Thursday, 25 November 2021

Martin Parr CBE

 It has been announced by the Martin Parr Foundation that Martin Parr has been awarded the CBE for "services to photography". Well, congratulations, Martin! I suppose... I must admit, my reaction to this news is mirrored by that of photographer Paul Reas, one of the photographic and art-world notables quoted in the MPF newsletter #96, which I received this week:

"When I heard he had been awarded a CBE I had mixed emotions. I was thrilled that his contributions to photography had finally been acknowledged but wary that that source of recognition had all those uncomfortable imperialistic associations. Would he do a John Lennon and send his “gong” back, I wondered? Regardless, he is so deserving of the acknowledgment. I can think of nobody else who has so selflessly supported the work of people he believes in."

Well, exactly; apart from the word "thrilled", perhaps. In all honesty, that was not the emotion that the news induced in me: "mild curiosity swiftly followed by a reflex anti-establishment contrarianism", perhaps. But it's not as if anybody involved with photography at that level gives a fleck of flyshit what I think. Besides, what does a person have to do to earn the right to refuse a knighthood these days, or indeed a seat in the Lords (setting aside donors to the Tory party, obviously)?

Anyone thinking "so who is this Martin Parr?" has clearly arrived at the wrong website, but any non-Brits would be perfectly justified in wondering, so what exactly is a "CBE" anyway? I realised I wasn't sure, either – perhaps it is a knighthood? – so I looked it up. I'm not going to explain it, that's what Wikipedia is for: here's the link. So now you know. The "Empire" bit has been a source of controversy for some time, not least among those who got the rough end of the imperial stick; I like the idea of changing the name to the Order of British Excellence, although the Order of British Exceptionalism (or even Eccentricity) might be better.

But to return to Martin Parr. Martin is a very admirable man, whose photographic style and chosen subjects have exerted an enormous influence on a certain kind of documentary photography, and who has dedicated his considerable energies to advocating the work of others and photography in general. He is also much misunderstood, as people mistake his wry critique – highlighting those visual incongruities that can illuminate society's contradictions as well as people's pretensions and well-meaning idiocies – for a kind of cruelty. But Bruce Gilden is cruel; Martin Parr is more like a fearless, clear-sighted stand-up comedian. For what it's worth – and here we're back in fleck of flyshit territory –  I think his best work was done quite early on and that he has not yet developed a "late style" that is the equal of his groundbreaking work –  The Last Resort (1986), say, or Small World (1995) – and he does seem at times to have become the prisoner of his own signature stylistic moves. But, what moves! Few photographers have created and inhabited such a distinctive style, palette, and subject matter, used to such consistent effect [1]. You may not like it, but you know it when you see it.

In September 1992 I did a four-day residential workshop with Martin at Duckspool. Although I knew that his style of "street" documentary would never be mine I was an admirer of his work, and had already acquired copies of Bad Weather (1982), A Fair Day (1984), The Last Resort, and even One Day Trip (1989), his photographs of "booze cruise" channel ferry crossings, commissioned by the Mission photographique transmanche of the Centre régional de la photographie Nord-Pas-de-Calais. It was an interesting, though not transformative experience. I think it's fair to say that Martin is a very incisive speaker about his own work, and the work of others working a similar vein, but not a great teacher, in that he has (or had: he may have improved over three decades) little useful to say about other approaches to photography, or even about simply bad, derivative work, which is what mainly turns up at workshops.

As it happened, Duane Michals was receiving an Honorary Fellowship at the Royal Photographic Society during the workshop, so Martin arranged for us all to travel over to Bath to hear him speak, which surprised and pissed off a number of participants – "not what we've paid for!" – but I suspect I derived more memorable "takeaways" from that entertaining hour than the entire workshop. Mind you, I did have to leave a day early, having received an urgent SOS message from my workplace, so I missed out on the intensive group "critique" of my own portfolio. Which was probably just as well. I don't think Martin Parr CBE would have found much to connect with in what I had brought along. Although I do treasure the memory of Peter Goldfield's comment, having taken a preliminary peek, that Fay Godwin would really like my work, and that I should keep an eye out for the new direction her photography had taken. Now there's someone who never did receive her due recognition from the establishment, but that's another story.

1. Top Parr Tip: get close, look in a different direction to the camera, use a ring flash.

Friday, 19 November 2021

Tischbein Moments

The photograph of a teenage Paul McCartney in his family's back garden that I wrote about recently (taken, it turns out, by his younger brother, a.k.a. "Mike McGear") put me in mind of one of my favourite pictures. In fact, it stands framed on my bedside cabinet, alongside a couple of family photos, and a heap of books and assorted bedside stuff. That's how favourite it is. It's a watercolour sketch by Johann Tischbein of the young Goethe, looking down onto the street from a window of what is now known as the Casa di Goethe, in Rome.

Tischbein and Goethe were room-mates in that very chamber, on their Italian adventure in 1786. Tischbein's other portrait of Goethe, "Goethe in an Idiotic Hat in the Campagna", is very famous, of course, but this one is far superior, to my mind. I love everything about it. I love the contrast of interior and exterior. I love the simple colour washes of Prussian blue and terra cotta. But mainly I love its informality, the unselfconscious crook of one leg playing with a slipper, the untucked shirt, and the way it captures the young genius craning out of the window to watch the sunlit street-life below, putting together in his head the legacy of his classical learning with the reality of Rome. It's the perfect holiday snap, although it must have taken rather longer to create than the fraction of a second it would take today, quickly framed on Tischbein's smartphone.

The focus is on that sunlit head and the hunched shoulders, but there's also an innocent, mildly homo-erotic quality that shines through so limpidly that's it's easy to miss. My daughter, aged six, spotted it straight away, though, and was outraged: "Daddy, that lady's showing her bottom!" But this is not a picture of desire, although it is a depiction of one of the oldest love stories: North meets South. It is a picture of loving admiration and friendship, and of the sheer happiness of being young, talented, and away from home, with a whole lifetime of achievement ahead.

True, Goethe was 37 in 1786, a recovering lawyer and senior civil servant, but when I first saw this picture in 1971 I was 17, and therefore so was Goethe, as far as I was concerned. At that age I wanted, more than anything, to be the figure in that picture: also to be young, talented, away from home, and with a whole lifetime of achievement ahead. During the summers of the early 1970s that I spent hitchhiking around Europe with a succession of friends I did have many such experiences, moments imbued with that heady concoction of freedom and possibility. However, like those thousands of potential Paul McCartneys who came to their senses, put the guitar to one side and got a proper job, it gradually became clear to me that there was more to being Goethe than leaning spellbound out of high windows. Lacking a trust fund, wealthy parents, or – crucially – the drive that forges genius out of talent, I, too, decided gainful employment leading eventually to a good pension was the better bet.

