Saturday, 30 October 2010

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Picture vs. Photograph: bonus track

I'm very pleased with this one, and I'm posting it as a "bonus track" to the previous post. I've started to work up an interest in the use of blank white shapes -- those much-feared "blown highlights" -- in the compositional process.

A massive prize (payable in Kudos, the rival to the Euro and the US Dollar) to anyone who can figure out what this actually is (tiny clue: it's also in the Ashmolean).

Picture vs. Photograph

In the light of recent remarks on "technical quality" vs. "pictorial impact", I thought it might be interesting to think out loud about the process of making this image:

In case anyone has the wrong idea, the photos that I show on this blog are not intended to be representative of my "considered work", if I can put it that way. They are simply what floated to the top from that week's picture-making, and seemed to complement whatever I happened to feel like writing about. When I come to select and sequence images with my "serious" hat on -- perhaps a year or more later -- different factors are at work, and different images will come to the fore.

The one above, for example, has resonances that will probably make it a candidate for several sequences that are forming in the back of my mind. It's a photograph from my recent visit to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. I was using the Panasonic GF-1 with the 14-45 f/3.5-5.6 zoom, a good lens but not ideal for dim interiors -- unfortunately, I'd somehow omitted to put the 20mm f/1.7 in my bag. Idiot! The only solution was to raise the ISO.

Now, I never work above ISO 400, for the simple reason that I'm the sort of fool who still thinks in film terms, and for me ISO 400 colour negative film was on the limits of usability, even in my medium-format Fuji rangefinder. But it was obvious that in the sepulchral gloom of a museum I was going to have to use ISO 800 and even, ulp, ISO 1600.

I had made my first pass through the galleries, and had got the feel of the layout, the light, the angles, the opportunities. When the attendants weren't looking, I steadied my camera by pressing the lens against the glass of the vitrines -- no point in being precious about optical quality when working hand-held at ISO 1600. When they were looking, I leaned against anything solid that wasn't 4,000 years old, and invoked the gods of photography ("Oh, Leica, Lord of Luxury, steady my hand in my hour fifteenth of a second of need..."). It's easy to bring out your inner pagan when surrounded by the pious detritus of human history.

Now, that first pass is essential in any context : you flush all the obvious shots out of your system, get the feel of the place, start noticing the less obvious shots, and -- with any luck -- start to get "into the zone", that wonderful mental space where everything drops away except you and the camera and you finally start seeing.

When I reached the top of the gallery, I saw that attendant, draped against the rail of the stairwell, thirty feet away, through a showcase of ceramics on a mezzanine balcony. I dropped to my knees, pressed my back against a convenient wall, let the lens focus on the vase inside the cabinet, prayed ("Oh, Zeiss, God of Good Glass, let me be lucky"), and took the shot. ISO 1600, 1/50 second at f/5.4, zoomed to 33mm (66mm in 35mm terms), everything on "auto" but underexposed by one third of a stop. Click. And again, zoomed to 45mm and rotated to "portrait". Click. I only remembered I was on ISO 1600 too late to change it: the attendant moved away, and the moment was over.

Technically, the result is all over the place -- both under- and over-exposed, unsharp, and inevitably rather noisy. Here's a 100% crop of the image, converted from RAW but unmanipulated:

Notice: it's not that noisy. Compared to a scan from film, it's not noisy at all. In fact, that's quite impressive for an ISO 1600 shot, hand-held in available light. Well done, Panasonic engineers. And I like the image a lot, so it's worth some work to rescue it. In the end, I didn't do a lot of manipulation: just the usual adjustments to the levels and the colour curves and, above all, I ran the file through the Noise Ninja filter plug-in. If you don't already have any decent noise reduction software, I thoroughly recommend Noise Ninja --used carefully, it can rescue otherwise unusable photographs, and is indispensable for scans from film.

Here's that same 100% crop at the end of the process:

The image actually started out like this:

There's a lot to be said for the composed chaos of the rectangular image I originally saw through the viewfinder. Some people might object to that strong vertical bar on the left, but I think it balances the strong shape of the vase rather well, and "holds" the composition together. Nevertheless, my favoured square crop does simplify and calm the image down, and makes more of the interplay of the bold shapes, especially that trumpet-shaped vase.

Technically, this picture has little going for it, but I think its pictorial impact far exceeds any worries about focus, noise or "burned out highlights". It has a sombre mystery that would never be conveyed by a perfectly-captured picture of any of its elements, separately (though, obviously, I wouldn't have minded a perfectly-captured picture of all its elements, together). It's a good picture, if not a good photograph, and that's what counts.

Of course, if only I'd remembered to take the right lens...

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Reserving Judgement

There has been a mini-furore of reaction, almost entirely negative, to the announcement of the winner of the "single image" category in the British Journal of Photography's International Photography Award. The announcement, and the winning image, can be seen here.

