Thursday, 26 May 2022


There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat;
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.
Julius Caesar, Act IV, scene 3
Over the centuries, the words of Shakespeare's Brutus, quoted above, will have struck a plangent chord in the hearts of many who somehow missed an important boat for which they had a ticket in their pocket, or at least thought they did. If you don't pick yourself up pretty smartly, you really can spend a lifetime hanging around on the dock of the bay, gazing at the horizon, watching the tide rolling in, wondering whether that ship will ever return – it won't – and what life might have been like had you only stepped aboard when the opportunity presented itself all those years ago.

I have no real complaints about my own life; shallows and miseries have not been my lot, and I am only rarely haunted by what might have been, had I but known the scope of ambition that once lay open before me. To be perfectly honest, I had very little idea what serious ambition was, or how you were supposed to go about pursuing it, at the time in my life when it might have made a difference. I can't speak for the privately educated, but aspiration as an extreme sport has never been taught or encouraged in state schools, even in the old grammar schools; your horizon was set at low-risk, achievable goals, defined by hard work, exam passes, and well-trodden career paths. Anything else was terra incognita, a mapless waste, a place to be avoided where dragons roamed, and the bones of reckless adventurers lay scattered on the ground.
There was a wisdom in this. By ignoring the existence of the Chancer's Boat, the one that goes on risky voyages to parts unknown, legions of us made it instead onto the ferry that crosses on a regular timetable from the world of precarious wage-work to salaried, well-pensioned comfort. Result! In fact, I'm pretty sure places on that Chancer's Boat cannot be guaranteed or reserved; there are no tickets, travel agents, or tour guides that will get you on board. Apart from the occasional innocent, fatefully or accidentally embarked on an astonishing adventure, getting aboard takes a special kind of motivation, the sharp-elbowed sort that takes no prisoners, brooks no opposition, and whatever other clichés of ruthless self-interest you care to mention. Even a Shakespeare or an Einstein must have had 3 a.m. twinges of regret at the betrayals, backstabbings, and outright thievery that would, I'm sure, have seemed entirely necessary along the way.

The thing about "exceptionalism" – the conviction that the normal rules don't apply to you – is that it quickly becomes a murky business, however pure its genesis. Despite what the "follow your dream" gurus would have us believe, to be gifted with game-changing abilities is not a career choice, an option open to anyone; not even to some clever narcissist endowed with over-abundant self-belief like our current Prime Minister. I'm sure a Shakespeare or an Einstein must have known who and what they were; that they were truly exceptional, the Real Thing, generation-defining geniuses. But, even so, raw talent is never enough in itself. Realising outstanding potential, like crime, depends on opportunity, motive, and means. 

Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Graveyard" (1751) is rightly regarded as one of the ornaments of English literature. At its core, the poem can be boiled down into a simple message: an awful lot of people with great potential have had to live simple, constrained lives, but this may have been no bad thing, given the harm done by ruthless power-seekers, and besides we're all gonna die, innit? (Trust me, I'm an Oxford-trained literary critic [1]). As a piece of ideology Gray's poem is open to all sorts of retrospective sniping – its melancholy quietism is pretty conservative – but its heart is sound and its sheer quality as a piece of verse keeps it buoyant in the literary charts. But it does raise the question: how many "mute inglorious Miltons" or "village-Hampdens" (nothing to do with football, apparently) still live unacknowledged and unfulfilled among us? And, provided they promise not to "wade through slaughter to a throne" – always a risk – what could or should be done about it?

To my mind, there have only ever been two answers: better schools and better social housing. "Better schools", that is, in the sense of safe, creative, and stimulating environments, staffed by excellent, well-paid, child-oriented professionals, who are capable of recognising and nurturing the many varieties of talent, but are also dedicated to bringing the best out of perfectly ordinary children. It doesn't seem a lot to ask. Such schools exist (apart from the "well-paid" bit) but that should be the description of all state schools everywhere. Sadly, it isn't. And "better social housing" means good, safe, well-maintained homes at an affordable rent for everyone who needs one, provided and managed by the local authority. The greatest and most consequential 20th-century crime in Britain was the selling off of our council housing, and the prevention of local authorities from remedying the situation by building more. I do not think this is an exaggeration. Without the good schools and council housing that came as standard with life in a British "New Town" in the 1950s and 60s, my life and those of everyone I grew up with would have been very different.

But, beyond those essential basics, we also need to shift the focus of aspiration within our neglected and under-resourced communities. Far too much attention is paid to the exceptional: the Premier League footballer, the champion boxer, the TV show host, the popular musical act, and all the other celebrity poster-people for improbable, lottery-scale "success". It's understandable, but nothing constrains social mobility as effectively as the idea that life is an all-or-nothing gamble. The true nature of the systematic, embedded privilege of the well-established, well-placed, and well-to-do is well-hidden behind the attention-grabbing blind of these wild-card outliers. By focussing ambition on flashy careers in broadcasting, music, and sport, too many young lives are doomed to disappointment – "shallows and miseries", indeed – their eyes having been diverted from the true prize: regular places on the ferry that leads from the world of precarious wage-work to solid middle-class professional jobs, secured by pursuing those low-risk, achievable goals, defined by hard work, exam passes, and well-trodden career paths. Boring, but true.

So, come on: the tide is in twice a day, and the boat leaves according to the published timetable. All aboard!

