly going to say no, but I did have some serious misgivings. I had last visited Innsbruck as a teenager, hitchhiking in Europe in summer 1972. Forty-two years is a long time between visits, and although mountains are not much subject to change, cities and their inhabitants most certainly are. Not to worry, my host said, we want to see what we look like through your eyes. A stranger comes to town...

Postcard from Powys: Evening Snow at Hiraeth, April 2012

I suppose what troubled me was that virtually all of my previous photography had come from the perspective of a thorough, repetitive exploration of a well-defined "local" territory, and I had come to see this largely self-imposed constraint as a virtue. Sure, some talented stranger could parachute into "my" patch and walk away with some impressive work, but they could never really engage with the true spirit of place, would never see beyond the obvious clichés that I had stopped making years ago. Surely, the story "A Stranger Comes To Town" has to be told from the perspective of the locals, and not that of the stranger? Otherwise, it's "A Person Goes On A Journey", isn't it?

Others, naturally, see their own story very differently. Landscape photography for them is precisely about the stimulus of travel to new locations, the further away and the more exotic the better. Why photograph Hertford, Hereford or Hampshire, where 'urricanes 'ardly ever 'appen, when you could be in Oklahoma or the South Pacific, or indeed some mountainous place where the hills are rumoured to be alive with the sound of music? And who would disagree that, if you are chasing the "wow" factor, then the story you are telling probably does need to be some version of "A Person Goes On A Journey"? Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore...

Postcard from Powys: Fields near Dolau, April 2012

Postcard from Powys: Valley Fog at Dawn, April 2013

Obviously, one expects and accepts that on holiday – off-turf and off-duty – one's photographs are souvenir snaps, self-made postcards. But this divergence becomes a dilemma for me in my own work, when it comes to photographing in Wales.  My partner and I have been visiting the Welsh Marches every year, now, for over 35 years; ever since, as impoverished students, we started taking advantage of her parents' holiday cottage near Presteigne. I've taken a lot of photographs there. But we're still really just fleeting visitors, holidaymakers returning for a week or two of escape, and we know a very different place to that experienced by the year-round residents. We notice the physical, economic and social changes, but have played no part in bringing them about, and do not have to live with their consequences.

And changes there have been, over those four decades. Sadly, these have often not been for the better. In many ways, the Welsh Borders are a depressed area, trying to cope with the decline in hill-farming as a way of life, a steady loss of population and employment prospects, and a disappointing inflow of income from tourism. It seems not enough strangers are coming to town, and too many young people are going on a journey. Beautiful it may be, with some of the most alluring hill-country to be found anywhere, but the region lacks obvious centres of attraction and offers too few opportunities for lucrative "outdoor leisure pursuits".  Radnor's hills will never rival the Lake District.

Postcard from Powys: Hailstorm over Llandegley Rocks, March 2016

I have often wondered what it must be like to grow up surrounded by all this useless beauty, with little or no prospect of a job, and to long for the bright lights, diversions and opportunities of city life. There isn't even a bus service worth the name. It's clear that very few locals who are not engaged in farming ever venture into the hills. Indeed, a good many of the "locals" are not local at all: they are retirees from the Midlands, local government employees, New Agers, artists and, increasingly, unemployed youngsters from other parts of Wales surviving on benefits in the surplus hotel accommodation in faded Edwardian spa towns like Llandrindod Wells. There is even a small but significant population of Latin American immigrants, a sort of inversion of the fabled Welsh-speaking community that once settled in Patagonia.

But these incomers do nonetheless live there. Talking one night this Easter to the landlord of a pub who had taken over the premises just 18 months ago, having moved into Wales from Surrey, I had the unsettling revelation that in actual elapsed time he had already spent longer in the area than I had; seventy-five continuous weeks versus my sixty or so spread over thirty-five years. He might not yet have a clue about the local history or geography, and may never know very much about where he has fetched up – running a pub is not a job for anyone who values their leisure time – but he already has a greater stake in the local community than I will ever have. Does that also mean that the glorious ridge rising above and behind his pub, which I visit every year, and which he may never find the time to climb, is more "his" than "mine"?

Postcard from Powys: Bright Wet Dawn near Dolau, April 2011

No, of course it doesn't. But the fact remains that Powys is no more "my" turf than Portugal or the Pyrenees; I am a stranger in town, making a regular stop-off from this other journey I'm making. For example, after all these years, I notice I have virtually no photographs of the valley landscape, of the towns, villages, industrial estates and edge-of-town hypermarkets where people live and work; yet I have a rich backfile of photographs of those lovely, deserted hills. They do photograph so well, those hills, and fit so easily into a story I know how to tell, not least because I've seen so many other photographers telling it about other lovely, deserted places. Which may be no more than to say that I am not able to engage with the true spirit of place, or see past the obvious clichés, like that imaginary talented stranger parachuted into what is my own turf. Or, to get really reductive, that what I have accumulated is 35 year's worth of holiday snaps and postcards.

Or perhaps a hill is a hill is a hill, a beautiful backdrop to any story we choose, that belongs to everyone and no-one, but which also has its own mysterious story to tell, unfolding on a narrative timescale that is measured not in weeks, but in geological time. To the hills, we are all strangers, just passing through.

"The Hills", cartoon by Tom Gauld, used by permission

Friday, 21 October 2016


I thought this would happen. Or, more accurately, I hoped it might. Tinkering around with monochrome after such a long engagement with colour photography has turned out to be a lot of fun and – like viewing a scene through a strong red or yellow filter, if you can remember doing that – it has brought out certain qualities and connections in my backfiles that I had either overlooked or failed to appreciate before. In fact – and you probably won't be amazed to read this – a substantial, coherent, book-sized collection of images is emerging, this time around the theme of visiting museums. What, another one? For now, let's call it "museology".

This is hardly an original topic, I know. A very important body of work in my own development as a photographer was Gathering Light, an exhibition by Richard Ross in our own quirky campus art-space, the John Hansard Gallery, which was published by the gallery as a splendid book in 2004. Ross had previously published a book about museum displays, Museology (Aperture, 1989), and developed a compelling way of using the interrupted and refracted light that penetrates into institutional spaces, and finding those ironic juxtapositions that happen where unintended clutter surrounds the intended display. He has subsequently moved on to a very different kind of socially-aware documentary photography, but I remain a fan of this older work. Rosamond Wolff Purcell is the other influence to mention: her published collaborations with Stephen Jay Gould are well worth getting hold of, especially Finders, Keepers (1992), a book about early collectors of natural history. In contrast to Ross, she is unrivalled in the business of constructing a compelling image out of the museum objects themselves. It helps that she has a taste for the bizarre and the grotesque; few people seem to have been drawn, like her, to photograph the transparency and luminosity of preserved, deformed foetuses, for example.

