Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Downward Skies

I have mentioned a number of times the special relationship I have built up over more than a decade with that idyllic chunk of rural Hampshire occupied by Mottisfont Abbey, and in particular with the stretch of the River Test that runs through it. Until recently, it had been something of a default setting. Not sure where to go this Sunday? Drive over to Mottisfont. Not sure what to photograph? Why not the river at Mottisfont?

The whole estate is in National Trust ownership, but most people go to visit the house and formal gardens. This suits me fine as, even at the busiest times of year, it leaves the broader landscape of the estate (an enormous acreage of river, woodland and farm) virtually unvisited. Away from weekends, especially, you can guarantee solitude, but still be within easy reach of a friendly teashop. There is even a second-hand bookshop within the Abbey, which has a mysterious propensity to stock photographic treasures -- for example, I found a first edition hardback of David Bailey's Goodbye, Baby, and Amen a few years ago (not a book I'd normally have sought out), and Marketa Luskacova's wonderful Pilgrims (a book I'd been seeking for years). I keep half-expecting copies of The Decisive Moment or The Solitude of Ravens to turn up.

For several years I worked intensively at a series of pictures of the river, mainly but not exclusively using an old Agfa Isolette II folding camera (bought for £15, and which turned out to be fitted with the sought-after Solinar lens / Compur shutter combination). I got to know the Trust's estate manager, and as he liked my work he gave me access to the grounds during the winter closed season, and then very generously part-funded an exhibition of some of the work in 2003 (The Colour of the Water), which stayed up for 18 months. It was the closest I have yet come to feeling like a "real" artist.

Although I did self-publish a little booklet to sell with the exhibition, I have since struggled to do justice to the images in book form. I'm not really sure why. I think it has something to do with trying to negotiate the gulf between a stranger's perception of what are, in reality, many quite similar images of "just" water, and the meaning that these images and their small variations have acquired for me, not to mention their emotional significance in my own life. Although I strongly believe in taking pictures without regard to any third-party opinions, to make a book is different: it is an act of communication, and you have to meet potential readers half-way. This can sometimes be a more demanding task than it might seem.

Another problem has been doing justice to the film originals. The Agfa camera is simplicity itself, a superb optic mounted on a bellows on a light-tight box, with controls restricted to manual focus, aperture and shutter speed. It produces subtle, rich 6x6 negatives (generally on Fujicolor 400 ASA film), which I then proceed to travesty by scanning them on my Epson flatbed scanner. I'm sure that -- drum-scanned by a sympathetic expert scanner -- these would make superb wall-sized prints; as it is I can't print them larger than 12" square anyway, but even at book size the (poor) quality of the scanning shows, to the expert eye at least.

But I keep working at it, and here is the latest interactive version of a book called Downward Skies which I have put on Issuu, and which is the closest I've yet come to a satisfactory presentation of this work. Your comments would be much appreciated. Please note that although this PDF "dummy" is fitted out with all the bells and whistles of self-publication, it is not yet available to buy, though you are welcome to download the PDF.


Mauro Thon Giudici said...

The images are simply beautiful (or interesting if you are better). The experience you had (gaining a reserved access to the area) is even more appealing. I'm not sure that you need to make any compromise with an audience to share both (image and experience) for the value it has.

If I may move a little, constructive (hopefully), critique, I think that the problem in fitting them in a book size is the size itself, and the media context. Since it is clear that you are presenting a private vision I think it my be better (but maybe you have already tried at it so forgive my intrusion) to give some more insulation from the media context (more in the pdf one). The pages with multiple images suffer more from the size reduction even in pdf form (I'm seeing em on a 20" monitor, non W), the subtle transparencies you use get, sometimes, unnoticeable.

Around the net there is a nice article from Rosalind Krauss about how the landscape stereoscopic views interacted with the viewer. Insulation was a key factor. If you are interested I can mail it.

Mike C. said...

Hi, Mauro, I thought you were on holiday -- back already?

Thanks for the comments, I will think over what you have said. This is the third "outing" this work has had in book form, but I'm still very interested in how people respond to it.

Rosalind Krauss, eh? As you will know, I have tried to "sell my cleverness, and buy bewilderment" (Rumi) and gave up struggling with critics a while ago, wisely or not. I'm willing to give it a go, though, if you'll mail me the reference, please.

Mauro Thon Giudici said...

I'm back for a few days. This was the first part (the at the sea one) the remaining in August.

I certainly agree with you about the (un)usefulness of critics. And Krauss is one among many others trumpeters. But as an Historian she does a pretty good job. Just do not care at the use of history as a support for aesthetic judgment of Marx's memory, well by the way forget also about certain references to psychoanalysis ... I know it is not easy. The pro is that this leaves you with only a couple of useful pages to read.

the reference is: Rosalind Krauss, “Photography’s Discursive Spaces,” The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1984), 131-50.

Unfortunately any reference to the pdf in Internet seem to have been removed.

As soon as I find the pdf I will email it (seems that some recent computer crashes left me with some mess).

Excerpts from the book are available in google books

A third release ? Not bad.

doonster said...

Mike, I really enjoy photographing the surface of water myself and this is some beautiful work, nicely presented. Agree with Mauro in some respects about the size, but there's always a trade-off on screen.

Bronislaus Janulis said...


Loved the pictures, some very gentle, ethereal images.

As to the book, no comment, as I'm too much of a novice at PDFs.

As to the "opening up" to comments, I'm very ambivalent. Art by committee?


Mike C. said...

Bron & Doonster,

Thanks for the comments.

"Art by committee?" -- well, not really, I have simply found that where books are concerned (and exhibitions, too) the views of others help me see more clearly how what I am trying to say/do differs from what I am apparently saying/doing, in terms of communication.

Perhaps it's because of the public service environment in which I work, but I'm very aware of the importance of testing assumptions in this way. The problem (I think) with a lot of contemporary work is that it's self-absorption masquerading (sometimes ironically, sometimes not) as communication, which confuses and annoys everyone involved.

I've been working on a book of this large body of work since 2005, and seeking the feedback of others has clarified the process for me no end. The most difficult part of editing work down into an acceptably-sized, meaningfully-sequenced book is EDITING! Rejecting favourite images because they don't work in this> book, dispensing with "clever" ideas for colour schemes and layouts, etc., etc. But I totally recommend it as a way of really getting to know your own work.

If the aim is to craft something bigger than the sum of its parts out of a heap of attractive images (which, in my case, it is) then feedback is a useful tool, though obviously one has to choose which feedback (a) to seek and (b) to use!

Bronislaus Janulis said...


Good explanation on the value of feedback. I'm still ambivalent, but that's me. Cogent and valid points, though.


Gavin McL said...

I think the images are fascinating, I like the upside down trees and they way it gives I kind of fishes eye view. The triptychs give a kind sense of motion, the passing of time which ties in well with the theme of the river.
The text in circles looks good, but detracts a bit to my mind from the meaning as you spend so much time reading it. It depends how important it is to you.
The photos with the manmade "stuff" jar a bit, but perhaps that's what you wanted?