Friday, 28 February 2014

Affaire de Caméra

I recently saw a second-hand Fuji X100 at an extremely good price, and -- with imaginary 60th birthday money burning a fantasy hole in my metaphorical pocket -- for once I allowed pure camera lust to overpower my inner tightwad. A rare event: photography is quite expensive enough, without giving in to impulse purchases.  Besides, I generally like to use unostentatious, middle-of-the-market equipment that delivers results and doesn't require special insurance cover.  Most claims that correlate image quality with cash outlay are nonsense, though it is a wise caution that one should never, ever, under any circumstances pick up and play with a Leica.  I never have, and am a happier man for it.

The X100 is, without doubt, a very beautiful object. Its design is intended to reach and satisfy those parts that most modern digital cameras simply do not.  For a start, it is mainly constructed of metal, including real, machined, knurled metal dials for shutter speed and exposure compensation.  This thing has an aperture ring, for God's sake, with click-stops!  I'd almost forgotten what those were for.  It's just right, in a restrained, classical sort of way, more Audi than Ferrari*.  If you didn't know, you'd assume it was a slightly conservative, Leica-styled film rangefinder camera, perhaps dating from the Contax G generation of the 1990s.  You just want to pick it up, and use it.

And yet.  I find myself wondering, what will I ever use this camera for?  When, really, will I choose to carry a not-exactly-light, not-particularly-small, 12 megapixel, fixed-lens, rangefinder camera in preference to either my all-purpose workhorse, the Panasonic G3, or my "just in case" camera, the negligibly-sized LX-3?  I suspect it may turn out to be like keeping an open-topped sports-car in the garage.

Fuji and I do have history.  Before I finally made the switch to digital, my all-time favourite film camera, and constant companion, was a Fuji GS645S medium-format rangefinder.  What a stunner!  Once I'd learned to accommodate her its eccentricities -- the protective roll-bar, the "portrait as standard" orientation, the dim beige focussing spot, the startling "clack" of the shutter, the bizarre "T" setting switch for long exposures -- we settled into a beautiful friendship.  Fuji lenses, of course, are the stuff of legend.

I guess we'll find out.  If anything is going to persuade me to use this camera, it's probably that extraordinary "hybrid" viewfinder.  I've never used anything quite like it.  Being able to look through a glass window with framing brightlines and yet with a superimposed display of digital data is a truly novel combination of the old and the new.  Whether it will work for me I don't yet know.  I have come to like the flatness of digital displays, compositionally, and may have to relearn to see the 3D world in 2D again.

In the end it will come down to image quality.  Are the raves about its perfect match of lens and sensor justified, or merely the self-justificatory hyperbole of early-adopting big spenders? (Incredibly, one of these would have cost the best part of one thousand pounds when new in 2011).  Though there is always entertainment-value to consider, of course; will it be fun, or will I feel like a fool, tooling around town in an impractical Audi TT convertible?  Toot-toot!

Happily, should I decide not to keep it and to sell it on I'll certainly break even, and even make a few quid on the deal. But that's hardly the spirit when embarking on an affaire de caméra.  Is anyone out there an X100 user?  I'd be interested to hear about your experience in the world of cult cameras.

* I trust readers of this blog will be aware of the gangstalicious Hasselblad Lunar...  Well tasty!  Tempted?  Step inside!

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Careful, Now

Don't ask me, it just appeared overnight, taped to a utility cabin on campus.  It's been silk-screened onto fabric, so there may be more around.  There are Student Union elections at the moment: maybe Hermione Purple-Howlinghound is standing for something?  I keep squinting to see if it's one of those rabbit-duck illusions, but -- no -- it's a dog.  Though one uncannily similar to the lion image I posted a while ago (Life with the Lions).  Mysterious.