Both of these photographers work with colour; Purcell, particularly, is fastidious in her signature use of light, colour, texture, and composition. Perversely, I have only come to see virtue in my own work in this area by draining out the colour and bumping up the granularity a bit. There is quite a lot of it to consider, too: I have visited and photographed in many museums over the years. I was aware of that already, obviously, but it had never before struck me as a useful thematic connection in and of itself. A lot of the work from my Innsbruck residency, for example, seemed irrelevant to my purposes then, but when transmuted into monochrome and put into the context of other, similar work, it has gained in significance and impact. Similarly with visits to Florence, Lisbon, Amsterdam, Bordeaux, San Sebastian, London, Oxford, Brighton... I may have little to say about the urban realities of those unfamiliar cities, fleetingly visited, but their museums and galleries may be seen as constituting a single, multi-faceted, virtual world, one which happens to be distributed around the globe, but in which I am always on home ground.

Suddenly, I find I have the urge to visit the Natural History Museum in London, something I haven't done for many years. As a "civilian", that is: I used regularly to attend meetings there, behind the scenes, to discuss library automation and related matters in the rather august surroundings of their library and print room. But I don't think I've had a proper look around the collections since taking my son to see the show of animatronic dinosaurs about 15 years ago. I'm prepared for disappointment, though: I'm fully expecting that taxidermy and vitrine displays will have yielded yet more ground to electronica and interactive "interpretation" for school parties.

And it's looking like 2017 may be a year of two calendars...

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Leonard COHEN??

While we're in lazy mode and reposting old posts, I thought I'd compile a similar two-fer from even longer ago, that also considers what one of the great singer-songwriters has done for ME lately. This pair address that other contender for the throne, Leonard Cohen.

Dylan himself rates Cohen very highly, placing him at Number One, in fact. Though at the same time placing himself at Number Zero, which probably tells you everything you need to know about Bob Dylan, that big tease.

I suppose some cut'n'pasted vintage thoughts on the true Number One / Number Zero singer-songwriter should follow in due course. She can paint, too, unlike some Nobel laureates I could mention. And I don't mean Günter Grass, who is a brilliant artist (those memorable book cover illustrations? All his).

Anyway, here we go: two more blasts from the past:

Hallelu-You, or, Look What They Done To My Song, Ma (15 December 2008)

Once, there was this great song by Leonard Cohen. Like a lot of Leonard Cohen songs, it was slightly bitter, slightly angry, but with a huge reserve of irony and resignation in its tank. A quasi-religious song composed by a Jewish Zen monk ladies' man, with an eye for the rip in a famous blue overcoat. My kind of guy.

I first started listening to Leonard Cohen around 1969 on a reel-to-reel tape copy of Songs From A Room and Songs of Leonard Cohen that a friend made for me, and it became a secret vice. It was OK to listen to Joni Mitchell (boys had no idea about Mitchell, and girls were simply delighted that you did) but everyone knew Leonard Cohen was strictly for depressive freaks. Friends would pull his albums out of your box with a whoop of surprise ("Leonard COHEN??"). It's only since other singers have started covering his songs that people have retrospectively added Cohen to the ever-growing list of music they "always" used to listen to (usually the same liars who despised Motown or Atlantic Soul or Reggae at the time, but now claim always to have loved it).

But back to this song. You know the one I mean. It has the clever but tongue-in-cheek rhymes, more than a hint of sexual humiliation, and a magnificent sense of the redemptive value of staying true to your song, even while worshipping something or someone who shows no reciprocity, and whose chief pleasure and aim is to steal your strength and render you powerless. It's quite an adult song, to say the least.

I believe there are over 170 cover versions of Hallelujah. My personal favourite is the one by K.D. Lang, though I can't say I've heard them all. You just know she knows what the song is about. But now... Good grief, now it's going to be a Christmas Number One, as sung by an X Factor contestant. Soon everyone will know this song. Holy shit: will it join that relentless Christmas medley played in supermarkets? Will the ladlefuls of syrup drown the song's bile? Or will the lyrics insinuate themselves and subvert the show-stopper treatment? I fear not: the chorus makes it sound like a hymn, and the biblical references reinforce that impression. It may only be a matter of time before the song's content becomes its own fate.  Tied to a kitchen chair while some warbling choirboy over-enunciates those words originally groaned by Leonard Cohen's world-weary baritone.

Or maybe not: the clever rhymes may yet save it. You can't sing "do you" or "to you" and expect them to rhyme with "hallelujah" – it can't be done, it's got to be "do ya" and "to ya," and that will always have an undermining cutting edge, will resist the attempt to sentimentalise the song or make it polite and proper. There is hope. Hallelujah!

I'm Your Fan (20 June 2009)

Longer-serving readers of this blog may recall the post I wrote back in December 2008 about Leonard Cohen's song "Hallelujah" (Hallelu-You, or, Look What They Done To My Song, Ma). In it, I proposed that the song inoculated itself against appropriation because of the way the rhyme with "hallelujah" insisted on "do ya," "to ya," "outdrew ya," rather than "do you," "to you," etc. I thought it was a subtle but telling argument, and I admit I was rather pleased with myself.

Well, wouldn't you know? Last night the BBC4 TV channel had a bit of a Leonard Cohen night, and showed several bits of Cohen-iana, including Leonard Cohen Live in London – a 17 July 2008 gig at the O2 Arena (sorry, it'll always be the Millennium Dome to me) from his recent, pension-plan restoration world tour. It was really very good, even though I was continually struck by how much the elderly Cohen has started to resemble not so much a ladies' man as a raffish cousin of William Burroughs (the hat may have had something to do with it). "Suzanne" and "Bird On The Wire" were predictably moving, and I was impressed all over again by the prescience of "First We Take Manhattan." Is it really 21 years old?

But the thing was, when it came to "Hallelujah," he crouched forward and, grinning at the front rows, sang "But you don't really care for music, do you?" Not "do ya" but "do you." I was amazed. No doubt every other fan was stunned, too. All the way through, too. Every verse. No accident; absolutely intentional. Well!

It's almost as if he knew what I was going to write just four months later, and decided to have a little fun. Well, thanks a lot, Leonard.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

Who, Where?

OK, that's enough of that, I've put the restrictions back on comments. You wouldn't believe some of the stuff that I've had to mark as "spam" in the last week. Unless, of course, it was you that sent it, which is highly unlikely.

It's been an interesting exercise. Unless there are still some extremely shy (or deeply sinister) lurkers out there, your responses have confirmed – rather to my surprise – that the stats delivered by Google Analytics actually seem pretty reliable. It seems I have a regular core of around 50 visitors, which very occasionally swells to 200-300, but never more. I'm still unclear how far the use of a service like Feedly (which quite a few of you do use) obscures your presence from Analytics, but I suspect not much. It's far from a large audience – I use several email lists which are larger  – but it is what it is. I wish there were more of you but, as my mother used to say, if wishes were horses then beggars would ride.

