Thursday, 27 August 2009


The view from Old Winchester Hill on Sunday

I think if I had a lot of money and leisure, I'd spend most of my time getting high. Not in the chemically-assisted sense, but literally: one of the most reliable thrills is looking down on the surface of the earth from a great height. I'm sure one of the motivations behind the invention of flying machines was simply to see what it all looks like from up there. I'd employ a personal pilot to fly me around in a helicopter or, if that's a little anti-social, maybe some silent steam-punk airship powered by nothing but the force of strong opinions (not so much an aviator as a bloviator).

For me, the best bits of a flight are the first and the last ten minutes, when you bank steeply over a city and its surrounding countryside, having what I think of as an Inverse Auden Moment, where the "something amazing" is not (hopefully) a boy falling out of the sky, but the 21st century equivalents of ploughmen and a horse "scratching its innocent behind on a tree" seen from 1000 feet above. Yes, I'm that idiot going "Look! Look down there!" when half the passengers are trying studiously not to do precisely that.

Two of the greatest aids to timewasting and woolgathering that have been invented in recent years are Google Maps and Google Earth. There's a great post by Struan Gray on his blog on this very subject, which I won't try to improve on. Suffice it to say that, in idle moments, I like nothing better than to trace routes from Old Haunt A to Old Haunt B from the commanding heights of the Google satellite imagery, zooming in to check out the field marks and archaeology which is invisible from the ground, and zooming back out to admire the broader colours, shapes and patterns. The sense of controlling an all-seeing crystal ball always reminds me of the time some friends and I were ejected from the camera obscura perched high on the top of Bristol's Avon Gorge for engaging too ecstatically and too vocally with the large and luminous saucerful of secrets laid out before us by that miracle of optics. I think it was the same afternoon in 1972 we were also asked to leave the Arnolfini Gallery, after interacting too vigorously with an exhibition of kinetic art ("This is an art gallery, not an adventure playground").

Back in those same far-off days when the chemically-assisted sort of high still seemed like it might be a useful route to knowledge, I saw an extraordinary film called Powers of Ten by Ray and Charles Eames (yes, they of the famous chair) which, adopting the manner of an educational short made for schools, proceeded to blow minds simply by proposing a journey out into the universe in a series of 10x enlargements, starting looking down on a man lying on his back on a blanket and ending at the limits of the observable universe. The trip is then reversed, but this time it doesn't stop with the man on the blanket but goes straight on through to the inner space of the sub-atomic level. Like, Whoah! I imagine it's a little quaint, now, but at the time it mapped nicely onto a series of [sub]cultural concerns that sought to negotiate a link between art and science, and found an austere new sublimity in the objective but "conceptual" insights of maps, graphs, catalogues, inventories and indeed photographs.

This sensibility found expression in works as various as the music of Terry Riley and Philip Glass (think of the film Koyaanisqatsi), the famous "Self Burial" photo-sequence by Keith Arnatt, the land art of Richard Long and Hamish Fulton, and the early films of Peter Greenaway. There was an exhibition ("1965 to 1972 -- When Attitudes Became Form") in 1984 at Kettle's Yard in Cambridge and the Fruitmarket in Edinburgh which documented some of this alternative to central casting's appallingly inaccurate "flares and flower power" view of the period, and the catalogue is worth seeking out. Its legacy today can be seen in the camera-less photography of Susan Derges and Garry Fabian Miller, and its decadence can be detected in the ironic but pointless scientizing of artists like Mark Dion. "If in doubt, make a grid" was always a handy guideline, but has probably outlived its usefulness.*

Of course, the desire to get up high and look down from a great height is as ancient as our envy of the freedom of birds. A shaman's inner journey to the Otherworld is usually at some point an experience of flight -- it's as if flight were a latent human capacity just waiting to be realised. During WW1, for the first time in human history, significant numbers of men did experience that realisation (and troops on the ground will indeed for the first time have witnessed "something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky"). One such aviator was O.G.S. Crawford: archaeologist, Marxist, crank, and pioneer aerial photographer who learned his trade as an observer flying over the Western Front, and who acquired an enthusiasm and sense of wonder for what the aerial view could reveal about structures on the ground.