Something interesting -- possibly good interesting, possibly bad interesting -- is going on here. I was very struck by the force and unanimity of the reaction -- not so much a debate as a public hanging. Even the usually reliable Mike Johnston saw it as an opportunity for a caption competition, not for reflection. I posted this comment on TOP (which I may live to regret):


I'm not immediately impressed by this image myself, but aren't you -- as a professional contrarian -- even a little bothered by the strength and unanimity of the negative response to it?

Think back to the reactions to f64, New Topographics, John Gossage, Paul Graham, Alec Soth... Almost always "Why, these aren't proper photographs! They're so banal!!"

For sure, I'm not saying this is an outstanding photograph -- it looks very ill-considered to my 56-year-old eyes -- but it is very typical of what some thoughtful young photographers are producing, perhaps in reaction to what us oldies hold dear about our photographs.

I think it's wise to try to stay open to the "Hendrix Moment" ("Coltrane Moment", if you prefer) -- when something new arrives that trashes certain expectations of a previous generation. This may or may not be such a moment.

I hope not, personally, but I'm reserving judgement until I understand what is really going on. I don't know about you, but my instinct is always to head in the other direction to the baying of the Flickr crowd...


I know, I can be an appalling elitist when it comes to photography, but why not judge the things you love by the highest standards? It doesn't seem to trouble football fans.

That "Hendrix/Coltrane Moment" is a precious and rare thing, worth looking and listening out for. As I've written before, if there's one thing I have learned, it is that -- unless you are living on the cutting edge yourself -- your eyes and ears are never ready for the genuinely new. You have to learn to learn from your discomfort.

You always have to ask, "Why don't I like something that someone else thinks is well worth my attention?" Sometimes arriving at an honest answer to that question will just end up confirming your own beliefs, but sometimes it will radically change your mind. "Free your mind and your ass will follow", as George Clinton would say.

Sunday, 24 October 2010


I hate buying new shoes. I have small, wide feet that won't cram comfortably into any leather shoe with a bit of structure, and the first month after purchase is always a period of pain and discomfort, alleviated with sticking plasters and extra socks. I rarely have more than one pair, and I wear them to destruction before replacing them.

A few years ago I made the mistake of buying a pair of those "lifetime purchase" shoes which rubbed my heels so badly that the fancy yellow leather lining was soaked with my blood. I eventually threw the expensive bastards in the bin. Right now I'm wearing a new pair of Josef Seibel lace-ups ("the European comfort shoe"), extra wide and made of supple leather, and my left little toe is rubbing and both insteps are aching. A large part of my consciousness has currently located itself in my feet. It'll get better, eventually.

So I have reason to remember comfortable footwear, the way some people remember cars. I have always found boots a better match to my feet than shoes. My grandfather passed on to me a pair of American army boots when I was 14, and from then on I habitually wore boots at school -- usually Dr. Marten's Airwairs. But the best pair I ever had were my Dutch work boots.

Boot boy

In 1973 I went to Amsterdam with a friend for a few weeks, where we stayed in a dormitory over a bar run by an American in the Nieuwmarkt district (which turned out to be the base for a massive car-and-dope-smuggling operation, but that's another story). If you never went hitchhiking round Europe in the 70s, you probably won't know about sleep-ins.

There were two types. First, there were the cheap dormitories with bunks and basic facilities, not unlike youth hostels, and plentiful in popular destinations like Amsterdam. These were oriented to youth culture, and usually had a few very basic rules like "no dealing on the premises; no tripping in the dormitory". Then there were the emergency municipal sleeping spaces, often a school hall, aimed at getting the young summer backpackers off the streets as they passed through town. You could spend the night in a sleeping bag on a hard floor alongside maybe 50 or more other pilgrims. This was European civic-mindedness at its tolerant best; hitchhiking was mostly good fun, but the less streetwise kids were very vulnerable.

After we had got over the novelty of Amsterdam's coffee bars, where many fancy varieties of hash could be bought legally, laid out on trays in glass cabinets like patisserie, we explored the surrounding area, which was very lively in those days. Apart from the nearby Red-Light District, the area was a hotbed of political activism, full of squats and communes and covered with inventive grafitti. At the time, people were gearing up for full-on opposition to the proposal to bulldoze the area to make way for a metro and motorway. In those days, this was very much my kind of scene. In 1975, riotous violence exploded in Nieuwmarkt (but it was bulldozed, nonetheless, and the metro still got built).

In the main square was a market, and one of the stalls sold nothing but hand-made clogs and work boots. When I pulled on a pair of the boots -- rawhide calf-length loose jackboots, with leather soles and reinforced toecaps -- I found, to my amazement, it was like wearing slippers. Rather robust, hyper-butch slippers, it's true, but I had rarely felt so immediately at one with footwear. They instilled a sense of well-being and confidence -- not least, I have to admit, because the substantial heels added somewhat to my height.

