Sunday, 10 November 2019

Novembers Remembered

Berlin Wall remnant beneath the Bösebrücke, March 2018

William Macleod Way, Southampton, November 2018

There's a lot of "remembering" going on this November weekend, what with the 30th anniversary of the Berlin Mauerfall yesterday, and Remembrance Sunday today. Like so many who were not actually there, I have strong, but heavily-mediated memories of those heady days in Berlin in 1989. Yes, I, too, was a virtual bystander, watching amazed as events unfolded, just 650 miles away.

As it happened, I had recently replaced my television, going from a 12" B&W portable to an 8" colour portable (a beautiful but tiny picture encased in an improbable amount of beige plastic housing, like a 1980s vision of a smartphone), so whereas a few years previously I'd watched the Falklands War and the rise of Solidarity in Poland in monochrome in a draughty Bristol flat (not to mention Hill Street Blues), now I was watching yet more history in the making, this time in colour in Southampton. With no small amount of envy: like, I'm sure, many 35-year-olds settling into modest professional careers, I couldn't help but feel that real life was now happening elsewhere. After all, in another, perfectly feasible existence, I could so easily have been present in that crowd. But, in the life I had actually chosen – as a middle manager in a university library – I confess my main thought was, Hmm, well, there goes East German literature... Tschüß, Christa Wolf, Franz Fühmann, Stefan Heym, u.a.! Tut mir leid, but your entire subject matter just fell over.

Berlin Wall remnant, March 2018

Here today, in our present day November reality, I'm getting the distinct impression that autumn is arriving particularly late this year, at least down here on the mild, rain-soaked South Coast. This week was our first real foretaste of wintry temperatures, but there have been no morning frosts at all, so far. So far, in fact, the milk waiting on the doorstep first thing in the morning [1] is still just about warmer than the milk in the fridge. Somehow, this seems a suitably bland objective correlative for the Brexit-induced stasis we're enduring in this disunited kingdom. Will it never end? Winter is coming...

So I thought I'd take a look at last November's photographs, and see whether these confirmed my impression, and was pleased to discover a cache of pretty much an entire month's worth of unprocessed raw image files taken with my Fuji X70. I think last year at this time I was so deeply into some photo-collage work that I wasn't paying much attention to the "straight" photographs I was also accumulating at the time, any more than one would pay to any other quotidian, reflex action. I take photographs: it's what I do. True, always having several cameras on the go doesn't help, either; one of these days, I should commit to one of those one camera, one lens, one year experiments.

Anyway, the pictures below (from a November 2018 walk on Twyford Down, near Winchester) were taken just a bit further on into the month but, even so, the evidence is pretty clear: leaves not just turned, but leaves already gone. "Bare ruined choirs, where once the sweet birds sang", and all that (Shakespeare, Sonnet 73). The beautiful raking late-afternoon light, of course, is a constant of planetary geometry. But when the sky is a solid lid of grey cloud, as it has been round here lately, there's barely any sunlight at all, raking or otherwise. Will it never end? Winter is coming... It would be nice to see a proper bit of autumn first.

1. Is doorstep milk delivery a thing elsewhere in the world? It is dying out here, for sure; my continued loyalty to an increasingly unreliable service is probably an inherited reflex from my father, who, as I wrote in an earlier post, felt a duty – part survivor guilt, part simple, good-hearted fellow-feeling – to be generous towards a man whose face had been half-destroyed by some wartime trauma, and preferred to work in the dark of the small hours.

Thursday, 7 November 2019

First November Walk

Finally, it stopped raining! I went for a walk. I took some pictures: here are a few. There's nothing more to say about that, really, except it's good to get out of the house on a sunny autumn morning. I even found some "autumn colour", dammit. So sue me.

One thing, though: I found not a single spent firework in an hour's wandering about. Admittedly it was wet on the night of the 5th, as well as over the weekend, but even so: Bonfire / Firework / Guy Fawkes Night is clearly becoming a thing of the past.

Friday, 1 November 2019


Look into my eye... Can you see me?

It would be pretty much impossible to ignore the fact that yesterday was Hallowe'en. You can hide in the kitchen with all the lights off, but out there on the street godless young fools are flirting with powerful forces they wot not of, in pursuit of ... well, cheap sweets, mainly. What a price to set on your immortal soul! As I have complained before, this orange, sugar-tacky American import has now largely supplanted our thoroughly wholesome native celebration of certain 17th-century, anti-Catholic, pro-royalist hangings, drawings, and quarterings, as well as an unspecific, but all-encompassing joy in public burnings at the stake in days gone by. Ah, the world we have lost!

The confluence of Hallowe'en and the school half-term holiday is a commercial opportunity not to be missed, and even a respectable institution like Bristol's City Museum & Art Gallery can feel the urge to cash in celebrate. It is probably not entirely coincidental, then, that they currently have an exhibition running, called Do You Believe In Magic?. They've dug deep into their collection of amulets, charms, and assorted magical paraphernalia from around the world – and I truly love such stuff – but they have fallen headlong into the dark pit the wise call over-interpretation. I'd so much rather ponder some well-lit, well-labelled cabinets of curiosities, than have my mind made up for me by some half-informed curator about what it is I'm looking at, and what connects this with that. Not that I could really see what I was looking at terribly well, in the "atmospheric" dark chambers of an exhibition rather too reminiscent of an aquarium. But then, it's not aimed at me, is it?

No, look into MY eye... I can see you!

Most people these days think of Hallowe'en as a one-night-only license to dress up and/or score sweets off their more gullible neighbours. We're not completely against this sugar-led corruption of our youth, much as we'd rather they were collecting firewood to burn the Pope in effigy in a few days' time. I have already mentioned our household's venerable Skanky Sweets Bucket, annually-resurrected, which is full of alarmingly out-of-date, but durable items like Haribos and jelly babies (but which, I have to admit, are starting to look a bit too zombified to avoid potential future legal action). However, Hallowe'en (or All Hallows' Eve) is actually just the first of a three-day binge of Christian observances known, in British tradition, as Allhallowtide.