One of the privileges of working in a university library is close contact with a huge stock of books, most of which are dull or impenetrable, but some of which are exceedingly interesting and rare. One of my favourite finds has been O.G.S. Crawford's volume Wessex From The Air, published in 1928, and filled with wonderful aerial photographs of classic archaeological sites like Stonehenge, Maiden Castle, and Eggardon Hill. Its binding, typography, text and illustrations all reek of the atmosphere that pervades accounts of those post-war years, exemplified by J.L. Carr's A Month In The Country. For years the book was my private enthusiasm -- almost as much as the photographs I loved the ink interpretations of them, carefully hand-drawn and lettered and enclosed in ruled frames, in that style that textbook illustrations always used until the advent of cheap lithographic printing; they are unselfconcious works of conceptual art.

I had little curiosity about the author himself. Being a plunderer rather than a scholar, I am usually on the look out for visually-stimulating material, not a potential subject for a thesis. But, remarkably, last year Kitty Hauser arranged an exhibition about Crawford's photography in the gallery on our campus, and published an intriguing book about his life, Bloody Old Britain. It turned out that Crawford had lived locally and worked for the Ordnance Survey, whose exquisite maps are the ultimate conceptual bird's eye view of our landscape. There's a review of the book by Simon Heffer here, from which I quote this:

The ultimate act of stupidity by Crawford's masters was their refusal to ship the Ordnance Survey's records, books and maps to a safer location before the Blitz - as a port, Southampton was a prime target for the Luftwaffe. Crawford eventually took the matter into his own hands, and had much that was vital shipped out surreptitiously to his village home. Two final vanloads of his most personal papers were waiting to be driven out one evening when the drivers were called to a 'dental parade'. The vans and their contents were obliterated that night in the bombing, a blow from which Crawford seems never properly to have recovered.
Ironic, or what? The former military aviator's views of the ground from above destroyed by military aviators looking down on Southampton. On a personal note, I should add that my grandparents had moved to Southampton in 1938, and my grandfather, a veteran of the trenches of the Western Front, was in the Millbrook Home Guard, watching over the Docks. He would have witnessed the raid that destroyed Crawford's papers. You don't have to be high to get that feeling that, somehow, it all just fits together.

* Somewhere around this time, the word "experiment" seemed to detach itself from the laboratory and became a sort of mission statement. There was "experimental" music, film-making, and theatre. Intellectually curious young people didn't just get off their faces, but "experimented" with drugs, which always sounded better in court. Strange to think there was once a time when lying in the gutter looking at the stars could be regarded as an "experiment" but, although in retrospect experimenting with drugs is about as wise as experimenting with Russian roulette, it was by and large an innocent and geekish enterprise to which the word "experiment" was not completely inappropriate.

Saturday, 22 August 2009

The Big Show

Long-standing readers of this blog may recall that back in November I was approached, completely out of the blue and much to my surprise (and, I admit, not a little suspicion), by a publicly-funded photographic gallery in Innsbruck, Austria about a possible exhibition of my work. Things went quiet shortly thereafter, and I began to speculate whether this might be some elaborate but oddly ineffective scam.

Well, it has come to pass. If all goes to plan, there will be a show of 80 or so of my photographs (selected from the sequences Pentagonal Pool, The Revenants, Brilliant Corners, and The Mysterious Barricades) at the Galerie Fotoforum West in Innsbruck, from 11th September to 10th October, provisionally called "Der Widergänger" (The Revenant). Eighty images is a big show, and it's all a little bewildering.

There is, of course, the ongoing feeling that they must have got me mixed up with someone else. I am no stranger to "self esteem issues," it's true, but I am also not deluded and although I do not suffer unduly from false modesty I do know the contemporary art photography scene very well, and I thought I knew my place in it. I even took a certain pride in being an "outsider". It's all a little confusing. But my German is reasonably good and the gallery director, Rupert Larl, has unambiguously identified me as that English guy who spends his lunch hours endlessly photographing the same puddles of water. The Revenant, c'est moi.

If anything, this is an illustration of the power of the internet, and the new paradigms it has brought in. By putting it "out there" the work of a completely unknown artist will be seen by considerably more people than ever wander into most art galleries. Like many unknowns, in the past I have spent hundreds of pounds printing, framing, and putting up modest exhibitions in modest public spaces, and been glad of the opportunity. Sometimes I recovered my costs in sales, usually not. In the end, as I mentioned back in November, I had decided that hanging my work onto a wall was an outmoded rite of passage which I could easily do without. Ironically, the Web then brought me this extraordinary opportunity to do precisely that, on a scale and in a manner and in a place I would never have dreamed of. It's hard to take seriously.

