Friday, 1 February 2013

Pond Water

Well, I did say things might be a bit sparse this week.

We've been viewing and evaluating presentations from teams of smiling optimists in suits (never my favourite type of person) who want to sell us their version of a steam-powered spoon-feeder for students.  You know, something to take all the effort out of looking stuff up, in the way Google does.  I have already made my views known on the subject of easing the pain of higher education (see A Modest Proposal) so won't go on about it.

To add to the fun, I am also suffering an Access-All-Areas Virus, and am pleased to report my doctor was sufficiently impressed today to prescribe antibiotics.  Doctors seem to fall into three camps: the ones who will sign a scrip for some trophy pill at the slightest symptom (Yay! Antidepressants!), those who are reluctant ever to prescribe anything more exciting than two paracetamol, and those who always refer you to a specialist, involving a pointless six-month wait and then dreary hours waiting in hospital corridors.  Mine is a paracetamol man, so I must have made a more immediately convincing case (or more ugly spectacle) than any of those steam-powered spoon-feeder merchants.

Anyway.  Something in all that (spoons, germs, ugly spectacles) put me in mind of a book recommendation.

Up until now, I have been indifferent to the phenomenon of Stephen Gill.  I am always suspicious of those psychogeographers, trustafarians and derivistes who have made Hackney and Stoke Newington their happy hunting ground; not least, I suppose, because we have a lot in common.  Et in Hacknio ego.  But Gill's projects, for me, smacked too much of attention-grabbing-but-pointless gimmickry.  I mean, why, Stephen?  Why bury your photos in the ground to rot on Hackney Marshes, and why put bits and bobs (including live insects) inside your camera, when photographing Brighton?  Hey, I'm completely mad, me!

Of course, if you're a book collector with half an eye on your pension fund, you'll know that not snapping up copies of those early books and burying them somewhere more archivally-safe than Hackney Marshes may have been an error of judgment  -- copies of Hackney Wick are going for £500-1000 -- but even greed couldn't make me warm to his particular oeuvre.  I have to like what I buy, and I found his pictures tacky and uninteresting.

But then I read about his Coexistence project, chosen as a "book of 2012" by several reviewers I respect, and started to come round.  The project itself is the usual elaborate rigmarole:

In the summer of 2010 I was asked if I would be interested in making a photographic response to an area containing a pond situated within an industrial wasteland – the remains of the deceased steelmaking industry in Dudelange, Luxembourg. My only previous experience with ponds had been during my teenage years, when an obsession with pond life led me to spend long hours in my bedroom wearing a lab coat and peering into a microscope. That obsessive immersion into a strange and disorientating world had a profound effect on me personally, and certainly left its mark on many of the photographic studies I have subsequently produced. I knew that the pond in Dudelange would be teeming with unseen life now that its industrial past had come to an end. From the 1920s until it was put out of use in 2006 the pond had been used to cool the blast furnaces, and tiny but dense communities would be now forming and thriving in the absence of that extreme heat. For the eight months leading up to my first visit to the territory, my mind increasingly started tuning into microscopic worlds within worlds, and I became ever more aware of the many parallels between patterns and processes in the pond and those in our own lives as individual humans within societies. Slowly I became committed to the idea of attempting to bring these two apparently disparate worlds – so physically close yet so different in scale – visually closer together. Grappling with the idea of knitting together these parts of life that coexist but don’t belong together nor are ever usually seen together, I decided to make a photographic study that would resemble a kind of tapestry. The University of Luxembourg kindly taught me to use one of their medical microscopes so that I was able to study single drops of the water, and I began searching the pond for diatoms and other minuscule creatures and plant life. The more I thought about the human factor that was so essential to the series forming in my head, the more I wanted to involve local people from the small town of Dudelange, which has a substantial community of families with Portuguese and Italian origins. Many of these people used to work in the steelmaking industry. For health and safety reasons it was not possible to invite people to come to the cooling ponds, so I decided instead to take the pond to the people. I filled a red plastic mop bucket with water from the pond, and dipped my underwater camera into this pond water prior to making portraits of the Dudelange residents. Later on I also dipped the prints into the pond itself, so microscopic life was also transferred onto the surface of the paper.

Yeah, right.  Don't tell me, Stevie, then you pour the pond-water in your ear?*  Hey, don't call us, we'll call you.

But this time I really liked the actual images, particularly the microscopic work.  If you have ever spent time copying coloured chalk diagrams of spirogyra and euglena from the blackboard, you'll know the appeal.  And then I read about Gill's workshop, where the skills of hand-crafted bookbinding are practised, and how Coexistence was being produced in an edition of 1500 hand-bound copies in six different marbled covers (250 copies of each variant), with leather quarter-bound spine, foil blocked lettering, speckled book-block edges, available for £30, signed, direct from Gill's own Nobody Books outlet...  Well, I had ordered a copy of the Number Three binding before you could say "PayPal".

It is a thing of beauty, and I can't stop picking it up to admire it.  It has a very satisfying heft and a bookish quality that only the Germans really understand these days.  Sweet.  Unfortunately, all copies of all six variants are now sold out at Nobody Books, though some may still be available from other outlets.  If you can find a copy, I recommend it: you won't regret it.

* I'm assuming you know the classic Bob Newhart sketch


Zouk Delors said...

Mike, I would just love to see a picture of you being "very satisfied" with the heft of your new book.

I wonder if heft-satisfaction could be a measurable quantity? So someone might handle a book and say, eg, "This book is quite interesting, but it has a disappointingly low heft-satisfaction - a mere three milliChisholms."

Mike C. said...


Indeed... Most Brits don't know what a paltry experience our typical hardback book gives us -- bulky but light, glued pages, book "cloth" made out of pressed paper, dreadful typography, truly shitty dustjackets... Argh. It's like wearing a leather jacket made out of PVC.

In Germany (and to an extent the States) a worthwhile text will be produced with a good weight of paper, sewn into real cloth-covered boards. I quite like the US compromise of "quarter-binding" i.e. cloth on the spine and part of the boards, with a paper-covered board. French and Spanish books, traditionally, aspire to be as anonymous and disposable as the telephone directory, though they've changed a lot in recent decades.

It's like when the Moroccan oranges come into season, and you pick one up and feel its juicy heft compared to those over-inflated and tasteless Spanish things, and think, Now that's what I'm talkin' about...

Of course, the bibliophile thing can go too far -- the whole "craft binding" thing leaves me cold -- but as Eric Morecambe said, they can't touch you for it...


eeyorn said...

I guess we'd have to use the Greek letter chi for this new variable

χ=((n*d) ** Q(L/A))/W

where n=no of pages
d=paper density
Q=Quality of leather/tooling
L=Area of leather used
A=Area of book covers/spine
W=Weight of book

Mike C. said...


Wow, I'm impressed! I suspect it's a recipe for disappointment, though -- I doubt there's a single book in any high street bookshop that would get the dial off the "zero" mark... (apart from maybe the Moleskine notebooks).


Zouk Delors said...

Moleskine notebooks

Bet you've got quite a few. Do you ever get them out just to feel their heft?

I've got a couple of Folio Society publications, and I must admit they've got a proper solid bookiness about them which makes them a pleasure to pick up.

eeyorn said...

So the Diaries of Adrian Moleskin are collectors items?

Joking aside, I find pictures derived from natural phenomena, such as these and some of NASA's images from the various space telescopes, quite fascinating, whatever their heft-quotient.