I have been impressed by how many of you chose not to be anonymous, and was encouraged by the kind and occasionally effusive words you chose to add beyond "regular reader". There were a significant number of such testimonials from regular readers who have been following this blog for many years and yet whose names were completely new to me. It was also a pleasant surprise to hear from some people I thought had drifted away long ago.

But perhaps the most impressive thing is the geographic scatter. Google Analytics can analyse users by location down to city level; here are the top 40 locations for the preceding 30 days (out of a total of 236): I presume most of my "regulars" figure in there somewhere. I've alphabetized the list to avoid creating a league table:
Auburn, Alabama USA
Bakewell, Derbyshire UK
Basingstoke, Hampshire UK
Bellingham, Washington USA
Clifton, New Jersey USA
Crawley, West Sussex UK
Colorado Springs, Colorado USA
Coventry, West Midlands UK
Derry / Londonderry, N. Ireland UK
Dublin, Ireland
Ecublens, Switzerland
Edmonton, Alberta Canada
Essen, Germany
Fort Lauderdale, Florida USA
Geneva, Switzerland
Halmstad, Sweden
Helsinki, Finland
Innsbruck, Austria
Lausanne, Switzerland
Leeds, W. Yorkshire UK
London, UK
Ludlow, Shropshire UK
Lund, Sweden
Manchester, UK
Montclair, New Jersey USA
Montreal, Canada
New York, New York USA
Newcastle, Tyne & Wear UK
Oswestry, Shropshire UK
Parkville, Pennsylvania USA
Pasadena, California USA
Portsmouth, Hampshire UK
San Martin de los Andes, Argentina
Scarborough, N. Yorkshire UK
Seattle, Washington USA
Southampton, Hampshire UK
Sydney, Australia
Toulouse, France
Trier, Germany
Tucson, Arizona USA
Readers from those locations have clocked in at least 10 times in the last month, and many more than that in the more populous locations (e.g. London). Go just a little lower in the list, and locations in India, South Africa, and Mexico start to figure. Obviously, I have no way of knowing who you are, which is why I asked in the first place!

My conclusion is that this is still worth doing, but perhaps at a lower frequency. It is, after all, a useful exercise in itself, and one which I recommend to anyone, to get your thoughts in order, put them into suitable words, and then – crucially – make them public. If you've never tried it, you'd be amazed how radically you will revise some, if not all, of your idiotic opinions when you know 50 other people are definitely going to be reading them. And, in the case of far too few, commenting on them.

My sincere thanks to everyone who responded. Now, that's enough of this meta-stuff; let's get back to business as usual.

Thursday, 13 October 2016


In view of today's leading headline, I have been enjoined by my loyal readership to do something unprecedented: that is, republish two posts from a few years back. Never one to resist the easy route, I'm amazed I haven't thought of doing this before.

Me and Bob Dylan (24 May 2011)

The media are all over Bob Dylan this week, for obvious reasons. But, in case you haven't been paying attention, he turns 70 today. Seventy! He's only gone and won the Nobel Prize for Harmonica!

And in case you really haven't been paying attention, Bob Dylan is a highly-rated but controversial popular music artist, a self-described "song and dance man", who emerged in the New York folk scene in the early 1960s, and came to rapid prominence, partly on the coattails of the Civil Rights movement, and partly due to his uncanny ability to channel the Old Weird America into something poptastically new and strange. Once in the door, though, they couldn't chuck him out, even when he lost interest in being a "protest singer", and he spent the next 45 years annoying, frustrating, enchanting, intriguing, entertaining and generally mystifying everyone and anyone. Yes, that Bob Dylan.

I took the opportunity of watching the second part of Martin Scorsese's No Direction Home the other night, as it's there on the BBC iPlayer. It's a superb piece of work, but fails, I think, to explain the Dylan phenomenon, simply because it's an insider's picture (you have to wonder how often the likes of Joan Baez, Al Kooper and Robbie Robertson can stand to repeat their well-honed reminiscences of "Bobbie" to camera one more time). It also reminded me of how viscerally I dislike Pete Seeger. I'd cut his power line with an axe any day. Green corn, green corn... Thwack.

Neither, at the other extreme, does the portrait of extreme head-case Dylanologist A.J. Weberman (Tangled Up With Dylan, also on iPlayer) tell us much about the phenomenon, either, though I think this does get closer. Few, if any, artists have attracted creepy obsessives as much as Dylan has, and continues to do. Brrr... No, the best thing I've heard recently was the BBC Radio 4 programme in the Saturday night "Archive on 4" slot, Bob Dylan and Me, in which performers, writers and even academics who have been influenced by Dylan spoke of their relationship with the music.

This is the whole point, surely: the vast mass of Dylan fans never got to know "Bobbie", or stand on a stage with him, or even shout "Judas" at a concert; they simply knew his albums, inside out, back in the days when a vinyl LP was a statement, an item of contemplation, an event. For every Baez or Weberman, there are a thousand ordinary folk in their late middle age who have had an intense relationship with at least one Dylan album, probably more intense than their early relationships with girl- or boyfriends.

It's curious how often it is only one or two albums. Or perhaps not, given the unevenness of Dylan's output. In my case – and I am far from being a Dylan fanatic – it's Bringing It All Back Home and Blood On The Tracks. I know most of the other albums released before 1980 pretty well, and a few of those released after, but it's only those two that count for me. Why? Simply because they're the ones I owned, at a time when it mattered.

I know Blonde on Blonde is indispensible to many people, or The Basement Tapes to others, and it sometimes seems that I must at some time have owned copies of Desire and Highway 61 Revisited, but I simply don't care about any of those albums. But the songs on Bringing It All Back Home and Blood On The Tracks – their lyrics, their attitude, their irony, their wise foolishness – are in my bloodstream. Every note, every inflection, right down to the stoned laughter that breaks up the start of Bob Dylan's 115th Dream, or the bass playing on Simple Twist of Fate.

This is odd, really, because – if I can put it this way – I 'm not aware, at a conscious level, that I have ever really liked Bob Dylan that much. I can't remember the last time I played a Dylan album. But I only have to hear the opening notes of one of those songs to recall the intensity of my relationship with it. Only to forget it again. I think part of it is that Dylan was over, in a sense, before I was old enough to pay attention. He belongs to the over-65s; I have watched several highly-intelligent people of that ur-boomer generation tear up and dissolve into mumbling inarticulacy, trying to describe what those early albums meant to them. Blood on the Tracks – released in 1975 when I was 21 – was a comeback album, for God's sake!