1. I think I've complained before about the "[university name]-trained" formula, encountered so frequently in journalism and popular literature. Other universities may differ in their approach, and things may have changed in more recent decades, but at the three universities at which I happened to study, "training" in any meaningful sense was not on the curriculum. In fact, I would suggest that the more prestigious the institution, the less likely anything resembling the "training" I would expect a plumber or an athlete to undergo will be taking place.

Friday, 20 May 2022

Sea City

Heh... I really must stop giggling whenever I see the words "Southampton City of Culture", which – given we're in the final run-off for that bizarre and temporary title – I see quite often around here. It's not big, and it's not clever, Michael: this is a serious business. We really don't see what is so funny. So, what do you say to Mr. Southampton?

Sorry, Mr. Southampton.
Sorry, Mr. Southampton.

Anyway. To continue the subject of open exhibitions, there is going to be one in our wonderful City Art Gallery, one of the true bastions of actual culture around here, and I will naturally be entering a couple of submissions. My hopes are not high, though, as it's linked to the City of Culture bid, as you might expect, but themed as answers to the question: "What does culture mean to you?". Which, you have to suspect, really means, "Look, world, at what a bright, bushy-tailed, diverse, and vibrantly multicultural city we have here!" Which is hardly my stock in trade. I also suspect there won't be many pictures of people on a sofa watching Strictly, Bridgerton, or Sky Sports, which is what, I'm pretty sure, "culture" means to the vast majority of my neighbours.

However, in the process of looking through my files for possible entries, I've come across a number of overlooked photographs which – although hardly serving as any sort of answer to that particular question – struck me as worth sharing here, as they give a decent impression of life with a major port as your next-door neighbour, and the sea a few doors down.

Chim chiminey, chim chiminey... On the rooftops of Sarfampton, cor, wot a sight! (Apologies, if you find you can't get that out of your head in a hurry...).

Sunday, 15 May 2022

Salon des Refusés

This post might well have been titled "Rejection, an Ode" (with apologies to S.T. Coleridge). I like showing my work in public from time to time, which means submitting entries to whatever suitable "open" exhibitions come up during the year which will accept digital images or photographs (too few, and a question of prejudice, frankly, a subject on which I have already vented) and are also neither too far away nor too demanding in terms of presentation. Inevitably, this means being prepared to deal with rejection, and to swallow the "wasted" costs of entry, framing, and travel.

These days, most open exhibitions hold an initial online submission round, which is obviously no problem at all for those of us working digitally, but must be a pain for painters and sculptors: getting a decent photograph of artwork is a skill in its own right, although as I discovered in the Holborne Museum in Bath recently, a good phone camera and a steady hand can do a pretty good job. From that first round a shortlist is produced, and artists are then requested to deliver their actual work, framed, labelled, and ready to hang, as per the (often very detailed) instructions. It's then a question of whether whoever is doing the "hang" likes what they see. I always get the impression that it's not so much the quality of the individual works, as such, that guides the final selection but more what will go with what, and what won't, especially if some submissions (e.g. from members of whatever society or organisation is doing the show) are guaranteed wall space.

It can seem more like an exercise in decorating a room than anything else. I mean, look at the way those pictures have been chosen to surround the enormous Anselm Kiefer canvas at the Royal Academy like a frame, below, or the way the others have been tiled into a dense floor to ceiling "salon hang". The lack of respect rather qualifies any sense of achievement, doesn't it?

Annoying as outright rejection in that initial round is, even more annoying is the experience of getting shortlisted, going to the trouble of framing and delivering your work, and then being rejected, which happens more often than I'd like. For example, the picture I took up to Bath last week didn't make it onto the wall. Why not? Well, I suppose I shouldn't presume my work looks as good to others as it does to me – de gustibus and all that – but, to be honest, I suspect that the widespread prejudice against digital work and photography often comes into play. Sure, we say we'll accept digital and photograph submissions, and like enough of what we see to shortlist it, but how many of those giclée things do we really want on our walls? I mean, are these people really artists, or just camera clickers and computer jockeys?

So I thought it would be nice to put together a gallery of some the digital collages I have submitted in recent times and had rejected, after the model of the classic Salon des Refusés. Welcome! Take your time, look around, and if anything takes your fancy I'm sure we can come to some sort of arrangement. OTOH, if nothing does, well, that might even be a tribute to your taste and discrimination.

Wednesday, 11 May 2022

Bath Time

On the train to Bath, in disguise

Despite a long acquaintance with Bristol, I am far less familiar with its more upscale, tourist-infested, and smaller neighbour, Bath. I've been there, of course, but never felt inclined to stay any longer than necessary. Like, say, Oxford, you get the impression that beyond the historic town centre there is nothing of much interest for the non-resident that cannot just as easily be had at home. Bristol is, by comparison, much larger, multi-faceted, grimier, more diverse, and more diverting.

But, as I had to be in Bath on Saturday to deliver a shortlisted picture to this year's Bath Society of Artists Open Exhibition at the Victoria Gallery, we thought we'd make an afternoon of it and visit the Holburne Museum, which is hosting a touring exhibition of Tudor portraits from the National Portrait Gallery. So, for the first time, I crossed the famous Pulteney Bridge, and walked up Great Pulteney Street, which is wide and awesomely grand, and easy to imagine thronged with carriages and elegant Regency types looking for whatever passed for fun in those days. This undoubted architectural splendour with its Jane Austen-ish resonances is one of the main reasons tourists flock to Bath (although Austen herself hated the place, apparently). Bristol has Georgian architecture, too, but much of it was built by speculators looking for a quick profit, and is in a poor state of repair now.

