Thursday, 23 October 2008

Light on Britain

It's pretty obvious that the most important, all-enveloping aspects of our lives are the ones we take for granted, don't notice at all, or for which we have utterly mad explanations. Where the birds that visit our garden think the food on the bird-table comes from I have no idea, but they're almost certainly laughably wrong. Step back a few conceptual clicks, and of course I have no real idea, either; for all I know, angels deliver it in golden skips to the back door of Buckingham Palace.

As a photographer, I'm acutely aware of light -- its presence, absence, its effects and qualities. And yet, it's only when I leave our shores that I realise something really strange is going on with our light. It's all around us, but we don't see it. Foreign painters, of course, have always noticed it straight away. Consider the paintings made by Canaletto in London or, more extremely, Monet by the Thames. Now, I know London was notorious for its fogs, but Monet appears to have been painting on a particularly smoky day in Hell. Perhaps he was expressing his reaction to the food. Turner, of course, spent most of his life saying "Look, look!" but did exaggerate the effects just a little.

It's clearly something to do with the varying moisture content of the atmosphere, and the acute angle of the sun's rays at northern latitudes. It's like living under a translucent blanket, which usually diffuses, softens and spreads the light, but also sometimes acts like an enormous lens, or celestial stage lighting. I quite often find myself thinking, "Hang on, that tree on the horizon has grown..." or, "Just a minute, where did that building come from?!" It's very theatrical.

I remember coming back on the ferry from France at the end of the summer of 1990. It was the first of those dramatically hot and dry summers that made people think, "Hmm, climate change." As the South Coast came into view, I was transfixed: it was the first time I'd seen a Turner painting in real life. A layer of lurid oranges and yellows was squeezed down over Portsmouth by a black smog, just like the German flag. So different from the usual pearly view of nothing much. It was clear something apocalyptic had been going on; My God, someone has stolen our atmosphere while we were away!

These last few months have been different in another way -- constant blanket cloud cover and grey even light for week on week. So unvarying and so dull... Like living in a box made out of tracing paper. Some photographers like it like this: it means there's no need to worry about blown highlights, and it also means no-one's going to accuse you of indulging in any kind of choc-box pictorialist nonsense. I don't: I love the Sturm und Drang of clouds, shadow and shifting light. Thankfully, it seems to have lifted, just in time for the autumn colours, and the misty walk to work.

October Winds at Mottisfont Abbey

October sunshine (finally) in the Botanic Garden
(N.B. those bizarre plants are Gunnera manicata:
I may yet do a project on them!)

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