Thursday, 31 December 2015

The Ten Bob Note

I cannot yet bring myself to refer to this time of year as "The Holidays" (but you will, Oscar, you will), though I suppose if we think of it as a shorthand for "the afterglow of Christmas, when a child can consider with a certain degree of satisfaction and anticipation this year's haul of present-giving, before the decks are cleared for the mysterious adult rite of New Year's Eve, and the inevitable gloom when the impending return to school is finally contemplated" then it does meet a need.  So, in the, ah, Holidays I always find myself remembering, with great affection, the old ten bob note.  Smaller, and with a longer, thinner aspect ratio than the old pound note, and coloured a subtle, bruised reddish-brown, it was what uncles and aunts tucked inside a greetings card in lieu of a present.

It never occurred to me to think of this as laziness or thoughtlessness.  Thoughtless would have been giving the same Airfix kit as last year, and lazy some dreary football annual. In the words of Berry Gordy and Janie Bradford:  "Gimme money – that's what I want!" (what?  You thought Lennon & McCartney wrote that?).  In fact, in the early 1960s the classic "bagged" Airfix kit cost 2s 6d (or "half a crown").  That's four new kits for ten bob!  Um, and that's 12.5 pence and fifty pence in "new" decimal money – risible amounts, nowadays.  Risible and not very divisible.

So, every year around this time, I also find myself explaining Ye Olde Money to my bemused kids.  It's become a bit of a tradition:  gather ye round, my dears, while your old father tells terrible tales of pre-decimal days...  My daughter, especially – who, like me, is arithmetically-challenged – recoils in horror at the idea of twelve pence to a shilling and twenty shillings to a pound.  Why, in olden tymes, even a shop-girl had to be genius at sums, father!  Why, yes, child: in fact, before the advent of the electronic till, shop-girls had to be especially brisk with their mental arithmetic.  Too much "No, wait... That can't be right..." and customers would become restless.  I think I have floated the idea before that, surely, there is no other reason to make children recite their multiplication tables up to twelve?  Eleven nines are ninety-nine, twelve nines are ...  are ... Do other, more rational countries – with their pathetically easy-to-calculate decimal currencies – bother with this? If not, why on earth do we still inflict this torment on our kids?

But, back to the ten shilling note.  A crisp new note was a thing of beauty.  As a child, banknotes did not often pass through my hands, and I can't have been the only one to have gazed in wonder at those elaborate, asymmetrical-yet-rhythmic engraved swirls and repeated rounded shapes, a design masterclass, where typography and penmanship met the Spirograph (another very 1960s childhood experience).  Thinking about it, I don't recall ever seeing any pre-Elizabeth II notes, probably because, unlike coins, banknotes have a very limited life.  But I've already rhapsodized about the longevity of the old pre-decimal coins, so won't do it again.  I do miss them, though, despite the attendant mental arithmetic. (108!  Got it!  Twelve nines are 108!).

Notoriously, an enclosed banknote* was a temptation to postmen, especially to the temporary ones enlisted around Christmas.  The temptation was compounded when, idiotically, the note had been pinned to the card "for safety" – until 1969 there was still a cheaper postal rate for unsealed mail – and the head of the pin could easily be felt through the envelope.  Most, I'm glad to say, did make it through the post.  Though I suppose an enterprising postman working the wealthier neighbourhoods could have made a few bob swapping ten shilling notes for any pound notes that turned up...

No-one sends me money, now, of course; that is my job.  But I still can't help opening each new Christmas card carefully, just in case there is an exciting enclosure, and I still automatically check the envelope one more time before binning it.  You never know.

Nice, but a ten bob note was prettier...

* Or "treasury note", as our pompous headmaster would call them, mystifyingly, in morning assembly, whenever one had been found lying around in a changing room.  It took me years to realise what he was talking about.  I had been imagining something altogether more grand, like the million pound job above.

Tuesday, 29 December 2015


If I'm in the mood, in the evening I have taken to creating what I think of as improvisations, in the musical sense.  I have instinctively set myself the sort of flexible "rules", or creative limitations, I imagine any improvising musician must use.  Chief among these is finishing the piece in one evening.  I might tighten it up later, but it must be substantially complete by the time I power down the PC that night.  Another is that, if possible, most of the images used should come from the same folder, that is, taken with the same camera in the same month of the same year.

So, I open a blank 30cm x 40cm file, 300 dpi, and begin to play.  The first two chords in this particular piece (evening of 27th December) were as follows:

That is, a major and a minor from December 2015, played on the Fuji X-M1.  Obviously, these two photographs have their own individual strengths and appeal, but – to continue the musical analogy – a reliance on single images can feel rather like playing the same few chords over and over again.  Something, I confess, I rather like to do on the guitar; I have a particular liking for the way a straight D chord rings, and the way other chords sit alongside it.  But is there anything more annoying, than someone else's purposeless musical noodling in the next room?