Unfortunately, I will almost certainly not see the show myself. It would be difficult to pick a worse time for me to travel abroad than September shading into October. I have a responsible job in a university library which pays the bills, and my busiest time is looming -- a computer system upgrade, the usual preparations for the start of a new academic session, with the added complication of planning for a possible Swine Flu outbreak when the students return and start breathing all over each other and our staff. Too bad. But, should you happen to be passing through Innsbruck in September, why not drop by, and let me know how it looks?

But Rupert, who is self-evidently a very cool guy, has a plan. In my absence, he has arranged for a Canadian opera singer, Jennifer Chamandy of the Tiroler Landestheater, to read extracts from this very blog. No, really. It's going to be just like the Oscars: "Mike can't be with us this evening, so Jennifer will read out some thoughts on swearing and umbrellas..." I have suggested that, in the interests of verisimilitude, she probably ought to be made to wear a false red beard.

The gratifying thing is to look back on this "old" work with new eyes (in this case, Pentagonal Pool) and think: "Yes, that's not bad: I can see why someone would want to look at it."

Wednesday, 19 August 2009


I recently got a chance to offload one of my favourite anecdotes as a comment on Mike Johnston's blog. It's simply the best non-theoretical insight into the Long Debate on "representation" I know of. Here it is again:

"Just then my eye was caught by an unframed canvas standing on a shelf above Jacqueline's head and to the right. It was a portrait of a girl—Jacqueline, I would have said—in tones of green and black and white. She was shown in profile, looking off to the left, and Picasso had given the face a mildly geometrical stylization built up of triangular forms which emphasized the linear treatment but at the same time preserved the likeness. I pointed to the painting. 'How would you explain to a person whose training made him look on that as deformation, rather than formation, why you had done it that way?' I asked him.

'Let me tell you a story,' Picasso said. 'Right after the Liberation, lots of GIs came to my studio in Paris. I would show them my work, and some of them understood and admired more than others. Almost all of them, though, before they left, would show me pictures of their wives or girl friends. One day one of them who had made some kind of remark, as I showed him one of my paintings, about how 'It doesn't really look like that, though,' got to talking about his wife and he pulled out a tiny passport-size picture of her to show me. I said to him, 'But she's so tiny, your wife. I didn't realize from what you said that she was so small.' He looked at me very seriously. 'Oh, she's not really so small,' he said. 'It's just that this is a very small photograph. ' "

—Picasso, interviewed in The Atlantic, July 1957

In the best version of the story, which I've never managed to source, Picasso then turns over the photo and exclaims, "My God! You poor man! She's also completely flat!!"

Owl contemplating butterfly on cheek
Mapperton Manor, Dorset

Sunday, 16 August 2009


For a large proportion of Britain's population a "holiday" has become so synonymous with "going abroad" that the newspapers have skewed the original meaning of staycation to signify "having a holiday in Britain", which apparently a lot more people are doing this year. This year I'm doing both. A week, now finished (sigh) in Beaminster, Dorset (pron. "Bemminster"), followed by a week at home.

This Vermeer-like interior is the cottage in Beaminster we had rented, viewed in an antique mirror hanging opposite the door. Those are not Dutch clogs by the door, but my son's trainers.

This is a bit of Dorset viewed reflected in the stained glass of the chapel at Mapperton Manor. I like the way it echoes my partner's obsession with completing a four foot wide jigsaw puzzle with which she took over the dining table all week.

Fish pond at Montacute House

As I'm still on holiday but now within reach of my computer, I'm not sure whether I'll post anything more substantial this week or not. Maybe a couple more postcards: not so much "Wish you were here" as "Wish I was still there", perhaps.

Friday, 7 August 2009

How Deep is Deep?

I'm going to be away for the next week, so please talk amongst yourselves, or visit some of the fine sites listed on the right. In case you get bored, here's something to think about:

One of the metaphors we take for granted in the discussion of the meaning of our lives is the idea of depth. We talk of deep meanings, of profundity, of inner depths. But the deepest deep I can muster in my own body (let's say, from the innermost top of my brain to somewhere down in the pelvic region) is, according to this tape measure, about 80cm. And, so far as I can tell, most of my thoughts appear to be occurring in my head which is, what, 15cm deep? So all those deep feelings and profound thoughts are not particularly deep, if you take the metaphor literally. So why is the notion of depth so important to us? Where have we all experienced this unplumbed abyss that is the imaginary validation, measure and location of our most important thoughts and feelings?

(This is a question, not a setup, by the way: I won't be bringing any answers back from Somerset and Dorset; I'm just hoping for a relaxing week in some locations familiar from our earliest family holidays. See you later).