Nonetheless, I have continued to measure my life by its "Tischbein moments". I recall a later occasion on a tour through the Basque Country and Northern Spain, one of several I made with my girlfriend and various other couples in the years following the fall of Franco. I remember waking one September morning in Santiago de Compostela, in a gigantic creaking wooden bed built like a barge in an ancient hotel room without running water, that was instead equipped with a wooden washstand and ceramic bowls that had to be filled from a tap down the corridor. It was impossible not to feel that one had gone back fifty years, if not a century or two. Throwing open the shutters onto the morning life of that ancient city and centre of pilgrimage, I breathed it all in. The babble of voices, the clap of startled pigeons, the traffic, the freshly sluiced cobblestones, the geological complexity of the architecture, and – still asleep in the gigantic creaking wooden bed – the complicated woman with whom – as I came to realise in that moment, after five or so years of an on-again, off-again relationship – I was going to spend the rest of my life. I admit I had to stand there for a minute or two longer, composed in my Tischbein moment, to see just what I thought about that.

And look, some three decades later in 2008, here is our daughter, then just turned 14, obligingly posing for me as the young Goethe, leaning out of a window in Montaigne's tower in the Dordogne:

In his library at the very top of the tower, Montaigne painted each roof-beam with a quotation from Biblical or classical sources, mainly stern, stoic warnings about not getting above yourself, intellectually, and putting up with life's hardships [1]. Of these, this one seems most appropriate:
(For if a man think himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceiveth himself)
Galatians, 6:3
Which is undeniably true. But, of course, sometimes that man is right, and turns out to be Goethe, Paul McCartney, or even, despite his own misgivings, Michel de Montaigne. And I think the young can be forgiven for basking in the sunshine of those moments when the possibilities of a larger life still lie tantalisingly open before them, and the austere nostrums of age have not yet closed them down.

1. A full catalogue of them can be found here.

Monday, 15 November 2021

You've Got to Know When to Fold Them

Even for those of us whose ambition dial is stuck somewhere around 6 (I'm not sure where the top of the scale is, possibly 10, possibly 100) it's always worth trying to think of ways of getting your work in front of people. Getting a picture into an actual exhibition is probably the most prestigious but also the least cost-effective way. By the time you've factored in the price of framing and transport, an exhibited picture that fails to sell or attract significant attention is not so much a "loss leader", in the marketing jargon, as a loss loser. Even more prestigious, of course, is to be given a solo exhibition, but that, when all the associated costs are factored in, could easily represent a dent in your bank balance of several thousand pounds. If the gallery will foot those costs then fine, but otherwise it truly ain't worth it, unless the sale of just one work will cover the lot.

So I like to think of cheap but effective ways of getting my stuff out there (other than on the internet), ideally something that looks a bit classy, but costs pence to produce. The sort of thing you can pop in an envelope and post to people, safe in the knowledge that if they choose to bin it the loss is theirs – ignorant fools! – not yours. Which is what I had in mind when I bought a box of A2 paper pre-cut (by Marrutt) into strips 30cm and 12cm wide. A thin card of 230gsm is perfect for folding into "concertina" booklets of around four to six postcard sized pages. These could either be separate images, or – as in the two examples here – a panoramic image spread over several panels. If the chosen paper stock is suitably rigid, then the outer pages will function as a cover; if not, it's not exactly a daunting task to fashion something out of a thicker paper or card. [1]

In a rare glimpse into the workings of the Atelier Idiotic Hat in Southampton, here is an example of what one looks like in its folded state, standing on top of a printed 30cm x 59.4cm sheet awaiting trimming and folding:

 Of course, if one wanted to go completely nuts, three such folders could be put onto a single A2 sheet, and printed as, say, a small batch of posters by Vistaprint at around £3.50, but I like to keep things in-house as far as possible, not least because I like to be able to tweak the design (I keep changing my mind about the colour and content of that last panel in the "pike" folder, for example). Besides, I simply don't have that many people I could send the things to...

1. Actually, I have come up with a damned cunning method of manufacturing top-quality covers for booklets, which I won't reveal yet. It's genius! Although, like my "packaging" idea, no doubt everyone with an ounce of imagination is doing it, too...

Tuesday, 9 November 2021

Supernova Snap

It won't have escaped your attention that Sir Paul has a book out. It's a bit pricey, even for a moderately well-heeled book addict like me, and a bit on the big side, even for a double album, but it's bound to be a monster hit, perhaps even a Christmas Number One. But what really grabbed my attention was the photograph on the cover of the first volume. I think that is one of the most evocative photographs I have ever seen. I think I'd pay the £50 for a decent print of it, never mind the lyrical ruminations inside.

Why? For a start, I love the way it captures the entire context of McCartney's youth. Anyone brought up in Britain in the 1940s and 50s will recognise all the markers: the net curtain, the modest back garden, the pegged washing hung on the clothes-line with its prop, the oak paling fence, the neighbour's greenhouse and runner beans, the deckchair... I also love the way the photographer has focussed on "our kid" Paul, taking the picture covertly from inside the house and has – presumably due to the angle of view imposed by a fixed lens – artfully framed him off-centre among what otherwise might have been seen as the annoying and distracting clutter of domestic shapes and tones. I imagine a certain amount of cropping has been done for the book cover – perhaps the original is "landscape" oriented? – but it's still wonderful.

Above all, of course, it is endowed with the retrospective magic that this is a family snap of the McCartneys' boy Paul (smart lad, that one, but head in the clouds) before he was Paul freakin' McCartney. It's an image of McCartney tentatively becoming McCartney, poised at a time when he might equally well have come to his senses, put the guitar to one side, qualified as a teacher, and spent his life as "Mr. McCartney", the fondly remembered and much fancied English teacher at a Liverpool secondary modern. Which is the story of the thousands of us who picked up a guitar in our teens, but settled for Real Life over fantasy, isn't it? This photo – like some image from the Hubble telescope – captures the moment before an ordinary star, one among zillions, went supernova.

It's so evocative, it's almost as if a photographer had been sent back in time to sneak a picture of Paul's origin story, it is so packed with apparent foreknowledge of "what happened next". But that is the result of the intersection of several kinds of sorcery. First, there is the magic of photography itself: this is not a sketch, or a memory, or a re-enactment, but an actual recording of the actual light reflected from that actual scene during a split second of one sunny day in the 1950s. Miraculous!

Second, it is also clearly – despite any sophisticated theoretical misgivings about knowing the "intentions" behind a photograph – a deliberate act of familial affection: there is nothing accidental or indifferent behind the making of this picture. It was not composed in the way one might include some random kid with a guitar in a "street" photograph; everything about it says, "I love this boy, and I want to record him doing this thing that he loves to do".

Third, of course, there is the vivifying magic we ourselves bring to the image, knowing what we know about this boy's future, and what he will bring to the lives of millions. However, I think it would still be a great photo even if it wasn't Paul McCartney sitting there, strumming what looks to me like a C chord (I, too, am – was – a left-handed guitar player), as it's a perfect image of one version of the world as it was emerging in Britain in those pre-Beatles years.

When I was a small boy in the late 1950s and we were still living in a house with a back garden, we had a next-door neighbour whose teenage son was learning the guitar; I've forgotten his name, so let's call him Paul. Paul would sit out in the back garden just like that, strumming the chords he'd learned from (almost certainly) Bert Weedon's Play in a Day. It seems that in every street in every town, in those crucial few years post-skiffle but pre-Beatles, some youngster was bent over a cheap guitar, oblivious to the sound of the washing flapping in the breeze, or the groans of the neighbours. A ground-level, home-made, revolutionary musical brew was fermenting.