Sometimes a barricade is not so much mysterious, as redundant.  "Careful, don't attempt to walk through this broken tree blocking the path" is not a message that would need reinforcing on a university campus, you would have thought.  On reflection, though, that's probably exactly what it needs. There should probably also be tape in front of the tape: "Careful, don't stumble over this tape preventing you from trying to walk through the broken tree ahead".  And maybe one in front of that one, too, and...  I suppose that may well be how you end up with this glorious abundance, from a few posts back, if you remember it.

Which reminds me of the useful phrase, mise en abyme, which -- after many years of assuming it must mean something like "dropped in a very deep hole" -- I finally looked up.  It turns out to be much more interesting than that, but you might as well read the Wikipedia article yourself.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Changing London

A curious day yesterday; a day of three halves, as someone once said. We went up to London for an evening in the new Wanamaker Theatre, a faithful reproduction of an indoors Jacobean theatre like the Blackfriars, where many of Shakespeare's later plays were first performed.

En route, we visited our son in his new flat.  From eight floors up, the transformation of the capital into a city state for the super-rich citizens of the world is very clear.  It's very pretty in the right light, but the underlying politics and financing are anything but. The resemblance of the Shard to the Eye of Sauron may not be coincidental.

From the flat window, there will be a spectacular view of the imminent demolition of the once notorious, now eerily empty Heygate Estate, immediately opposite.  This shameful episode -- which appears to amount to little more than the eviction of the local residents to open up opportunities for overseas speculators, in a bureaucratic version of the Highland Clearances -- seems typical of what has been happening to London.

Ironically, perhaps, the performance we saw at the Wanamaker was The Knight of the Burning Pestle by Francis Beaumont, a Jacobean romp which revels in crashing through the aristocratic theatrical "fourth wall" on behalf of the grocers and guildsmen of London.  I'm not going to review the performance, other than to say it's mainly very funny -- the antics of Merrythought are worth the price of the ticket alone -- but far too long, with too many interludes.  The benches are hard, despite the extra padding that was added following the complaints after the theatre's opening performances, and the tight vertical angles of view into the theatrical pit require a constant twist of the upper body.    The large number of candles make things a bit hot upstairs, too. All of which makes three hours a bit of an endurance test in the name of authenticity.  Luckily most people had left their swords and idiotic Jacobean hats at home.

In the end, we had to leave early -- during yet another "interlude" -- to catch a train home.  At which point the third half began.  Arriving at Waterloo in good time for a fast train home, we found that all trains were "delayed" because of a fatality on the line at Wimbledon.  There seems to have been a rash of these in recent weeks.  Whether suicides, accidents or careless trackside workers, I don't know, but the impact on railway pinchpoints in and out of central London is dramatic.  We eventually got home at 01:40.

One amusing thing was the way this kind of interruption in the smooth flow of everyday life exposes generational attitudes.  It seemed everyone under 35 spent their interminable wait on the station concourse looking down at their smartphone, while everyone over 50 spent it looking up at the departure board, willing it to change.  Different kinds of magic.  The new posture, I suppose, was a useful counter to the aches and pains induced by the Wanamaker's seating.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

As the Crow Flies

I enjoy making strong, simple, graphical images like this one.  It's really a way of using the photographic process as a means of drawing.  I can happily spend an entire evening fiddling around, experimenting, and trying to re-work something fairly mundane into something with a little magic. Some would regard this degree of manipulation as against the spirit of true photography, which they see as essentially one of witness.  I saw this, I recorded it, I share it with you.

Every year around this time, ever since the advent of digital photography, there is a scandal about photojournalists re-touching their work.  Apparently this year 8% of entries to the World Press Photo Competition were disqualified on this basis.  It seems the cloning out of an inconvenient twig is as unethical as pasting a smoking Kalashnikov into the hands of an innocent bystander.