So we know all about Day One, or at least we think we do, which is, to the contemporary mind, much the same thing. But Day Two, November 1st, is All Saints' Day (no, idiot, not them), on which occasion we, which is to say "they", honour all the saints and martyrs, known and unknown. I like the idea of the unknown saints, the ones who just got on with being saintly, and didn't go on about it all that much. If you're going to have saints, those are probably the best sort to have. Then comes Day Three, All Souls' Day, on which the faithful dead are honoured, especially friends and family. In Mexico November 2nd is, of course, a Big Thing: El Día de Muertos. But it seems that in many other Catholic countries the two latter days tend to get rolled into one big November 1st "let's all remember the dead" holiday, something that is quite therapeutic, I imagine, but with which we've completely lost touch in the chilly Protestant north. I don't suppose many young Hallowe'en celebrants give much thought to dear old granny, the day after they've pestered the neighbours and begun the ruin of their teeth. Besides, in the past we were all too busy in early November gathering combustibles into a tottering anti-Papist heap.

I'm not sure if or when the unfaithful, pagan, agnostic, atheistic, or even the grateful dead get honoured, but there must be an awful lot more of them out there by now, wherever they are. Maybe a democratic movement of the dead will eventually emerge, and get this diary-issue sorted out? They've got all the time in the world, after all, even if we haven't. Not yet, anyway. But I will certainly be setting aside a few moments this evening to remember some of my dear, departed elective family: happy heathens, all of them, to the very end. So I propose the traditional toast: To absent friends!
Ah, make we the most of what we may yet spend,
Before we too into the Dust descend;
Dust into Dust, and under Dust, to lie,
Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer, and – sans End!
FitzGerald version of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, Quatrain 23

 Hey, you! Yes, you!

Look into my eyes! What do you see?

Saturday, 26 October 2019

Top Tips on Photographing Autumn Colours

I was all set to write a mildly amusing piece on "photographing autumn colours", when I realised I'd already written it. So – in the same generous spirit as getting out the supply of date-expired Haribos in anticipation of callers on All Hallows' Eve (known in this house as the "skanky sweets bucket") – here it is, once again. Mmm, chewy!

Moscow State Circus van, Bristol October 2015

It's that time of year again, which always seems to come round at this time of year, when photographers desperately in need of something – anything! – to photograph turn their attention to death and decay, deep in the woods. No, fool, not dead bodies – what are you, nuts? (or Sally Mann?) – we're talking about leaves. Yes, up here in the north of the Northern Hemisphere we're about to get yet another window of opportunity to make some perfectly competent pictures of dying foliage glowing in the sun, just like the millions of other identical pictures that have always already been out there, ever since the unboxing video of God's first roll of Kodachrome.

Not sure how to proceed? Here are our Idiotic Hat top tips:
  • Don't. Just don't. Really: don't bother.
  • If you must, however, why not assemble all your "autumn colour" images into a handy portfolio, album, or even a self-published book? This will make it easier for your children to discard them all when you die, and they're going through your photographs looking for family memorabilia.
  • Or why not photograph other photographers doing "autumn colour"? There will be plenty around if you research your locations properly (look for trees, for example) and, who knows, maybe you will embarrass a few into some kind of satori? What am I, of all people, doing out here, taking photographs which are nothing but soulless, second-rate copies of photographs of photographs of photographs? They'll thank you for it!
  • Maybe ask yourself, "Why do I feel compelled to document these particular colours out here, right now, when I generally walk straight past other, equally interesting colour combinations during the rest of the year?" Do you really need permission to notice colours? (see our – I'm afraid rather similar – "Top Tips on Photographing Sunsets").
  • Don't be content with insipid "natural" colours, especially as found in our pathetically drab British woods! They're not really "beautiful" enough, are they? If you can't afford a trip to New England or Japan for a proper Fall Color Workshop, why not simply exaggerate those lacklustre colours in processing? All sorts of techniques are available, from HDR to simply going a little crazy with the curves and sliders. Behold: I bring you autumn on planet Hyperbole!
  • And, by the way, NEVER cover your child in fallen leaves up to the neck for that cutesy album shot when out in the woods! Just don't do it, you idiot! Lyme disease, carried by deer ticks, is a serious business. Much more serious than any me-too autumnal snapshot.
Does that help? I hope there's a takeaway in there somewhere for everyone. Especially that last one. You're welcome!

Calibrating a tree for peak autumn.
Yep! Nearly there!

Sorry... I shouldn't be so cynical. If anything, it is a matter for celebration that so many people can derive so much pleasure from something as matter-of-fact and yet so mysteriously unpredictable as the turning of the seasons. It's an instinct that runs very deep. And yet...  Just as the Japanese haiku tradition ossified into seasonal tropes, keyed by conventional "seasonal" words ("moon", unqualified, always means "autumn", for example), so photography has a tendency to settle around a number of banal themes, of which "autumn colour" is just one.

Or, I should say, photography as a hobby. Photography as an art practice, for want of a better expression, is bedevilled by its own clichés, of course, but I think it's true to say that most hobbyists of any sort are conformists by nature, and want nothing more than to reproduce as closely as possible perceived models of excellence. Why else build yet another model of HMS Victory, or dress up as Luke Skywalker? There is a certain satisfaction, I suppose, in achieving an acknowledged benchmark of skill; it's how trades have traditionally operated, and the true underlying meaning of the word "masterpiece". About photography as a profession I have nothing useful to say, though, other than that if someone were to offer me good money to provide them with "autumn colour" pictures, I'd be only too happy to oblige. You want leaves, I got 'em. And you can always use someone else's kids for that "buried in leaves" shot...

People have a right to point their cameras at whatever they like, and to imitate whatever models they choose, obviously, although I personally have an instinctive dislike for groupthink, and its tendency to sneer at anyone who chooses to be different. I prefer outliers, oddballs, misfits, and weirdos (though, naturally, I am myself none of the above). I would like to think that we can all, to our own limited capacities, in William Eggleston's words, be at war with the obvious. In fact, there's your Top Tip for Autumn Colour: this year, why not be at war with the obvious?