Boot boy's best boots

I wore them for the following decade. Their hand-made construction meant they could be repaired eternally. Cobblers' eyes would brighten with pleasure when I handed them over the counter for a new heel or sole. The good ones would comment on the distinctive German style of the sole construction.

But, one day after I'd started a "proper" nine-to-five job, someone wondered whether my habitual footwear didn't seem a little OTT for office work. At the time I was alternating the Dutch boots with a pair of equally comfortable German paratrooper's boots. I found I could see their point, and I experienced that rush of self-awareness -- not quite shame, not quite wisdom -- that is the onset of growing up. You begin to see yourself as you really are, and the realisation comes that your days of wearing items from the dressing-up box are coming to an end.

I had been trying to combine a fairly wild social life with a job that required early rising and sober concentration, and it seemed a choice had to be made; I was, after all, not far off 30 years old. For everyone there comes a point where -- unless you are a supremely talented and motivated individual -- self-invention starts to shade into self-delusion. For me, I decided that point had arrived, and I chose to accept the walk-on part in the world I had been offered, rather than imagine I was ever going to give it the good kicking it deserved.

Twenty five years on, though, I find I miss my old boots. Perhaps it is an indicator of impending mid-life crisis that I find myself wondering whether the discomfort of new shoes is still a price worth paying. I never quite pulled off respectability, anyway. And, if anything, the world is more in need of a kicking now than it ever was. But, I promise, no ponytail and no motorbike.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Unconquered Sun

We had our first morning frosts this week, and it's suddenly unexpectedly dark in the late afternoon. I'm very attracted to sombre but rich palettes, the sort of thing that hints at an immense, deep power temporarily banked down, like a furnace. It's very much the feel of this time of year, as the sun's increasing distance from us starts to make itself felt.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Annuals and Cards

As this month marks the second anniversary of this blog, I thought it would be fun to produce two books in the form of an "Idiotic Hat Annual" (Christmas is coming) using the Blurb "blog slurping" facility. So far, it's looking promising.

The emphasis will be on the text, not the pictures, but without editing each volume currently runs to over 250 pages. I've written rather a lot over the past two years. I suspect that once I've pruned the initial "slurp" of an entire year's posts each volume will be around 150 pages, but that's still going to cost you £25 or more each in paperback...

However, in the end, my main intention is to preserve my efforts on paper rather than to shift product, so if you want to buy in to the foolishness that is the Idiotic Hat project you're very welcome, but if you don't, don't.

It is also coming up to the time to produce my Christmas / New Year cards again. I haven't chosen the images yet but, as last year, I will send a card to anyone anywhere on the planet who has taken the trouble to comment on this blog during the previous year, provided you send me a terrestrial address by email (see my profile over on the right there for my email address). Last year's recipients need not re-apply, unless you have moved house!

Possible card candidate:
a (very) still life

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

The Burden of Nineveh

As I had to ferry some more objects to Oxford on Sunday afternoon*, I thought it was high time I dropped in on the refurbished Ashmolean Museum. I must admit, despite all the plaudits, I was a little nervous about it. It has always been one of my favourite places, an inexhaustible treasure-house, a gigantic Wunderkammer crammed to the rafters with the most amazing stuff. Might they have spoiled it by radically thinning out the collection on display, or by "interpreting" it to death for the benefit of ten-year-old visitors?

When I was feeling fragile on a Sunday afternoon as a student, I used to stumble across St. Giles and lose myself in the place. Actually, you could very easily get lost, as the layout of the original building was quite strange, like one of those hotels knocked together out of several adjoining buildings, linked with dim passages and irrational staircases. But I had my touchstones to navigate by: the Anglo-Saxon Alfred Jewel, the enormous Uccello painting "The Hunt", the Cycladic figurines, like maquettes for a children's stop-motion animated series, and above all the little row of Samuel Palmer's visionary landscapes done in sepia and gum.

Meet the Cyclads

I even got to see behind the scenes. It had become obvious to my tutors that I was slightly adrift with regard to employability, but when it emerged that I had an interest in museums an appointment was arranged with the director of the Ashmolean, who happened to be a fellow of the college. When he discovered I was a Pre-Raphaelite fan, we had a lovely afternoon in the basement stores, pulling out the sliding racks to admire -- and, indeed, laugh at -- the lesser Pre-Raphaelite paintings not on display upstairs. It was like an upscale version of the wire-cage lockups for residents' junk at home in our block of flats.