Another rule is to set myself a new image-editing challenge.  I'm still expanding my repertoire on Photoshop (or, rather, Photoshop Elements, not the full-on concert version of Photoshop) and, being an old-school amateur, I like to do everything myself using the most basic tools, in the same way I used to program in Perl without resort to libraries of ready-made routines.  Although I do have a pressure-sensitive Wacom graphical tablet, I still prefer to use a simple mouse for most operations, having developed a high degree of dexterity over the last couple of decades.  In this case, the challenge was to extract and save this rumpled anti-bird-strike sticker from its uninteresting, out-of-focus matrix:

Having succeeded, the new file will join my ragbag collection of recyclable bits and pieces, like the fragments of melody that appear and reappear as inversions and variations in any improvisation, together with a musician's trademark shifts in mood, timbre, and tempo.  Because, let's be honest, eighty to ninety percent of any improvisation is not so much spontaneous creation as an artful cut and paste job.  Having a headful of other music and ready-made progressions at your fingertips is an essential prerequisite of creating the other ten percent, or – on a really good night deserving of a standing ovation and multiple curtain calls – that magically original twenty percent.

Having laid down something that works, the rest of the job is trying to make it sing.  This may require changes of shape, of colour, of contrast, of relative size, of emphasis, and almost always the substitution of stronger new elements which upset the balance of everything else all over again, but in a dynamic, creative way.  You've got to be in the right mood to start, but by the time it's finished, the piece will have either created and imposed its own new mood or fallen apart into unresolved disharmony.

Thankfully, this sort of improvisation doesn't happen on a stage, live before a paying audience...

27 December 2015

Sunday, 27 December 2015

Icing Sugar

I suppose you can't complain if El Niño wants to play with the Christmas weather – it's his party, after all – but the strong winds coming up unseasonably from the south (unseasonably?  Is there such a thing any more?) are giving us a thorough drenching, with swollen rivers, saturated groundwater and repeated flooding further north in Cumbria.  Mind where you put that jet stream, El Niño!  And please stop twiddling with that Polar Vortex!

Floods and winds and mild temperatures somehow just don't make for pretty Christmas cards.  It's been a while since it snowed around here in December, but the association of Christmas and snow is pretty much indelible, it seems.  I found a nice print of the scene above in a stack of old proofs – in fact, a light icing-sugar dusting of snow from January 2013 – and thought about using it as this year's greetings card, but it seemed a little dishonest.

So instead I went all out for the Big Lie and montaged a total Winter Wonderland fantasy, with Hugin and Munin "at home" for Yule.  Check out that state-of-the-art wood-burning furnace, in the esquimaux chic guesthouse!  All welcome: but bring your own carrion!

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Undated. Unlocated. Unattributed.

I hardly ever repost things on this blog, partly because of the copyright issues but mainly because, well, I've got plenty of my own stuff straining to get onto the page.  But I was very taken by this "found" image on Mark Woods' outstanding blog wood s lot, reposted from the blog arsvitaest, in turn reposted from bal des pendus, where it was given the caption "Undated. Unlocated. Unattributed."

Isn't that extraordinary?  Like so many found images, it's pure, perfect photography, a moment in time captured forever.  Can't you just hear the muffled hoofbeats, and feel the snowfall and the bite of the freezing air?  A reminder of how profoundly simple photography can be.

It took me a while to figure out what it was reminding me of so strongly, then I remembered: it was that very snowy winter of 1976/77, when I was a post-graduate student at the University of East Anglia in Norwich.  My life was turning, as I fell out of love with various old things, or perhaps I was just seeing the same things in new, confusing ways.  Was the horse loose, or being given a canter round the paddock?

That Christmas I was given a copy of Joni Mitchell's Hejira.  A vinyl LP, of course; the same copy is still close at hand after nearly 40 years, but worn and rarely played.  It's an album full of snow; crows, too.  If you know it, you'll recall the inner gatefold image of Mitchell ice-skating, in semi-silhouette, flapping the black crow-like wings of a shawl, not unlike the skirts of the woman's coat in the photograph.  Hejira has a very particular, haunting atmosphere, uplifted and underscored by those long, fluid lines played on the fretless bass by Jaco Pastorius.
Strains of Benny Goodman
Coming through the snow and the pinewood trees
 Pure, perfect music, in fact, a moment in time captured forever.

I'm shutting down now until after Christmas, so may I wish you all the best for 2016, including at least a few pure, perfect moments!  And don't worry about capturing them on camera.  If I've learned anything in 2015, it's that you can always construct an evocative picture -- you can even find one, as above.  So be sure to leave yourself room to live the experiences and emotions for the pictures to evoke; don't let the camera get in the way.

