Saturday, 11 May 2019

Photo Voices

Dead White Men in Black
in National Portrait Gallery
So, Congratulations
Simon Armitage.
It seems
You are Poet Laureate
A little unfair, perhaps, to invoke E.J. Thribb (17½), but Armitage is endowed with a very fine example of what a friend, a retired teacher who used to teach literature in secondary school, calls "the poetry voice", something he finds deeply irritating. I expect you know the one he means: that hushed sing-song that so many poetry-readers adopt, as if the full understanding of poetry required the use of a special, reverend tone, pitched somewhere between a prayer and the incantation of a spell. Such irritations are catchy: I find I'm annoyed by the Poetry Voice, too, now.

Once you think about it, there are a lot of such specialised, off-the-peg "voices" out there. I am particularly annoyed by the Enthusiasm Voice, the one adopted by most expert popularisers when acting as TV and radio presenters, that involves periodically scrunching the voice into little constipated gurgles of delight, the way you might try to persuade a toddler that cabbage is yummy. Then there's the languid, heavy-breathing Mystery Voice, used on nearly every BBC trailer for a drama, as if the continuity reader had just emerged from a lengthy session in an opium den. Oh, and there's the Hysterical Sports Voice, the Nature Documentary Voice, and the Wacky Comedy Voice, and ... I'm sure you can think of plenty of others. Their common denominator is that the speaker always seems to feel that something extra needs adding to the bare facts of what is being said or described, like more salt or a good sprinkling of glitter, in order to bring out some quality which they fear the hearer may otherwise miss. Goal! GOOOOOAAAAAL!!! Wait, what, I missed that, did someone just score?

Behind these stock voices there are quite often original and unmistakable voices, of course: in Britain one immediately thinks of David Attenborough, Judi Dench, David Coleman, Alice Roberts, or Roger McGough. Such folk tend to become ubiquitous (never a problem, I feel, where professor Roberts is concerned), and so synonymous with their usual subject matter that their way of speaking becomes the way of speaking about it. Which must be both annoying and flattering. Of course, some voices are both distinctive and irritating in equal measure: how on earth did Bernard Hill's gruff monotone ever get him a regular gig as a nature documentary voiceover, or – my current bĂȘte noire – TLS editor Stig Abell's infuriatingly repetitive sing-song a slot as a BBC Radio 4 arts presenter?

National Portrait Gallery

Which made me wonder, does photography have voices? On the face of it, this is ridiculous: what could be more mute than a photograph? But I suppose what I mean is: do the most influential photographers have a distinctive voice, which becomes The Voice of their particular genre? I don't mean metaphorically, and I don't mean "voice" as a synonym for "style". I mean, do you usually hear a particular kind of voice when you look at particular genres of photographs?

Call me strange, but I think I do. I certainly hear a version of the Poetry Voice when looking at much self-consciously rhapsodic landscape work, merging into the Enthusiasm Voice when repetitive thematic subject matter becomes prominent (Look! Lighthouses!! Aren't they great!?). I hear a hipsterish anomie when looking at so much affectless contemporary portraiture; I hear a louche drawl when looking at nude models deployed in bizarre circumstances. And so on: there's a Concerned Journalist Voice, a Constipated Perfectionist Voice, a Distrait Artist Voice... I'm sure we could put names to the many ventriloquists and imitators of these voices, too, although it might be harder to identify their originators. I confess that whenever I see the work of Ansel Adams (whom I do not revere) I hear the voice I imagine belonging to Robert Crumb's Mr. Natural. They do have a certain family resemblance, don't they?

But maybe that's one way we know good, original work when we see it? It has acquired no voice yet, telling us what we already know, and forces us to see it – really see it, or even listen to it, rather than dismiss it as old news – as if for the first time. A little synaesthesia is often a good sign that magic is about.  I think of some favourite words given by Shakespeare to Bottom the Weaver, which I was delighted to see, hear, and taste in Westminster Cathedral last week:
I have had a dream – past the wit of man to say what dream it was ... The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report what my dream was. I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of this dream. It shall be called “Bottom’s Dream” because it hath no bottom.
in National Portrait Gallery

But, to return to poetry: perhaps the most outstanding contemporary poet (certainly so in my estimation), Alice Oswald, allegedly turned down the opportunity to be considered for the Laureateship because she wanted to be in the running when Simon Armitage's five-year stint as Oxford Professor of Poetry comes to an end this year: a far more prestigious gig, in my view. Unusually, this fixed-term post is elected, and all graduates of the university may register to vote. I have shamelessly canvassed every Oxford graduate I know to register now and vote for Alice Oswald when the time comes (23rd May - 20th June), but if any reader of this blog also qualifies, then you know what to do (you'll need to know when your degree was conferred, and go to the registration site here). A world which contains professors Alice Roberts and Alice Oswald cannot be all bad, can it?