I like Tudor portraiture – Holbein's drawings, especially – so it was disappointing to discover that this was a relatively small exhibition (just one modestly-sized room) and that many of the paintings (and nearly all of the Holbeins) were, in fact, later copies done by less skilful hands. Never mind, it was still worth the opportunity to get really close to some intricate work. Historical interest aside, the thing that can't help but strike you is that these painters – or rather, the patrons for such paintings, and the purposes for which they were intended – were far more interested in clothing, symbols of office, and bling than they were in actual faces, bodies, and hands. Women, especially, and Elizabeth I in particular, come off as shop-window mannequins draped in statement clothing, an impression not helped by the fading of certain red pigments over the centuries, leaving female faces and hands as just smooth, plaster-pale shapes. But those clothes! That bling! So intricately wrought, and so carefully and convincingly painted.

Henry VII

Elizabeth I

Some guy, probably a peasant

One thing I learned though: a phone is superb for use in the semi-dark and uneven illumination of gallery conditions. I've always found it a bit unreliable, trying to use a "proper" camera to photograph paintings in museums and galleries, hand-held, but the iPhone delivered every time. So I have made a mental note not to sneer at those odd folk assiduously photographing the entire contents of some museum with their phones, unless they keep getting in my way.

Thursday, 5 May 2022


High time for another rant, I think.

The following quotation is the actual description of a photobook published recently by a highly-reputable specialist publishing house. I've substituted personal and place names on the advice of my highly-paid legal team, but it is otherwise exactly as found:

In the early 1990s, Taylor Swift began working on and off in the small southern German town of Kaum zu Glauben, compiling a documentary and fictional portrait of a place inhabited by historical apparitions. April employs polaroids made between 2001 and 2006 to explore the liminal existence of images that would seem documentary but were actually premeditated and treated with the tools of studio photography. Aware of the demons and pitfalls of historical authority, Swift probes at the space between identification and critique in posed, referentially layered portraits which evoke the performative traditions of fetishism and uniform and the place of history between distance and desire.

Artists' statements and publisher's blurbs are easy targets, but I think this one is something of a minor classic.

Where to begin? Well, for a start, by looking at some actual sample images, which are – really? – mainly affectless monochrome snaps of bare-chested youths wearing or holding items of military gear, at least one of them tarted up with a feather boa to suggest, rather limply, a Night Porter-ish Nazified decadence. I find it hard to imagine who would find these distinctly dull and utterly unerotic pictures of interest, or why a major publisher would go to the trouble of publishing them. The notable thing, though, is that this book, like so many, is being pitched entirely on the basis of the photographer's declared intentions: she is "exploring" and "probing", she is "aware" of certain pitfalls and is setting up a sort of trap for what are presumed to be our expectations. "Damn, I though these were documentary photos, but – doh! – they're all staged!" I mean, south German youths are notoriously in the habit of lounging about with their tops off and posing listlessly with peaked caps and steel helmets, aren't they? Not actual Nazi stuff, obviously; that would be illegal, as opposed to merely tasteless. But it's hardly surprising that we might mistake these for documentary photos! So clever.

Any photographic project that has to explain its intentions in order to be appreciated is off to a bad start, really. Worse, such descriptions are typically riddled with the sort of artspeak that seeks to imply that some art-school graduate who has cobbled a visual sequence together is somehow engaged in a solemn philosophical investigation simply because they say they are or, more likely, has been told that they should be. Photographs of nothing in particular are said to "gesture at", "embody", "reference", or to "evoke" abstract concepts that are not actually present in the frame (how could they be?), in the same way one might say that a series of completely blank, unexposed frames imply everything that might have been photographed but wasn't, as the artist probes and enacts the void created by the contemporary ennui of inaction, faced with overwhelming anxieties about climate change, social injustice, fossil fuels, dairy farming, and whatever else is on the approved list of exhausting and triggering stuff out there.

Of course, something very like that has already been done, and rather a long time ago. Rauschenberg's "white paintings" (literally blank canvases, painted white) were done in 1951, swiftly followed in 1952 by John Cage's 4'33" (that is, four minutes and thirty-three seconds during which the assembled musicians do not play their instruments). Crucially, though, the point of both of these works was not to "gesture" at some factitious significance – to point up how "hideously white" the art world is, perhaps – but to focus the attention of the viewer or listener on whatever ambient light and sounds were happening at the time: to be here now. Very Zen, John. Just ignore the musicians and attend closely instead to the revelatory sound of your neighbour shuffling restlessly in her seat. The Wikipedia page on 4' 33"  contains an illuminating art-historical passage:

Since the Romantic Era composers have been striving to produce music that could be separated from any social connections, transcending the boundaries of time and space. In automatism, composers wish to completely remove both the composers and the artist from the process of creation. This is motivated by the belief that what we think of as "self-expression" is really just an infusion of the art with the social standards that we have been subjected to since birth. Therefore, the only way to achieve truth is to remove the artist from the process of creation. Cage achieves that by employing chance (e.g., use of the I Ching, or tossing coins) to make compositional decisions. In 4′33″, neither artist nor composer has any impact on the piece, so that Cage has no way of controlling what ambient sounds will be heard by the audience.