Monday, 21 December 2015


Americans have a useful expression, "woo-woo", which we Brits haven't widely adopted, yet.  This may be because we are less susceptible to woo-woo phenomena, or simply prefer not to discuss woo-woo in public.  Yet.  Essentially, woo-woo encompasses the whole field of the paranormal, the New Agey, the spooky, and the spine-tinglingly coincidental.  It's a noun, an adjective, an adverb, possibly other things, too.  Obviously, it's generally used in a dismissive, derogatory way: "Then she got all woo-woo on me, man, with that crystal crap, so I split".

As a youngster, I used to be highly susceptible to woo-woo, in all its forms.  There was a lot of it about.  The late 1960s and early 1970s saw that first wave of New Age publishing extend its reach into the most ordinary High Street bookshops.  Despite the fact that much of this material was actually republished "classics" from earlier nineteenth- and twentieth-century waves of woo-woo it did not smell particularly old and musty (poo-woo?).  In fact, it seemed pretty fresh and new, probably because "old and musty" was deeply fashionable back then.  Nu-woo, you might say.  Ordinary kids could wander into W.H. Smith and get their hands on arcane texts like The Old Straight Track, The Prophet, or Zen in the Art of Archery. Not to mention new-fangled seeker-porn like Jonathan Livingston Seagull.  While my more serious-minded contemporaries were reading One-Dimensional Man and The Female Eunuch – also freely available then in W.H. Smith – I was deep into the oeuvres of Carlos Castaneda and Erich von Daniken.  I know, but I have never claimed to be more than an idiot.

A big influence on many of us were those new, larger, sleeker "trade paperbacks" from imprints like Picador and Abacus, which specialised in reprinting cult classics and occult titles, one of which was The Devil's Picturebook, a guide to the use and symbolism of tarot cards, which made a big impression on my adolescent brain.  In 1971/2 I actually began to design my own tarot pack in linocut, but never got much further than the more attractive cards in the "major arcana".  All that survives of the project is the battered sheet of proofs below.  I did get hold of a proper full pack, though  – I can't remember where, but I doubt it was in W.H. Smith – and made the interesting discovery that impressionable young women were excited by the prospect of having a card-reading, even from a shameless charlatan like me.  Well, before the internet we had to make our own entertainment.

Woo-woo is not the same thing as religion, or even "spirituality".  In fact, religion is society's way of steering people away from and putting a lid on woo-woid experiences, which are regarded as toxic and socially destabilising.  Religion, paradoxically, has always had a problem with mystics and seers.  Oh, and witches, especially witches. You get the woo-woo shivers from walking through a graveyard at night, not from kneeling in church.  You get the woo-woo chills from a particularly uncanny coincidence, not from the fact that St. George's day and Shakespeare's (probable) birthday are both on 23rd April.  Though Shakespeare also dying on the 23rd is a little woo-woo.

These shivers and chills are a real experience, not a theory or a dogma, although – being real, yet inexplicable and democratically available to all – they attract the regulatory attention of both the theory and the dogma police.  But, however compelling they may seem, they are also superficial experiences which, no matter how assiduously pursued, lead nowhere. Sadly, there are no spirits, demons, fairies, or angels out there.  Martial arts experts cannot fly or plug their fists into mysterious forces.  The elves have not hidden your car keys.  Not stepping on cracks won't stop your granny dying; but coming across an unopened Christmas card from her in a drawer, years after she has died, will really raise the hairs on the back of your neck. Woooo!

Photography was not immune to the Prog Era woo-woo outbreak.  A classic piece of photographic woo-woo is Bea Nettles' Mountain Dream Tarot (1970), now insanely collectible if you can find an original set that hasn't been torn into roach material.  Duane Michals invoked woo-woo themes and tropes in his serial photographic narratives, leavened by a sense of humour usually missing from full-on woo-wooery (Take One and See Mount Fujiyama, 1976, is a memorable example). Minor White's anthologies for Aperture, Celebrations (1976) and Light7 (1968), are pure photographic woo-woo, and Jerry Uelsmann has made a lifetime career out of navigating the uncertain borderland between woo-woo and surrealism.  Indeed, "surrealism" might be said to be the respectable face of woo-woo, allegedly deploying our sense of the uncanny to explore the unconscious.  Which is bit like saying my use of mind-altering drugs is a serious experiment, whereas yours is mere juvenile hedonism.

Which brings us to the real charlatans.  In a comment on a recent post (Bullshit Workshops) my attention was drawn to the Esalen Institute.  Now, I'd heard of Esalen, because of a long-standing interest in Gestalt Therapy; Esalen was where Fritz Perls began to integrate Zen elements into his psychiatric practice.  I'd also heard of it because anything associated with Big Sur used to pique my interest – it seemed to be one of those places where certain counter-cultural ley-lines converged, and besides, Richard Brautigan's A Confederate General from Big Sur was one of those much-read Picador titles mentioned above.  But I'd never actually looked to see what went on in there.