Although for every Jimmy Page or Eric Clapton there are a hundred fondly remembered and much fancied teachers at secondary moderns, grammars, and eventually comprehensives around the country, now mostly retired, who used to play a bit. Some may still keep the flame alive at weekend semi-pro gigs, but most will have come to their senses long ago, even if they do still occasionally reach for the guitar and travel back in their innermost soul to a place and time that matches in almost every respect the space in that wonderful photograph.

By the way, if you fancy a taster of the book's content, the BBC Sounds podcast "Inside the Songs" is worth a listen. I mean, who'd ever have guessed that "Got To Get You Into My Life" from Revolver is McCartney's "ode to pot"? Or that, in his telling, it was Lennon, not McCartney, who broke up the band? Fascinating stuff, but ancient history now, and I'd still rather have a print of the photo. Maybe I should drop Sir Paul a fan-mail and ask for a signed copy. I expect he'd be grateful; he surely can't be getting that many now, can he?

Thursday, 4 November 2021

Extreme Locations & Iconic Conditions

Red Kite over Llandrindod Wells old parish church

You may recall that back in 2016 I contributed some articles to a British online magazine concerned with landscape photography, On Landscape. These were essentially revised versions of some blog posts, most notably this one, Bye, Bye, Landscape Photography, Dear, in which I set out certain misgivings about the whole enterprise of landscape photography. If you've not read it before, I recommend it: I think it's one of my better pieces, and it sets the scene for what I am about to write.

Early in 2021, On Landscape announced its participation in a new photographic competition, to be called The Natural Landscape Photography Awards. Tim Parkin, who is, together with his wife Charlotte, the motivating editorial force behind On Landscape, explained the thinking behind the launch of yet another photography competition in this editorial in which the key idea seemed to be to reward unmanipulated and unsensational photographs of the real landscape, but which also contained these laudable reflections on the judging process:

We have also given considerable thought to the process of judging itself, which can be prone to various problems. It is inevitable that when zipping through so many images, a ‘WOW!’ photo with vibrant colours or a photo from an unusual angle will stand out. This is why so many photographs from iconic locations in extreme conditions, unusual aerial perspectives, astro images, and inventive composites do disproportionately well in competitions. We hope to eliminate these judging problems by doing the following:

  • Creating separate categories for astrophotography and aerial images, subjects which often catch judges eyes and possibly distract from other genres.
  • Creating a separate category for intimate landscapes - a genre that is often overlooked when seen against a stream of epic views.
  • Preparing and briefing judges on what to expect and developing a process to help selection.
  • Having a scoring system that guides the judges into assessing composition, light and subject and not just the instant visual impact of an image.
  • Letting judges promote their favourite selections in an open discussion in the final rounds.

We believe that all these steps will help give each image a strong chance, whether it be a spectacular aurora over a glacier or a softly lit willow tree.

I was impressed, but was also bothered by the word "natural", so I took the trouble to enquire further. I asked, "I'm assuming anything remotely urban or suburban ('edgelands', etc.) is excluded? But how about agricultural landscapes (which is what most of the UK is)? I'm a little concerned that this is going to be just another 'spectacular wilderness' competition..." To which the reassuring reply was: We've been having some extensive talks about this and we want to include pretty much anything that people consider landscape apart from urban/architecture etc.. We'll come up with a bunch of guidance around it but I think in most cases it will match most of what our judges consider to be landscape so we're not going ultra wild, back country Yukon only!!"

Which sounded good to me, so against my usual instincts with regard to competitions I decided to enter some photographs, not with any expectation of winning, but in the spirit of support for what seemed a worthwhile enterprise [1]. I looked forward to seeing some unusual and creative takes on what landscape photography could be like, if only its practitioners would stay away from those "iconic locations in extreme conditions" and dial down the colour saturation and the clichés from eleven. Personally, I would have considered a "no sunsets, no dawn mists" rule, too, but then I am an extremist.

So I have to say I was quite disappointed to see the eventual results, as declared this week. Take a look for yourself, they're here. Well... There are many lovely and striking pictures there, of course, but – to my eyes, at least – this is yet another array of calendar-ready eye-candy which would do equally well in any landscape photography competition, however defined, however judged. Indeed, as far as I can tell all of the 16 main winners and runners-up are actually professional landscape photographers, of whom nine are from the United States, all working in the wildernesses and national parks of the western states. OK, not the Yukon, but still... Of the rest, the only two Brits had submitted work made in the mountains of South Africa and Switzerland, which is also disappointing; perhaps our own landscape just isn't "natural" enough, after all. Oh, and fifteen of the sixteen are men, for what that's worth.

Now, I concede that I may have completely failed to understand the intentions underlying this competition, in which case everything I have to say is off the mark, but it seems to me that the excellent idea of attempting to counterbalance the "WOW!" photos must have wobbled somewhat, despite a very elaborate judging process [2]. That the winner of the Grand Landscape category had photographed Yosemite's El Capitan, no less – of all the iconic landscape locations on the face of the earth! – or that the Intimate & Abstract category was won by – nooo! – autumn-tinted aspens in the Sierra Nevada should, I think, have given the competition organisers some pause for thought. In fact, pretty much all the winning and commended pictures are nicely-turned variations on well-established "landscape" tropes made in precisely the sort of iconic locations and extreme conditions (extreme locations and iconic conditions?) I had imagined would be frowned upon. So I'd be surprised if, like me, you didn't get that strong feeling of déjà vu that always seems to accompany landscape competition results (in this case, ahemincluding the Photograph of the Year). Although, to be fair, not everybody regards ruddy sunsets, misty dawns, or frosty nights in remote and inhospitable spots where nobody lives as "extremities". Indeed, for the professional those are landscape photography, because those are what sell landscape photographs.

But as Tim Parkin (almost) put it in his original editorial, "how can a portrayal of a real scene compete with the deluge of extraordinary perfected moments?" Which is a good question. How on earth does anyone compete with, say, a picture of a double lightning strike on the Matterhorn at night (which happens to be the winner of the Nightscape category)? Answer: you can't, unless the judges can be persuaded to set WOW! aside, just this once, and let the modestly beautiful and subtly true have their moment instead.

For precisely that reason, the idea of a competition that would apply a judging handicap to the most attention-grabbing work in order for the quieter work to be seen – as in really seen – seemed very interesting to me, although a lot depends on your definition of and affection for WOW! work, of course [3]. I'm sure everyone involved in the Natural Landscape Photography Awards would argue that they worked very hard to do their absolute best to see justice done, and that they are satisfied with the outcome and the integrity of the process, and I'm sure that's all true. But: although I can never quite put my finger on what it is that I find indigestible about so many "stunning" photographs like these, I think it has something to do with the desire and pursuit of the exquisite. They remind me not so much of any landscape I have ever walked through as they do the images of carefully made-up and styled models in a fashion magazine, or product shots for luxury goods like watches and jewellery. Whatever anyone may argue to the contrary, too many of these photographs don't feel like entirely honest portrayals of real landscapes.