It seemed like a good job to me. But in the end I decided to stay on and do some research -- on the poetry of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the Pre-Raphaelite painter and poet, as it happens. It was all sorted -- I had a full three-year grant and everything -- but then I had a crisis of faith in the whole literary-critical enterprise, and went off to study literary theory at the University of East Anglia instead. People thought I had flipped. The jury is still out on that one.

Head of Laocoön

Anyway, there I was, going up the steps to the Ashmolean on Sunday, having first dropped by to see my son. I remembered taking him up those very same steps, aged six months, one drizzly day in 1991 when the Prof was giving a seminar at Ruskin College. The first sign of the renovations was a rather inadequate revolving door, allowing only one person at a time to shuffle through. I stood impatiently while a pair of Japanese idiots attempted to pass through together, causing the emergency stop to halt the door every other step. Once inside, I was asked to carry my backpack, not wear it: "We've had some breakages." Uh oh.

But it was fine. Having once been reminiscent of the world's best bric-a-brac shop, it is now like the world's best gift shop. Wonderful things, wonderful things, all in subdued and subtly lit vitrines or on gallery-style plinths. I took some photographs, but mainly took pleasure in just looking and wondering. A couple of hours later, it was time to go.

A fist-bump with antiquity

As I pushed back out through the revolving door, I had one of those epiphanic moments (I did tell you the jury is still out) as it all came together in a rush of recognition: I remembered the poem by Rossetti, "The Burden of Nineveh", describing a visit to the British Museum that had sparked my interest all those years ago:

In our Museum galleries
To-day I lingered o'er the prize
Dead Greece vouchsafes to living eyes, —
Her Art for ever in fresh wise
From hour to hour rejoicing me.
Sighing I turned at last to win
Once more the London dirt and din;
And as I made the swing-door spin
And issued, they were hoisting in
A wingèd beast from Nineveh
Reading it now I realise that, if only he'd left it there, it could stand alongside Shelley's "Ozymandias" as a good poem in the ironic archaeological sublime mode. But it plods on for another tumpty-tum nineteen stanzas, to no great purpose. Ah, well. Those could have been a rather wasted three years, after all. Amusingly, I discovered this early draft on the Rossetti Archive (what a magnificent resource):

I have no taste for polyglot:
At the Museum 'twas my lot,
Just once, to jot and blot and rot
In Babel for I know not what.
I went at two, I left at three.
Round those still floors I tramp'd, to win
By the great porch the dirt and din;
And as I made the last door spin
And issued, they were hoisting in
A wingèd beast from Nineveh.

A useful lesson, that even second rate poems can be third rate to start with. But I do love the way the poem has mutated from a grumpy, wasted hour in Bloomsbury to a redemptive encounter in a busy city centre with the sublime. But that's what museums are for, isn't it?

* including an IKEA table -- do those product names sound less ludicrous in Sweden, I wonder?

Monday, 18 October 2010

A Modest Proposal

From the Dean of Serious Sciences

Dear Vice Chancellor,

As we are all acutely aware, the government is shortly to announce unprecedented cuts in funding for universities. If the rumours are to be believed, all public funding for degrees in the humanities is to be withdrawn. I think we can all condemn this savage act of philistinism; if nothing else, where are the future life-partners for engineers and chemists to come from, if not from an on-site pool of young humanities students? I have tried not to "gender" this comment, as the social scientists would say, but I think we're probably on the same page here.

It strikes me that the underlying issue is simply one of cost. Although, in material resource terms, the humanities are relatively cheap -- how much can a whiteboard and a pack of coloured pens cost? -- an awful lot of useful money is being invested in staff. Now, I think it is well established that research in the humanities is, in terms of outcomes, verging on the pointless. Does the world really need a fresh perspective on Milton when, if the bibliometric evidence is reliable, the previous 1753.6 perspectives have had an impact so negligible as to be unmeasurable?

A rhetorical question, obviously. That argument has been won lost. But, if there is to be a humanities presence on campus (and, from a practical social and emotional hygiene point of view, not to mention the "student-centredness" of our approach, I would argue that this is essential) the question of the excessive cost of employing teaching staff needs to be addressed. I have given this some thought, and here is my conclusion.

We talk of spoon feeding. Increasingly, undergraduates are being taught by student-friendly pedagogical techniques, such as multiple-choice and scratch card. Why couldn't we take that approach one step further: could not degrees be dispensed in pill form? Obviously this would be impossible in information-intense subjects, like Serious Science, but the humanities?

A recent neurological study has shown that the impact of an English or History degree on the 20-year-old brain is indistinguishable from a placebo effect (using a controlled comparison with degrees in hairdressing and pet psychology offered by rival institutions). Why not go the whole hog, and offer a humanities placebo pill, delivered in three equally-spaced ceremonial doses?