Now, I'm not one to put down seekers after spiritual enlightenment, nor do I sneer at marginally woo-woo activities like massage (mmm...) or yoga (though I do blame poorly-taught yoga for a persistent musculoskeletal problem in my neck).  I'm even prepared to have someone attempt to awaken my Kundalini by means of tantric sex (oh, go on then...), provided we accept we're talking metaphorically, here, and there isn't really a snake having a snooze in my lower spine.  But reading the list of workshops currently on offer at Esalen just gave me the giggles.

How about How to think like Leonardo da Vinci? ("Leonardo invented the parachute before anyone could fly. Imagine what you will accomplish with that kind of innovative thinking!").  Or what about Visionseeker:  shamanic cosmology? ("Note: Bring a rattle, a drum, a notebook or sketchpad, a set of oil or chalk pastels, a bandanna or eyeshade, and a light blanket. Please refrain from alcohol during the workshop.").  Or maybe I am the word: the energetics of consciousness? ("Paul Selig is a conscious channel, intuitive, and empath.").  In the words of that great teacher, Proverbial Wisdom:  A fool and his money are soon parted.

But it was the workshop leaders' photos that made me realise how far I have travelled since my woo-woo years.  What a creepy bunch!  Those smug, practised, beatific smiles, those crinkly, joyous, calculating eyes...  All turned on just for the camera; the contemporary scamster's equivalent of strong eye-contact and a firm handshake.  And, naturally, most of them have a book or two to sell.

I would no more put my sanity and well-being in the hands of those snake-oil merchants than I would walk widdershins through a churchyard at midnight on 21st December.

Saturday, 19 December 2015

Oak Trees

In a previous post (Over My Head) I was talking about the importance of allusion and making "inter-textual" references in writing and culture-talk, and how this is becoming more difficult in a world where talking across cultures, rather than simply within them, has become the norm; a world where my cultural bedrock ("A little dab'll do ya!" – Brylcreem! ) is your baffled visit to Google.  Without a reliable stock of similes and metaphors drawn from everyday life and shared experience – sporting, culinary or whatever – we're forced either to fall back on a plain-vanilla language – sorry! a bland, lowest-common-denominator language – or to adopt the high-flown language of philosophy, precise in its meaning but incomprehensible to the uninitiated.

Weirdly, it seems that the art-speak of the visual arts has taken that second, philosophical route, but mostly without having done the necessary preliminary homework.  Artists have never been famous for their studiousness, after all.  Neither were they notoriously chatty about their processes and intentions in the past, often preferring to remain silent, or to mutter a few inarticulate sentences about liking to play with paint, and to leave all that interpretation palaver to the critics.  In comparison, today's artists can be quite the pocket philosopher, always ready with a verbose account of what they've been up to and, crucially, why.

In contemporary art-speak the idea of "reference" – whether to art history, traditions of discourse, politics, or even science – has floated free, detached by the liberal application of that universal solvent, Kwik Po-Mo™ (available in all good art schools).  As an artist, it seems you can pretty much choose (or declare) what your reference points are, and what they signify, like a programmer declaring variables.  I don't think this is what is meant by a "floating chain of signifiers", but what do I know?  You hardly ever read an artist's descriptive statement of their "practice", now, without being told quite explicitly how this or that gesture, mark, or aesthetic choice "references" this or that important issue, from complex philosophical debates and cutting-edge scientific theories to controversial matters of race, gender, and politics.  Why?  Because I say so!  How?  In the way I say!  Read the bloody manual statement!

This is not just the case in conceptual art, though it's clearly conceptual art that has set this tendency going.  If you've never done so, it's worth considering Michael Craig-Martin's influential work, An Oak Tree, from 1973.  Go on, have a read.  I'll still be here (or ... will I?).

All done?  Intriguing, no?  But, as Arte Johnson's character used to say in Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, "Ve-e-ry interesting ...  But also stoopid!"  I'm not sure why and when artists decided their role was primarily to be enactors of head-hurting philosophical conundrums, but it's never been a good look.  Philosophers generally make pretty terrible paintings, too.  You can't blame such brilliantly multi-talented people for wanting to escape from their boxes, I suppose, but the day a conceptual plumber turns up at my house to fix a dripping tap carrying nothing but a six-pack – no, really, these are my tools – is the day I decide I am, after all, an oak tree.

May I ask you for a reference?

It's as if the decay of an understood, shared framework of reference has created an anxiety about being misunderstood – my intentions are good! – which in turn has created a control-freakish insistence on being understood in the right way; that is, my way.  Not so much Derrida as Lewis Carroll, then:
"I don't know what you mean by 'glory,' " Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. "Of course you don't—till I tell you. I meant 'there's a nice knock-down argument for you!' "
"But 'glory' doesn't mean 'a nice knock-down argument'," Alice objected.
"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master—that's all."
Through the Looking-Glass
Hmm, I'd forgotten about that reference to hegemony slipped in at the end there.  Nice one, Humpty.