In the end, the very concept of a "winner" in image-making of any kind is not just flawed, it is a category error: photo-competition winners have not won, in the objective sense that a horse or athlete wins a race by running faster and crossing the finishing line first, but have been pulled from a crowd of contenders by the judges in a series of acts of informed subjectivity (a.k.a. "prejudice", a.k.a. "taste"), with a stiffening of backbone supplied by the eternal "camera club" criteria by which all such beauty parades have been and probably always will be judged [4]. If you must have a photo-competition, there is no other way. How else would you decide, let's say, between two excellent photos of mountain peaks struck by lightning at night, in the admittedly unlikely event you were confronted by that choice? Somehow, one has to be found to be more compellingly "perfect" than the other, and, as the judges at Crufts Dog Show know, perfection has rules.

Inevitably, however, I predict that in whatever competitions happen to come along in the near future the judges may well find that there will be several highly-accomplished photographs of mountain peaks struck by lightning at night to choose between; or, far more likely, dozens of photos of mini-landscapes composed out of the elements lying at one's feet. Suddenly everybody's doing it! Why? Because an unfortunate side-effect of all competitions is that the virtues perceived and admired by the judges in their chosen winners tend to be noted and imitated by the thousands of aspirants seeking the validation of a competition win, or in pursuit of more social media "likes". Hey, look, I can do that, too!

In this way, this year's novelty quickly becomes next year's tired cliché. Photography in general, and landscape photography in particular, is very susceptible to inundation by such "me too" imitations of and twists on previous work, whether inspired by competition winners or simple copycattery, and this inevitably puts a squeeze on subtlety, originality, and indeed honesty. Why is this? Well, if you did read my post Bye, Bye, Landscape Photography, Dear, you may have agreed with me that

Landscape photography, despite the way it attracts the word "romantic" to itself, is classical at heart, in the sense that it is largely about the imitation of established models and masters, and thus has a tendency to produce "school of" works. Like 19th century academic painting, it is polished, highly-wrought, rather rule-bound, and with a strong tendency to idealize.

That's a large part it. Plus an inclination, not exclusively male, to substitute enhanced technical perfection for those unjudgeable, elusive, but essential qualities, emotion and "soul". Nonetheless, I hope you can also agree with me that these are tendencies that can still be successfully resisted, ignored, avoided, or worked around. There's plenty of great landscape work out there that does just that; in fact, there are some I like very much among the quieter "commended" entries in the Natural Landscape Photography Awards. But, please, don't listen to me, if winning prizes is what you really want. Stick with WOW!

Looking west from Bryn y Maen, Powys

1. Only the very naive resent paying a fee to enter pictures into a competition or open exhibition call. How else do they think these things get funded?
2. Described here. I must say, it is slightly crushing (a) not to have made it past the pre-judgement rounds, and (b) to be made aware of this, definitively! Award certificate? What award certificate?? A certain lack of empathy is being shown towards us abject losers here, I can't help but feel ;)
3. Very interesting, that is, as I had interpreted it. If all that was really meant was "Down with dishonest digital manipulation!" then that seems to me a "straw man" not worth attacking, given that many competitions routinely exclude such work in the rules of entry. I can't imagine which respectable national or international landscape photography competitions the organisers of NLPA had in mind. Any suggestions?
4. See Tim Parkin's bullet point No. 4: "Having a scoring system that guides the judges into assessing composition, light and subject and not just the instant visual impact of an image".

Monday, 1 November 2021

A Wide Game

If you still hold, however tentatively, to the rather old-fashioned belief that a print is the necessary final product of the photographic process, and if, like me, you do most of your printing at home on an inkjet printer, you'll probably share my interest in the varieties of paper available: the surfaces, the weights, the sizes, and so on. Since investing in an Epson A3+ printer last year (the P400, see Now Available in Orange) I've played it safe as far as the ink is concerned and use Epson inks exclusively, but I'm open to experiment where papers are concerned. If I discover that, say, Ilford make a paper in the Japanese "washi torinoko" style, as I did recently, then I'll order a pack in a small size just to see what it can do, especially if it comes in a useful box or, if they really know how to get my attention, in a cute tin.

The trouble with most papers competing for attention at the top end of the market is that they are far too expensive for day-to-day use, which makes it difficult, if not impossible to really get to know their properties. They are also often far too thick for the delicate digestive system of a desktop printer, and will eventually give it unfortunate dyspeptic symptoms. Besides, a paper that costs several pounds for a single sheet and is approaching the texture and thickness of a beermat strikes me as a complete waste of money, if its intended destiny is to be mounted and framed behind glass on someone's wall. So my preference has long been for Epson's own Archival Matte and Premium Semigloss papers, which are a good compromise of weight, surface, and price: a sheet of A3 Archival Matte costs about 60p and at just 189 g/m² is robust enough without feeling that it needs to be sawn up rather than cut with a knife.

Recently it occurred to me that an A3+ printer, intended to handle a maximum paper size of 32.9cm x 48.3cm (really a US size, 13" x 19") would be able to handle A2 paper, if I were to cut it down to size, width-wise, from 42cm to make a sheet 32.9cm x 59.4cm. That extra 11cm in length could make quite a difference, when printing long, narrow images. Indeed, Epson used to make a "panoramic" size, now discontinued, which was simply a sheet of A2 cut in half, length-wise, to 21cm x 59.4cm. Which then prompted the thought: why waste the offcut, when a sheet of A2 could be divided into two useful sheets, one 30cm x 59.4cm, and the other 12cm x 59.4cm?

But why would anyone want the latter size, I hear you ask? Well, because it's the perfect size for a small concertina-style booklet, with a spare stub left over at the end to glue it into a cover. As a result, I've been having a fun week, seeing what can and cannot be fitted into the available space. Who knows, maybe even a "special edition" of Christmas cards could be a possibility this year for a lucky few?

Monday, 25 October 2021

The Good, The Bad, and The Innocent

An innocent, 1960

Something someone said on the radio about children's easy access to pornography and ultra-violent video on their phones made me wonder whether I had, in fact, grown up in an age of innocence. Looking back over 60-odd years, I think I was a fairly innocent boy, in the old-fashioned sense of "unacquainted with vulgarity", until I reached the age of about 12. My parents were self-consciously decent people who never swore and never got drunk – indeed, rarely drank alcohol at all – and I'll never forget being chased down the street by my grandmother (for whom the word "feisty" might have been coined) after I'd been encouraged to tell her to "buzz off!" by another boy. I may have been unacquainted with vulgarity, but was fairly familiar with corporal chastisement. Nothing ultra-violent, though.

In those far-off days, most of us were innocent in that sense, I think. It wasn't that children from decent working-class families were living within a protective bubble, far from it, but more that we were somehow immunised by the common culture against "adult" concerns. We were kids, and only interested in kids' stuff. The grown-up stuff was there, but hidden in plain sight behind a screen of innuendo. For boys, the ritual transition to long trousers from the shorts we wore even in winter, generally somewhere around age 11 or 12, marked the beginning of the end of innocence. But even as smut-seeking teenagers, you had to work pretty hard at coming across anything remotely resembling pornography, as until the mid-1960s the vaguest hint of "indecency" in sexual or bodily matters was heavily censored, to the point of hilarity: censors often detected filth and depravity where none existed, other than in their own inquisitorial, smut-seeking minds.