Obviously autumn
Bristol October 2015

Thursday, 24 October 2019


Despite being whatever the instinctive opposite of a flag-waving, chauvinistic, Brexit-supporting, royalist, Thatcherite, Tory-voting ████ is, I seem to have started a collection of Britannias, as a subset of my "Guardians" series. I'm not sure why; these things have their own logic. I suppose she is a handy symbol for the Matter of Britain (a.k.a. Whatever is the matter with Britain?). As Billy Bragg says, it's our country, too, and we'd like our flag back, ta very much.

Once you start looking into it, however, it seems that practically every European country has a female personification, dressed in Roman garb, and clutching a shield and a weapon. Damn you, Rome, you said we had something special going... We even learned to stomach your disgusting fish sauce, and your appalling taste for slaughtertainment. Then you ran off in the 5th century and we've never heard a peep from you since. So who's this Germania, then, not to mention Belgica, Helvetia, Polonia, or any of the other statuesque warrior-women clad in your imperial cast-offs? I think you have some explaining to do.

Meanwhile, Britannia thought we might as well be doing a little empire-building of our own... It looked easy enough: overwhelming armed force, unquestioning belief in one's right to rule, some novel technology to overawe the populace, and a bottomless bucket of cash to co-opt or corrupt the local aristocracy. And so it proved. Stinky sauce and gladiators be damned, though: football, she realised, was something the world needed to be hearing about... And, for the select few, cricket... No need to thank us, just try not to beat us every time, perhaps?

Maybe the offside rule is a little too complicated?

Tuesday, 22 October 2019

Giving Tuppence

Oh, look, it's my two penn'orth of Brexit commentary! The sight of Big Ben under scaffolding in the background seems fairly appropriate. I suppose I could have gone the extra mile and put the EU stars on one of the shields, but I couldn't decide which was which, and besides, "a nation divided" and seemingly two-dimensional and pressed out of tin is about where we are. I should probably have sunk them in the Thames up to their necks, as well.

If you are familiar with our pre-decimal coinage, you may recognise these two: the reverse of an "old penny" always bore an image of Britannia. The one on the left is from a Victorian penny, the one on the right, with a distinct resemblance to Jane Austen, is from the 1797 "cartwheel" penny. I can't decide whether that's an olive branch she's brandishing, or some kind of lead-weighted cat o' nine tails... Perhaps the latter disguised as the former.

Leaden-footed satire aside, it's an interesting exercise, isolating the engraved image from an original about 1¼ inches in diameter. I don't use any specialised software for my extractions, just the standard Photoshop eraser tool, using a mouse. I do own a graphic tablet with a "pen", but never remember to keep it charged, and besides, three decades of using a mouse have given me a certain facility: it's a familiar tool in my hand. I find this yields a much more sensitive result than trusting an algorithm to identify edges, especially when the matrix or image background is confusingly similar. It also gives a usefully intimate knowledge of the subject, whether it be a statue in a museum or a relatively tiny coin. Above all, as in the case of these two pennies, it gives you a proper admiration for the skill of the original sculptor or engraver, as you follow each twist and turn in the curves and the changes of angle of attack. I can enlarge the scanned or photographed image to pixel level if necessary; at best, they worked with a magnifying glass. I can reverse a slip: they couldn't.

I'm reminded, getting up close with the 1797 Britannia, which I'm pretty sure will have been cut directly into the coin die, that William Blake was earning his living doing workmanlike engravings around that time. As Tom Phillips says in his recent TLS review of the Blake exhibition at Tate Britain, "It is one of the pleasures of looking through books of the period to come across the words 'Wm Blake sculpt.' beneath a plate". However, and appropriately, perhaps, the engraver of the 1797 penny was Conrad Heinrich Küchler, a German immigrant working at the Soho Mint, in Handsworth. Now there's a pennyworth of irony.

Saturday, 19 October 2019

The War That Never Happened

We hear a lot, these days, about "toxic masculinity". I think most of us know what that means, and most of us agree there's a genuine problem in there somewhere that needs addressing. I'm sure if I had been born female I'd be very wary of men, and our capacity for careless harm. Or, if born gay, our capacity for quite deliberate harm. But toxic femininity is a problem, too. As is toxic anything, come to that. The difficulty is that the description "toxic X" easily tips over into the prescription "X is toxic". But a poisonous substance can be useful in measured quantities – indeed, some are highly beneficial and in daily domestic use – just as benign substances become deadly in overabundant and inappropriate application (when drowning in Malmsey wine, for example). So, when it comes to matters of gender I'd hope we can talk less about essence, and more about dosage.

That said, I come from a generation and class whose gender was quite heavily policed. I can't speak for my female contemporaries, whose experience must have been similar, but to grow up in the 1950s and 60s was to be quite clear about what big boys did and didn't do. Not crying was the least of it: a boy who cried in front of his peers hadn't even made it to basic training in masculinity. Suppressing the urge to cry quite quickly became a hardwired reflex, not least because a certain level of cruelty was deemed appropriate in the raising of male children. As a mild example, my grandfather – who was "illegitimate" and had grown up in a Liverpool orphanage in the 1890s, immediately followed by service in WW1, and therefore knew a thing or two about harsh upbringing – discovered that I was afraid of earthworms. So, with the best of intentions, he decided to tackle this weakness head on: he would throw worms at me when digging in the garden. "What, are you a girl?" he would snarl, "Only girls are afraid of worms!" Point taken, grandad.

There was a positive side to this, too. Twice at primary school I suffered accidental injuries that required hospital treatment, but even at that tender age I knew that the essential thing was, in that Baden Powell-ish expression, to "grin and bear it", even as I stared at a painfully dislocated thumb, now positioned midway across my palm. I confess that to be praised to my father by my fearsome headmaster as a brave little chap made my heart sing; I resolved that, although I might be small, a certain fearlessness would be my thing. Boys, I suspect, are particularly susceptible to this kind of Spartanisation; Kipling's poem "If" is its manifesto. We may, rightly, be skeptical about the values of "patriarchy" today, but the idea of becoming a fully-adult, responsible male as an aspiration [1] rather than a statement of biological fact – cringeworthy as it may sound to some 21st-century ears – lies at the root of much that has been positive in our culture.