It's an interesting question why anyone thinks there is a "truth" independent of and corruptible by the artist's social being – as if the only truly truthful visual work of art would be a perfectly transparent, randomly-located window – but perhaps not as interesting as why such self-cancelling artists persist in making a career out of and putting their name tag (not to mention a price tag) on work from which they had allegedly been trying to eliminate themselves. Somehow, whatever the philosophical justification, I don't think a self-declared electrician who left a house without any wires or sockets, or a hands-off doctor whose practice was always to let nature take its course, would be able to pay any bills, or indeed escape prosecution. But, through the efforts of 20th century pioneers like these, artists have managed to lay claim to an oddly privileged status, whereby whatever they do (or don't do) is art, simply because they say so. This inevitably leads to an obsession in some quarters with art as a form of intellectual enquiry, and to meta-gestures that "interrogate" the nature of the medium at the expense of "mere" skill and subject matter.

The trouble with meta-gestures is that they can't really be repeated: each one is its own evolutionary dead end. Finding yet another way to declare, for example, that "This is just a flat surface with marks on it!" gets pretty boring after the first fifty years. It is essentially a version of "The Emperor's New Clothes", except that in this fable a tiresome kibitzer points out repeatedly not that the emperor is naked but that the emperor is naked beneath all his fine clothes. Well, sure, but...

The other, more pernicious problem is that this peculiar privilege, once established, gives permission to any second- or third-rate mind with an MFA degree to posture as an Important Thinker, something no actual philosophy graduate would ever contemplate. Yes, you say these photographs "probe at the space between identification and critique in posed, referentially layered portraits which evoke the performative traditions of fetishism and uniform and the place of history between distance and desire", but I'm not seeing it, and I'm not sure I care. Got anything more colourful to go with my new sofa?

Here's another publisher's puff, less pretentious, perhaps, but equally annoying:

Paris Park Perambulations features spectacular images from a dozen public parks and gardens in and near France's capital city. Exploring many of the same places that photographer Eugène Atget (1857-1927) made famous a century ago, Peter Plodder references the pleasures and pitfalls of wandering alone amongst trees and plants and sculpture, unkempt and formally designed places, tempered by the knowledge that the modern world with all its congestion is only a few short steps away. Few people venture into the frame of Plodder's photographs, but the promise of a renewed sense of hope and community resides in the details of his visual encounters and the moments of his heightened attention. Each picture speaks to us as a moment in time, even as the sequence suggests a choreography of place, one that can vary daily along with the changing moods and light of each park. Paris Park Promenades is presented in a bilingual English/French edition and concludes with an afterword by Riverine Po. Of note is how the book's design is inspired by Walker Evans's 1938 classic work, American Photographs, making Plodder's book of immediate interest to photo and book collectors.

 In rather fewer words, this is a book of fairly ordinary monochrome photographs taken in some Paris parks. That's it. Pretty much everything else that is asserted about the book is pure projection, wishful thinking, and the sort of hyperventilated puff that expands to fill the space available. To be fair, I suspect it may have been translated from French, in which language pneumatic hyperbole is mandatory. But in what possible way could the declaration that "the promise of a renewed sense of hope and community resides in the details of his visual encounters and the moments of his heightened attention" be true of these particular photographs that is not equally true of any other collection of urban photographs? Are we really to imagine that the sheer force of Plodder's gaze invests a scene with socially transformative potential? Wow, that's some superpower! And what photograph has ever not been "a moment in time"? Above all, when faced with words that have designs on my responses such as "spectacular", "speaks to us", and "immediate interest", I'm afraid my reaction will always be: Well, I'll be the judge of that, thanks.

Namedropping is another common but high-risk strategy. It's a variety of marketing by association ("people who enjoyed Jane Austen also bought Barbara Cartland"), a way of inviting the reader to join some cultural dots and thus place the work in question within a certain cultural lineage. In this case, though, you can't mention Atget and Walker Evans – two very big dots to join with a single line – and not invite suspicions of hubris. Although I can't help admiring the desperation of the idea that to borrow the design format of one famous book is to guarantee the desirability of another. If you enjoyed American Photographs...

As I say, these are easy targets. But, as someone with an abiding interest in both photography and photo-books, I object to being subjected to this constant clamour for attention by so many prematurely-published photographers who are neither creating visually striking photographs nor breaking new artistic ground, but who instead hope to invest their dull, derivative work with the borrowed gravitas of entirely spurious, non-visual points of reference. Not to mention this curious desire to appropriate the dowdy glamour of the academy and its headache-inducing jargon. In the end, you can talk your way onto an MFA programme, you can talk your way into a commission, you can even talk your way into getting published, but you can't talk me into liking your pictures, no matter how sympathetic I might be towards the issues and causes you want to persuade me to associate with them. I'm always going to prefer the good art of an unreconstructed devil over the bad but well-meaning art of a saint.

Rant over. That feels better. Time for a restful and contemplative four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence in front of a blank white wall. I'm sure I've got the Cage CD somewhere. Or maybe I'll hire some musicians to play absolutely nothing, live, and then only pretend to pay them. As artists they'll appreciate the gesture, I'm sure.

Saturday, 30 April 2022

Easter Gallery

It's a beautiful day, get your boots on, we're going for a walk!

Do we have to?

Looking towards Penybont

Ominous cloud over Radnor Forest

Bright morning near Dolau
Meanwhile, back in Bristol...