That said, I knew all about the mechanics of reproduction from a fairly young age due to my precocious interest in and reading about natural history – "the male inserts his penis", etc. – but these so-called "facts of life" aroused no prurience or erotic feelings at all. In a way that is very hard to imagine today, in our hyper-sexualised world, we children were strictly gendered but mostly asexual beings, unable to pick up on the cues that, in adolescence, would connect anything and everything to sex, sex, sex.

Mostly. A few – generally but not only boys – told "dirty" jokes in the playground that no-one else got, and sniggered at innuendoes that no-one else saw, and seemed to exist in a mental stew of unrealisable concupiscence. I suspect these would have been kids with older, sex-obsessed adolescent brothers, or perhaps even those poor devils who, as we now know, were suffering various types of abuse. For some reason, recently I found myself recalling some jokes told to me by one such lad among my primary school classmates, when we were around age nine or ten. We'll call him Frank, and he happened to be the son of one of our teachers. He seemed to have a bottomless fund of these jokes, which were all of the sort that (I imagine) get told in rugby club changing rooms and golf club bars. To find them funny, you need a reasonably sophisticated understanding of the mechanics of a range of sex acts, a fairly misogynistic cast of mind, a good grasp of racist and anti-semitic stereotypes, and a profound dread of homosexuality. Needless to say, they went entirely over my head at the time.

It then struck me: where had he been getting this stuff from? Frank had no older siblings, just a younger sister. Also, although they lived in a nearby street, he was kept on a short leash by his really rather scary father, a jowly disciplinarian with an unpredictable temper, and was rarely allowed out to play with us other boys, despite being friends with us in school. It dawned on me, with a certain mix of horror and bemusement, that those jokes might well have been – had most likely been – told to him at home, and most probably by his own father [1].

Now, the telling of the classic narrative-style joke with a punchline seems to have gone out of fashion in recent times, and was probably never in fashion in sophisticated circles. I cringe when I recall some of the appalling jokes I retailed merrily to my new, more politically-advanced friends in my first days as a student; let's just say that social idiocy is another kind of innocence. But I'm pretty sure that even back in 1963 it would have been, let us say, unusual for a professional-class man, a teacher, to be regularly sharing off-colour jokes with his nine-year-old son, who was then passing them on in the playground of his own school. Assuming, of course, that was the case; I suppose the guilty party might have been some creepy neighbour, relative, or regular adult visitor.

Whoever it was, surely that would have been frowned upon even then? I'm pretty certain that if my father had got wind of what was happening and who was responsible, he'd have been straight round to have words with Frank's father, deference be damned. And wouldn't we now regard it as a form of child-abuse, or at the very least as laying the foundation for a life in which sex, aggression, and repressed anxiety would form an unhealthy threesome? But then maybe I was, and maybe I still am more of an innocent than I like to think. In a wicked world, that may not be such a bad thing. Call me Candide.

An idiot, 2021

1. A classic example of this would be the set-up line, "It's nice out, isn't it?", frequently uttered by comedian Eric Morecambe towards the end of the ultimate British Saturday night family-viewing TV, The Morecambe and Wise Show, only to be quickly shut down by a flustered Ernie Wise. To know why this was funny, you needed the never-spoken punchline, "Yes, but put it away now, there's a policeman coming". Plus, of course, you needed to know what "it" was, and why on earth anyone would be taking "it" out in public, sitting with a friend. Frank, alone in our class, knew the punchline, and why it was supposed to be funny. I very much doubt he worked this out for himself.

Thursday, 21 October 2021

North View Parade

North View, Bristol

North Parade, Bath

Let's say I'm walking along a street, maybe out shopping and most likely without a camera (I need to think of a less loaded term than "proper camera") and suddenly right next to me there is a lovely jumble of stuff in a shop window, perfectly lit by the afternoon sun, or perhaps diffused by a beaded curtain of condensation and overlaid with reflections. At that point, as I stop to admire it, I used to think: wish I'd brought a camera! But I am learning to overcome years of prejudice and now remember to reach for my phone. In fact, increasingly I find myself choosing to go out with just my phone in a pocket; I need to have it with me, anyway, and what it can do well (which is not everything) it does as well as any pocketable "proper" camera. It's amazing, really, for a tarot-card sized slab of hi-tech wizardry.

Antique and junk shops are a favourite source of shop-window scenarios for me, reliably providing the sort of accidental still-life combinations that intrigue the eye with their hint of some deeper, layered, but elusive (and probably illusory) meaning. Curiously, it was only when putting this post together with these iPhone photos taken earlier in October that I realised the similarity of the names of these two very different streets in Bristol and Bath: North View and North Parade. Which is a coincidence as meaningless and yet as satisfying as the way those two mighty wooden heroes below might appear to be standing guard over a suburban street.

North Parade, Bath

North View, Bristol

Sunday, 17 October 2021

United We Stand

What seems a lifetime ago, back in January, I mentioned how I had entered some work for a magazine cover competition: 

Despite my previously declared indifference – indeed, positive hostility – towards competitions, I confess I got bitten by the competitive bug when my casually-submitted Royal Academy entry in 2017 proved so successful (and, ah, lucrative).  As a result, I now keep an eye out for the sort of open entry submissions where my sort of work might stand a chance of getting a showing and even a few sales. Why not?

Last year I spotted the Evolver Prize, a competition to design the front cover of a future issue of Evolver, "the Wessex Arts & Culture Guide", a really useful "what's on in Wessex" publication that I had come across in a Dorset gallery. The winner would get £1000 (no, really) and the top 50 entries shown in an exhibition. Naturally, I submitted an entry and, although I didn't win, I was selected for the exhibition. Result!

Yesterday, in the process of looking for something completely different, I opened the folder where the work I'd done for that competition is stored, and was struck by these pairings. My original purpose in putting two potential cover images onto one sheet of A3+ paper (actually US-style 13" x 19") was practical: I could run them through the printer at the same time, and then cut the sheet in two. But, seeing them with fresh eyes, I realised how well they work together as a single, undivided image. So they may yet get another run-out, together this time, next time I see a tempting open call.

Incidentally, it was the top two I submitted to Evolver, and the one on the right that made it into the Top Fifty exhibition. Obviously, the original reason for the "empty" space in the top quarter of each was to allow space for the magazine's title and cover text, but I rather like it, especially with the subtly patterned texturing of the background.

Thursday, 14 October 2021

Strange Behaviour

Blogger has been behaving strangely recently. On the one hand, I'm being told that comments are failing to make it through the system. On the other, it seems that at least one person who had signed up for the allegedly defunct Feedburner service (the one that used to send email notifications of new posts) is once again getting them. Is anyone else?

There have been various other little glitches that only a blog owner would notice. It's rather like the flicker of a lightbulb that is about to give out. Hopefully, it's just some fool at Blogger wiggling a wire or leaning on a button, and not the death throes of the service. I'd be curious to know whether anyone else who runs a Blogger blog is experiencing this.

Monday, 11 October 2021

Southampton, City of Culture


Sorry, I shouldn't scoff. But, seriously? It seems the longlist for the 2025 City of Culture goes as follows: Armagh City, Bradford, County Durham, Cornwall, Derby, Southampton, Stirling, and Wrexham County Borough. Setting aside the fine but distinctly honorary cities of, ah, Cornwall, County Durham, and Wrexham County Borough, it might seem that we are now fast approaching the bottom of the cultural barrel.