The music aside, though, what is so striking in watching video of old interviews and press conferences, and what may be the true root of his significance, is how far Dylan's modernity as a personality was in advance of the times. Not least here in stuffy, stick-up-the-arse mid-60s Britain. It's embarrassing. You cringe as a pack of plummy-voiced, RAF-moustached reporters ask their wordy, patronising questions. And you wonder as Dylan, like an unflattering mirror, reflects back the absurdity of the literal sense of the words falling from their lips. He is Andy Warhol with attitude. He is a visitor from the future, fey and amused, a real-life Dr. Who.

My favourite moment like this is that press conference in LA in 1965, featured in No Direction Home:
Reporter:  How many people who labor in the same musical vineyard in which you toil, how many are protest singers? That is, people who use their music, and use the songs to protest the, ah, social state in which we live today. The matter of war, the matter of crime, or whatever it might be.
Dylan: many?
Reporter:  Yes. How many?
Dylan:      Uh, I think there's about, uh ... 136.
Reporter: You say about 136, or do you mean exactly 136?
Dylan:      Uh, it's either 136 or 142.
Look out, kid, it's somethin' you did – God knows when, but you're doin' it again...

Me and Bob Dylan, Slight Return (25 May 2011)

I remember now. I remember why Dylan seemed less than essential when I turned 14 in 1968. Two simple lists might do it:

List A: Dylan releases:

1967 John Wesley Harding
1969 Nashville Skyline

List B: World events:

1967 list here
1968 list here
1969 list here

From those lists, I suppose I would highlight the escalation of the Vietnam War and anti-war protest, the dangerous nuclear face-offs of the Cold War, race riots in the USA, the events of May '68 in Paris, the RAF (Baader-Meinhof), the "Six Day War" in the Middle East, the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the shootings of Rudi Dutschke and Andy Warhol, Enoch Powell's "Rivers of Blood" speech, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the Days of Rage, British troops in Northern Ireland ...

It was a turbulent, angry time. People who focus on the "Summer of Love" have no idea what they're talking about. Dylan's turn to quiescent Americana and away from politics at that precise moment in history seemed merely to underline his irrelevance. Radical left politics was on the upturn, and a singer who had formerly seemed a spokesman for radical youth was recording in Nashville with Johnny Cash (not then the apotheosis of Cool he has somehow subsequently become).

I rest my case. I also note that those Wikipedia lists record the first performances of Fairport Convention and Led Zeppelin. One might also note the launch of Island Records' "pink label", surely a defining event in anyone's chronicle of World Events.

A wink from the Queen of Heaven

Wednesday, 12 October 2016


Meanwhile, as we wait for the less frequent regular visitors to clock in (see previous post), here are some frogs.

Museo "La Specola", Florence

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Is There Anybody There?

The first post on this blog is dated 9th October 2008. I started out on this journey merely to see what this blogging lark might be about, and hoping to sustain regular posts for a year. It seemed a reasonable target: beyond that horizon it seemed unlikely that I would have anything worthwhile left to say. This eighth anniversary, 1287 posts later, seems like a good time to review that assumption.

Like many bloggers, I've been noticing a steady decline in the number of daily visits and comments in recent times. I suppose I may finally have run out of worthwhile things to say, but I prefer to believe this has more to do with the overwhelming noisiness and distraction of the Web and social media. A blog like this might be compared to that carousel of belts in a quiet corner of a busy department store: always there if you need a belt, but hardly competing for attention with the storefront display of this season's fashions, much less the electronic gizmos one floor up. No point in complaining: we accessories know and accept our place.

The real scale of this decline is hard to judge, however. As I've said before, Blogger's own stats are totally misleading: apparently I had 3000 visits in just one hour last week, up from a mere three the hour before, and back down to five the hour after...  Yeah, right, спасибо большое, but don't hurry back, Russian robot! Google Analytics isn't (aren't?) necessarily much more accurate, either, though always more reassuringly sober to the pessimistic of mind, and much less plagued by robotic visitors and false accounting.

But I'd really like to get a better sense of how many regular, returning visitors I'm getting, not least to figure out to what extent I am wasting my time here, when I could be writing 2018's Booker Prize winner, or just watching more TV *.

So: help me out here. Here's what I propose:
  • Temporarily, I will allow anyone to comment on this post, including anonymous comments.
  • If you regularly visit this blog (let's say, once a week or more) please submit a comment to this post – anonymously if you prefer – simply saying "regular reader".
  • I won't publish these comments, obviously, merely count them.
  • After, say, a week I'll change the comment settings back to "no anonymous comments".
That's it! Please don't be shy – I really do want to know you're out there. If you are a regular reader, enjoy what you read, and want me to continue, an anonymous, two-word comment doesn't seem a lot to ask.

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I mean, if I can make just one young lady become shiny today, it has all been worthwhile, hasn't it?


* I recently discovered there are eight series of House, M.D. on Netflix, each with twenty-four episodes, each a witty variation of exactly the same plot-line; my favourite kind of TV! And I still haven't got around to watching Breaking Bad... What was I saying about the distractions of the Web?

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

There's Weasels In The Jar

I'm still working on the necessary moves to make convincing monochrome photographs, which amounts, I think, to creating images that at least look like they were conceived in monochrome, and which play to monochrome's strengths. I've also been fighting off the temptation to go down the road that leads to the faking of stained and cracked glass-plate negatives, apparently printed on hand-coated platinum-palladium paper. Although, to be honest, I have nothing in principle against exploring what lies at the end of that road; it's all fakery, after all. It just seem disrespectful to those who go to the (enormous) trouble of doing it for real. As I've said before, the problem is that you're chasing a look that is not native to digital, and the only real guides are your own taste and judgement.

But sometimes colour is simply the best way to convey – and for the eye to appreciate – the full-on surreal beauty of the grotesque. I mean: bottled bats and weasels in a jar? It doesn't get better than that, does it?

Unless, of course, it's a very exotic brand of tequila... I'll have an alligator sunrise, barman, and make it snappy! (sorry...)

Monday, 3 October 2016

Booth Museum

How quickly the three years of a university education fly by! It seems only yesterday that I first made the journey with my daughter along the south coast to Brighton, to the University of Sussex open day for prospective undergraduates. This summer she graduated and I did the return trip for the final time with all her accumulated stuff loaded into the back of the car.

Having no real reason to do that drive again (or desire, the A27 not having become one of my favourite routes across the country) I needed to seize a last opportunity to visit the Booth Museum, something I'd meant to do on every previous visit to Brighton, but always somehow failed to accomplish. Although I will generally go out of my way to visit any collection of stuffed birds and animals and natural history curiosa, I think I was probably fairly sure it would turn out to be small, tatty, over-interpreted for parties of children, and not really worth the effort.