Avon Gorge, Portishead Branch Line

Clifton Village jeweller

Wednesday, 27 April 2022

The Nolans

When you've been visiting a sparsely-inhabited and poorly-resourced area regularly for many years –  the Welsh Borders at Easter for over forty years, in our case – you tend to settle into certain habitual patterns. After all, there isn't a great deal to do there, other than "the usual", and as we're generally only there for a week or so every day counts. Today we'll be doing this favourite walk, tomorrow will be a visit to that town or site of interest we have always found rewarding, and so on. Consequently, it's both a surprise and instantly noticeable when you come across something new.

Last week we were heading out to a reliably good restaurant (the Stagg Inn, over the border in England) when, for reasons I don't recall now, we decided to approach it from a different direction, via the old county town of Radnorshire, Presteigne, rather than our customary route through the Herefordshire town of Kington. The borders are like that: you pass in and out of Wales and England on the same road with very little fanfare; I always find it hard to remember, for example, which of Kington and Knighton is in which country. As we drove out of Presteigne and almost immediately into England, we noticed a sign beside a grand old farmhouse set back from the road which declared that the Sidney Nolan Trust was open to visitors. The Sidney Nolan Trust? Surely not that Sidney Nolan, the Australian artist famous for his paintings of Ned Kelly and, um, not much else, at least as far as I knew? I made a mental note to check it out.

One major new surprise this year was that a 4G phone signal is now intermittently available at our customary hillside barn conversion. Two bars max, and only at one end of the property, true, but enough to carry out a quick investigation of the Sidney Nolan Trust before it faded away again. Incredibly, it turned out that, yes, it was the Australian artist Sidney Nolan, and he had lived in that grand old farmhouse – actually a 17th century manor house, The Rodd – from 1983 until his death in 1992. Who knew? We might have queued behind him in the butcher's or the chemist's shops in Presteigne, although he was probably too busy hanging from the rafters of his studio barn clutching cans of spray paint ever to do any actual shopping. We decided to pay the place a visit, not least because there is currently an exhibition of Nolan's Polaroids.

Polaroid "instant" photographs occupy a unique position in the intersection of art and photography. Many artists were intrigued by them, back in the days before digital cameras and phone cameras became available. David Hockney's composite landscapes are only the best-known of many uses of Polaroid images by artists. Their appeal is obvious: there is the magical element of instant gratification (no need to wait or waste time in the darkroom); they have an interesting and distinctive colour palette; each one is a unique, standard-sized object; they can even be manipulated in various ways while the chemistry is still wet. Plus, of course, you could take the sort of naughty photos that would not otherwise pass the censorious scrutiny of your local processor [1]. In particular, the square images made by the compact, collapsible SX-70 camera enjoyed a vogue in the 1970s and 80s (I still have one myself). So I was curious to see what Sidney Nolan had been doing with them.

The Rodd is actually a cluster of 17th-century farm buildings set in some beautiful grounds. It never ceases to amuse me that artists who specialise in what I think of as "heavy breathing" – work that eschews conventional beauties and explores more visceral horrors and fascinations, a category which surely includes Sir Sidney – so often seem to live in some enviably gorgeous house. Cultural pessimism clearly has its up side, including accumulating enough money to buy and sustain a 250-acre estate. Jealousy aside, the Trust clearly has its work cut out to keep the place looking so magnificent. As well as the grounds, there are a preserved studio, workshops for resident artists, and various exhibition spaces. The Polaroids were in a large renovated room at the rear of the main manor house, a grandly austere monument to a colder, damper mode of living. The centuries-old chill strikes you as soon as you enter, and I imagine those impressively-carved fireplaces must have been kept burning throughout the Little Ice Age by an army of servants.

I was intrigued to see how these photographs would be displayed. Polaroids come in various shapes and sizes, but they're mainly quite small, with quite narrow white borders on three sides, and the picture is embedded in a sealed plastic package that sometimes includes the empty "pod" of chemical goo that is broken and spread by the camera's mechanism. They're not easy to frame satisfactorily by any conventional means, and I was impressed by the elegantly simple solution chosen here: each Polaroid is held within a small box frame by what I take to be four tiny magnets, giving the image full protection without damaging it, as well as space to "breathe" as an object. If I'm right, I assume there is a ferrous plate or paint at the back of the box. Neat.

Photographs are supposed to have been a significant resource in Nolan's work, although you'd never guess: he's very far from the sort of representational painter who bases work on photographs, and to be honest he's not an artist whose work has ever appealed to me much. Apparently there is an archive of some 30,000 photographs of various sorts: let's hope nobody does a Vivian Mayer job on it, and invents a retrospective artist, "Sidney Nolan, photographer". He was also a user of the Quantel Paintbox, an early standalone incarnation of digital imaging, originally intended for TV graphics, but adopted by some forward-thinking artists in the 1980s, notably to produce album covers and music videos. But, like film in general and Polaroid in particular, the Paintbox was rendered obsolete by the advent of affordable desktop "personal computers", image editing software, and effective digital imaging devices. In so many ways the 1980s were a curious transitional phase between the hands-on, analogue world and the one inhabited by our "digital native" children.

I should mention that I had an embarrassing moment at The Rodd. In one of the exhibition spaces there is a small shop, in which various Nolan-related items are offered for sale. Amongst these were a few copies of an extraordinarily elaborate book, Paradise Garden, published in 1971, and combining Nolan's prints with various texts, and translucent overlays. I was assailed by my usual desire for a beautiful book, checked the price on the dustjacket and, seeing it was only £20, headed straight to the young woman (YW) sitting behind the ticket desk.