However, this bizarre competition is not really an acknowledgement of any actually-existing culture of "culture" of any distinction, beyond the usual theatres, galleries, and such that grace any moderately-sized town, but is a reward for the best bid essentially describing "what we would do with the money, if we got it". To individual artists, of course, this is a familiar experience: submit a bid that ticks the right boxes, and some committee might grant you the cash to do some piece of commissioned work. The skill lies in the writing of the bid, and the willingness to bend your efforts to match someone's pre-conceived set of criteria. Whether this is a matter of rising to "an exciting challenge" or an opportunity to eat shit probably depends on your independence of mind and need for the cash. As it is, the competitors for City of Culture 2025 were asked, apparently, "to explain how they would use culture to grow and strengthen their local area, and how they would use it to recover from the impact of Covid". Which do not strike me as the most self-evident "uses" of culture.

It's easy to be cynical. This whole impulse to boost cultural activity as a mean to other ends is often described as the "Bilbao Effect". That is, that a massive investment in culture, broadly defined (ideally plus some prestigious architectural project like Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao) equals economic transformation for some city or region formerly mired in a post-industrial slump. Well, it worked once, why not repeat it again (and again, and yet again, until it stops working)? And look, Liverpool seems to have benefitted a bit from being declared "European Capital of Culture 2008" so, hey, why don't we start a four-yearly UK "City of Culture" competition? It's bound to work, isn't it?

There is something profoundly ironic about the way this failure of imagination on the part of politicians depends on whipping up the creativity level in somewhere like, say, Southampton, where I happen to live, and which, like Glasgow, is miles better, culturally, than it was. Of course, ideas like "culture" and "creativity" are subject to very broad interpretation. Do you regard the opening ceremony to the 2012 Olympics in London as a pinnacle or a nadir of our national culture? Does having an enthusiastically-supported Premier League football team in your town, or a theatre that only puts on musicals, pantomimes, and MOR acts count as evidence of a thriving local culture? For you, is art seen at its best as popular entertainment, as grant-funded communal projects with an emphasis on "representation", or as the solitary practice of self-motivated but utterly unrepresentative (and quite possibly mentally unsound) individuals?

There's also a fundamental distinction to be made between the consumption and the creation of "culture". Broadly speaking, it's the consumption that drives the economic recovery, but the creation that drives the consumption. So a lot comes down to how far and what sort of culture-makers are prepared to buy in to this contemporary fashion for boosterism yoked to political and social-engineering ends. After all, how much worthwhile contemporary art is celebratory or positive in spirit, or created in line with current government policy?  And is someone like, for example, me (self-motivated, utterly unrepresentative, and quite possibly mentally unsound) a vital part of our town's culture, or am I just some "citizen of nowhere", an off-message outlier, and not part of the programme? As I haven't been able to show any work in Southampton so far this century, that last one answers itself, I suppose.

I think what I find most dubious about such competitions is their Bilbao-inspired instrumentality. In the words of recently appointed Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries – actually "Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport"[1] – put it in a recent statement: "Winning the UK City of Culture competition has a hugely positive impact on an area, driving investment, creating jobs, and highlighting that culture is for everyone, regardless of their background. This year's focus is on levelling up access to culture across the country and making sure there is a legacy that continues for generations to come." (BBC report). Really? It's going to deliver investment, jobs, and "levelling up" (this government's unavoidable but incomprehensible mission statement)? Evidence, please. And what exactly is supposed to happen in the cities that fail to win?

For a pretty accurate description of the current mid-pandemic cultural health of Southampton, I can't really improve on this report by Vanessa Thorpe from 2020. The so-called "cultural quarter" of Southampton is now essentially a wind-blown area of about 200 square meters, where youngsters can rehearse their skateboarding technique, and nothing much else is going on. Even before Covid it was still more of an ambition than a reality. As long ago as 1985 I can remember talking with an elderly colleague who said that in contrast to his home city, Liverpool, Southampton seemed to have little or no civic pride, or even any real awareness of its historic and continuing role as a major port, the self-declared "Gateway to Empire"; for him, it was a "nowhere place", without even a truly distinctive local accent. Whether any of this could be improved by a cash-inspired, year-long flurry of activities planned by a committee hobbled by some "levelling up" brief is an interesting question.

More interesting, though, is what will happen if, as seems the most likely outcome, Southampton does not emerge as 2025's victorious City of Culture. Will the ill-starred Cultural Quarter revive? Without its new theatre, which went bust early in 2020 and cannot find a buyer, it will certainly struggle. The John Hansard and City Art Galleries are still major assets, but probably rather niche with regard to drawing in more of the city's population. But most important of all, will any truly talented youngsters – in any cultural field, from any background – be content to remain in the city, or will they take the first train up to London, and never return?

1.  Now there's a portfolio. And "for digital"? Digital what?

Thursday, 7 October 2021

Going Postal

A few weeks ago we caught up over lunch with some old friends from our Bristol days [1], and the conversation inevitably turned to how different things are now for our children than they were for us back then, when we were their age; not necessarily worse or better, just different. Very different. Having broached the usual topics of senior reminiscence – phones (scarcity of), internet (absence of), typewriters (noisy ubiquity of), TV (absence of and indifference to), music (incontrovertible superiority of), and so on – we stumbled onto something we all had in common but hadn't before realised out loud, as it were: that when we were college-age and to an extent into our twenties, we all used to send and receive regular letters to and from our closest friends.

A letter, I should probably point out for the sake of younger readers, is (or was) a personal communication, usually written by hand on a sheet of paper but sometimes typewritten for the sake of legibility, which was then folded and placed into a paper enclosure known as an envelope onto which the name and street address of the intended recipient had to be inscribed, and which was sealed by licking the gummed flap (!). A postage stamp of a suitable denomination then had to be stuck on, also by licking the gummed back of the stamp (!!). The whole "letter" assemblage was then entrusted to the mail service by "posting" it into a post box, a sturdy receptacle usually situated within a few hundred yards somewhere on a nearby street. You may have seen these quaint relics of a former era round and about (no, not the ones with a door, those are phone boxes, another story altogether). Within a few days, and only occasionally more than a week later, the letter would (usually) reach its destination, and (usually) be pushed through the appropriate "letter-box", that is, that draughty aperture in the front door mainly used these days for pizza flyers and charity bags. Unless, of course, it was going abroad, in which case several weeks or more might well pass between posting and receipt.

I don't have many surviving samples of this obsolete mode of communication from that time in my life any more, and with any luck few of mine will have survived, either. Welcome as they were at the time, most were not worth keeping after a few years going stale in a drawer. Compared to the published correspondence of literary and political figures, the letters we wrote rarely rose above the juvenile, the facetious, and the ephemeral; we were, after all, little more than kids, and no-one in my circle was writing with even half an eye on posterity. Some, though – and these were always letters from female friends – did feature the kind of post-adolescent, introspective sincerity that can soar to a dizzy peak of emotion from a standing start, like a torch-song sung by Whitney Houston or Adele, or equally well sink into an abyss of abjection (ditto) [2]. The weight of the envelope was usually the best hint of what lay inside: the heavier it was, the more likely it was to be some late-night, multi-page threnody, fuelled by one too many spliffs, a faithless boyfriend, or even – I suppose I should admit the possibility – my own thoughtless words or behaviour. It can be tough learning not to be a complete dickhead, although I like to think I was what the Americans call a quick study.