I was pleasantly surprised. The collection is much larger than I expected, deployed in glass cases down two very long corridors, which enclose a couple of small rooms of skeletons, rocks and fossils, and a replica of a Victorian naturalist's living room. Unfortunately the lighting is dim and the angles of view are limited, so I took what photographs I could, and simply enjoyed some classic Victorian dioramas, a form of museum display Booth is credited with inventing. It's a static collection, now, pretty much as bequeathed by Booth to Brighton Council in 1890, but that is what gives it its considerable charm.

What can you say about Edward Thomas Booth, Victorian naturalist-exterminator, other than that his was a splendid example of what happens when a completist head-case is armed to the teeth, and determined to bag at least one of each variation of every feathered thing living on these islands for his collection of taxidermy? The man must have stunk of gunpowder. Mind you, he was also a heavy drinker and, being a bit of a misanthrope, an equal-opportunity exterminator. He is said to have turned his gun on another hunter in the Norfolk Broads for having had the damned cheek to come too close. He even took pot-shots at passing postmen from his home on Dyke Road in Brighton – named by him, would you believe, Bleak House – which is where the museum is now housed.

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Old Frankie's Back

Talking of folk-songs, as I was in the previous post, longer-term readers may recall a few posts from 2012 (for example, here and here) in which the mystery of the fate of the Franklin expedition to the Arctic to seek the Northwest Passage was mentioned, particularly as mythologised in the popular ballads of the time. At the time I did have a vague plan to start an icy "Lord Franklin" photographic series, but climate change seems to have intervened.

In those long-ago days (2012, I mean, not 1845) we used to suffer bitter winters, when for entire days static water would be frozen, and pavements could become dangerously slippery. Why, on some mornings we even had to scrape ice off the windscreens of our cars, it was so cold – imagine that! Even in the Arctic, things are getting significantly warmer: it seems the Northwest Passage is about as mysterious and as hazardous, now, as the M25 (which is, admittedly, quite mysterious and distinctly hazardous). I suppose one shouldn't joke about an impending planetary climate catastrophe, but, hey, I'm British; it's what we do best.

Although, when it comes to our national characteristics, the celebration of heroic failures has traditionally run gallows-humour a close second, and they're obviously close relatives. But that may be changing, too. It's notable that as more and more evidence emerges of what did happen to Franklin, his ships, and their crews, the less attention it gets in the British press. Just recently, Franklin's actual ship Terror was discovered by an ongoing Canadian investigation, but barely made the news here. Two years ago, the companion ship Erebus turned up, to a similar yawn of media boredom. It's clear the Canadians care an awful more more about this particular Great British Disaster than we do, now. I'm pretty sure that if Pentangle had not recorded "Lord Franklin" on their Cruel Sister album in 1970 I'd never have heard of or cared about John Franklin and his gallant crew, either.

In fact, matters Franklin have got to the point where there's really not much of a mystery left. A very recent book reviewed in the current TLS (Finding Franklin: the untold story of a 165-year search, by Russell A. Potter, TLS 5921) sounds like a pretty definitive summary of the known facts, of which there are now quite a few. Perhaps the most interesting, if depressing thing is the way Inuit testimony has consistently been discounted; both ships have turned up exactly where Inuit hunters have been saying they are for a very long time. Well, what would those illiterate primitives know, after all?

There's nothing quite like a good mystery, though, is there? The trouble is, there is a valuable minority of humanity who will not rest until they have substituted a good explanation for every good mystery, and these rational folk will never quite grasp how comparatively charmless to the rest of us a definitive solution generally is. Douglas Adams was not merely being facetious with Deep Thought's famous solution of "forty-two" to the question of Life, the Universe and Everything: he was being profound. Not just for the flip-chart wisdom ("I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you've never actually known what the question was"), but for the amusing but sad truth that humanity finds not knowing what happened to the Franklin Expedition (with its spicy hints of cannibalism and lead-poisoning) far more interesting than finally stumbling across a heap old bones and a few brass buttons.

In the end, some mysteries lead to fruitful quests, yielding useful knowledge and further useful questions, and some do not. Resolving the latter sort usually leads to an answer that is less interesting than the mystery itself. As Benjamin Jowett says in Max Beerbohm's cartoon about the Oxford Union murals: And what were they going to do with the Grail when they found it, Mr. Rossetti?

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Puck's Song

As you do, I was sitting around, idly wondering which of half a dozen potential "projects" to take forward, when I suddenly remembered that I'd already put a book together from the photo-collages I'd made illustrating / interpreting Rudyard Kipling's poem "Puck's Song" earlier in the year, but forgotten all about it. I had intended to improve both them and it, but other things attracted my attention, and the impetus has gone: I think it will now have to remain pretty much what it is. It's still a good piece of work, though, I think, and if you're interested here's a link to the book preview on Blurb:
I've only made a paperback available this time but, as usual, there are also PDF and e-book versions, both identical to but considerably cheaper than the book (and in some ways better, not least because more profitable for me!). The e-book is presented on Blurb separately from the paperback and PDF, and Blurb claim it is now "available for Amazon Kindle Fire, Apple iPad, Android devices, and Mac or PC computers", but I haven't tested this claim. Don't blame me if it doesn't work... It's definitely fine on my iPad 2.

Link to paperback and PDF
Link to e-book

I then realised that, conveniently, "Puck's Song" has twelve verses, so this year's calendar has sort of made itself. Each year I have a dozen or so of these calendars made by Vistaprint, and give them away as Christmas/New Year gifts to a select set of recipients. However, if you'd like to grace your walls with one next year (an artist friend living in the Dordogne always deploys his in the lavatory, where he says it can be given appropriate concentrated attention) then let me know via email (see "Since You Ask...", top right) and, provided the demand is neither too great nor too small, I will sell you one for £15 plus postage, payable via PayPal.

Among the potential projects I referred to above is a recent fascination with the look and format of traditional broadside ballad sheets. I've had a lifelong interest in traditional folksong, particularly those songs and ballads which deal with the supernatural and lengthy enforced holidays in the land of the Fair Folk, an interest which was given a boost a few years ago when, doing some family history research, I discovered my paternal line comes from the Scottish Borders, not the Highlands, as I had assumed. It seems previous incarnations of my Y-DNA had been shepherds and farmhands, hanging around precisely the landscape of Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer. Indeed, a cousin of a direct ancestor was one of those peasant versifiers that Scotland seemed to breed like midges.

A further nudge was given by a visit to the recent Shakespeare in Ten Acts exhibition at the British Library, where some prime examples of Georgian and Victorian popular typography were on display. Ballad sheets, in particular, I find very compelling. There is something about those long, narrow strips of paper, often topped with a woodcut illustration, that appeals to the illustrator and graphic designer in me. Kipling, and in particular "Puck's Song", seemed an obvious place to start.