Technique is not generally an ethical matter, in art.  A typical artwork -- let's say a painting -- is all about the personal skill and choices of the artist, and the miracle of creating something out of nothing.  If I wanted to paint a Kalashnikov in the hands of a child with the head of Tony Blair (which I don't), then that's exactly what I'd do.  But a "straight" photograph mainly excites and flatters the viewer's own acuity of vision, by presenting a crystallized, buffed, but recognisably authentic moment of reality. I'm actually seeing this! This really happened! The currency of photojournalism is radically devalued, apparently, if that naive trust is ever put into question, even over the smallest twig.

Pure photography is rather more like driving than painting: it's all about  manoeuvering a mechanical apparatus into the right place at the right time, and deploying the right combination of instinctive and trained reflexes.  Anyone can master the basic skills, and nearly everyone does.  But few come to regard photography as a potential means of personal expression; it is seen as a medium of documentary record, an accessory of modern life.

In fact, it seems never to occur to most people that a means of personal expression of any kind might be something that would have a place in their own life.  This makes it much harder for them to recognise and acknowledge the aesthetic achievements of others as achievements, and not just more stuff that happens.  In my more cynical moments, I'd say that 90% of the population lives in a disengaged cargo-cult dreamworld, where all stuff self-generates on shop shelves overnight, or flows bounteously and spontaneously out of pipes and wires.  The fact that everything is made in China these days rather than Birmingham doesn't help.

Artworks that start out as photographs but end up as something else occupy an interesting middle ground.  They're easier to acknowledge as "art", but are somehow tainted with the suspicion of having taken a shortcut, of "cheating".  To many, working from photographs is only one level up from painting by numbers.  Of course, there is a big difference between quietly using your own photographs* and ostentatiously stealing ("appropriating") someone else's, especially if that image has been published in its own right and is still in copyright.  The ethics and legalities of this are a hot topic, as there's a lot of sampling and appropriating going on and a lot of money being made by those who do it.

There's a press buzz at the moment about the upcoming Richard Hamilton exhibition at Tate Modern.  His variations on the "Swingeing London" image are famous -- Mick Jagger and Robert Fraser handcuffed together in the back of a car -- but the image is discussed as if Hamilton had cleverly chosen to paint them repeatedly in that pose, hands raised to their faces, cuffed together in parallel.  But it is, of course, closely based on a photograph.  A press photograph, in fact, of the pair's instinctive reaction to the flashes of the press pack, frozen in time by those very same flashes -- Mick!  Mick! Hey, Mick! -- and turned into a moment of post-modern mise en abyme by its re-rendering by Hamilton. Who knows or cares that this striking image was actually captured by John Twine, and published in the Daily Sketch in June 1967?

I wonder, did Hamilton presume that Twine couldn't possibly understand or appreciate what he had made, and therefore didn't really deserve to "own" it, the excuse of aristocratic thieves down the ages?  Or was his appropriation a sort of pop-culture homage to in-your-face tabloid values?  Hey, Mick!  Whichever it was, he clearly had a lot of fun in the studio, repeatedly transcribing the photo, colouring it in different ways and reworking its textures, so that something fairly mundane acquired a certain magic.  I have a lot of sympathy with that, and soon hope to spend my days, not just my evenings, doing little else.

* I recommend the fascinating book edited by Elizabeth W. Easton, Snapshot: Painters and Photography, Bonnard to Vuillard (Yale University Press, 2012).

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Printing Revisited

I've been doing a lot of printing in recent weeks -- well over 100 images on A3+ paper -- and therefore getting through a lot of ink, and a lot of paper*.  There's nothing quite like the prospect of other people scrutinizing your pictures up close and framed on a wall to encourage you to raise your game, especially when those people will have made the effort to visit a gallery showing work by a non-name photographer.  They deserve your best effort.

In the process, I think I've finally cracked some more of the secrets of the Great Mystery.  That is, how to make inkjet prints, produced by the CMYK process, that resemble as closely as possible their on-screen versions, produced by the RGB process.  I've already shared some thoughts on this, in the post Colour Management.  The conclusions reached there still hold good: get custom profiles made for your printer and paper combinations, calibrate your screen, and make allowance for the difference in brightness between an illuminated screen and a sheet of white paper.  But I've found there's more to "making allowance" than just brightening the image.