A suitable stock of colourful sugar pills would not represent a major investment, and a nurse or two could be recruited on a purely seasonal basis to accompany your worthy self on the awarding platform. That is, assuming your presence is still considered necessary; perhaps using the facilities of the Medical Centre would represent savings in terms of marquee hire, etc.? A spoonful of sugar, a glass of water, and everybody's happy.

It's a win-win!

Kind regards, etc.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

The Jungle Line

Rousseau walks on trumpet paths
Safaris to the heart of all that jazz
Through I-bars and girders, through wires and pipes
The mathematic circuits of the modern nights
Through huts through Harlem through jails and gospel pews
Through the class on Park and the trash on Vine
Through Europe and the deep deep heart of Dixie blue
Through savage progress cuts the jungle line

Joni Mitchell, The Jungle Line

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Elton John Collects Garry Fabian Miller

It's true. Elton John collects the ethereal, spiritual work of camera-less photographer Garry Fabian Miller. Miller's work is currently featured in a show of camera-less photography at the V&A, along with two of my other favourite artists, Susan Derges and Adam Fuss (Shadow Catchers, 13 Oct 2010 - 20 Feb 2011), and this astonishing fact was revealed in a spot this week on Radio 4's Today Programme.

Now, I knew EJ collected photography, but I'd assumed we were talking about Robert Mapplethorpe or maybe John Dugdale, with a bit of Jim Marshall or some flamboyant colour kitsch thrown in (spoiled for choice, there). Don't get me wrong, I like some Elton John. I think "Your Song" and "Daniel" are masterpieces, though it's been a long, long road since then, it's true. There was a notorious morning assembly I remember fondly which I and some friends put on at secondary school which involved playing, in darkness, first EJ's "Sixty Years On" and then the entirety of "The Joke" from High Tide's second album. Such larks! The Head was not happy.

But Garry Fabian Miller....If you don't know his work (and you should) his extremely lovely book Illumine is still available, often dirt cheap on Ebay and used book sites, though I suspect this exhibition will raise his profile and thus his used book prices considerably. There's a decent selection of his work at the Ingleby Gallery site. But Elton and Garry... Maybe I'm amazed (sorry, that's the other guy).

Oh, and Susan Derges, apparently, is collected by Colin Greenwood of Radiohead and his wife, the novelist and poet Molly McGrann (it says here, in The Independent). Hmm, this blog is turning into a society gossip column...*

N.B. if you're in the London area and not otherwise occupied on Guy Fawkes night, Garry Fabian Miller and Susan Derges are giving a talk at the V&A : here are the details.

* I do hope these wealthy collectors have properly investigated the archival properties of colour print paper which has been immersed in seawater.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Free as a Brush

Aspiring artists -- encouraged, perhaps, by some early success in selling work -- are wise to do some sums before deciding to quit the day job in order to dedicate their life to their work. Simple sums like these:

To earn an annual income of, say, £24K, one has to sell an average of £2K of work every month. An average. Or, to earn the level of income that buys a modest degree of freedom -- let's say £60K p.a. minimum -- one has to sell an average of £5K every month. Every month. If you're an unknown hoping to sell work, year in year out for 40 years and without a trust fund or high-earning partner to fall back on, those are sobering sums. Perhaps that's why they rarely get done. Better not to know.

Certainly, no bank is ever going to lend money to someone with a business plan which amounts to "Get famous; sell lots of work." Thank you, Mr. Picasso, my secretary will show you the way out. Not surprisingly, the number of non-trustafarians who can make a living by concentrating on their "personal work", whether it be platinum pinhole prints or large-format colour, is probably quite close to zero. I've gone on about this before, so I won't do it again; we don't want to come over as "chippy", now do we? (how I hate that word). My point this time is simply to say how lucky we amateurs are to be free to fail, boldly and repeatedly, in the quest for, well, whatever it is we're looking for, and yet how curious it is that so few of us do so.

Even if we do have the drive to produce a constant stream of new work, we may well not feel any pressure to take risks, to innovate, given we are not competing with each other for attention and income. Many amateurs (in the visual arts at any rate) are actually quite prolific. Yet amateur work is far more driven by convention and the imitation of established models than the work of more commercially-oriented professionals, who are often driven by the urge to feed their children to extraordinary feats of creative originality.

This is depressing, as it takes one deeply into the reactionary territory of market-driven economics. But you only have to think of those walls in pubs or restaurants showing the work of local painters and photographers, produced freely under terms chosen by the "artist". Doesn't their timidity make you want to scream? Or think of the sort of vanity gallery you encounter in upmarket holiday towns, showcasing some wealthy drone's pastime. Leisure + Wealth is a formula for complacency, when the work aspires to nothing more than interior decoration.