Talking of Scotland and the supernatural, some years ago I heard a brief account on a radio programme of the "Brown Seer", a semi-legendary figure, a man with a Nostradamus-like gift for ambiguously-phrased foresight, whose main instrument of divination was a stone with a hole in  it. Intrigued, for years I tried to follow this up, but could find no trace of him. I then discovered, completely by accident, that he is actually known as the Brahan Seer, and everything fell into place. It's a fascinating story.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

The Deal

St. Catherine's Hill, September 2016
"Something occurred to me when we were making that film," says Swinton, "about the relationship of love to loneliness." The latter is, for her, "the last great taboo of modern western civilisation. Capitalism is built on the idea that one can go out and buy another scented candle and get less lonely somehow. But I think the deal is that you are fully lonely, and the sooner we accept and embrace our loneliness, the healthier we are. And that real love has nothing to do with that romantic idea of oneness, of distracting and healing each other from our loneliness, it’s about witnessing each other as individuals and saying: I’ll show you mine if you show me yours."
Tilda Swinton (interview with Catherine Shoard, Guardian, 1/4/2010)

Old Winchester Hill, September 2016

Monday, 19 September 2016


I was back on campus last week for the first time in several months, to carry out some errands and to catch up with the news. It seemed I could barely turn a corner without bumping into someone I used to work with, as they scurried about the place getting ready for the looming October invasion. It does no harm to remind myself of the pressures of the world of work, and I won't pretend it didn't feel rather good, to be a man of comparative leisure.

As usual, building work was everywhere; as usual, it looked like it was running over schedule. To get to one of my favourite windows (third picture) I had to negotiate a barricaded-off road (first picture). I find it interesting that the truthfulness of photography means that the second and third photos are contained in the first, and the first in the second (and probably both of the other two are somewhere in the third, if you were to look closely enough at the reflections) even though this formed no part of my intentions as I "worked" the scene.

One of the most characteristic and compelling things about "straight" photography is its truthfulness, that visual truth in depth, as opposed to the selective "truthiness" of most visual art. Sure, you can frame and exclude and edit, but the medium's essence is to show whatever fell within the chosen angle of view, without prejudice or censorship. You might say that getting the camera's truthfulness and your own agenda of truthiness into alignment is in large part what the art of photography is about. Somehow, that seems important, in our allegedly "post-truth" world, where politicians can assert that "we have had enough of experts", and in which merely repeating something often enough – particularly something people want to be true – can make it true, or at least give it "truthiness".

Although the central paradox of art remains: that a package of artful and even contradictory lies, distortions, and misrepresentations can convey more truth than a plain account of the apparent facts. With appropriate emphasis on the "can", of course. Nothing is ever simple, and point-of-view is everything.
An eminent philosopher among my friends, who can dignify even your ugly furniture by lifting it into the serene light of science, has shown me this pregnant little fact. Your pier-glass or extensive surface of polished steel made to be rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! the scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive optical selection. These things are a parable. The scratches are events, and the candle is the egoism of any person now absent — of Miss Vincy, for example.
George Eliot, Middlemarch, 1871, chapter XXVII

Friday, 16 September 2016

Really Real

Not the real thing?
(B&W conversion from Ricoh GR)

I've tried to put a lid on my photo-book addiction since retiring, but just a little one now and again can't hurt, surely, can it? (I know, I know, that's what all addicts say...) But one I couldn't resist and which you might like to consider is the re-issue of The Window of My Studio by Josef Sudek, published by Torst. It's both a remarkable body of work – a true reminder of why photography matters – and a beautifully made book. It's the real thing.

Too few people seem to know about Sudek, which I always find surprising. I mean, how many one-armed Czech photographers of genius have there been? In the 1980s I came across a Sudek portfolio in the Czech Profily series; the real thing, actual prints made from the negatives, though not the really real thing i.e. not printed by Sudek himself, who died in 1976.  I bought it, if memory serves, for just £25 (I did actually check with the seller that some zeros weren't missing from the price). I immediately became a fan, especially of his panoramic images of Prague, and the "Window" series. Luckily, I was too lazy to frame any of them, as the intact portfolio of eighteen prints is now quite sought after. I'm never sure why, as the choice of printing paper really doesn't do them justice.

Back then, of course, monochrome was still very much the "real thing", as far as most amateurs and artists were concerned, although the challenge from colour was gaining strength. Aesthetic considerations aside, the main point was that you could control and fine-tune the entire process, end to end, and – better still – it was relatively cheap and could be done pretty much anywhere. However, if you've only ever seen reproductions in books or mediocre black and white printing on plasticky paper, you probably have no idea of the aesthetic pleasure to be derived from a richly-toned monochrome image well printed on a classic fibre-based paper like Agfa Record Rapid. It's the difference between, say, Cadbury's Bourneville and Lindt Excellence 70% Dark chocolate. Air-dried and split-toned in selenium, the comparison is with, well, name your own choice of organic, fair-trade, single-estate cocoa chocolate.

I bought my first enlarger, a Czech-made Meopta, from a junk shop in 1984 and set up a darkroom in the corridor of my flat, working at night, often into the small hours and, like thousands of other enthusiasts, developed my own film in the bathroom, hanging the rolls of negatives to dry from a clothes line over the bath. To advance my skills, I attended a "black and white exhibition print" course given by Mike Skipper of the Oxford Darkroom, and developed a reasonable level of facility in the black arts of making test strips, judging paper grades, and dodging and burning highlights and shadows.

Sort of the real thing...
(scan from 6x6 colour negative)

But, much as I loved classic monochrome work and that of contemporary exemplars like Thomas Joshua Cooper, Fay Godwin, Raymond Moore, and John Blakemore, I could never quite raise my own game to a satisfactory level. It was only when I made the move to colour that I really started to get anywhere. It was then, "Goodbye, Fay and Ray; hello, Martin Parr and Jem Southam". Sadly, it was also hello, shrinking bank balance. Anyone who has attempted to process and print colour negative film will know why I was only too happy to pay for someone else to do it, but with the arrival of young children and an even more rapidly shrinking fund of time and money, it looked like my output would soon be reduced to the occasional roll of family snaps.

Then, of course, digital happened. I still have the first little colour print I made on the original A4 Epson Stylus Photo printer, which has much the same personal significance for me as Fox Talbot's image of that latticed window at Lacock Abbey does in the history of photography. Nothing spectacular in itself, but containing within it the promise of a whole new era. In the case of digital, an era of colour prints made in daylight, with complete control over exposure, contrast and colour balance, and – incredibly – with all those adjustments saved in an image file, so that multiple identical prints could be run off while cooking the kids their evening meal. People forget how, when using film, each of those essential adjustments and fine-tunings had to be found by making systematic test prints, and then the whole lot repeated every time a print is made. All of them, every time! You'd better have made good printing notes, and have plenty of time, patience, and printing paper to spare. Digital was truly a revolution in quality, convenience, and expense, especially for those of us who favoured colour.

