Wednesday, 24 September 2014


I have led a reasonably productive creative life, but I still have quite a few long-postponed, half-abandoned, or never-started projects -- some photographic, some not -- and now that I've got the time I intend to get on with a few of them.  But the problem, as always, is where to start?

I've generally found that the expression "to sort things out" taken literally is the best way to, well, get things sorted.  Few things are as daunting as a large disordered heap.  I'm not a tidy person by nature, so large disordered heaps are my customary environment. But, if I need to break a log-jam and get on with something, I've found that the simple act of putting like with like is a quick way of reducing a large pile to a number of smaller, more manageable piles, and is at the same time a process that is both clarifying and empowering.  It's a way of thinking that requires little thought.

One project I've been cumulating over the years has involved photographing the allotment next to the university car-park and also the so-called Valley Garden, once the university's Botanic Garden.   Curiously, these two green spaces have parallelled each other, entropically, if that's the right word for the human imposition of order balanced against the more chaotic processes of the natural world.  Our garden, for example, shows a high degree of entropy when compared to our neighbours' clipped and tended gardens.  We like it that way; it's also a lot less work.

When I arrived at the university 30 years ago, the Botanic Garden was a delightful secret.  Hidden away in a forgotten corner of the campus, it was in an advanced state of abandonment.  A couple of greenhouses were still in use, but several others were in the process of falling down, winter by winter.  The grounds of the slope-sided valley site -- a couple of acres, or thereabouts -- had once been planted systematically, to illustrate plant taxonomy and to provide specimens, but had been running riot for years.  Badgers and foxes had made it their home. Through the bottom of the valley runs a stream, and it had eroded its bed into a deep channel, exposing the gravels and clays that sustained the former brickpit on the site, and requiring rickety, improvised footbridges to cross.  Most delightful of all were an abandoned apple orchard, where I would take my children on lunchtime rambles when they were at the university day nursery, and a pond where frogs would gather in great numbers to spawn in February.

I used to visit the place daily -- it was a veritable temple of wabi-sabi -- but a few years ago a decision was made to close the valley, clear out its tumbledown greenhouses and jungle of vegetation, and turn it into a nice, safe, park-like space where staff could spend their lunch hours.  In retrospect, I think it must have been around then that I decided the University and I might need to part company.

By contrast, the small allotment adjacent to the car-park was once a showcase of gardening know-how, where a few green-fingered vegetable growers kept nature at bay, but with that improvisatory, low-tech light touch that distinguishes those whose instincts and sympathies are in the right place.  I think the idea of an "allotment" is fairly universal: it's a space where small plots of land are rented out by the local authority for non-commercial gardening and vegetable growing.  It's a way of enjoying the benefits of small-holding without owning any land, particularly within cities and suburbs.  However, a few years ago the university bought the land, and a steady decline set in: right now, the former allotments are little more than than a bumpy, weed-covered field.  Doubtless, it will become a car-park in due course.

So maybe it was then that I made my decision to go.  The university has made its choices, and I have made mine.  "It's not uni, it's me..."  Anyway.  Whatever.  The fact is I have been photographing these two complementary places for some years.  It seemed that a "quick win" book project might emerge if I engaged in a bit of sorting magic.  Just put like with like.

Now, I organise my files primarily by camera, then by month and year (e.g. "Fuji_X100\Aug14\DSF0123.RAF"), which might seem a bit perverse, but it suits me.  Given the nature of my photography, I'm far more likely to remember the camera I used to take a particular photograph, and the time of year it was taken, than to remember the year itself.  I also resist the pre-categorisation that insists, "This image is a landscape, this one an abstract, etc."  To build a themed project I create a new folder, then browse the monthly folders of RAW files under each camera, copying target images into the new project folder.  It's labour-intensive, but serves a useful secondary purpose of refreshing my awareness of all the images sitting unused in my backfiles, and the relationships between them.

However, when I had finished this initial rough-cut selection last night, and had resorted the resulting folder by date, and finally sat back to see what I had, I discovered there were over 1,500 image files in the folder.  Which was a surprise.  Even allowing for 70% duplication and duds, that means there's a whole new level of selection needs to be applied, before I've got down to the fifty or so pictures that will define a new series or book.

So much for a quick win.  But at least I've got the time to do the work, now, and I'm pretty sure I won't be adding any more photographs of value from either of those particular two sites.


Martin Hodges said...

Mike, you've brought to mind this piece, written by Melissa Healey, back in 1999, and my short follow-up one month later.

Mike C. said...


It's always curious to me how some people will always decide to "own" and direct the course of events, with the best of intentions, on the assumption they know what's best -- something similar happened with the Viaduct. The boundary between "concern" and "self-appointed interfering busybodies" is very fluid...

Those of us who enjoy haunting the fringes never get a vote, of course.


Martin Hodges said...

You're right about the boundaries, Mike, but there will always be someone who picks up a cause, and runs with it. Often done with a good heart, but not actually taking into consideration every angle, or the views of all interested parties. Anyway, it was the politics that intrigued me, and there's nothing quite like a campaign (even a small one) for flushing out bigger stories. Just one of several occasions when I was summoned to the Secretary and Registrar's office for six of the best!

Struan said...

'The greatest enemy of conservation is tidiness' - Oliver Rackham

I find gardens over-determined. Even the sprawling cottage gardens, or the now fashionable meadow or grass gardens. Everything is too laid out, and there is little or no sense of discovery.

I hate plazas with lollipop trees too.

I have become quite superstitious about taking some kinds of photographs. Far more often than can be due to chance, I have photographed some lovely tangle of self-organised vegetation, only to find it cleared away by the council, on several occasions, the very next day.

I have a half-baked theory of climax untidiness. Being that state of entropic abundance sufficient both to tickle my aesthetic interest, and to revolt the geometric rosebed types and stir them to action.

Mike C. said...


Couldn't have put it better myself. The untidy will inherit the earth (or what's left of it)...