We photographers are the worst, of course. Nothing overwhelms that unsettling spark of enquiry or introspection quite like the urge to make a perfect magic-hour landscape in Tuscany, just like the ones Charlie Waite makes, or to freeze a splash of dyed water with a strobe, just like all the other "perfect" winning entries in the latest yawn-inducing competition.

There is, of course, no reason at all why amateur photography should not aspire to the condition of painting-by-numbers. Hence "art filters" and "Photoshop tips". But don't you, too, want to run amok along the tapestry-kit aisle whenever you enter one of those barn-sized temples to fake "creativity" that sell DIY arts-and-crafts sedatives? And don't you despair when you have a flick through Flickr? If not, you really are reading the wrong blog.

A while back, I was amazed and encouraged to find myself featured in Mike Johnston's "Random Excellence" slot on his TOP blog. This unexpected shot of fame (Mike gets over 30K visits a DAY, and this exposure led directly to my Innsbruck exhibition) caused me to think about what I was doing and I wrote a comment which is, in a sense, a manifesto:

Seeing as this is my party, some thoughts on The Unknown Photographer:

Most of my work is done in my lunch-hour, or at weekends, repeatedly visiting the same few local sites. I'm not a professional photographer or artist i.e. I don't earn a living that way. Most people work like this: even professionals have to squeeze time for "personal" work which won't pay any bills.

On balance, I think of this as a Good Thing. It's like writing poetry: if you're after fame and fortune, you're in the wrong game. You do it for its own sake, and the appreciation of a small, dedicated, statistically insignificant audience, most of whom will be practitioners themselves. Even fame within such a small circle is effective invisibility -- Martin Parr is about as well known to the wider world as Paul Muldoon. But invisibility does have benefits: you're free from the expectations of paying audiences -- so there's no excuse for your work not to be As Serious As Your Life (or Daft As A Brush, if that's what you prefer).

All I need to do now is to live up to my own manifesto. Easier said than done. In the only quote most people know from Samuel Beckett (remembered, I suspect, for its uncharacteristic hint of optimism):
Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
(Worstward Ho)
May we all find the means and the courage to fail better. Or, failing that, I think I'd settle for that £60K p.a. ...

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Diabolo Menthe

Like a lot of people who stood too close to the speakers once too often, I'm having problems with my hearing as I get older. A combination of deafness and tinnitus means that I now have that infuriating habit of endlessly asking people to repeat what they have just said (old jokes about deafness abound: "Is it Thursday today?" "Me, too, let's have a cup of tea!"). More annoyingly -- for me -- it means going to the cinema is no longer an enjoyable experience. The sheer percussive volume of modern cinemas is unbearable -- the Pearl & Dean adverts theme is like being under attack from a psychological warfare unit.

As I've mentioned before, despite being a lover of the medium, there are a surprising number of recent movies that I haven't seen. As a lonely postgraduate student at the far-flung University of East Anglia in 1976/7, I spent many enjoyable evenings filling in the gaps in my film knowledge, ranging from the wonderful Casablanca to the egregious Last Year at Marienbad. In our [slightly over-extended] youth, the Prof and I were habitual filmgoers: Bristol at the cusp of the1970s and 1980s offered three art-house cinemas, and it was the giddy heyday of Herzog, Tarkovsky, Wenders, and Greenaway. It was not unusual for us to see three movies in one week. But when we had kids at age 37 we more or less gave up cinema, along with pubs, smoking, and any other pleasures that involved leaving the house. So, I've now got a gap of about 20 film-free years to make up.

This means, of course, that there is a certain date-limited randomness to the films that loom large in my memory and imagination. Although I've got the years up to about 1985 well-covered, my view of the subsequent period is utterly dependent on what was shown on TV at a time I happened to be awake, what I videotaped and could be bothered to rewind and watch, or what videos and DVDs came my way. Out of the thousands of films released, I have a sample about as adequate as a single frame snipped from an entire reel. For example, the only Coen Brothers film I've ever seen is O Brother, Where Art Thou? No, really.

One film that has stayed with me, seen in Bristol in the Arnolfini then caught again a decade later one random evening on TV, is a 1977 French film by Diane Kurys, Diabolo Menthe (released in the Anglophone world as Peppermint Soda). The French art cinema, by and large, leaves me cold -- that reflexive obsession with the film-ness of films ("Mon dieu, don't you understand, we are only in a movie!") is so dull, dull, dull. But the French mainstream, which we hardly ever get to see, is different. The French, though fond of a stylish car chase, do like to make and see films about real people. Crazy!

Diabolo Menthe -- not, as far as I know, high on anyone's "must see" list of films -- seemed somehow to speak some truths about normal, suburban adolescence in the early 1960s: in that respect, it has things in common with another favorite film of mine, Gregory's Girl. So, as my daughter showed every sign of becoming an extreme cinéphile, not to say cinéaste, a couple of years ago I thought it would be a good film for her to see, if only to vary her Hollywood diet a little.