But...  The sense that monochrome was the real, authentic thing persisted, like a guilty conscience. There is a belief in truth to materials that pervades most artistic production, whether it be ceramics, print-making, painting, photography, whatever. Post-modernism has undermined this, certainly, but most true makers still have a strong feeling that certain practices are honest, in that they respect both the nature of the materials used and the necessary skills one must acquire to use them, and that other practices – and in particular shortcuts that enable the unskilled to mimic, without effort, the end-results of mastery – are not. However, when we talk of the authenticity of monochrome, it can only ever be film (or some other light-sensitized substrate) and chemical processing that we are talking about. In digital image-making (where things like instant "watercolour" or "charcoal sketch" effects filters are exactly the sort of shortcut that serious makers reject) monochrome photography is, ironically, only achievable by means of precisely that sort of filter and off-the-peg preset. It's all about creating the look without undergoing the process. How could it not be? A digital image is captured in colour, electronically, in regular rows of pixels. The attempt to render the effect of light on randomly-distributed silver halides (not to mention that tricky repertoire of darkroom skills) can never be anything other than fakery, or, in our current favourite ugly-but-useful word, a skeuomorph*.

Does this matter? When I look at the work of Josef Sudek, I naturally feel the urge to replicate it. Imitation is, after all, one of the surest ways to raise your game. But, as any good forger knows, to make a decent copy you need to use the same materials as the original. Wood-effect veneer on MDF isn't going to convince anyone your bookcase was made by Sheraton, or even Ercol. Though it might nonetheless be entirely adequate for your purposes (for example, for putting your books on)**. So, let's just say that I'm ambivalent about "digital monochrome". No, it's not the real thing, judged by past standards, but we're now in a time when the nature of  many "real things" has changed, and under constant challenge from radically new means of production, reproduction and distribution. Nothing much is the real thing any more, is it? But the fact remains that I'm still a lot more successful with colour than with black and white. Which is hardly a problem, but annoying, and flipping the pages of The Window of My Studio makes me want to do something about that. But, given that I have absolutely no desire ever to set up a darkroom again, I suppose I'll just have to figure out how to fake it better.

The real(ish) thing: scan from B&W 645 negative
New Year storm, Pembrokeshire 1991
(Did I mention I like Thomas Joshua Cooper?)

* Getting strong competition from "euhemerism", though... "The theory that gods arose out of the deification of actual historical heroes".

** IKEA claim to sell one BILLY bookcase every ten seconds, somewhere in the world.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016


I've been doing a lot of clearing out, packing up, and throwing away lately. This takes a certain physical toll, obviously. Heaving crates in and out of cars and and up and down stairs in the heat and dust is definitely a job for a younger man, and I find I tire more easily than I used to. But it has also been emotionally exhausting. Unexpectedly so, although I suppose this shouldn't be so surprising. Our children are moving out of the family home, which is as it should be, but the imminence of an "empty nest" does draw your attention to the accumulated stuff of 25 years of family life, which fills a house several times over with a compacted tangle of memories and associations that is, at the same time, a precious legacy and a substantial obstacle to moving on. You know that you shouldn't and can't keep all that stuff for ever, but dealing with it requires a degree of ruthless unsentimentality which is hard to summon up in sustained doses. In fact, that effort is actually far more exhausting than humping the dusty boxes down to Oxfam and the Recycling Centre.

An attachment to inanimate objects is a natural human tendency, but one which can get out of hand. I accept that I have what we might call an advanced tolerance for clutter, though not to a pathological level. Mind you, it is curious, isn't it, how the opposite tendency – to continually discard stuff as if it were toxic – is not popularly regarded as a bad thing? Hoarding and a fear of clutter and disorder are doubtless two sides of the same neurotic coin, but I'm not aware of any TV programmes dedicated to filling the anaemically-minimalist houses of the super-hip with remedial clutter. That could be fun to watch, though, I reckon. Oh, come on, just a couple of piles of books over there, where's the harm? And, hey, why not leave the washed-up dishes on the draining board for a couple of days? You're only going to use them again, after all... And I want to see that pair of socks on the banister still there when we come back next week! We could call it How Sterile is Your House? or maybe Does Anyone Really Live Here?

I suppose the truest test of emotional steel, though, is when it comes to dealing with your own sentimental objects, especially those things you have kept close by you for most of your life. I had a dramatic illustration of this just recently.

A very long time ago, in my pre-teen years, I was a keen collector of moths. A teacher at my primary school was a serious amateur entomologist and palaeontologist and, spotting my love of natural history, he turned me on to both hobbies. For a few years, I was a full-on moth-nut. I'd sling a lightbulb and white sheet over the washing line, and net anything that stumbled drunkenly into my trap. With the guidance of books from the library I constructed my own entomologist's kit; a net from a coat hanger and a bamboo cane, a killing bottle from a ground-glass jar with ammonia-soaked plaster in the bottom, a relaxing tin from a tupperware box, setting boards from balsa sheet and tracing paper, and so on. Like the naturalist-collectors of the Edwardian period, who shot birds out of the sky and skinned them to get a proper look at their plumage, I was slaughtering and preserving the very things I purported to admire. My generation may have been the last not to see the inherent contradiction, though the hands-on skills in miniature taxidermy and species identification we developed in the process were not negligible. We were probably also the last 12-year-olds to be able to enter a High Street chemist, ask for a bottle of ether or ammonia ("For my killing bottle, mister!"), and walk out unaccompanied by the police or social services.

The one item I did not make myself was a double-sided "clamshell" wooden box, about 18" x 12", bought mail-order from Watkins & Doncaster – still in business after 140 years! – in which my collection was kept. Despite giving up the hobby in my teen years, I kept my boxed collection of moths – I suppose as a reminder of one of those paths not taken, which say as much about us and who we are as the paths we did choose – and it has followed me loyally as part of my material entourage over the years. However, until a few weeks ago, I hadn't actually opened it for decades.

Yikes. It seems my skills at preservation, or the air-tightness of the box were not quite as good as claimed. Over fifty years most of the contents had been reduced to dust, leaving just ranks of pins and paper labels standing among scattered limbs and fragments of wing. What I'd been keeping was not so much a collection as an insect charnel house. It was clearly beyond saving, and I simply vacuumed the lot out, taking on board the rich metaphor I'd just been handed about holding on to things for too long, courtesy of the unsentimental forces of entropy. Though it was still with some regret that I heaved the box into the "mixed timbers" skip at the Recycling Centre that afternoon.

I suppose a proper artist would have made something more of this, though goodness knows what. Certainly more than a thinly-veiled blog-post about the piercing sadness of throwing out your children's old toys. Although... Being of an inveterate post-war waste-not-want-not stripe, I did keep some of the tiny, beautifully hand-written labels – annotated with species, date and place of capture – removed from the delicate pins of a small, antique collection of butterflies I'd acquired to augment my collection. It struck me that, hmm, with a bit of scanning, there might be the germ of a photo-collage project there, maybe even a little artist's book...