MC: Are these really for sale?
YW: Yes!
MC: Great! And only £20?!
YW: Um, no... Let me see... [checks list] Those are now £195 each, I'm afraid... [2]
MC: Ah... OK. I think I'll put this very carefully back where I found it then...

1. There's a nice catalogue of an exhibition of work by Polaroid artists, The Polaroid Years : instant photography and experimentation (Prestel, 2013).
2. Actually, not an unrealistic price. According to various online inflation calculators, £20 in 1971 is worth between £250 and £300 in 2022. I can remember paying £8.50 for a copy of OUP's facsimile of Blake's Marriage of Heaven & Hell as a student in 1973, and swallowing very hard as I wrote the cheque. Wrote the cheque! Talk about a hands-on, analogue world...

Saturday, 23 April 2022

Shakespeare's 458th Birthday

Mine eye hath played the painter, and hath steeled
Thy beauty's form in table of my heart;
My body is the frame wherein 'tis held,
And perspective it is best painter's art;
For through the painter must you see his skill,
To find where your true image pictured lies,
Which in my bosom's shop is hanging still,
That hath his windows glazed with thine eyes:
Now see what good turns eyes for eyes have done:
Mine eyes have drawn thy shape, and thine for me
Are windows to my breast, wherethrough the sun
Delights to peep, to gaze therein on thee;
  Yet eyes this cunning want to grace their art:
  They draw but what they see, know not the heart.
Sonnet 24
Sonnet 24 is notoriously confusing, stretching a painting metaphor a bit beyond its elastic limit, although I suspect the printers are more to blame for this than our man Will. Delete "it" in line 4 for a start. And bear in mind that Sonnet 22 in the sequence has played with the conceit that the lover's and the poet's hearts have swapped places. All clear? Well, not quite... As Don Paterson says in his commentary: "Shakespeare is the least incompetent writer who ever lived, but if ever a poem died a fashion-victim to the Elizabethan conceit, this is it". Harsh, Don, harsh. It's actually one of my favourites, a photographer's sonnet avant la lettre if ever there was one.

Saturday, 16 April 2022

A Serpent's Tooth


[I was sure I had published this post some while ago, but it seems to have remained in draft. So here it is. Apologies if my posts sometimes move too far into personal territory for some of you, but this was never intended to be an exclusively photographic blog, more as an outlet for my urge to write about *something* most days, which may explain its longevity. Other blogs are available, of course, although fewer by the day. BTW, are blogs "social media", do you think? I didn't think so, but I was twitted by a friend for declaring in a previous post that I rejected all social media ("says the man who writes a blog...")].

In a footnote to a previous post, I said that I regretted not having given my parents the pleasure of witnessing at least one of the four graduation ceremonies I have been entitled to attend; but as I've always had non-conformist leanings I didn't feel inclined to go to any of them, so neither could they. With hindsight, it does seem churlish to have denied them this little rite of passage; I was, after all, the first member of our family to go to university, and they were, not unreasonably, proud of this achievement, however vicarious. Their lives were not over-burdened with causes for celebration – quite the reverse, in fact – and I am sorry, now, when I think of the many such hurts I must have caused them, either deliberately or unthinkingly. It's a sad fact that the dark side of following the impulses of non-conformity is the trail of confusion, disappointment, and pain left in one's wake. An instinctive contrarian is never an easy person to love, or to believe yourself loved by.

It wasn't just me, of course. I don't suppose anyone's relationship with their parents has ever been straightforward, but the so-called "generation gap" was a real and very acute phenomenon in those thirty post-war years; mainly because life before and after WW2 in Britain was so utterly different for "ordinary" people. It must have been a decidedly mixed blessing for one generation of lower- and middle-income parents – the last generation to have been denied the opportunity to extend their free schooling beyond the age of 14, and also the last (we trust) to be forced to give up prime youthful years for the tedium and danger of wartime service [1]  – to witness the cornucopia of cost-free opportunities and cheap consumerist delights showered on the very next generation, their offspring. Within the same four family walls there had to co-exist the inheritors of a pre-1945 worldview – lives that were marked by penny-pinching, frustrated ambitions, and a reluctant deference within tightly-constrained horizons – and the beneficiaries of the post-1945 welfare state settlement, which was especially generous for the academically-able. Hundreds of thousands of us, born in those "baby boomer" years, grew up taking for granted heady new opportunities to go anywhere and do anything, provided you had some foggy idea of what "anything" or where "anywhere" might be, which could be as vague as living on state benefits and starting a skiffle group, or as precise as becoming a doctor.

It was a recipe for misunderstanding and conflict. To a younger generation encouraged to dare to dream of the sort of exciting and colourful lives previously the preserve of the wealthy and bohemian, the financial caution and deference to authority of their elders seemed like personality failings, rather than the result of the systematic deprivation by social class they actually were. Many parents of these entitled brats – mine included, I have to admit, once I had embarked on adolescence – had to endure mockery and ingratitude. Their attempts to guide their children safely through a minefield of dangerous new choices were perceived as a deliberate cramping of style, or a failure to understand and embrace the new liberties. As King Lear lamented, "how sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child!"