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Straws in the Wind

I'm a bit of a photo-book enthusiast, and when I come across a photographer I like, I tend to watch for and snap up anything they publish in the way of books and exhibition catalogues. Other enthusiasts don't need convincing that regularly dropping £20 or £30 on a book is a worthwhile activity (it's cheap compared to heroin or fast cars), but even regular folk sit up and listen when I take them on a tour of It's rare for quality photobooks to depreciate in value, and not uncommon for them to add an extra zero. Like any other form of gambling which is not purely chance-based, you just have to study form and stay ahead of the game. There's really no point at all in buying into Cartier Bresson, for example, and Martin Parr peaked a decade ago, but [name withheld] is a sure thing. My principle is that I always only follow my own taste and I never buy books at collector's prices, only at the published price or as lucky second-hand finds.

One of my enthusiasms is Susan Derges, whose camera-less imaging of water at night is a shining example of quite how delightfully inventive, dedicated and slightly deranged you have to be to achieve true originality in a saturated market. Her publications have been few and rather special, so when I spotted a recent catalogue for an exhibition at the Purdy Hicks gallery in London, I was straight on the phone. When I received it today, its heft, paper, print quality and binding seemed strangely familiar. After a minute, I spotted a familiar blue logo on the title page and the penny dropped: an up-market London gallery is now using Blurb to produce its catalogues!

I'm not sure whether this is an endorsement of Blurb, or an indication of hard times in the gallery world; a bit of both, probably. Now, I knew some well-respected and much-published photographers like John Gossage had experimented with Blurb and Lulu, but this is different. I'm also not sure what I think about it. It's a straw in the wind.

Obviously, Blurb books produced by you or me have a certain fantasy element to them, like toy money. Who wouldn't prefer to be published "properly" by Nazraeli or Dewi Lewis? But once the likes of Susan Derges also start to become available "on demand" via the likes of Blurb, then the nature of the game starts to change. If nothing else, we're all keeping classier company.

But, clearly, if the gallery (or fellow artist Christopher Bucklow, who seems to be acting as the "Blurbarian" in this case) pulls the plug on its availability, it will immediately becomes a "collectable", whatever its humble origin. Wouldn't it be ironic if that disposable, democratic, Web 2.0 ethos served to generate a new source of ultra-rare collectors' pieces, printed in tiny editions? Not sure what I think about that, although I'll have no complaints if, in time, my £17 purchase adds a zero in value...

Talking of straws in the wind, can't you just see the tumbleweed blowing down "Engineers' Row" now that all the students have gone home?

Saturday, 1 August 2009


If there's one important lesson I've learned in photography, it is to discard as little as possible, and periodically to review my backfiles to see what I missed first time round. Almost always, overlooked gems are sitting quietly waiting to be discovered, overwhelmed at first sight by their gaudier neighbours, but patiently secure in their own merit.

The ease and difficulty of retention and review have changed radically in recent years: paradoxically, what was easy and what was difficult in the days of film have reversed in the days of digital. Roll-film negatives cannot be discarded selectively, and they're a relatively stable, easy-to-store medium (transparencies are a different matter, but I hated the things and rarely used them). But they are tedious to review. The ranks of miniature frames on even a good contact sheet can only hint at what a full-sized, well-printed version of each might eventually look like. It takes patience, good eyesight, experience, and imagination to get the most out of a contact sheet.

For the digital photographer, the situation is quite different. The temptation to delete unsatisfactory shots in camera or after they have been uploaded is very strong. Each frame represents many megabytes of disk space, and when disk space is running low ruthlessness seems the obvious course. On top of that, digital storage is volatile: you need to back up your images in several places RIGHT NOW before your hard disk fails. But even these backups are volatile -- CDs and DVDs use dyes to record data, and dyes fade. Sometimes, it feels like it's all "writ in water". But reviewing has never been easier: utilities like BreezeBrowser enable you to brood over your images like a stamp collector.

Hartley Library extension

For example, it's taken me five months to notice this image, a no-brainer for the "Campus Windows" project. Shame I didn't spot it in time to get it into my Photography.Book.Now book, but never mind, that thing will be twice the size by the time I've finished a full year's worth of window hunting, assuming of course I manage to resist the temptation to go round for yet another year (or two). Of course, another year's worth would simply postpone, prolong, and intensify the agony of editing yet another enormous sequence down into something digestible...

The corollary of this, I've learned, is that it's important not to rush to judgement. For example, I'm quite excited by these three recent images, taken within minutes of each other at a recent graduation ceremony. They are so similar to each other that really only one can survive into any final cut of a "Campus Windows" sequence. But which?