A lot of this childhood "toughening up", it strikes me now, was preparation for the Next War. Not unreasonably: several previous generations of my family, like most others, had seen extensive military service at the sharp end of war. It seemed entirely probable, when I was born in 1954, that I, too, would find myself involuntarily conscripted into some brutal conflict, and I imagine it seemed quite sensible to start basic training ASAP. National Service (the requirement for young men to waste two precious youthful years in the armed forces) was still very much a reality – National Servicemen saw combat of varying intensities in Malaya, Cyprus, Kenya, and Korea – but thankfully this came to an end around 1960. For young Britons born after 1939, the Next War never came.

Which was confusing. When you've spent your entire childhood playing with toy soldiers, assembling scale models of fighters and bombers from plastic kits, and conducting running skirmishes and ambushes in woods, fields, and streets armed with replica weaponry, not to mention reading weekly tales of romanticised wartime heroism in various boys' comics, it comes as something of an anticlimax to realise you will never be tested under fire, or given the chance to have "a good war", as the expression goes. For you, there will be no parachutes behind enemy lines, no beach-head landings, no aerial heroics. Which, of course, was also a profound relief, as very few boys of my generation could be entirely naive about the nature of warfare, when the evidence lay all around. I recall how, aged about seven, very early one morning I had glimpsed the ruined face of the milkman, the one who delivered our daily pints under cover of the hours of darkness, and for whom my father always left a generous Christmas "box". "That's how war really is, son," Dad had said, "It's not like it is in the comics. Getting shot at with real bullets and having bombs dropped on you is no fun at all."

So we boomer boys had to invent our own thrills, and come up with new ways of emerging into adulthood, without going through the vigorous wash-cycle of war. And a lot of fun it was, too, in the main, although some did fall by the wayside, and a few do seem permanently stuck in an over-extended adolescence. For many, though, this self-invention entailed a wholesale challenge to the assumptions of most previous generations; assumptions about, for example, gender roles and gender relations. My grandfather – who never cooked a meal, changed a nappy, or did any housework in his entire life – could never quite grasp the significance of the length of my hair, the needless scruffiness of my clothes, or my love of suspect things like books, poetry, and music. I wonder, did he ever ask himself whether he had thrown a few too many worms, or perhaps too few? Perhaps, but I suspect the sad truth is that he had been brought up never, ever to question anything above his pay grade, however strange, however brutal, however unfair. Keep your head down; never volunteer; don't snitch; do what you're told. Or else. We have, I hope, left that behind us for good. As someone once said, suppose they gave a war, and nobody came? So far, we in Britain have been fortunate enough to pose that question, without ever having been called upon to answer it.

1. Kipling's use of the word "man" here as an honorific term is problematic for many ("you'll be a Man, my son"). The Yiddish word mensch perhaps better conveys the idea, but would render the poem as bathetically hilarious as would substituting "gent", "toff", or "diamond geezer".

Tuesday, 15 October 2019

Old New World

Another weekend, another sunny Sunday afternoon, in between lengthy bouts of depressingly sustained rainfall. It has been very, very wet down here on the south coast, so it was a pleasant relief to be able to get out of the house for a few hours. Although it was disconcerting to find the way onto the sunlit meadows blocked by this martial-looking character.

We had decided to visit Mottisfont Abbey, where a small exhibition of "classic" 1960s fashion and celebrity photography is being held (by the likes of Patrick Lichfield, Brian Duffy, and Terence Donovan): handy in case the rain returned. For some reason, various period-costumed scarecrows were scattered around the grounds, too. Sigh... But I won't go on – again – about how the National Trust has ruined the place with its attempts to engage and entertain children presumed to suffer from Attention Deficit Disorder. I'll just repeat what I've said before: if kids can't learn how to be bored at a National Trust property, where can they?

As to Lichfield, Duffy, and Donovan: their work hasn't worn well, to my eyes. It made sense, I suppose, back in the sixties, to go for that intense focus on the physicality and personality of celebs, typically posed in front of a blank background. Such pictures made an impact in fashion magazines and the new colour supplements, with their clean, lean, "modern" lines. But, unlike Avedon's superficially similar work, there is no subversive intent behind the scrutiny: it is entirely, naively celebratory of the faces of "faces". Now, 50 years on, they seem almost content-free. Who cares about the clothes, or how young John Lennon or Joanna Lumley looked? You long to see the world hidden behind the white backdrop.

Only one picture detained me for more than a cursory glance: Duffy's shot from 1967 of Reggie Kray sparring with his ex-flyweight grandfather in the kitchen of 178 Vallance Road in London's Bethnal Green. There you have an image that really does speak of the true 1960s: the sharp-suited mobster looming over the tiny boxer, in his working-man's braces and collarless shirt, amid all the inherited pre-War domestic clutter that, in most of the other photographs, has been cleared away and hidden as embarrassingly un-modern. The 1960s in Britain was probably the last time that the old world and the new world still co-existed, before the slums and the old streets and facades had all been cleared and levelled, to make way for high-rises, office-blocks, and shopping centres. Then, "heritage" was still something you had to live with, like inconvenient old relatives and sooty open-hearth fires, rather than something remote and vaguely aristocratic, as interpreted for you by the National Trust in one of its history zoos.

Wednesday, 9 October 2019

Gigantic Smile

A gigantic smile? No, I haven't just won this week's £170m Euromillions jackpot, sadly. But, as God is reputed to have said to the man endlessly praying for a lottery win, "Listen, meet me halfway: this time, buy a ticket!" I was thinking rather of Browning's words, describing the land luxuriating in autumn sunshine:
Oh, good gigantic smile o’ the brown old earth,
This autumn morning! How he sets his bones
To bask i’ the sun, and thrusts out knees and feet
For the ripple to run over in its mirth;
Listening the while, where on the heap of stones
The white breast of the sea-lark twitters sweet.
Robert Browning, Among the Rocks
Sunday was one of those fine early autumn days, and St. Catherine's Hill, just outside Winchester and hard by the M3 motorway, is a fine place to see the new season coming on. In fact, just on the other side of the hill, where the river Itchen runs close alongside, is the very walk John Keats took in 1819, which allegedly resulted in the Ode to Autumn (something I discussed here a few years ago). As you can see in the photograph, the hedges are already thickly draped with Old Man's Beard and colourfully punctuated with various berries. The air, despite the sunshine, has a distinct chill.