I need to make two reservations.  First, everything I say is based on my experience with a Stylus Photo 1400 -- an obsolete model of Epson's A3+ dye-based inkjet printer -- using Epson's own Premium Semigloss paper, and Epson inks.  Second,  everything I say is based on my experience with Photoshop Elements 10, an obsolete release of the cut-down version of the "industry standard" photo-editing software.  Change any one of those variables, and things may look very different for you.

Anyway, here's what I've found, assuming your setup at least partially matches mine. If you're not happy with your printing, it's worth a try even if your setup is quite different.  Let's assume you've got your printer working with a bespoke profile, have calibrated your screen, and have got the on-screen version of your image absolutely right, with no blown highlights or pure black shadows, and perhaps a little lighter and less contrasty than what you want to see printed on paper, and saved it.
  • Choose a size (un-resampled) that will give you more than 300 pixels per inch:  On A3/A3+ paper I like 360 ppi, even though this means a smaller image.
  • Use the Brightness/Contrast sliders to raise the Brightness somewhere between "plus 25" and "plus 30", and the contrast to somewhere in the range "plus 5" to "plus 10".  I know people tell you not to use these "crude" tools, and to favour Levels and Curves, but this is printing, not editing.
  • Raise the colour saturation to somewhere between "plus 5" and "plus 16".  Your image should now look truly awful!
  • Using the Colour Curves, darken the Highlights a touch -- just enough to ensure no highlights are lost -- and lighten the Shadows a touch and a half -- enough to ensure no shadows are blocked.  You can be bolder with lightening the shadows than darkening the highlights.  Leave the mid-tones alone.
  • Print.  Prepare to be amazed, but also prepare to be hyper-critical, and adjust some of those settings.
When you've got the printing version absolutely right, why not save it as a file in its own right, e.g. as "IMG_1234_print.tif"?  That way, you can easily bang out multiple prints at any point in the future.  So long as you're still using the same, profiled printer and paper combination, of course.

Next week:  100 creative things to do with a small mountain of empty ink cartridges.

* An aside for fellow Epson users:  packs of A3+ paper are currently selling at a lower price than packs of A3.  In fact, packs of A2 paper are usually priced cheaper than A3!  I have no idea why this is -- perhaps it's an error somewhere high in the supply chain? -- but it's worth capitalising on.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Sunny Day

Today was the first proper dry, sunny day we've had for months.

Those of you reading outside the UK have probably had "weather" of your own to contend with, but we've been taking a record-setting battering since before Christmas from storm after storm after storm.  On Friday night diners at a South Coast restaurant not far from here had to be rescued when the windows were smashed in by stones thrown up by wind and waves from the beach.  During the same tempest a man died when the porthole of a cruise ship was broken by a freak wave out in the Channel.  Flooding has become a major problem in low-lying areas that haven't been flooded for a hundred years or more.  Climate change?  I should say so.

Winchester has been partially inundated by the river Itchen, but up on the high, free-draining chalk downs things are pretty normal. It was very pleasant just to get out and wander about, poking things with a stick for a couple of hours.

About half a mile away, above a valley to the east of Winchester, we watched a flock of about 200 or more lapwings, flying backwards and forwards in tight formation, twinkling white as they turned and showed their undersides in the sun.  I imagine they'd been driven inshore from the coastal marshes by the weather, but they seemed simply to be revelling in the unaccustomed sunshine.


Here's a disturbing thought, nicely put:

In the penultimate chapter of her book, Kolbert tackles that question by examining one particularly troubling extinction. The Neanderthals were extremely similar to us; less than 0.3 percent of our DNA diverges. But they did not venture into new terrain, they did not significantly alter the terrain they were already in, and they certainly did not make a bonsai project out of the tree of life. They had, in Kolbert’s words, “no more impact on their surroundings than any other large vertebrate.”