So, I tried to find it on DVD. To my surprise, this turned out to be rather difficult, but in the end I did find a copy in the USA on eBay. When it arrived, I had two unpleasant surprises. The first was that it was clearly a pirated DVD. Now, I'm not one to get sanctimonious about unlicensed copying, but I do object to being sold someone's home-made rip-off as the real thing. The second surprise was that the seller had put a copy of their catalogue in with the DVD, and it was 80% pornography, some of it deeply unpleasant. It turns out there is a specialist genre of porn, coyly described as "Coming of Age Films", and Diabolo Menthe was deemed by this moron to fall into that category. I sent it straight back. I've been a little wary looking for it since -- you don't want to end up on some police database, however innocently.

What I do have on DVD, is the BFI's release of Celine and Julie Go Boating (by Jacques Rivette, 1974 ). In fact, I've had it for over a year, and haven't yet dared watch it. I saw this film in a cinema in Norwich in 1976, and loved every minute of its 3 hours. But will it turn out to be a cinematic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance? Maybe I should wait a bit longer... After all, I also have Tom Tykwer's The Princess and the Warrior, Guillermo de Toro's Pan's Labyrinth, and half a dozen other unwatched DVDs all stacked up.

And that's the problem with not going to the cinema any more: films end up being bought and used privately like books, and -- for anyone over 40, anyway -- that's not what films are about. Films are about going to see Born Free in 1966 with your parents in an enormous Leicester Square cinema and loving it so much that you stay in your seats and sit through the second performance, too. Or going to see Woody Allen's Sleeper in a grubby cinema on the Cowley Road in Oxford with a group of like-minded friends, and laughing as hard as only a like-minded audience can laugh. Or gradually tuning in to Tarkovsky's Mirror, ignoring the shuffling and muttering of those who don't get it and who leave after 20 minutes, ending up blissed out in a half empty cinema, with the urge to exchange addresses with everyone else left in the place when the lights go up.

And, above all, it never used to be anywhere near as bloody LOUD.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

On the Threshold

"Liminal" is one of my favourite words. It derives from the Latin word for a threshold, and its cultural richness is well conveyed by this Wikipedia compendium. I have found that I am most fully at home in liminal states and situations, and love that state of suspended difference -- ignoring distinctions of age, status, and gender -- that is the natural condition of a temporary group enterprise, such as a journey or, indeed, a photographic workshop.

When I was about 12, my stated aspiration was to be a tour guide on coach holidays to Austria, which made my teachers smile. Well, at least it gave the boy a reason to study German. But I had a genuine if slightly absurd attraction to that role, which might be seen as a permanent facilitator attached to a series of liminal groups, shuttling between different realities. Tarkovsky's Stalker but with comfy seats and air-conditioning.

I love the transitional seasons autumn and to a lesser extent spring, But I've posted about that before (As the Sparks Fly Up) . They are shape-shifting times when boundaries are thin and transparent, and light can shine through to imprint shifting shades of the future and the past onto the fading present.

Here are a few liminal pictures from this week's haul.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

The Lost List

If you are like me, you probably have a mental list -- quite a short list, if you're lucky -- of the people who unexpectedly vanished, dropped out, or withdrew from your life at an unexpectedly early stage. They are the friends and acquaintances who moved away, lost touch, lost interest, fell out with you, died, or who became mad, bad and dangerous to know. The Lost List.

Thinking of my second year at university (see previous post) reminded me of the person who had occupied the room beneath mine on Staircase 10 in 1974/5. Steve was one of the gentlest people I have ever met. From his "posh" voice and careful manners, I had always assumed that he was privately-educated, but later discovered that, like me, he was a grammar school boy (though you might argue that William Ellis School, Highgate was in a different league to your bog-standard state grammar). How anyone survived twelve years in the state system anywhere in London whilst holding on to their RP pronunciation is a bit of a mystery, though. Being really well spoken is not usually much of a defense against the levelling thuggery of the school playground.

As it happens, his family were Communist Party aristocracy -- his father was, amongst other things, the director of Progressive Tours (the Communist Party's travel agency), and his sister Nina was to become the very last Secretary of the CP in Great Britain, before it packed up shop in 1991. His older brother Julien found fame as a film-maker and chronicler of punk rock. Of course, in those days of student radicalism the CP was thought of as very staid -- reactionary, even. We did a lot of shouting and pushing and shoving, and Steve was not the shouty pushy type.

It is a sadness to me that I didn't really get to know him as well as I had expected; I had him pencilled in, so to speak, as a long-term friend. I enjoyed his company but, as he was not fond of the late-night smoke- and music-filled rooms that were then my natural habitat, he would usually make his excuses and leave before the evening got going. Scientists, after all, have work to do. But I found him intellectually curious and open minded in a fun kind of way, and he was not dismissive of my art-making efforts or New Agey obsessions -- he would often mention his similarly-inclined elder brother.