Walking through the valley, we spotted a Roe Deer stag with a very fine set of antlers, watching us from halfway up the slope opposite St. Catherine's Hill. As we watched him, the sound of hooves came up from behind, and for once I reacted quickly enough to get a couple of decent shots as they went by. One of these demonstrates quite nicely the thing that Eadweard Muybridge's photographs finally proved in 1878: that a galloping horse's hooves do all leave the ground, but on the inward, not the outward swing, unlike a rocking horse or most pre-Muybridge paintings.

But, to return to the lottery, can you even imagine your bank balance suddenly swelling to £170m, tax-free? It sounds like an extraordinary stroke of luck but, if the stories are to be believed, such extravagant and unearned good fortune does seem mainly to turn out to be a curse. At least, that's the conventional wisdom, the moralistic Schadenfreude. Certainly, most of us are simply not equipped to deal with that sort of windfall without completely losing our bearings, especially if you're the sort of person to pin your hopes on a £2.50 lottery ticket. And yet... "How would I spend thee? Let me count the ways...", to misquote Mrs. Browning. After all, even a well-appointed dwelling in a smart part of central London would barely dent that mountain of cash, leaving you with the problem of several million a year to fritter away for the remaining years of your life. What a torment! What a temptation to fate! Best to give it all away to good causes, and turn aside the ill fortune that must surely be hidden behind its deceptive smile. A country estate? that's something I'd hate. Do I want a yacht? Oh, how I do not! (Cole Porter).

Talking of money, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and curses, I think I may have a new, as yet unexplored explanation for the undiagnosed illness that affected her and both of her sisters. The Barrett family's considerable wealth came from plantations in Jamaica: they were slave-owners. Her father's business went into a decline after the abolition of slavery in 1833 and, although he disinherited her when she eloped with Robert Browning, and despite the fact that she is noted for her abolitionist stance and support for various liberation causes, it seems EBB had misgivings about the tainted source of her residual wealth. Apparently, in 1855 she wrote to John Ruskin, "I belong to a family of West Indian slaveholders, and if I believed in curses, I should be afraid".

Very afraid, I'd say. Did I mention both her brothers died in 1840, one drowned sailing off Torquay, the other of a fever in Jamaica? Downpressor Man, you can run, but you can't hide.

Saturday, 5 October 2019

Blake at Tate Britain

South Bank

On Wednesday I travelled up to London to see the major William Blake exhibition currently at Tate Britain. It's quite a blockbuster: I don't know for sure, but I'd guess a good proportion of everything that survives of Blake's visual and printed work is there, well over 300 works. If you have any interest at all, and are within travelling distance of London, you should make the effort to see it before it closes in February. After all, it seems everybody else is: if I could identify a day and time when the visitors might have thinned out a bit, I'd probably go again. But I hate sharing galleries with blockbuster-style crowds. Not least when every room (and there are many) contains at least one arrogant fool, bloviating to a companion about Blake. As we like to say around here, "A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees", and although we acknowledge that "Every thing possible to be believ'd is an image of truth", and that "If others had not been foolish, we should have been so", nonetheless "The eagle never lost so much time, as when he submitted to learn of the crow", and vice versa, matey, sez the crow (The Proverbs of Hell).

It is a visual feast, though. In the main, Blake's more sustained writing projects are a baffling, involuted effusion of his own obscure personal mythology, something that in later times would probably be regarded as evidence of serious mental imbalance. Frankly, he was a bit of a nutter, I suppose, although in a good way. He was also not the best draughtsman ever to pass through the Royal Academy, or to wield an engraving tool. His portrayal of humanoids is mannered in the extreme, and without much regard to personality or, indeed, anatomy. To me, they all look like they're doing an extreme form of yoga in some weightless realm, which is not entirely inappropriate, when you consider the mythic register in which he is working. But, blimey, what an imagination! And what a talent for painstaking design, layout, and colouration. The so-called "illuminated books" are some of the most desirable material objects in the world, as far as I'm concerned. I spent an age bent over each one, as the flow of visitors passed by, like an annoying rock in a stream. I may yet have to plan the Heist of the Century.

Anyway, Blake is no longer the obscure outlier he once was. Even Coleridge in 1818, having been sent a copy of Songs of Innocence and Experience (hardly the most challenging item in Blake's oeuvre) responded, "You may smile at my calling another Poet a Mystic, but verily I am in the very mire of commonplace common sense compared with Mr Blake". Heh... I'd love to have heard the reaction of Coleridge (another, um, flawed man whose work I revere) to, say, The Book of Urizen. "Frankly, sir, Mr. Blake is in urgent need of professional assistance, although in a good way, and the illustrative material is no whit short of sublime". But if you like and admire Blake, you don't need me to tell you why. And if you don't, I have no interest in persuading you otherwise. "He who has suffer'd you to impose on him knows you", innit?


Sunday, 29 September 2019


Hamburg, September 2019

Thinking about the "Red Room" in the previous post naturally got me thinking about black and white photography. When I first started taking my photography seriously – somewhere around 1979, I suppose, when I took a deep breath and laid out the cash for a brand-new Olympus OM-1N – practically all reportage and non-commercial photography was done using monochromatic film. Colour was only just beginning to be the new, happening thing in "art" photography: William Eggleston's groundbreaking exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art had been as recent as 1976, and even pioneers like Martin Parr, Jem Southam, and Paul Graham had barely started to make the transition to colour in Britain. As anyone who has tried to use a darkroom to produce colour work will attest, the processing of colour film stock and colour prints are jobs best left to professional labs and, as a consequence, expensive. Monochrome film, on the other hand, is not only relatively cheap but, if need be, you could process the stuff in your hotel bathroom. Crucially, however, it also offers the kind of end-to-end "hands on" opportunities for self-expression that made it a congenial medium for the artist. For the dedicated photographer, preferences in film, paper stock, and darkroom chemistry – not to mention enlargers, lenses, easels, print washers, and all the rest of the darkroom paraphernalia – were matters of intense brand loyalty and finely-calibrated connoisseurship. And, in some cases, jealously-guarded secrecy. From an expressive point-of-view, the chain of choices in materials and technique could yield surprisingly different results from essentially the same basic process.