However, from that lunch-time conversation it emerged that the regular exchange of letters with friends, however trivial or hair-raising the content, seems to have been an important feature of that phase of life for many of my generation; at least, based on a sample of four. People have always written letters, of course, long before the establishment of a reliable postal service or even the invention of paper – the clatter of a cuneiform clay slab coming through the tablet-box must have made the morning of many a Mesopotamian – but I think this was something new: ordinary young people – young men, in particular – staying in touch with the friends of their youth by written exchanges of news, views, and long-distance, long-delay badinage.

It's possible this had something to do with the epistolary habits encouraged by "pen-pal" and foreign exchange programmes, both essentially phenomena of the second half of the 20th century, set up to promote friendly relations across Europe after two devastating world wars. I have often been surprised to learn of friendships that began as stiff exercises in language-learning, nurtured over decades of home visits and letter-writing, with the eventual result that the mutual pen-friends became, in effect, members of each other's families. Surprised, I suppose, because nothing of the sort was ever going to happen in the case of my own German exchange partner, with whom I had absolutely nothing in common other than the fact that we both lived in flats, unusual in our "twinned" towns, and the only conceivable reason we'd been partnered. We couldn't stop writing to each other soon enough.

In fact, I suspect this letter-writing between friends probably had a lot more to do with the confluence of two other factors. First, the advent after 1945 in Britain of extended free schooling for state-educated children, up to and including university. In the memoir of his life that I encouraged my father to write in his last years, no mention is made of any friends before his war service, which began when he was 21. After all, he had left school at 14, and by 1939 had already been an apprentice and employed in a foundry and then an engineering firm for seven years, an eternity at that age. By contrast, I spent my entire youth until the age of 18 in the company of essentially the same group of thirty boys. The melodrama of friendships and loyalties might change over that time, but the cast remained the same. When some of us went off to university, staying in touch by letter seemed a natural thing to do. Especially for me, left behind at home for a "gap year" enforced by the peculiar timing of the Oxbridge entry exams.

Added to that were the close bonds formed within the youth counterculture of the 1960s and 70s. By 1970, the fashionable habits and attitudes of metropolitan bohemia had spread out to the young in even the dullest suburbs and villages, carried by pop-cultural vectors like records and magazines. As even the softest of recreational substances were heavy-handedly policed and frowned upon by even the most easy-going parents, a degree of secrecy and trust were a necessary feature of the close-knit home-town crews that were springing up everywhere, even though indulgence in anything stronger than an underage pint was more often a fantasy than a reality. Belonging to a secretive in-group possessed of forbidden knowledge and with its own home-grown myths and legends builds a special sort of bond, with the consequence that, when these small-town bohemian friendship circles were split up and scattered by higher education and social mobility, their half-life was rather longer than usual. Indeed, in my case I'm still in sporadic touch with a few of my old homies, although it's true this has everything to do with the magic of email, and nothing to do with the chore of letter-writing, which fizzled out decades ago along with the residual legibility of my handwriting.

I've already described how much I like email (You Have Mail) and I still do: for me, it's a perfect fit as a communication medium. Despite its use of snail-mail metaphors – right down to the open and closed envelope icons – email has few of the disadvantages of letter-writing. For a start, unless you had been writing with an eye on posterity and kept copies of your own letters (and how narcissistic would that have been?) you would probably have only the vaguest memory of what you had actually written in a letter, and in all probability would never see it again. By the time your correspondent felt sufficiently motivated to sit down and write you a reply, even that vague memory would have dissipated. They, of course, would have your actual letter immediately to hand, and would be writing a reply, quite specifically, to whatever had been set down on paper by you. Oddly, it seems rarely to have occurred to many respondents – myself included, I'm sure – that you might need reminding of what, precisely, you had written; it was as if they thought you were still somehow personally present, embodied in whatever illegible scrawl your hand-eye co-ordination had risen to deep into the small hours. So you would eventually get a letter, weeks or months later, that contained mystifying allusions, angry refutations, and baffling responses that, abstracted from their instigating source material, could seem like the free-form effusions of a lunatic. I do still occasionally get such ravings by email, but at least I now know why.

In the end, the only real redeeming factors of a letter over email are its dogged persistence as a material object (if kept well away from fire, the shredder, or the bin, of course, which is where most end up), and, primarily, its intimate connection to its author. That sense that someone has taken the trouble to follow the comparatively elaborate and time-consuming procedure of writing and posting a letter, leaving traces of their physical presence on paper in the process, does endow a certain magic, not to say value if that person has achieved some prominence in their life. By contrast, it is highly unlikely that anyone will ever pay several thousand pounds at auction for an email allegedly from some notable person, or for their comment on a blog or Twitter feed, much less go to the trouble of tracking them all down in ancient decommissioned mail-servers to compile into a volume or database of "collected e-correspondence".

Assuming that would even be possible. The idea that "everything is still out there on the internet" is an illusion. We seem to have passed into a time when ephemerality is taken for granted: it is the price we pay for convenience and immediacy and the relentless churn of technological advance. In terms of historical documents, these years – when, ironically, millions might seem to be busily documenting their every moment, their every passing thought  – may well turn out to be a new Dark Age, invisible to posterity.

When I retired I intended to preserve some of the hundreds of useful and important emails I had accumulated over my working life by downloading them selectively, but in the end sorting a bucketful of e-wheat from the mountain of e-chaff was too much: I had to let it all vanish when my account was deleted. Which, I have to admit, did feel as liberating, personally, as when I periodically empty into the recycling all the greetings cards, bills, payslips, and other redundant paper stuff that has come through my letter-box. But, say anyone wanted or needed to trace back any of the work-related projects I'd been involved in? What if they had to track down all the electronic back and forth between me, my colleagues, and the various third parties we had to deal with over the years? Well, tough: there is no equivalent to the grey steel filing cabinet full of memos, minutes, and correspondence I inherited from my predecessor. Everything was email and attachments, and everything has gone; which, I suppose, both simplifies and complicates matters. But, as we were saying a few weeks ago when we caught up over lunch with those old friends from our Bristol days, life today is not necessarily better or worse than it was 40+ years ago, just different. Very different.

Another letter-box

1. Late 1970s to mid-80s, in my case broken by a year in London: it all still seems like yesterday...
2. Sadly, two of my most voluminous correspondents are now dead. It's doubtful whether they would have kept any of my letters and, if they did, I'm sure their husbands would have quickly disposed of ancient mail from anyone who knew the bride when she used to rock'n'roll. Certainly, their letters to me have all long gone. Well, most of them...

Sunday, 3 October 2021

BSA21 Update

As only one of my two shortlisted pictures got hung in the 116th (!) Bath Society of Artists Open Exhibition, I had to go over to Bath for a second time on Saturday, this time to collect my unhung work. It was a very wet day, but luckily the Victoria Art Gallery is only a short walk from Bath Spa station.

