Thursday, 30 May 2013

Running on Empty

Posts have been a little thin this last week, I'm afraid, as I've finally got over some kind of creative block which has been interfering with my book-making for the last year or so.  I've taken plenty of pictures, some of them as good as or better than any I've taken before, and had plenty of ideas of what I might do with them, but somehow my book-making mojo had gone missing.  Suddenly, for no obvious reason, it seems to be back.  So I've been busy.

Apart from the recently-completed Elevation, I have two -- possibly three -- other books in process.  The more major project of the two is the sustained work I have been doing on the outskirts of Winchester -- the viaduct, the motorway, the river Test, St. Catherine's Hill and Twyford Down.  That's a fairly big job, though, and may not yet be finished.  The other one is something I thought I had finished way back in 2008 -- the year this blog started -- but which turned out to be unsatisfying, so I withdrew it from the public eye.

In 2006, I was still visiting Mottisfont Abbey, near Romsey, at some point on most weekends.  It had been the site of my first sustained "topographical" project, and the venue of my first serious exhibition.  The book Downward Skies was the enduring result of that.  It is still quite pleasing in parts, but could do with a tighter edit, and above all some re-scanning of the negatives.

2006 was pretty much the last year of the "old" Abbey, with its agreeably scruffy grounds and river walks.  Over the next few years the National Trust, who own the Mottisfont Estate, went in for a programme of "improvements" -- scrub clearance, tree thinning, new paths, interpretation boards, the usual coach-party-pleasing blandness -- and the place lost most of its interest.  For me, anyway.

I had previously been so focussed on the river, that I had never really paid attention to the chalk spring, the "font" that gives the place its name.  It's tucked away in a corner, and -- compared to the river -- seemed fairly static; it's just a twelve-foot diameter circular kettle of clear water, twelve feet deep and lined with flint, contained within a circular railing and open to the sky, eternally bubbling up and flowing away down an ornamental channel into the river.

One February afternoon in 2006 I found myself leaning on the railing and gazing into its depths, and the sheer gravity-defying magic of it put a spell on me.  It was unsettling and paradoxical,  like watching a film run backwards, or tracing a Moebius strip.  Hundreds of gallons of pure water were appearing out of nowhere and pouring into the Test, like a running bath forgotten somewhere back in antiquity.

February 2006
So I began to photograph the moods of this enormous watery lens, as it reflected and refracted the sky and the surrounding trees.  It looked very different in different weathers, and at different times of year.  By the summer I had collected a decent set of images, all variations on a single theme.  Then something weird happened.

It was always said that the spring had never stopped flowing, even in the driest summers.  Well, in late summer 2006, it did stop.  The water level fell, so that the run-off into the channel ceased, and more and more of the flint and chalk blockwork was exposed.  Dead leaves began to accumulate, and the water became green and stagnant.  Whether this was the result of climate change or simply a blockage was impossible to say.  But it felt like a warning, as if the font were a gauge attached to the balance of natural forces, and was now reading "zero".

October  2006
During the winter closed season the Trust decided not only to get the font flowing again but -- inevitably -- to "improve" it.  Out went the venerable railing, out went the overgrown borders, and the bland hand of neat'n'tidy was applied.  You may, like me, have noticed a pattern here, repeated over the years:  I find a nice scruffy spot to photograph; complete a project; the authorities move in to tidy up.  Hmm... Anyone got some delapidated spot within driving distance of Southampton they'd like to see sanitized?  Let me know, and I'll get to work...

Anyway, my first attempt at a book didn't work, so I'm having another go.  I've kept the old title, Water Gauge.  I'll keep you posted.

Oh, and the other reason I've been quiet is that I've also been catching up with the latest scandi-noir Arne Dahl on the BBC iPlayer.  What is the thing with the cleaner all about?  Very odd.  It's as if Peter Greenaway or David Lynch had been given a hand in the production.

1 comment:

Unknown said...


Sorry to leave this comment here, but there was no contact link (yes I know, that's not an accident). Anyway, I've recently joined the ranks of the virtually published with a book (The Secret Life of Walls) that I made with the Apple software iBook Author. Unfortunately this software makes an ebook that is only readable on an iPad, but fortunately it's easy to use. If you have an iPad I will gladly send you a promotion code so that you can download a free copy. If you don't have an iPad I can send you a pdf version that can be opened on almost anything. I'd love it if you left a review on iTunes or even better mentioned the book on your site, but really I'm even more interested in what you think of the piece and my choices in layout etc. If you are interested, email me at