The 1970s and 80s were the heyday of the magazine Creative Camera and its roster of craft-focussed luminaries like Fay Godwin, John Blakemore, and Raymond Moore, and any aspiring amateur like me looked to them as exemplars of the True Art. If you really knew your stuff, you'd also be aware of the more solid (and, frankly, more distinguished) American and European traditions of art photography, although in those pre-internet days this did require a certain amount of conscious effort. Just to be aware of names like Harry Callahan, John Gossage, Josef Sudek, or Josef Koudelka was to be in a tiny minority; to get to see their actual work, in any form other than smudgy grey magazine reproductions, was remarkably difficult. Exhibitions were rare, and photo-books were still a scarce commodity. I remember encountering the bookshelves on my first Duckspool workshop with a sense of wonder. Peter Goldfield had assembled a collection of the very best, most unobtainable monographs imaginable, many of them inscribed, because so many of those prominent photographers had taught workshops at Duckspool. I could have happily spent my five days there just browsing the books.

These days I have a fairly substantial book collection of my own, including many superb volumes of B&W photography,  but if I want to see exemplary monochrome photographs in the classic style, I usually take down one of several books by Finnish master, Pentti Sammallahti. His compendious collection, Here, Far Away, in particular, always seems to remind me not just how good monochrome can be [1], but also how "straight" photography can, in the right hands, unquestionably be an art medium, in the same way as, say, an ordinary pencil. In that respect it's like another inspirational book, Luigi Ghirri's Kodachrome: both make me want to get out and take more, better photographs. In Sammallahti's case, it also usually sparks a temporary enthusiasm for making monochromatic versions of suitable digital colour images.

"Suitable", because truly worthwhile black and white is not a simple matter of recording what is in front of the camera, although the "truthiness" inherited from film-based reportage of the past does invest monochrome with a certain unique aura of documentary authenticity. In order to create an aesthetically-successful B&W photograph certain latent properties that can easily be overwhelmed by "subject" and "colour" have to be present to the seeing eye – a digital camera or a camera loaded with black-and-white film still shows a full-colour world through the viewfinder – and in particular that elusive quality known as "tonality", something which must subsequently be brought out, whether in the darkroom or on a computer, with proper skill and care. I think of colour photography as being like fresh fruit, and monochrome as rather like the dried, preserved version. A raisin or a prune is its own thing, bearing little resemblance in either appearance or taste to the original grape or plum, and it takes experience, skill, and patience to process one into the other. Only certain varieties of fruit are suitable for preservation by drying, and these are often not the most attractive or tasty varieties when fresh. Whatever the two states have in common, you can't judge one by the virtues of the other, but there's absolutely no reason not to enjoy both.

However, it's not really my forte, black and white. Hence "temporary". Much as I enjoy the work of others, my own efforts rarely give me as much pleasure. I love form, tone, composition, and all the rest of it, but it seems colour is what turns me on. Nonetheless, here, for no better reason than that I felt like doing it, is a little gallery of some of my own relatively recent photographs (all taken with a Fuji X70), rendered in a range of monochrome styles. I like them, and can imagine them printed small – perhaps 6" square or less, in the Sammallahti style – and tastefully presented in plain white window mounts in simple dark-wood frames. But (unsurprisingly, perhaps, given they're a random selection, chosen for experimental purposes) I don't think they show the same unity of vision and approach that (I like to think) my colour photography does. Which is paradoxical; because, if the colour were to be restored, then they probably would.

Laocoön, Royal Academy September 2018

Black Ven, Dorset, June 2019

Tyntesfield, Somerset, August 2019

Dyrham Park, August 2018

Dyrham Park, August 2019

Southampton Golf Course, February 2019

1. It's a real shame that no inexpensive selection of his work remains in print (the cheapest copy of Here, Far Away currently on AbeBooks is £280!). The little Photo Pôche book is OK, and worth getting, but hardly does them justice. If you don't have a copy of Here, Far Away and you ever see one at a price you can afford (in any language  it was published in multiple countries simultaneously  my own copy is German, titled Hier weit entfernt), then seize it with both hands. You won't regret it.

Wednesday, 25 September 2019

The Red Room

Not being on Facebook, Twitter, or any of those other time-consuming innovations, I only get to see or hear about the latest "memes" and Twitter-storms at second-hand, and generally only when they've already gone from deliciously hot, through tepid, to stone-cold and inedible. So, forgive me if you've already heard this one, but (allegedly) someone, somewhere, at some time (a time which counts as the "ancient expired past" by social-media measures, but "quite recent" by conventional, old-money measures), posted this:
What is the purpose of this 'red room' in Stranger Things? We frequently see Jonathan go inside this to 'refine' his photos or something. I don't quite understand what happens here. He puts the photo in water, and somehow this makes it more clear? ... Is this an old film technique, and if so what is it called?
Stranger Things is a Netflix series, m'lud, one of an endless outpouring of such series that I generally have no interest in watching, but which is apparently very good, if  a Spielberg-ish mix of nostalgic Americana, horror, and sci-fi is your thing. So, at first glance, what at first I thought was maybe a reference to some Twin Peaks-style "Red Room" weirdness turned out, of course, to be something far stranger and far more other-worldly: the darkroom.