While I was there I did get a chance to grab a shot of my picture "Descent (Southampton Water)" which has been hung rather sympathetically, and conveniently near the cash desk. Impulse purchase, anyone? And, look, that's me, No. 86 in the catalogue:

I presume some names are in bold because they are members of the Society, and not because of some random word-processing error. The overall standard of the 366 works on show is high – it's like a mini RA Summer Exhibition – even if, inevitably, something of a mixed bag. As always, though, I am prompted to question the sanity of many creators of 3-D work; mental unrest seems so much less disturbing when translated into two dimensions and displayed flat against a wall, rather than cast in knobbly bronze or wrought in tortured steel and placed on a podium. As for ceramicists, well, I blame Grayson Perry.

Update to the Update: I've been asked for the dimensions of the framed print of "Descent". It's roughly 55cm x 40cm (21.5" x 15.5").

Wednesday, 29 September 2021

Fine At First, Rain Later

We were in Bristol over the weekend, as I had to transport a couple of framed pictures that have been shortlisted in an upcoming exhibition to Bath, and Bath is just a ten minute train-ride from Bristol, where we have a flat. It takes considerably longer than ten minutes to get to Bristol's Temple Meads station from the flat on a Saturday, though, especially since the council set about making the city centre impossible (impassable) for cars by blocking off most of the obvious through-routes. Google Maps wasn't kidding when it showed the optimal route from Clifton Downs to Temple Meads ran via the Portway, Southville, and Redcliffe (oh, look it up). 

As I'm sure I must have said before, one of the main attractions of our Bristol flat is the view from the kitchen window over the Avon Gorge. The changing seasons, the rise and fall of the tidal river, the bird's eye view of the birds (plus the squirrels, foxes, and occasional badger): it's spectacular, picturesque, absorbing, and a terrific way of being busy doing nothing for hours on end. Eating a leisurely breakfast with the spectacle above laid out before you at 7:30 in the morning can easily become a protracted business; before you know it, it's time for some mid-morning coffee.

The other thing that changes, of course, especially at this time of year, is the weather. Being situated high above a deep natural channel, you get to see it coming from miles away. Monday started as a gloriously sunny day, and I had every intention of going for an aimless ramble, but then the cloud started to thicken, rain began to fall in the distance, and finally swept in from the south-west with a little hail mixed in for good measure, obliterating the view. So, more coffee, then?

I heard today, incidentally, that one of my two shortlisted pictures will be hung in the show (the Bath Society of Artists Open Exhibition), to be held in the Victoria Gallery on Bridge Street from 2nd October until 20th November. Which is a distinct improvement over getting shortlisted but not hung, which has become my usual experience recently. The Chosen One is an old warhorse I've had hanging around framed since it was shortlisted but not hung for the Royal West of England Academy's open a few years ago, and then again in the Royal Academy's Summer Show. You may recognise it:

Descent (Southampton Water)

It will finally get its chance to shine, and with any luck it may sell, plus – who knows? – maybe even a few copies of the unframed print. If you're in the area, why not drop in and have a look at what sort of company it's keeping.

Saturday, 25 September 2021

RWA Secret Postcards


Remember what I was saying about artists with identifiable "brands" and the Royal West of England Academy's fund-raising Secret Postcard auctions (see Overvaluation)? Well, the latest auction has just concluded, and although the names of the 300+ contributing artists have yet to be revealed, I don't think anyone familiar with contemporary art will have had any trouble identifying two of the postcards above.

Did you notice the slight anomaly in the final prices realised? I rather like Grayson Perry's "Boomer Cat", although I have to say a bid of £8,105 is more than generous: it's actually 8.5% of the amount realised by the sale of all 398 postcards. OTOH to my eye it's only 90% certain that no. 014 actually is by Antony Gormley, which may be reflected in a final offer of only £4000... Try harder next time, Sir Antony; your brand recognition is slipping.

But well done RWA: the auction raised a total of £94,875.06, to be spent on art-related activities in the local community. A cynic might wonder whether these stand-out prices are achieved by wealthy artists and their galleries bidding each other up, in a brand-boosting exercise. Surely not... Whatever, the RWA benefits, and a few grand, whoever makes the final bid, is probably an excellent investment in Famous Artists Ltd., too. Win-win, I'd say.

If you're curious, the whole lot of 398 postcards can be seen here (not sure for how long). To be honest, I find the overall standard rather depressing: I mean, all of these people are sufficiently well recognised as artists to be invited to contribute. This is the best you can do? Really? What, because you were giving it away? Come on: think "brand forward"! And please: no more soppy dogs... That's just playing to the gallery.

Monday, 20 September 2021

Riverside Walk

St. Catherine's Hill

It was a fine, early autumn afternoon on Sunday, so we went for a walk along the river Itchen just outside Winchester where it skirts St. Catherine's Hill and, if you want to follow a circular route, you can cross the river and come back along part of the "Keats Walk" past the ancient St. Cross Hospital and some water meadows now maintained as a nature reserve.

It seemed like a good opportunity to test the photographic capacities of the iPhone, so I decided to leave any "real" camera at home: I've photographed this area enough already, and I knew I'd only end up doing everything twice, which is probably more than twice as annoying for one's walking companion. If nothing else, it's remarkable how inconspicuous you feel, staring at a small smartphone like pretty much everyone else you pass. And although various cameras are described as "pocketable", nothing of any real capability can match the pocketability of a small phone. The question remains: can the capability of a phone match that of a "pocketable" camera?

So far, the evidence is "pretty much", although there's a certain tension between accepting the over-processed native results and putting in the work to get the best out of the raw image data. The former look absolutely great on a phone screen, but the iPhone will try to turn every grey sky into a blue Californian idyll, turbo-boosts the colour saturation and contrast, and aggressively reduces noise so that a closer view reveals an almost cartoonish reduction of subtlety, resulting in that blocky "watercolour" look that marred many early digital cameras. I don't think these would print well, but I've not got around to testing that yet. But I'm generally happy to put in the work on the "raw" files – it's what I do routinely anyway – even if the results don't have that same instant eye-candy appeal.

The Itchen Navigation canal

A problem I've encountered with advancing age is that objects sometimes want to fling themselves out of my hands without warning. For example, when I'm washing up a fork may attempt to embed itself in the wall, or a cup to dash itself against the tap; so holding and operating an expensive phone delicately between thumbs and fingers is not exactly playing to my strengths. I have looked at add-on grips of various sorts, but there are surprisingly few that offer camera-style graspability, and of those that do most are ridiculously expensive.

But I came across the Ulanzi CapGrip and decided to take a punt on it, as it is cheap (only about £10 on eBay), is suitable for pretty much any smartphone, does not require the purchase of some special proprietary case, is simple to attach and remove, and as a bonus has a Bluetooth-connected shutter button that can be removed and used as a remote control. Even better, it has a standard 1/4" tripod screw on the bottom, so although it could be used to mount the phone onto some kind of support more important from my p-o-v is that I can attach a D-ring with a wrist-strap: the phone can then attempt to fling itself into the river, but won't get far!

The CapGrip had its first run-out on Sunday, and it seems just the job. How robust it is and long it will last remain to be seen, and I also suspect this may now be a discontinued item, available only through the sort of resellers who use eBay. Which would be a shame, as it offers exactly the basic functionality I imagine a lot of phone-photographers need. If it sounds useful you should probably get one while you still can.

Mr. Constable considers the Itchen water meadows