In the end, so much contemporary art seems to aspire to do little more than illustrate the artist's statement, to colour in an already completed outline.  That detailed declaration of intent, after all, is so often the very thing that wins a commission in the first place.  In a world of competitive tendering, the safest strategy is "do what you document; document what you do", which will be a familiar nostrum to anyone who has had to grapple with the demands of modern corporate managerialism – health and safety statements, job descriptions, best-practice manuals, and all.  Though it does seem a long way from art, somehow.  By their statements shall ye know them.

What is also remarkable, however, is the parallel process by which artists have come to regard all fields of human endeavour as raw material badly in need of re-interpretation.  There can hardly be a museum or learned society that has not hosted an "artist in residence" in recent times.  I suppose it's not impossible that a potter or a sculptor might have a useful contribution to make in biological taxonomy or advanced physics, though it must always be a bit of a long shot.  The claimed symbiotic, synergetic benefits of such arrangements always seem rather one way, unless of course the lab was simply looking for something to brighten up the reception area.

Not so long ago, someone (it's not clear who) said that "writing about music is like dancing about architecture"; the absurdity of the comparison was, presumably, taken to be self-evident.  Well, not any more.  Hmm, "dancing about architecture"...  You're already half-way to a decent submission for, let's say, artist-in-residence at RIBA.  The rest, obviously, will depend entirely on the quality of the accompanying statement, and whether it ticks all the right boxes.  Please pay particular attention to the boxes marked "community involvement" and "value for money".  That you can dance a bit (or paint, or photograph, or write, or whatever arty thing it is you do), well, we can take that for granted, can't we?

Thursday, 17 December 2015

King of Night Town

I think you know who I am.  My family have controlled the nightlife in this city for six generations.  What's that?  "Criminal" is an ugly word, with ugly consequences for those who use it.  Have I made myself plain?  I prefer to think of us as a charitable venture, lending our considerable strength and organization to the citizenry, to ensure that they can enjoy their night-time sports without coming to any unnecessary harm.

Now, I am told your establishment has shown reluctance and tardiness in making your charitable donations?  This is very disappointing...

Monday, 14 December 2015

The Rain King

I drove up to Bristol from Southampton this morning, and am now watching the rain sweep up the Avon Gorge as I sit drinking a coffee after lunch.  There is a diagonally-sloping wooded valley opposite us, from which tendrils of water vapour are rising, as if in some rain forest in Papua New Guinea.  I should probably be listening to Obscured By Clouds.

At least, I assume it's vapour, and not smoke.  Perhaps the foresters are burning brash down in the valley bottom.  It's curious, how making fires has gone from an unremarkable, everyday necessity to a cause for comment, even concern.  Rather like smoking...

It seemed a good moment to give this gent an outing.

Friday, 11 December 2015

Bullshit Workshops

As a late middle-aged, professional middle-class, Christian-heritage, heterosexual, white male, you'd think the wicked old Patriarchy would be working for me like a top-of-the-range mojo.  I snap my fingers, and good stuff just happens...  My every wish is anticipated, and delivered before I can even form it into the rhetorically-perfect words that my scribes attribute to me.  Have that one scrubbed and brought to my tent!  Will no-one rid me of this troublesome priest?  Player's, please!  Make mine a double!

Sadly, and bafflingly, this is not the case.  In fact, if you had to identify one of the most baffled and sad groups in society, late middle-aged, etc. men would be a good place to look.  Most of us are a pathetic remnant of whatever hyper-masculine act we managed to work up in our youth.  That skin-tight Superman outfit just looks ridiculous on the paunchy, balding travesty that appears in the mirror.  It always did look ridiculous, of course, but no-one had the courage to say so back when it used to fit, to adapt Clive James' description of Schwarzenegger, like a nylon sock stuffed with walnuts.

Above all, many men, it seems, forget how to have friends.  They also forget how to have fun, and the two are probably not unrelated.  I saw it in my own father, and I see it all around: somehow fatherhood, career, and responsibilities push friendship and fun way down the priority list.  Part of the problem, of course, is the way young men define and experience both:  you can't be a responsible father and spend your evenings passing a bong around.  "Daddy can't sort that out now, sweetheart, because he's off his FACE! Hahahahaha!"  There is a built-in self-destruct mechanism in laddish fun, that means it won't survive the process of becoming a citizen.  Or, a "straight", as we used to call them.  Us, I mean.  Sigh...

Which is where an obsession with photographic gear comes in.  It's self-evident that most "photographers" are nothing of the sort: their real interest is in acquiring, knowing about, and discussing cameras and lenses.  It's something to talk about.  It might as well be cars, or woodworking; it's something to have in common with other lonely guys.  It's a reason to go out there on the Web looking for virtual company.  It's also retail therapy.  There are thousands out there, aching for a chance to discuss the relative merits of their next purchase, including bags to keep it all in, FFS.  If you're so-minded, it's an ever-replenishing money-tree, just waiting to be harvested.