Which, on one level, is hilarious. And surely not just to those of us for whom the darkroom is still an active memory. That dim red light, the enlarger, those miraculous trays of "water", the line of pegged, drying prints... These are surely no more obscure in meaning to digital natives than any other obsolete phenomenon that is a staple of movie story-telling; things like the horse-drawn carriage, the flintlock pistol, or the pay-phone. Otherwise, a film like Blow-Up (which I happened to watch for the first time a few weeks ago) must be pretty much incomprehensible. Although, actually, to be fair, it is pretty much incomprehensible, but for quite different reasons. No, you have to suspect that we are dealing with a case of poker-faced feigned ignorance here; which is still hilarious, but intentionally so. And which also makes the condescending laughter of the irony-immune smart-alecks who mainly seem to populate the internet even funnier.

However, it did make me wonder about the ongoing decline of the idea of process. Pretty much since the advent of domestic electricity, I'd say, most of us have completely lost touch with any grasp of how things work. You flip the switch, and it just ... happens. For example, it occurred to me recently that I had no idea where the electricity that powers our landline telephone is coming from: after all, where's the plug, where's the battery? I had to look it up, and, apparently, British Telecom are kindly renting us some of theirs, sent down the line [1]. Similarly, I'm pretty vague about the nature of radio and "terrestrial" TV: I seem to remember from physics lessons it has something to do with the fuzzy image of a Maltese cross – maybe TV was invented in Malta, or even by the Knights Templar? – and some ubiquitous but invisible rays and waves of various shapes and sizes. And these are old technologies: add wi-fi and mobile phone signals into the rich mix of multi-format waviness swirling through the atmosphere, and the urge to start wearing a tinfoil hat becomes understandable. I mean, do they go through you, or around you? You could be forgiven for wondering whether we are all slowly being cooked in a gigantic, terrestrial microwave oven by the BBC, at varying speeds, depending on which end of the spectrum you happen to favour. The function of the red light in the red room, I believe, may also have been wavy in nature.

Something which is both a result and a cause of this disconnect from the how of the material world is the contemporary pursuit of seamlessness. Seamlessness is not quite the same thing as good design. Obviously, it is very old-fashioned to expect the user of a device or service to apply any measure of common sense, native wit, or thoughtfulness to its use or function – or to the limits on its uses or functions – and also simply to invite the attention of personal injury lawyers. If a thing can't be used by a drunken half-wit – or can be used by a drunken half-wit in some inappropriate and potentially fatal manner – then it's in urgent need of better design. Or at the very least a sticker saying, "FFS don't use this toaster in the bath, you idiot". No, seamlessness is life as experienced by the very wealthy, or the very beautiful. Clothes are laid out, doors open, cars arrive, tables are booked, all without any effort beyond a vaguely-expressed wish to eat out this evening. The apps on a smartphone are similar miracles of paths smoothed and obstacles overcome, gifting apparently effortless cleverness to the most witless app user. Honestly, do you have the foggiest idea of how, say, Google does what it does? Beyond, um, "indexing"? Trust me, it's miraculous. Or, as Arthur C. Clarke put it in his Third Law: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic".

Nostalgic photographers talk of the "magic" of the darkroom, and (inevitably) how miraculous it seemed when the latent image began to form in the tray of water developer. And, indeed, there was something a little special about taking personal command of the whole process, all the way from getting the bloody film into the bloody reel of the developing tank in complete bloody darkness, to hanging your wet prints over the bath. This, despite the fact that most of us bought bottled chemicals, about which we knew nothing more than how to dilute them, in which order to use them, and how many elephants were required to make them work properly [2]. I expect growing your own vegetables from seed, or maintaining a vintage motorbike must bring the same satisfactions, a William Morris-ish glow of "unalienated labour". But I, for one, was more than happy to trade all of that rough magic for the seamless miracle of digital photography. It freed me from the Red Room, like a labourer freed from endless spadework. But how does a digital camera work? I have no idea. And if one breaks or stops working, could I – or anyone – fix it? No: it'll probably end up in landfill, an inert brick of fabulous technology, along with all the obsolete microwaves and flat-screen TVs.

Which is a dilemma that exists across nearly every aspect of modern Western life. Many of us worry that it can't go on like this, always choosing the miraculous convenience of hi-tech ignorance over hard-won knowledge and understanding. But it's hard to see a way forward which isn't either a step backward into the agrarian, homespun past, or an ever closer embrace of "trust me" technologies in some eco-techno paradise; in the words of Richard Brautigan's bizarre poem, "all watched over by machines of loving grace".

It's easy to be amused by ignorance, feigned or real, but it may well be that our future depends on the willingness of brave, naive individuals to expose themselves to scornful laughter, by speaking up and demanding to know, "How does this work? I don't understand. Do you understand? Is this real, or is it just a trick? Why would you want to keep us in the dark like this?"
[cue up The Who, "Won't Get Fooled Again"...]

National Portrait Gallery

1. This puts me in mind of a juvenile prank from Olden Tymes. You'd ring a random phone number, and say, "Hello, GPO here! Have you got much cable between the phone and the wall?" To which (if the answer was "yes") you would add, "Well, could you push a bit through, please? We're a bit short at this end. Thanks!"
2. That may be a genuinely mysterious "red room" trope for the uninitiated... In the absence of a timer, seconds were counted as "elephant one, elephant two ..."

Wednesday, 18 September 2019


I really like the strong shape of this Ancient Greek bronze hand I came across in the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe. Whether it's a fragment of some statue, or a stand-alone (hand-alone?) device for warding off the Evil Eye, I'm not sure. Whatever it is, I'm fairly certain it's a male left hand, which adds to its attraction for me, being both male and left-handed. Do try to ignore the unfortunate shadows behind, which rather resemble another well-known and ancient apotropaic device.

A primary motive for me in visiting such museums is to gather potential material like this for use in photo-collages and digital imaging. I knew as soon as I saw it that this this hand was destined to figure in my work: like Cycladic figurines, it is simultaneously ancient and incredibly modern in the elegant refinement of its abstraction. Quite often, the first thing I do with a single strong shape like this is to multiply it into a repeated pattern, something which will come in handy for backgrounds, and so on. Such as this:

I'm actually quite pleased with that as it stands. It's got something of the rhythmic liveliness and graphic simplicity of the quilts I saw in Bath's American Museum last year. Although it's a little deflating to realise that one's true vocation might have been designing upmarket bed-linen.