Alice Oswald
(photograph: Jim Wileman/The Guardian)


Andy Sharp said...

Mike, I get what you're saying about the sing song poetry voice but I've met Simon Armitage and that's how the bugger talks.

On a tangential note, I sometimes find myself defending Jamie Oliver against the allegation that he's put on a mockney accent when he's just being the Essex boy he is.

And can any of us now look at romantic pictures of wildlife without hearing the breathy tones of David Attenborough or, for those of us of an age, watch a video of chimpanzees messing about without Johnny Morris providing a sub audible commentary.

Mike C. said...


Perhaps a case of accidental attributes driving life-choices, like a thin pale kid deciding to become a Goth. I've got the voice, so I'd better become be a poet...

I realise I have become a Johnny Morris tribute act -- I can't resist giving "appropriate" voices to animals.


amolitor said...

Is it this voice? Billy Collins gets a little sing-song, but I feel like maybe he's not breathy enough?

Mike C. said...

Yes, that may well be the American equivalent. Here's Simon Armitage himself:

I can't find a really good example, though.


Thomas Rink said...

I can't say a lot about voices, since about the only ones I hear daily are those of my colleagues at work, or my family's at home. I neither watch TV nor listen to the radio. An analogy that I find suitable is between photography and music.

Ansel Adams, for example, I would liken to the big symphonies of the 19th century - Mahler or Bruckner, for instance. Makes one sit in awe while viewing/listening, but very formal, rigid and predictable. The experience tends to become boring when repeated too often.

Contemporary popular landscape photography reminds me of a particular kind of rock groups in the 70s, for instance Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Even more bombastic and "awesome", very catchy and melodic, but afterwards you'll need a digestif.

Personally, I like my photography to be like jazz: complex, spontaneous, chaotic, beautiful with a slight tint of melancholia. E.g. The River by Jem Southam - Soul of Things by Tomasz Stanko Quartet, or Lee Friedlander's landscape work and Pablo Held Trio, Live.

In this analogy, some contemporary photograpy considered as Art reminds me of the ring tones on my iPhone, though.

Best, Thomas

Mike C. said...


Not even any radio? Or even streamed video? Wow...

Yes, the music analogy has more depth and nuance, obviously, if one really wants to explore saying "this photographer is like X, but this is like Y". But then how would I have got in the plug for Alice Oswald? ;)

BTW, I keep meaning to ask: do you never update your website with new work, or am I looking in the wrong place (


Thomas Rink said...

Re new work: My website is operative (thanks for linking to it!), but I didn't display any new work since the end of 2015. This is because I tend to work over a long period of time on a project, and being a full-time employed father of two, I haven't got a lot of free time. This being said, I've finished another project - 54 photographs with an essay written by me, the subject is the role of lakes and ponds in the myths of man. On Sunday, I uploaded a PDF file to Blurb to have it printed as a book, 87 pages soft-cover. If the trial copy turns out well, I intend to put it up for public sale, and to publish the project on my website, too. The essay is in German, however. I'll try to provide an English version, too.

I got a bit side-tracked (and burned out) by the attempt to print the book on my inkjet printer, and to bind it myself. I worked really hard on this for the past 6 months or so and eventually reached a point at which I couldn't stand it any longer. Consequently, I needed some time off.

Thank you for asking, though! I find it encouraging that you are interested in my work.

Best, Thomas

Poetry24 said...

Not a fan of Armitage. The irritating voice isn't limited to poetry is it? Some folk singers drive me up the wall, too, with their nasal whining. I know nothing (yet) of Alice Oswald, but I do admire Alice Roberts. So it was a bonus, during a recent open air theatre event during a recent stay in Cornwall, to find ourselves stood next to her. Class act.

Mike C. said...


Ah, the folkie voice... I may have things to say about that soon, having seen the magnificent Martin Carthy in concert on Sunday!