I don't visit my local camera shop much, these days, never needing film or processing, but whenever I do, I seem to end up waiting for the assistant to politely disengage from some guy – it's always a guy – who wants to hear himself saying out loud and at length the gear-speak he's been reading online all week.  Stuff about focal lengths and viewfinders and mirrorless versus DSLRs and what on earth is going on with Canon?  The assistants are polite, because these are the guys who will actually spend some serious money.  Unlike me, they're never in there just looking for a used 49mm lens-cap.

For the really well-heeled-but-lonely camera-obsessives, there are workshops.  Now, back in the last century, the photographic workshop was a serious thing.  I've already written about Duckspool, for example.  But the workshop idea quickly went bad, and became a money-spinning "holiday with gear-heads".  At Duckspool any gear-talk would get you put in the Naughty Corner.  Camera club types were ruthlessly reconstructed via Maoist-style self-criticism sessions (or "critique", as it is euphemistically known).  Until you've witnessed Thomas Joshua Cooper berating some hapless competition-freak you don't know the meaning of fear.  I doubt very much that many contemporary workshop leaders are prepared to make their paying guests cry for their sins against the True Way of photography.

Similarly, most photo-bloggers are beguiled by gear and technique.  Meister-blogger Mike Johnston himself is clearly never happier than when slipping into lens-talk.  He knows he shouldn't, but – dammit! – just this once!  It's only the second time this week...  But one blogger I've started reading recently is different.  He is obsessed by those who are obsessed by gear and technique.  In particular, he devotes the sort of time and energy into dismantling the nostrums of popular blogger Ming Thein that others might dedicate to Heidegger.  If you don't know Andrew Molitor's Photos and Stuff, you might enjoy it.  This entire post was kicked off by his recent observation about habitual workshop attendees, that they "enjoy the travel and hanging about with other gearheads and talking about bullshit. Me too. Well, not the gearheads. But I adore talking about bullshit."  Well, yes, indeed – "plus one" on that, I thought.

Then a lightbulb went on.  A flashbulb.  A dazzlingly intense studio light.  Bullshit workshops!  Why not?  Gather loosely thematic groups of isolated, lonely, well-off obsessives; hand in all gear at the entrance, like weapons; add a brilliant but inclusive conversationalist or two; mix in suitable intoxicants; let the bullshit start!  Remember how it was when you were young?  What fun it was to set the world to rights, or to talk babbling nonsense until dawn?  Remember the pure rush of arguing your inarguable case, and the sheer buzz of bullshit?  Then you need to sign up for the Idiotic Hat Bullshit Workshops!  Places are limited, so don't delay...

It could work.  I think I'm gonna be rich...

In here, everything is permitted...

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Over My Head

Earlier this year I showed a friend some of my first efforts in photo-collage, when the theme of "angels" was prominent in my mind.  You may recall a couple of these making their way into this blog, for example here, and here.  His reaction was salutary, however.  A highly-intelligent, well-read and cultivated man – a classicist by training, a musician by vocation, and an IT specialist by trade – he replied, "I can see they're interesting, but art that makes me feel a bit thick tends not to get my vote".

What he meant was that the literary references I had spread onto the images like thickly-applied Marmite were not familiar to him, and this made him feel inadequate, as I suppose it would anybody.  I had made the mistake of assuming that if someone like me knew something (having started out from "culture degree zero", as it were) then pretty much anybody else would know it, too.  I mean, who wouldn't recognise the opening words of Dante's Inferno, even in Italian?  Even if they'd never so much as opened it?  Well, my well-read and cultivated friend, for one.

Looked at in its worst light, I was simply showing off.  It is a weakness, admittedly, to which I am prone.  What I thought I was doing, however, was to anchor my images within a broader, shared cultural framework.  But, in an increasingly diverse and international world, there is clearly no longer any such thing.  Yesterday's authorities and touchstones – Rilke, Dante, and all the rest of the various European first elevens – have become mere ballast, and been deep-sixed along with all that other "dead white male" deadweight.

It's not just "high" culture, either.  It ...  Just a minute, I'm hearing a voice from the audience...

"What is first eleven, please?"

Ah, sorry, footnote needed!  And what about that mysterious "Marmite" referenced in a previous paragraph?  A good proportion of the readership of this blog – perhaps 60% – will never have encountered that proverbially-divisive substance.  Another footnote needed!  Deep-sixed?  Same!  Hmm...  This lack of shared reference points is a problem, because any meaningful culture has to be the local knowledge of a living community of shared experience, and not something you have to look up on Google.