Another factor in the gulf of mutual understanding between generations was the degree of compartmentalisation in many young lives. There were so many things your parents couldn't or wouldn't approve of or understand; or at least this was what you assumed. I always envied, but could never emulate, those friends who took a "take me as I am or chuck me out" attitude to their family: at an earlier age than most they grew their hair, "experimented" with recreational drugs, had sex, left school, and abandoned any safe career plans for a precarious life as, say, a musician (or, more likely, someone who sat around stoned all day listening to music). Don't like it? Tough: this is who I am! Like most, though, I was too timid for such aggressive self-assertion and, besides, most of us liked our parents enough not to want to hurt them that much. So we maintained and juggled multiple lives and identities that had to be kept strictly separate, at times like an explosive chemical mix, at others like a stage farce. If I'm honest, at least one component in my desire not to go to a degree ceremony accompanied by my parents was to avoid any breach in my carefully compartmentalised life that might result.

You might think that a more brutal version of the truth would be that, seen from my newly-acquired perspective in one of the highest ivory-tower pinnacles of British higher education, I had simply become ashamed of my parents. That was not the case, though: my parents had been embarrassing me ever since I was aged about ten. I'm not sure why. It was not that I was an inherently snobbish little boy; I think it was more that they had begun to seem inauthentic to me (not a word I or anyone in my family would have used then, of course), never quite comfortable in their new skins as aspiring lower-middle-class office-workers.

I didn't know then that, on both sides, my grandparents had been raised in extreme poverty, but I think I sensed from them a deep apprehension that the new prosperity of the 1960s might be fake and temporary, a cheap plastic version of the real thing, a gloss-painted sheet of hardboard tacked over a filthy, draughty fireplace. That people like us no longer knew our place, and weren't prepared to shovel shit any more, literally or metaphorically, must have seemed dangerously hubristic. But, lacking words like "inauthentic" or "hubris" to safely package up such uncomfortable, ill-defined feelings meant that they became free-floating familial sense-data instead, like a sort of pervasive hum or smell, easily picked up on by a smart, sensitive kid. Most of the time I actually wished we were more like our solidly working-class neighbours, not less, and could abandon any pretensions to somehow deserving better than our actual circumstances.

This propensity to inverted snobbery seems to have been common among my contemporaries of all social strata, and may help to explain our attraction to the grungier aspects of youth counterculture. My parents could never understand my taste for the ragged and the scruffy. I think they would have understood perfectly if I had become some preening, clothes-mad Mod, spending an office-worker's wage on tailored suits and fancy shoes. Dad had been a bit of a dandy in his day, a semi-pro drummer and jazz enthusiast, taking style notes from Italy and the USA. But, as it was, he and I nearly came to blows over a greatcoat I once brought home from an army surplus store. It was the height of anti-fashion at the time (this would have been 1969, I think), but it never occurred to me that he might resent the presence of an item he'd been obliged to lug around for much of his six years of military service.

So that "Greatest Generation" tag that emerged a few years ago is probably pure baby-boomer guilt, I think. It's hardly a label anyone of that age would have chosen for themselves: boastful self-aggrandisement was never their style. Sure, we may have mocked your post-war suburban quietism, sneered at your timid tastes and aspirations, upset you with our rejection of institutions and rites of passage like marriage and graduation ceremonies, angered you with our political posturing, and baffled you with our dressing-up box fashions and taste for dressing down. But, listen: World War Two? Well done, you! You guys only went and saved the world... Great job, Greatest Generation!  But now you're dead, and we are old, and mocked in our turn. "OK boomer...", "Who ate all the pies?", "Where's my job for life with a pension?", and all that. Kids, eh?

How sharper than a serpent's tooth, you might think. But, oddly, a good many of our own children seem still to like us, despite everything. Some, so I hear, are even happy to remain at home well into their thirties; how strange is that? I endured years of self-sufficient squalor to avoid precisely that fate. True, a cynic might question whether this means that we boomers have succeeded or failed as a generation of parents, but the measures and metrics of parenting are pretty vague and variable at the best of times. Although in our own case, obviously, I can say without qualification that success has been the indisputable outcome, ever since that bright April day when we stood contemplating this first curious and unignorable new arrival into our house, and realised with mounting trepidation that he came without an instruction manual, just as they always have, and probably always will.

And I hope when you grow up, one day you'll see
Your parents are people, and that's all we can be
Loudon Wainwright III, "Your Mother and I"

2012 & 2016

1. The full six-stretch in my father's case, a despatch rider: from Dunkirk to Burma via North Africa, finally arriving home in London on VE Day. My mother also served in the ATS as an anti-aircraft battery sergeant 1942-5.

NOTE: I am away all this coming week in a part of Wales where both WiFi and a phone signal are mere rumours. I'll moderate any comments when I return to Southampton.

Monday, 11 April 2022

Intimations of Spring

As I have probably written around this time every year since starting this blog in 2008, spring is not my favourite season. I love autumn, and rather enjoy a good winter, but the dismal prospect of long, hot, sweaty days to come is not enhanced by the onset of hay fever and these crazy mood swings in the weather. However, I realise this is a minority opinion and I don't want to spoil anyone's enjoyment; so, have at it, you sun-starved, fun-starved millions. Although for the sake of common decency, people, please keep your clouts on until May be out [1]. And why not enjoy spring here in the British Isles, this year, rather than flying off to some other, warmer spot on the planet? Let the airlines go out of business, and then perhaps the Mediterranean will stop creeping ever closer, and the sea levels ever higher.

Of course, personal preferences aside, it's impossible not to be awed by this annual resurrection, these ancient repeating patterns of life-forms reasserting themselves after the temporary cease-fire of winter, the endless fresh self-copying of immortally selfish genes. If ever "nature" is ruthlessly, unsentimentally red in tooth and claw, it is now. Inevitably, I suppose, people like to cast a sentimental, sanitising veil over this rawest season with flowers, bunnies, chocolate, and all that. But it's a jungle out there.