Friday, 9 September 2016

Postcard from Florence 5: Guardians

Pirate limb-replacement has advanced
since the days of Long John Silver

Oh, look, here's one more, final postcard, the one that always arrives late, long after the sender's return, like a message from another dimension. Whenever was I in Florence? Oh, yes... It seems like a long time ago now.

As in most places with pretensions to grandiosity, there seemed to be a lot of lions around. The so-called "Medici Lions" are quite famous, I believe, and widely copied, but look to me suspiciously like the logo of a football club, though, curiously, not one used by ACF Fiorentina. Maybe the reference is to a particularly butch Florentine ball-game known as calcio fiorentino which is still played each year on June 24, pitting the four quarters of the city against each other. Apparently the match proper only begins after a wild brawl between the equivalent of the rugby forwards, intended to incapacitate as many of the opposition as possible, in which punches, head-butts, and choking are allowed. This may go some way towards explaining some of the inexplicable outbreaks of aggressive behaviour in supermarkets I observed, although the oppressive heat and a certain impatience with visitors from the Far East are probably also factors. But as a decorative and apotropaic motif signifying overweening pride, aggression, and determination to be at the top of any food chain, literal or metaphorical, lions can't be beaten, I suppose.

Now, I'm not saying Italian men are vain, but let's just say there are probably a few more mirrors in their police stations and barracks than would be considered appropriate in Britain. This Russell Brand look-alike paratrooper is guarding the Baptistery, a prime tourist site immediately in front of the Duomo. I was hoping to get the Duomo reflected in his wraparound shades, but he kept turning his head the wrong way, no doubt so that I would get his good side.

The Duomo and Baptistery are an impressively strange sight, close up, especially at night. Entirely clad in creamy-white marble outlined geometrically with green marble, they look like enormous but temporary stage-sets made out of sheets of painted plywood; the complete opposite of the intended effect. In the case of the Baptistery, being octagonal doesn't help: you are inevitably reminded of an Elizabethan playhouse. The overall impression is rather as if someone had decided to "improve" them with two different sorts of marble-effect sticky-backed plastic. Which, in the case of the cathedral, is more or less what did happen.

"Two households, both alike in dignity..."

Guardians come in all sorts of guises, of course. Girolamo Savonarola was a self-appointed guardian of public morality in Renaissance Florence, rather à la Taliban, and got himself burned at the stake for his trouble. It seems people just don't appreciate having their morality guarded.

Savonarola by Fra Bartolomeo
in the Museo di San Marco

Of course, we all know who really looks after stuff, anywhere in the world, all the time. It's a tough, dirty job, with not much scope for moral scruple, dandified posturing, or leonine pride. Enough said.

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Top Tips on Photographing Autumn Colours

Moscow State Circus van, Bristol October 2015

It's that time of year again, which always seems to come round at this time of year, when photographers desperately in need of something – anything! – to photograph turn their attention to death and decay, deep in the woods. No, not dead bodies – what are you, nuts? (or Sally Mann?) – we're talking about leaves. Yes, up here in the north of the Northern Hemisphere we're about to get yet another window of opportunity to make some perfectly competent pictures of dying foliage glowing in the sun, just like the millions of other identical pictures that have always already been out there, ever since the unboxing video of God's first roll of Kodachrome.

Not sure how to proceed? Here are our Idiotic Hat top tips:
  • Don't. Just don't. Really: don't bother.
  • If you must, however, why not assemble all your "autumn colour" images into a handy portfolio, album, or even a self-published book? This will make it easier for your children to discard them all when you die, and they're going through your photographs looking for family memorabilia.
  • Or why not photograph other photographers doing "autumn colour"? There will be plenty around if you research your locations properly (look for trees, for example) and, who knows, maybe you will embarrass a few into some kind of satori? What am I, of all people, doing out here, taking photographs which are nothing but soulless, second-rate copies of photographs of photographs of photographs? They'll thank you for it!
  • Maybe ask yourself, "Why do I feel compelled to document these particular colours out here, right now, when I generally walk straight past other, equally interesting colour combinations during the rest of the year?" Do you really need permission to notice colours? (see our – I'm afraid rather similar – "Top Tips on Photographing Sunsets").
  • Don't be content with insipid "natural" colours, especially as found in our pathetically drab British woods! They're not really "beautiful" enough, are they? If you can't afford a trip to New England or Japan for a proper Fall Color Workshop, why not simply exaggerate those lacklustre colours in processing? All sorts of techniques are available, from HDR to simply going a little crazy with the curves and sliders. Behold: I bring you autumn on planet Hyperbole!
  • And, by the way, NEVER cover your child in fallen leaves up to the neck for that cutesy album shot when out in the woods! Just don't do it, you idiot! Lyme disease, carried by deer ticks, is a serious business. Much more serious than any me-too autumnal snapshot.
Does that help? I hope there's a takeaway in there somewhere for everyone. Especially that last one. You're welcome!

Calibrating a tree for peak autumn.
Yep! Nearly there!

Sorry... I shouldn't be so cynical. If anything, it is a matter for celebration that so many people can derive so much pleasure from something so matter-of-fact and yet so mysteriously unpredictable as the turning of the seasons. It's an instinct that runs very deep. And yet...  Just as the Japanese haiku tradition ossified into seasonal tropes, keyed by conventional "seasonal" words ("moon", unqualified, always means "autumn", for example), so photography has a tendency to settle around a number of banal themes, of which "autumn colour" is just one.

Or, I should say, photography as a hobby. Photography as an art practice, for want of a better expression, is bedevilled by its own clichés, of course, but I think it's true to say that most hobbyists are conformists by nature, and want nothing more than to reproduce as closely as possible perceived models of excellence. Why else build yet another model of HMS Victory, or dress up as Luke Skywalker? There is a certain satisfaction, I suppose, in achieving an acknowledged benchmark of skill; it's how trades have traditionally operated, and the true underlying meaning of the word "masterpiece". About photography as a profession I have nothing useful to say, though, other than that if someone were to offer me good money to provide them with "autumn colour" pictures, I'd be only too happy to oblige. You want leaves, I got 'em. And you can always use someone else's kid for the "buried in leaves" shot...

People have a right to point their cameras at whatever they like, and to imitate whatever models they choose, obviously, although I personally have an instinctive dislike for groupthink, and its tendency to sneer at anyone who chooses to be different. I prefer outliers, oddballs, misfits, and weirdos (though, naturally, I am myself none of the above). I would like to think that we can all, to our own limited capacities, in William Eggleston's words, be at war with the obvious. In fact, there's your Top Tip for Autumn Colour: this year, why not be at war with the obvious?

Obviously autumn
Bristol October 2015