Obviously, a large part of western culture – of all cultures, I imagine – depends on reference to other works within that culture, what is referred to in art-speak as "inter-textuality".  Sometimes, it can seem that it consists of little else.  Consider this extract from a review in last week's TLS of a new edition of a novel by Theodor Fontane, Effi Briest – of whom and of which you may well not have heard, but which was apparently regarded by Thomas Mann as one of his essential half-dozen European novels (does that make you feel better, or worse?):
The "Explanatory Notes" prove to be an uneven, sometimes indifferent guide to the "thousand filigreed details" that Fontane prided himself on working into the verbal texture of his novels.  The confusion by Effi's callow cousin Dagobert of one popular Arnold Böcklin painting with another, one of several subtle adumbrations of the deaths to come, is compounded rather than explained.  Effi's reference to an equally famous Giacomo Meyerbeer opera, Le Prophète, which associates Innstetten's sinister mystical bent with the fanatical Anabaptist John of Leiden, is passed over entirely even though it is regularly glossed in other editions and commentaries.
TLS, 4 Dec 2015, p.26
Eh?  My turn to feel thick...  Don't you hate it when someone refers airily to a "famous" something-or-other you've never heard of, and which you know you would probably loathe, anyway?  I'm sure I do it all the time on this blog; sorry about that.  Now, I haven't read the novel in question myself, naturally – 19th century novels are really not my thing – but I did see Fassbinder's film of Effi Briest back in the 1970s, and nearly died of boredom.  I left the cinema thinking, "I need a drink", not, "I must read that novel".  Seriously: if getting all those implied references (and a thousand other "filigreed details") is important to "getting" the novel, then forget about it.  It's too late – I'm 61!  Besides, I really need to find out more about fanatical Shi'ite and Sunni militants far more urgently than researching fanatical 16th century Anabaptists.  And, yes, I did have to look John of Leiden up in Google.

Suitably chastened by my friend's puzzlement, I found myself returning – a little ironically, you might justifiably think – to a favourite quotation from Rumi*, which I should get tattooed on myself, somewhere I can easily see it:
Sell your cleverness, and buy bewilderment.
Which is where and why the crows came in.  Crows are smart enough but not great readers, and are permanently bewildered at the quantity of edible stuff we casually toss away.  Although that's probably not the sort of bewilderment Rumi had in mind.

Meet the Honey-Buzzards

* 13th century Persian Sufi poet and teacher –  in this case do do yourself a favour and look him up.  Wonderful stuff.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Urban Buzzard

Buzzards* are so much more common than they used to be.  I spotted my first "urban buzzard" in 1999, standing outside in the back garden at my daughter's fifth birthday party.  As the riotous assembly of mini-Bacchae yelled and screamed around our tiny lawn, high as kites on sugary pop, I looked up and there it was, circling around in that effortlessly purposeful way buzzards and eagles have.  Perhaps it was waiting to see if I would be torn into pieces in the Dionysian rite taking place a few hundred feet below.

Until then, I had only ever seen them in deep countryside, and even then sufficiently infrequently for the exclamation "Buzzard!" to be worth craning one's neck for, even driving at speed.  Something has changed to tempt the buzzard and that other once rare and haughty robber baron, the red kite, further and further out of their rural isolation.  My suspicion is that the frequency and quality of roadkill on motorways and trunk roads has to be involved; you could compile an inventory of British mammals and game birds from the remains scattered along the central reservation of the A34 from Winchester to Oxford alone.

I wonder if these tweedy gents change clothing for their urban forays?  Somehow I doubt it.  "No brown in town be damned..."

* For American readers:  a "buzzard" in Britain is not a vulture but a large hawk, eagle-like in appearance and habits.  Buteo buteo, to be precise.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Taking Notes

On a quiet, late afternoon in December (what, already?), with rain threatening but not quite arriving, a simple view of a nowhere-in-particular corner of Southampton city centre offers a rich vista of subdued autumnal colours, against which the industrial reds and blues of some stray construction kit absolutely pop.  I love it...  This is what "straight" photography is for.  Can you imagine having the skill, patience, or inclination to paint this scene, and do it justice? (not necessarily a rhetorical question -- meet Peter Jarvis).

It's a form of instant note-taking, but one with such depth, such clarity, and exquisite accuracy.  See it; frame it; got it.  But it seems the question that nags at the back of the mind of many deprecators of photography (and, indeed, photographers) is that very instantaneity:  sure, you saw this, you made some choices, you were there, but have you really earned it?  It's a variant of the feelings that we might have towards inherited wealth or fraudulent success.  Too easy!  Where's the work?

Perhaps that's why so many old-skool photographers have so vehemently rejected the label of "artist".  Hey, don't hang that "artist" thing on me, I'm a photographer!  It is often these same old-skoolers who reject the form of work known, dismissively, as "manipulation" -- and often, by extension, all digital imaging -- because it undermines photography's One True Claim, its verisimilitude and veracity, untouched by human hand.  This seems a self-imposed lose-lose situation, to me, in which a photographic image must either be a truthful but facile mechanical capture ("I'm not a real artist"), or a lie that corrupts the medium's very essence ("You're not a real photographer").  This is bizarre, and I can't think of any other medium where the standards for judging its practitioners are so muddled up with the truth-telling standards (!) of journalism.  Novelists?  They're just making it up!  Absolutely zero source-checking! Theatre and film?  It's just actors pretending!  Painters?  Don't get  me started...