Meanwhile, we Homo sapiens traveled out of Africa en route to everywhere, encountered the Neanderthals in Europe, had sex with them, and, directly or through competition for resources, exterminated them. Some 30,000 years later, we rediscovered them, via their remains, in a cave in limestone cliffs in a valley in Germany. That cave no longer exists. Those cliffs no longer exist. We quarried the limestone, smelted it with coke and iron ore, and converted it to steel.

What species does this? Only ours. Somewhere along the line, thanks to some twist in that 0.3 percent of uniquely human DNA, we became the sort of creatures who could level cliffs and turn stone to steel; “the sort of creature,” Kolbert writes, “who could wipe out its nearest relative, then dig up its bones and reassemble its genome.”

from review by Kathryn Shulz of "The Sixth Extinction", by Elizabeth Kolbert

Makes you proud, doesn't it?

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

The Long Game

One of the themes around which I'm slowly building a future book, as well as a significant thread in an upcoming exhibition, has the working title "Avalon".  Nothing to do with Bryan Ferry, but a lot to do with the foundation myths of the British Isles.

In a roundabout way, that is.  I've actually never read much of the Arthurian legends, which is something I should probably put right.  I know bits and pieces, obviously.  For example, it has long been a deep joy to me that, as well as his fame-hogging sword Excalibur, Arthur also carried a more modest spear named Ron.

In the 1990s I saw a brilliant TV programme by a Welsh historian*, tracing the growth of the "Arthur" stories, from a possible origin in a putative Romano-British warlord in the Dark Ages, through versions by Nennius, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Chretien de Troyes, and Sir Thomas Malory.  Each iteration added new elements, and re-shaded the story to suit the political angle of its audience, whether embattled Welsh, usurping Normans, or nation-building English.  The programme brought a sobering comparative and historical perspective to what is otherwise just a dressing-up box full of swords'n'sorcery.  You do have to wonder what that latest Arthurian rendition, the Saturday prime-time TV series The Adventures of Merlin, will say about us to future generations.

However, I'm not really that interested in the doings of Lancelot, Gawain, Guinevere, or any of that aristocratic crew.  What interests me more is the idea of the forgetting, rediscovering, re-awakening and renewing of national identities -- territory which, like the Union Flag and the flag of St. George,  those on the liberal left have allowed the extreme right to commandeer unchallenged.  I'm also strangely drawn to the fantasy of a subterranean Otherworld inhabited by the Fair Folk, occasionally unwillingly visited by various hapless Tims, Tams, and Toms in folklore and Border Ballads, in a prototype alien abduction scenario.  It is there, of course, beneath the Isle of Avalon, where Arthur sleeps out the centuries, awaiting our ultimate 999 call.

I'm not yet sure where I'm going with any of this, but in the process I have rediscovered a taste for the long, narrow frame.   I like that shape, and I like the way it composes: the 16:9 aspect ratio was one of my favourite features of the Panasonic LX-3 camera.  It's something I used to do a lot with medium-format film.  A 6cm x 4.5cm negative scanned on a flatbed has a lot of resolution, but not a lot of quality, so slicing out a long central "sweet spot" was a practical strategy.  It also reduced the amount of tedious dust-spotting, and eliminated the unfixable, over-contrasty skies.

I'm finding that images of Avalon are everywhere, not just where you'd expect to find them; say, in the hills of Radnorshire or on the watchful slopes above Alfred's ancient capital of Winchester.  Which is why, in a recent exchange in the comments, I was pleased to be reminded of these lines from Little Gidding, one of T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets:
If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.
"England and Nowhere" has a ring to it, I think.

 * If anyone remembers the name, I'd be grateful.  He looked like ex-rugby player, with a strong south Wales accent, with an oddly nasal, clipped intonation.  No, not Neil Kinnock!

