Friday, 26 June 2020

Water Gauge Poster

I'm increasingly drawn to the idea of making "poster books" out of my conventional books, especially the shorter ones, where a relatively short series of pictures or simple concept can be displayed as if at one of those conference "poster sessions", or even on a school classroom wall. This one is an A2 sheet derived from Water Gauge, a book I put together in 2013, based on photographs taken during 2005-6. The text reads as follows:
THE SPRING AT MOTTISFONT ABBEY, Hampshire, is a circular pot set in the ground, about 12 feet in diameter and about 12 feet deep, neatly lined with flint and chalk, and surrounded by an iron railing. It is usually filled to the brim with clear, mobile water, constantly replenished from a natural spring, which runs off into a shallow, gravel-bottomed channel, which in turn curves away and feeds, via two cascades, into the River Test.

There is something uncanny about gazing into its upwelling, gravity-defying water: it has the paradoxical quality of a film run in reverse, or a Moebius strip.  It is easy to believe that such places were once sites of veneration: liminal places, where land and sky are confused, a thin boundary between our world and the Otherworld, where some form of communication between the two might be possible.

The name of "Mottisfont" reflects its role in Saxon times as a meeting-place ("moot by the spring").  The formal integration of the spring into the ornamental landscape of the Abbey was done in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in the same mixed classical and antiquarian spirit that established grottoes and mazes elsewhere.  It is a place where visitors can walk across well-kept lawns, lean on a solid railing, and briefly catch the eye of an unexpected, unsettling abyss.

It was often said that the spring never ran dry.  But, for the first time in the decades I have been visiting Mottisfont, it stopped flowing in 2006, and for several months the level fell. The water became green and stagnant, and the stonework was exposed.  Whether this was an indicator of climate change, or simply the result of a blockage, I don't know.  But it was hard not to see this unprecedented event as a warning issued at a place, a sort of gauge, where the titanic balance of natural forces meets, and can be measured by, our human gaze.
Embarrassingly, I belatedly spotted a typo in the original book version, where I attribute a famous quote from Nietzsche ("And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes back into you") to Beyond God and Evil, rather than Beyond Good and Evil... Idiot! Thankfully, nobody ever bought a copy, so my secret is safe.

I like the idea of art of all kinds being made available as inexpensive "multiples". Books, of course, are precisely a variety of multiple, but are only inexpensive when produced in bulk. Multiples which are simpler to produce – like a photo, or a print, or a poster – need not necessarily be dirt-cheap, but they certainly should not be eye-wateringly expensive, either. The editioning and over-pricing of digital work is, at the very least, problematic. If you've ever laboured over the production of, say, an etching plate, and then produced an edition of prints from it – Jeez, what a palaver! – then you'll know that the comparative ease of turning out digital photographs and prints is remarkable. Sure, a lot of work may need to be done to get a print just right, but from then on it's a simple matter of hit the button and crank 'em out [1]. So the decision to limit a digital edition has nothing to do with any practical considerations like wear and tear on the plate or the cost of highly-skilled labour, but is really a way of "leveraging" the value of sales and reassuring purchasers by mimicking the conventions of printmaking.

I suppose a major factor in my liking for multiples is that, like so many of us from small-town backgrounds, I acquired my tastes in art from books, posters, magazines and colour supplements, and never saw many actual examples of the "real thing" until my late teens. The real thing, it turned out, was often disappointingly crude, compared to a good reproduction. Of course, the imperfections that might, to you or me, seem like "crudeness" in a painting – the layered corrections and brushstrokes, the reliance on easy but expressive effects, the poor finishing, and all those qualities that announce "made by hand" – are the very things that are admired by those who put a high value (aesthetic and monetary) on the uniqueness of a work of art. Some people, after all, like to drink their coffee from some bulbous, warty, stoneware mug bought from an artisan's stall, whereas I prefer the smooth, functional perfection of industrially-produced china.

Which raises some interesting questions. I do have some further thoughts to offer on the subject of the high value placed upon the unique work of art, both aesthetic and monetary, but I'll save those for another day. Meanwhile, I'm going to see what other poster books are waiting to be made.

Unique painting, School of Hollybrook
(Hollybrook Junior School, that is).
Cost: zero. Value: inestimable...

1. The production of darkroom prints from a negative does require a different level of labour and skill, it's true, but even then there is really no reason other than boredom not to continue making as many prints as might be required. I'm impressed that, for example, Pentti Sammallahti does not edition his prints, although he does charge £1000 or more for the popular ones. Well, wouldn't you, if you could?


Stephen said...

I was tempted to buy a Sammallahti print at one time but I'm glad I didn't. I have enough prints stored, unframed, on a shelf.

As for my own prints, I sold my inkjet printer and have decided to put any new photographs on my website only.

I had a shop on my website at one point, "Selling" prints but no-one ever bought one so I abandoned that idea.

Periodically I toy with the idea of making a book on Blurb but it seems pointless unless I have a ready buyer, or have someone in mind to give the book to. [I'm also skint so that's another reason I've given up on hard copy.]

Mike C. said...


I think one day you may regret not printing your best work, especially after a drive crash, "bit rot", or some other unforeseen digital disaster loses everything you thought was safe. Of course, if you don't mind that happening, it's not a problem.

Pretty much no-one buys other people's Blurb books, it's true, but I think they're worth the trouble for the discipline of selecting and sequencing your own work, and for the benefit of having something tangible to show for your efforts. I always buy a couple of copies of each for myself and deposit one in my old college library -- they haven't said "no thanks" yet! -- so that in the *inevitable* circumstance that posterity realises the true worth of my stuff, there will be something to discover...


Stephen said...


I used to print a copy of most of the pictures I liked but it's expensive, besides which I have no one to pass them on to. [Well there's a niece and nephew but I suspect my 'Archive' might just end up in a skip during one of their future house moves…]