Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Gunner Who?

My current review of the "Garden" files is proceeding down some familiar lines. I just checked on the five emotional stages of the Kübler-Ross model of grief (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance), and some amusing parallels could be drawn. But, go ahead, do it yourself, I'm still in Denial...

Heh... It is a daunting prospect, though, and the obvious question is, "Why am I doing this to myself, when I could be doing ... Well, anything else, and preferably something easy, fun, and rather less like work?" Hmm, is that Anger, or Bargaining, I wonder? Whatever, I have just spent two (luckily, rainy) days doing a preliminary pass through the tangled undergrowth of these Garden files, and now have a long-list of four hundred decent photographs. I'm sure I must have made the comparison before with selecting candidates for a job interview, something I did many times in my working life. Shortlisting for interview is always made easier, if never entirely objective, when all or most of the candidates are strangers. The curious thing is, quite a few of these photos were taken so long ago that it is as if someone else had made them; someone, ah, not very good. Which is depressing – Aha! Depression! Progress! – but does make the weeding-out process rather more straightforward.

The prime characteristic of this kind of work – which I think of as serial chorography, repeatedly visiting the same few sites, in pursuit of small but exciting differences – is a high level of repetition. You can't avoid taking what are essentially the same photographs, again and again. You may not be able to step into the same river twice, but it takes a certain level of dedication and an unusually high boredom threshold (and quite possibly a lack of imagination) to demonstrate this by practical experiment. Most people, I suspect, have been happy to regard this one as QED ever since Heraclitus first proposed it some time around 500 BC. And I bet even he only regarded it as a thought experiment.

So, within the 400 images, selected mainly for their quality, there is a high degree of similarity. Certain subjects look best in certain lights from certain angles, and there isn't a lot you can do about that, especially if you're always rocking up at midday or first thing in the morning. What saves such a project from dullness is the cycle of the seasons, and the accompanying arcs of growth, maturity, and decay. Plants are good at that. Very good indeed. And, of the entire plant kingdom, one of the very best is gunnera manicata, or the Giant Martian Brazilian Rhubarb.

It is a bizarre, utterly bonkers plant, gunnera. They grow all along the stream running through the university, but most of all they love the marshy bottom of the Valley Garden. I assume they were deliberately planted, and probably looked great in some plantsman's catalogue of Exciting New Invasive Species. Leaves the size of a tablecloth? What's not to like? And, certainly, they are gobsmacking, in a trippy, triffid-ish kind of way. They grow rapidly from a mere twinkle in a dinosaur's eye to giant plants bearing leaves four or five feet across (120-150cm), held up by spiny, reptilian stalks that can grow to eight feet in height. They look so evil that their sap must surely be capable of etching glass and hospitalizing anyone ill-advised enough to attack them with a machete.

As the year progresses into winter, however, the stalks lose their rigidity and kink under their burden like bent drinking straws, and the massive leaves flop onto the ground to rot. I believe the gardeners accelerate the process by snapping the plants over at the end of the season, presumably wearing chain-mail gauntlets and full bio-hazard suits. But as the leaves are made out of the vegetable equivalent of leather they take a very long time to rot down. By December and January, nothing looks deader than a dead Gunnera leaf. But the plants are just hiding underground in the form of knobbly rhizomes and, like all unkillable alien zombie plants, they'll be back...

Many years ago now, the University asked me, as an alleged photographer, to give them a selection of images so they could choose one for the official uni Christmas card. As it happened, the previous year it had snowed, and I had a truly magnificent shot of rotting brown gunnera leaves covered in snow, down by a bit of the stream where the banks and the water have an interesting iridescent orange coloration, due to the combination of brick clay and bacterial pollution that occurs there. It was clearly The One*.

But, to my amazement, the PR people rejected it, and instead went for a dull shot of some snow-covered apples in the Valley Garden orchard that I'd slipped in as a makeweight. Asked why, they explained – in that patient, cautious tone you use with unpredictable idiots – that the picture of those dead things down by the stream did not really capture the intended seasonal spirit and, yes, that was despite the lovely orange colour and all that snow. Ah well, frustrating, but what can you do?

Oh look, the last stage: Acceptance! Ladies and gentlemen, we have a project...

* I'd reproduce it, but this picture is on medium-format colour negative film, and if I can possibly avoid it I do not intend to complicate matters by delving back into that prehistoric era of contact sheets and fiddly strips of film.


Anonymous said...

"Panta rhei" does not only apply to the flow of the seasons, the weather, and decay and growth, but also to you, the observer with the camera. I believe that if you visit a place often, this place will somehow affect you. Almost like a dialogue, in which the place reveals more and more of its beauty. This is by no means boring, and is something that casual observers often miss - we photographers can show it to them, like in a time-lapse video.

The pictures in this post are whetting my appetite for the book!

Best, Thomas

Mike C. said...


Thanks -- plenty more where they came from!

I only really dropped Heraclitus in as a peg for a joke, but you're right, in many ways those pre-Socratic ideas of flux underlie much of what I'm up to here.