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Six Tens are Sixty

At some point in the small hours of Monday, I passed from being the oldest version of Middle-Aged Me to becoming the youngest version of Old Me, like a ship at night crossing the Equator; as I snored, I embarked on my seventh decade.  Although I confess I didn't feel much difference on waking up.

Saying it out loud, though, does the trick.  "I am sixty years old..."  Suddenly, the "old" in that formula has more weight than it did previously.  Damned if I'm going to start saying "sixty years young", though, and the next person to say "Never mind, sixty is the new forty!" will feel my wrath.

So, I am going to permit myself a little self-indulgence, and put up a little gallery that clearly demonstrates that I really haven't changed a bit, and that the passage of time is a conspiratorial illusion of Late Capitalism.







See?  The hair may be whiter, but the song remains the same.  Well, sort of.

My thanks to those who sent tributes of varying degrees of costliness and irony.  To those who forgot (and you know who you are), my grudging forgiveness.  My long-suffering staff presented me with a beer glass and a crate of bottles of beer of various denominations (Flack's Double, Hampshire Rose, Old Dick, Crop Circle, Palmer's 200, Piddle Premium, and Pressed Rat and Warthog -- I honestly haven't invented any of those names*).  I suspect they have mistaken the cause of my girth.  Which is, of course, the Celtic Curse: you will start your adult life as a slight, elf-like thing, and slowly thicken into something that would come in handy to keep a barn door open in a strong wind (cf. Van Morrison, John Martyn, et al.).  Waist 28 to 38 in 40 years...

Forever young... Inside my head, it will always be 1974.

* Call for the Zythophile!

Thursday, 6 February 2014


An overlooked frame from our recent visit to Brighton.  Or, not so much overlooked, as passed over for blogging purposes.  It didn't fit the mood or narrative of the post, so sat it out, as did a number of other rather nice shots.  One of the spin-offs of blogging is that you learn the self-discipline of editing.

Underneath the promenade, there is a murky space, mainly used for storing what appear to be remnants of the wrecked West Pier.  Who knows why?  The skeletal pier has suffered yet more serious damage in storms this month, and surely cannot remain standing for much longer.

On a purely technical note, I am constantly amazed at the ability of the Panasonic G3 to retain detail in these darkest corners, even when competing with areas of intense illumination.  No doubt this is typical of modern sensors, and no doubt there are even better ones out there. But, for us old film guys, this is nothing less than freakin' alchemy.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

To the Max

2007, again, in November.

Now, I know some of you don't understand my thing for temporary barriers, but -- come on! -- this has to be the apotheosis, the acme, the very quintessence of a Mysterious Barricade. I can't remember now why it was there.  It may have been reseeding of the grass, or it may have been some ritual maze procession to do with graduation.  Who knows or cares, seven years later why?  It was there!

What I do remember is the pure joy of coming across this bizarre sight one bright lunchtime, and knowing that -- whatever flimsy excuse might have caused it to be constructed -- it was actually there purely and simply for me to photograph.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Seven Years Later

Seven years ago, in February 2007, looking across the allotments from the carpark early one morning, I saw this rather fine, Bruegel-ish scene composing itself before my eyes.  I took a photograph. Then forgot all about it; I hadn't so much as proof-printed it until last night. I must have overlooked it any number of times.  Now I have seen it, I find this hard to believe.

It puts me in mind of a quotation I came across recently, which captures nicely the paradox of seeing versus looking:
If you look at a thing 999 times, you are perfectly safe; if you look at it for the 1000th time, you are in danger of seeing it for the first time.
G. K. Chesterton
As the expression goes, sometimes you just can't see for looking.  Most of the time, for most purposes, that's exactly the way it needs to be.

