Monday, 9 February 2009

Block Work

More from Saturday's wander in the Oxford Botanic Gardens. Now that I'm out of the proverbial "zone," and in a more critical frame of mind, I'm wondering about this new pocketful of pebbles I've brought back. As always, they seemed so much more interesting at the time, wet on the beach.

The problem -- if you're hyper self-critical (and who wouldn't want to be?) -- is that sometimes photography can become too automatic, mere picture-making. More of a groove than a zone, if you like. For example, I love looking at weathered stone walls: they've got everything I need to keep my eyes happy. The range of colours and shapes can be extraordinarily subtle; it's the palette of cartography. But, frankly, you could put a frame more or less randomly on a good wall and come away with something worth looking at. But this also puts the pressure on to find something more interesting, and that's what makes it difficult, and fun, and rewarding when you pull it off.

Of course, I know a lot of people on the gallery and academic side of the art world have a problem with "formalist" picture-making of any sort, and I also know why (better than most, probably -- damn it, I did quite a few years' hard labour in the Theory Mine). The thing is, I don't care any more that they have a problem. Because I don't have one. I have discovered that one of my deepest impulses and pleasures is deciding exactly where to put that frame and finding what works within it and what doesn't. To deny that to suit the tastes of some black-clad puritan gatekeeper would be insane.

Later in the year, when the plants have stopped looking like organic electrical wiring, and start covering up the stonework, I'll lose interest. Bizarrely, perhaps, for someone who hangs around this sort of place so often, I have little or no interest in plants, as such. Flower photography makes me want to scream. However, my partner is a keen gardener, and over the years I've spent so much time amusing myself with a camera around the edges of famous gardens, nurseries, and the like, that I've developed a whole repertoire of garden-related "projects" that don't involve plants. It's the kind of compromise that can make an unmarried relationship last for 35 years.

The term for this sort of stone block work is ashlar: a venerable, but strangely un-English word (with a deeply-unconvincing etymology), which always takes me by surprise when I encounter it -- it's the sort of word that turns up in crosswords.

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