Just a few yards away, there is some glossy black-painted shuttering with a flimsy but locked doorway.  Again, this is why I carry a camera around (other "digital imaging devices" are available, of course).  Note-taking, again.  But, unlike the things I scribble down in my notebooks, these notes always go above and beyond whatever it is I have noticed: could anyone paint or sketch such a simple, nuanced, real-life mystery in a way that would add anything to it, and not subtract something essential from it?  Well, perhaps yes, but it's highly unlikely that anyone would ever bother to invest the necessary time, especially when on their way to buy socks in Marks & Spencer.  Neither would I, if I couldn't accomplish it in 1/125 second, and move on.  And if I didn't have half a mind to use it as raw material in some as yet non-existent, unplanned, composite visual lie.

Friday, 4 December 2015

The Aristocrats

The Aristocrats?  No, no, nothing to do with that joke, though it might be useful to keep it somewhere in the back of your mind as you read this.

In the photo-collages I have made so far, crows and other members of that family have played the most prominent part.  I like crows.  I think of them as adaptable survivors, ubiquitous yet characterful, quarrelsome yet loyal to the tribe, aggressive yet intelligent and curious, far from pretty but endowed with a certain scruffy dignity.  They also seem to carry a feeling of responsibility towards bird-life in general, acting as a spontaneous militia: let a predatory buzzard or hawk appear in the sky, and a squadron of crows, rooks and even jackdaws will scramble to harass it until it glides off to some other, less populated neck of the woods.  Needless to say, I grew up among crows.

But I also admire those aloof birds of prey, coolly shrugging off pecks and feints, and effortlessly riding higher and higher into the sky, all the time watching the ground with super-power vision.  Part of me identifies just as strongly with them.  That's OK: humans are nothing if not shape-shifters.  You can be a quarrelsome crow at breakfast, a soaring eagle at work, and a lovey dovey at night, or whatever else you happen to be like.  We have looked to birds and animals for our metaphors and spirit-guides since the last Ice Age and probably before.  Wardrobe providers, too.  As far as I know, it has never occurred to any other species of predator not only to eat other creatures, but also to remove their hides, fur, bones and feathers and wear them, which I suppose is us taking our metaphorical tendency to its most practical extreme.  "It's so cold... I wish we could be as warm as furry bears!", sighs Ug's bed-partner, for whom nothing is too much trouble.  "And this straw is all scratchy!"  Hmm, thinks Ug.  Furry bears.  I may have an idea...

Presentation of the "More Mice" park plan...

Raptors are the aristocrats of the food chain.  You can't go around eating others as a way of life -- literally or metaphorically -- unless (a) you're very good at it, and (b) there aren't very many of you.  Not until you're clever enough to invent farming, anyway.  Life at the top requires tact, breeding, leisure, and an unfailing instinct to go for the throat.  Killers have to be smarter than their prey and, for some reason, tend to be prettier.  It's an attractive package.  There are few things as memorable or as thrilling as a close encounter with one of these elusive cut-throats, like the brush-by with a sparrow-hawk I had recently, as she jetted through the wood like a relentless heat-seeking missile.

But, closer up, there is something mad and bad about all out-and-out predators, and especially birds of prey.  You can see it in their eyes, that cold black-hole vacancy, checking you out -- threat, no-threat, or dinner?   Their very prettiness and neat-as-a-pin-ness betrays something neurotic; they're twitchy and highly-strung, like gunslingers.  Perhaps, like human hunters, they have obsessive magic routines and rituals that invoke good fortune, and won't venture out if the omens are bad?  And, despite their sleek outfits and superior airs, their nests and perches are stinking charnel-houses, and although they're lethal they will never risk an injury, or waste energy on less than certain kills.  Crows know this, and despise them for it.  Crows take their knocks, and eat any damn thing that comes along.  Hawks?  I've shat 'em!  Raptors, on the other hand, know that crows taste bad and merely talk a good fight; why be concerned by those blowhards and their vulgar abuse?

So, just for a little balance, expect hawks, falcons and eagles to figure more prominently for a while in these posts.  Even a crow can give those arrogant, preening, chick-killin' bastards their due.

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Crow Country Book: Update

A reminder of the limited-edition, privately-distributed Crow Country book I announced last week.  The Final Five, as it were, have now been received, and just four remain for sale.  If you were intending to buy one, now is the time to act.  There won't be any more.  Simply send me an email (addresses in my Profile, top right) and we'll take it from there.

My thanks to the purchasers of the first four copies.  I'm pretty sure you will be pleased and impressed by the quality of the production, and your vote of confidence is very much appreciated.

If you're unsure what I'm talking about, follow this link to the original post.