This element of retrospective discovery has added some necessary excitement to the business of collating an exhibition.  Without it, the process is rather too reminiscent of filling out your annual tax statement, with that wearying sense of not knowing where to find the right documents combined with an acute awareness of the necessity of finding them and putting them in order by a certain date.  Discovering the odd uncashed cheque among the bills and bank statements is a nice bonus.

[Dear HMRC:  this "cheque" thing is just a metaphor...  No, really.]

Monday, 3 February 2014

Under the Sun

Yesterday we had the first dry Sunday for many weeks, though it feels like months.  I'm talking about rain, of course, not alcohol.  In the words of the amazing Sister Rosetta Tharpe, OMG, didn't it rain, children? The day started out fine, turned ominously grey in the early part of the afternoon, but ended up cold and clear, with blue sky and bouyant white clouds.  We walked around the humps, ditches and slopes of Twyford Down for several hours, checking out the changes wrought by the weather.

As well as unceasing torrential rain, there have been rushing mighty winds, too.  It's been positively biblical, people!  Now, soil is always thin on downland, and tree-roots have to get what purchase they can on the broken chalk beneath.  They're pretty tenacious, so it takes quite a puff to topple some gnarly old thorn off its perch.  The thorough soaking has softened the ground and loosened and lubricated the rock, though, and at various places we found trees blown over, still clutching their disk of chalk rubble. 

This reminded me of another day, one of those days you experience in your youth that stick in your memory as a hint of some profound secret, in a sort of reverse anamnesis, perhaps, a remembering of the future.

Once, a very long time ago in my student years, after an all-nighter which had left those of us still standing drained but unwilling to break the spell, we all crammed into a friend's car and drove out to nearby Woodstock to visit Blenheim Palace, the stately home of the Dukes of Marlborough. There had been a violent gale earlier in the month, and the weather was very frosty.  What we saw at Blenheim was a spectacle worthy of Orlando.

The ornamental lake was frozen over.  A bright sun was conjuring a mist from it, and in and out of the rising pillars of haze a dozen or more skaters were circling, wrapped in scarves and winter coats.  The scrape and scratch of their skates made a continuous knife-sharpening sound, punctuated by echoing laughs, squeals and shouts, and the occasional flump of someone slipping over.  I remember thinking that, if only I had a camera, this would make a very memorable picture.

As we walked further into the grounds, it became clear that quite a few trees had been blown over in the storm.  The elms in the park, apparently, had been planted in the battle order of the first Duke's encounter with the French at Blenheim in 1704.  The devastation on that frosty morning gave a rather more realistic impression of the butcher's bill that day.  Everywhere, stately trunks lay sprawled over and broken, each propped up by a 10 foot diameter disk of roots and soil at the bottom, like the base of an enormous model tree.

I was also reminded of the morning after the Great Storm of 1987, when -- after a sleepless night listening to the shrieking wind trying to dismantle my house -- I looked out of the kitchen window, only to find my view blocked by next door's apple trees lying across my yard, in a tangle of fence posts, broken branches and a deep drift of windfall apples and leaves.  The sound of many chainsaws starting up and the absence of traffic noise began to impinge on my foggy brain, and I slowly realised that something out of the ordinary had taken place during the night.

That morning, too, I remember, was cold and clear, with blue sky and bouyant white clouds.  I suppose there comes a point in life when pretty much everything reminds you of something else, somewhere else, some other time.  It would be a shame, though, wouldn't it, if there truly was nothing new under the sun?

If there be nothing new, but that which is
Hath been before, how are our brains beguiled,
Which, labouring for invention, bear amiss
The second burden of a former child?
O that record could with a backward look
Even of five hundred courses of the sun
Show me your image in some antique book,
Since mind at first in character was done,
That I might see what the old world could say
To this composed wonder of your frame;
Whether we are mended, or whether better they,
Or whether revolution be the same.
   O sure I am, the wits of former days
   To subjects worse have given admiring praise.