I don't think Tennyson's book-length poem In Memoriam (1849) is much read these days, but that is where the expression "red in tooth and claw" comes from (as well as many others, "better to have loved and lost", "never morning wore to evening, but some heart did break", etc.). The premature death of his close friend Arthur Hallam led the young poet to question his conventional Christian faith in a beneficent God, set against Nature's indifference to the extinction not only of the individual but also the species, as revealed by the new understanding of Earth's geological history. A Victorian poet's crisis of religious faith in the face of scientific advance is typical of the intellectual ferment of that fertile century, and Darwin's revolutionary ideas did not appear out of nowhere, any more than did those seedlings now erupting from your lawn.

'So careful of the type?' but no.
From scarped cliff and quarried stone
She cries, 'A thousand types are gone:
I care for nothing, all shall go.
'Thou makest thine appeal to me:
I bring to life, I bring to death:
The spirit does but mean the breath:
I know no more.'
In Memoriam LVI 

We will be heading off soon for our annual Easter visit to the Welsh Borders, where the lambing sheds will be busy, loud, and brightly lit all night, the birds will be frantically scavenging for food for their nestlings, while the raptors and ravens circle the pastures, woods, and hedgerows, scanning for an opportunistic meal for themselves and to stuff down the gaping maws of their own chicks. Darwin's famous "tangled banks" may be picturesque, but are jungles in miniature. Have you ever heard a songbird's melodious piping slowed down to the pitch of a dinosaur's territorial roar? Terrifying...
The Enkindled Spring

This spring as it comes bursts up in bonfires green,
Wild puffing of emerald trees, and flame-filled bushes,
Thorn-blossom lifting in wreaths of smoke between
Where the wood fumes up and the watery, flickering rushes.

I am amazed at this spring, this conflagration
Of green fires lit on the soil of the earth, this blaze
Of growing, and sparks that puff in wild gyration,
Faces of people streaming across my gaze.

And I, what fountain of fire am I among
This leaping combustion of spring? My spirit is tossed
About like a shadow buffeted in the throng
Of flames, a shadow that's gone astray, and is lost.

D.H. Lawrence

1. As the Old Folk did say, "Button to chin, till May be in; cast not a clout, till May be out". Solid advice, although it's true some of the kids had been sewn into their underwear all winter.

Thursday, 7 April 2022

"Look here upon this picture, and on this..."

I thought it might be interesting to look at how an iPhone JPEG file differs from a "raw" file produced by the Halide app. This is a fairly dramatic example, but serves to illustrate the issues.

iPhone JPEG

Halide raw

So, above, we have the JPEG as most smart phone users would see it. It's a nice enough picture: contrasty, saturated colours, blue sky, crisp details. A bit dark, maybe, but what's not to like? You could brighten it up a bit or not bother, then share it with your community of friends and lap up the "likes". Nice capture! Below it, we have a fairly extreme example of a "raw" DNG image, produced at the same time by Halide. Huh? WTF? Delete!! But wait...

The JPEG is eminently suitable for viewing on a screen, but is something of a travesty of the original scene, in two important respects. First, the inbuilt AI processing has dramatised the scene somewhat, by emphasising the blue of the sky and the overall contrast of the scene. It was actually a mild, slightly misty March afternoon, with that sort of diffused light that you get in early spring in Britain. Second, and to my mind more important, it has also obliterated much fine detail by smoothing out the "noise", in some areas creating smudgy, impressionistic smears that resemble a pastel drawing.  Here is my rendering of the Halide raw file:

True, to get that I had to upload the file into my computer, and run it through my usual routines. First, I had to convert it from DNG to a TIFF file in my raw processor of choice, Photo Ninja, in the process adjusting the levels of brightness, colour balance, noise, and sharpness. Then I fine tuned the TIFF file in Photoshop Elements, resulting in the version you see here. Which is a lot more work than a typical smart phone user is prepared to do, but is simply what I do routinely for every photograph I take with a "proper" camera. Why wouldn't I do that for photos taken with my iPhone?

Could I have achieved the same result by editing the JPEG file? Here are two detailed extracts from the JPEG and the final TIFF files:

Detail of rendered raw

Detail of iPhone JPEG

You might prefer the overall rendering of the iPhone JPEG – but that could easily be copied – but there's no question which is the more detailed, the more "photographic", and, crucially for me, the best option to print at anything up to its full native size of 34cm x 25.5cm at 300ppi. There's none of that JPEG impressionism about the "raw" picture, and of course the JPEG has no processing latitude: pretty much all the decisions made by the Apple processing AI are final.

The kicker for me is that as a hand-held 12 MP image that would be hard to beat by any other camera I own. Here, for example, is a detail of a very similar shot of the Hockley Viaduct taken in April last year, with the much-praised Ricoh GR. Same fixed focal length (equivalent of a 28mm wide lens) at f/5.6, 1/400 sec, ISO 100, but using a 16 MP APS-C sensor. It has its advantages but, interestingly, I had to do more work to remove optical faults like colour fringing from the Ricoh file than I did from the iPhone/Halide file. The miraculous thing is that the phone can run a top-rated pocket camera so close. And no matter how good the signal is out near Winchester, the Ricoh is completely inadequate as a phone.

[Apologies to early viewers: I posted the wrong Ricoh comparison detail]