For example, we constructed and carried out together a practical test of the powers of pyramids. I had read somewhere, in one of the wacky books I was fond of reading, that a blunt razor blade, placed under a pyramid made to the strict proportions of the Great Pyramid of Cheops on a platform exactly one third of its height and aligned north-south, would become sharp again. In an anticipation of MythBusters, we carefully constructed such a device out of cardboard, and tested it out, complete with control setups which pointed in the wrong direction, etc.* It was fun in that intense way that serious-minded ten-year-olds have fun.

Steve's Grand Project of that second year, though, carried out meticulously in the room beneath mine, was a hot air balloon constructed out of large glued sheets of tissue paper. It was a thing of wonder: when filled with hot air from nightlight candles, it swelled impressively and rose to the full height of his room -- about eight or more feet tall. One evening, I made this poor but evocative snap of it with my Instamatic:

Later in that summer of 1975, Steve fired it up outdoors, and simply released it into the wild. All those hours of painstaking work rose into the air and vanished over the chimney pots and crocketed gothic finials of Oxford. A beautiful, zen-like act, I thought. Though something of a hazard downwind, in retrospect.

Later still, during that summer vacation, Steve was suddenly taken ill, struck down by a rare and untreatable cancer, and died. I had no idea of what had happened, until he failed to return for the start of the third year, but my London-based friend Andy got word of the tragedy and thoughtfully went to visit the family. He says he had never seen people so stunned by grief. They were still in mute shock, days after Steve had died.

Well, you can imagine. I always felt, however, that someone who could let go of that magnificent balloon so deliberately, so happily, might also have been able to let go of life with uncommon grace, too. I don't know that, of course; it's just one of those consolatory fictions one makes up. So it goes.

Thirty five years later, I still think of Steve as "someone with whom I almost had a long-term friendship", a name high on my Lost List. I know that others, too, still remember him with affection. He is in this college group photograph from 1975, displaying his deplorable taste for 1970s gear at its very worst, but you don't need to know which of us he is. There are plenty of candidates to choose from.

Yes, yes, we were a very geeky crew. What do you expect? You're looking at the inmates of a notorious academic hothouse: some of those young people are as clever as clever can be. The rest are all just extremely bright or, like me, simply very good at taking exams.

Alarmingly, now I come to think of it, virtually everyone with whom I have a long-term friendship is also already in this photograph. I'm not sure what that says about me other than that I have tried quite hard to keep my Lost List as short as possible.

* No, of course it didn't work, idiot.

Sunday, 3 October 2010


I drove up to Oxford this afternoon to drop off some stuff for my son, who is beginning his second undergraduate year, incredibly. I can remember beginning my own second year so vividly, that it sometimes seems that I will simply wake up in my bed in the room at the top of Staircase 10, and the intervening 36 years will turn out to have been a confusing and slightly dull repetitive dream. Phew!

The corollary of this pointless fantasy is that I repeatedly tell my kids that "We had no computers at all in those days, you know, and no internet -- imagine that!!" I somehow expect them to reel about clutching their heads at this mind-blowing prospect, but they never do. I might as well say, "Of course, all transport was horse-drawn in the 1970s -- imagine that!!" What seems like yesterday to me is prehistory to them and, in the end, to the young all ancient history is equally unremarkable in its improbability. That, or maybe they've just stopped listening to me.

Anyway. I took the opportunity to take us for a stroll in the Botanical Gardens, partly to ensure my son gets a least a half hour's fresh air in the next eight weeks, but mainly because I know I can rely on some good windows to photograph there. If only I'd thought to bring a ladder.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Foggy Morning

On the last day of September, we had a really dense morning fog. When it comes to landscape, I'm at heart a romantic photographer, more excited by unusual lighting conditions and weather events than by clear vistas.

Oddly, although the university sits on top of a hill, mists and fog are often denser up there than lower down in the town. On foggy mornings I know I'm going to get ten to fifteen minutes of fun after I've parked the car, before the rising sun has burned off the veil of mist. The Panasonic GF1 seems to thrive on these demanding exposures: in the end, I just set it to "auto" and let the software do its thing.

The newly-completed Life Sciences building towers
over some more modest life sciences enterprises.

The Faraday Building (of philatelic fame) looms
(but for how much longer?)

The sun comes up over the engineering buildings

BTW, that isn't lens distortion on the buildings on the right of the middle photo. That's the cantilevered end of our recent library extension, with the even more bizarrely cantilevered entrance to the Lanchester Building in the background. It always reminds me of Dali's painting Le Sommeil.