Shakespeare, Sonnet 59

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Valley of Fire

As I'm sure you know, proper photographers resist photographing sunsets, on pain of expulsion from the Proper Photographers League.  I set out my views on the subject very early on in this blog (Sunsets at Dawn) and have not changed my mind since.  Of course, I can enjoy a good sunset in the same way as I enjoy, say, a good meal.  However, unlike many, I don't feel a compulsion to record either of them with a camera.*

What I can't resist is magic.  And light, as all proper photographers know, is what magic is all about.

For a few years at Easter we rented a particularly congenial farmhouse near Llandegly in mid-Wales, halfway up a hill and down a long, private lane.  It had recently been restored, and so well-appointed it had more mod cons than we have at home, with a yard and a large barn with a table-tennis table. Why, if you leaned backwards out of an upstairs window, you could even get a mobile phone signal.

At Llwynburvach, April 2009

The barn had a slightly surreal double aspect, in that on one side a large door opened onto the farmhouse yard but, on the opposite side, another door opened directly onto a grassy field full of grazing sheep.  If your ping-pong ball bobbled out through the gap under the field-side door, you had to open it, step out into the field, and retrieve the ball from between the legs of an astonished sheep. It was like moving between parallel universes.

The magic was what happened at sunset.  Yes, in the west, the sun went down with the usual hill-country bravura display of reds, yellows and peculiar greeny-blues, dramatic clouds, scrolling credits, et cetera, et cetera.  Very pretty.  But in the east, facing away from the showy pyrotechnics, an adjacent valley would fill with mist, and then appear to ignite, bathed in a fiery glow, quite unlike anything I've seen anywhere else.  From the same bedroom window that gave the mobile signal, I photographed this spectacle many times.

For whatever reason, I'd always passed over those frames before.  Sunset aversion, probably.  But, perhaps because that farmhouse has now gone back into residential use and we will not get to rent it again, they caught my eye this time when scanning over the backfiles, and I found one that I particularly liked, with grazing sheep seen though a screen of ashes and oaks, oblivious to the apocalypse blazing in the background.

* When we ate out in Brighton the other weekend,  I was amused to watch an adjacent table of prosperous-looking types, all assiduously and utterly unselfconsciously photographing every course of their meal with their iPhones.  Actually, their corner of an especially dimly-lit restaurant was so dark that they were also using a glowing iPhone screen as a torch with which to read the menu. 

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Describing the Giraffe

Going through my backfiles, looking for overlooked but exhibitable gems, is proving an interesting exercise.  A problem that arises out of the rapid progress of digital cameras is the feeling that anything older than two or three years is probably obsolete.  Too small, too little dynamic range, not enough something -- all those discontents that drive the digital arms race.

Clearly, this is nonsense, more a problem of perception than reality, but it was going round the Paul Klee exhibition at Tate Modern that really brought it home.  A good picture is a good picture, even if it's tiny, sketchy, and obviously painted on cardboard.  In fact, Klee's originals are often considerably smaller than their familiar poster-sized reproductions.  I found myself being drawn in irresistibly by these intimate visual magnets, like a kid pressed against a sweet-shop's glass cabinet.  A very different sensation from being pushed back across the room by Mark Rothko.

Giraffes are amazing beasts.  I still remember them vividly from my last visit to our local zoo with my daughter, back in 2007, just as she was on the cusp of losing interest in the excitements of childhood.  The Giraffe House is rather like a church, barn-like, hushed, quietly-lit, and full of The Presence.  When they are inside, these bizarre creatures stride back and forth like long-legged supermodels, brushing against each other and rummaging in the high food-baskets, occasionally dipping a crane-like neck to investigate the hay-strewn floor.  All in complete silence.

It is awe-inspiring, and impossible to capture with a camera, except by that visual synecdoche where a part invokes the whole, invoking in turn the famous parable of the blind men and the elephant.  So, a small, blurry image of a small part of a large beast seemed worth reviving.