Incidentally, it always amuses me that the German word for a mobile phone is ein Handy. Which, according to Duden, is actually derived from the English word "handy" (zu englisch handy = griffbereit, greifbar; praktisch [1]), and is not, as I had assumed, some cute diminutive coinage derived from the German word for hand, which also happens to be Hand. I'm glad it's not: if there's one thing that brings out my inner Grumpy Old Man, it's people who babble like five-year-olds about "biccies" and "veggies" and all those other infantilising attempts to render a cold, cruel world into a cosy safe-space, where besties in onesies can coo over their latest selfies... Hmm, but on the other hand maybe there is a market for my exclusive line of apotropaic duvet covers...

Hotel Wagner im Dammtorpalais (highly recommended)

1. "From English 'handy' = ready to hand, graspable; practical."

Saturday, 14 September 2019

Hamburg 5

Gentrification on Alsterglacis, near Dammtor

As you would expect, after slightly less than a week in Hamburg, I have returned as a complete authority on its dialect, history, architecture, and customs. Um, not. To be honest, I'm not sure I could even say that with any confidence about our own house (what is in that box on the landing?), let alone any larger geographical entity. However, having walked quite a few miles through its streets, I am now a bit of an expert on Hamburg's weather.

Like Mancunians, the inhabitants of Hamburg have an intimate relationship with precipitation. They are resigned to – indeed, celebrate – Schmuddelwetter, a persistent drizzle that periodically tunes up into full-on rain, and occasionally and mysteriously switches off to allow a muggy spell of sunshine. If you look at the geography, it's obvious that – like driving behind a heavy truck in rain – Hamburg is picking up the spray from Britain's wheels, plus whatever the North Sea happens to be stirring up. Or, in a Hamburg saying: "Wenn es in London regnet, spannen die Hamburger die Regenschirme auf" ("If it starts raining in London, people in Hamburg open their umbrellas"). People seem to think there's some kind of metaphor at work there about the closeness of links between Britain and Hamburg, but I seriously doubt it: this is about rain from the west, pure and simple [1].

As a consequence, a few hours in an air-conditioned museum or gallery were even more welcome than usual. And Hamburg, as it turns out, has two of the best art galleries I have ever visited, plus a pretty decent natural history museum.

There's not a lot of point in me describing in any great detail the Kunsthalle Hamburg, with its contemporary wing Galerie der Gegenwart. It is simply one of the best public art galleries I have ever visited. If art is important to you, then Hamburg is worth the trip for this experience alone; go and see for yourself. Its stellar content aside, I think what makes it exceptional is the quality of the displays and the "interpretation". I have never seen pictures so well lit. The diffused ceiling lighting means there is little or no reflection in the glass, and you can comfortably examine the texture and brushstrokes of a painting, or the ink and plate-tone of an engraving, in a way that would normally require much awkward neckwork and hand-shading. Look at this close shot of Paul Klee's Der Goldfisch:

Yes, that is behind glass. What a pleasure, to get nose-up to a favourite image like this, and also to be virtually alone in the room, surrounded by work of similar quality, but with each picture given plenty of space to breathe. Especially compared to the Klee exhibition at Tate Modern a few years ago, where you had to sharp-elbow your way to the front of the crowd bent in front of each ill-lit picture, to get just a few seconds of awkward squinting. Or what about these two Rembrandts (in a whole roomful of Rembrandt prints): one the original ink sketch, the other the worked etching, shown side by side:

As for the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, that has to be a contender for Best.Museum.Ever. I've already mentioned it (Hamburg 3) and, again, you need to see it for yourself. It's essentially what the V&A in London could be, with some thinning out of the displays and the application of a little North European taste. An example: where the V&A would fill a room with Japanese scrolls, to no great purpose other than to say "what a lot we've got!", the MKG settles for just a handful, beautifully displayed in a room that echoes the minimalist Japanese aesthetic it illustrates:

Some readers may recall my own experiments in this direction (Roll Up!). It was instructive to see the real thing, and be able to examine the way a hanging scroll is assembled from its multiple elements. It's what a "museum of arts and crafts" is all about, after all.

Now, the monetary value of gallery exhibits is not normally the first, or even the last thing to enter my mind – you could go crazy calculating the value of even a small room of Impressionist paintings – but when I entered a tiny room of Pictorialist photographs in MKG and saw this...

... I was all, like, WTF, LOL, OMG, and other initialised expressions of gobsmackifaction. For that is Edward Steichen's "Moonlight: The Pond", which set an auction record for a photograph in 2006 at $2.9m. I calmed down a bit when I realised it was "just" the photogravure version, extracted from Camera Work, but that's pretty scarce, too (the MKG claims to be one of only eight institutions, worldwide, to own a complete set), and is to my taste actually preferable to the slightly queasy false coloration of the original photograph.

It goes without saying that I made a bee-line (wasp-line?) for the Zoologisches Museum. Although not large, by big-city standards, it is yet another exemplar of how display and interpretation should be done. It hits just the right balance between accessibility and specialism, without at any point resorting to oversimplification or condescension (I'm still reeling from the London Natural History Museum's re-labelling of its invertebrate gallery as "Creepy Crawlies"). On the evidence of Berlin and Hamburg, it seems the Germans have a real talent for this aspect of curation, from which our own museums could learn a lot.

Big whale, little whale...

Llama chameleon...

By the way, in that room of Pictorialist photographs in MKG, there is a copy of Camera Work (No.1, 1903) on display opened in a vitrine, at a page where Steichen has written a little essay, "Ye Fakers", concerning the debate between "straight" and "manipulated" photography. It is composed in such an ironic manner, verging on sarcasm, that even I, an over-educated Brit, had difficulty extracting his real point but, essentially, he is making the argument that the whole process of photography is manipulation (or, to the critics of the Pictorial style, "fakery") from beginning to end; there's nothing "straight" about it. In Steichen's words, "In fact, every photograph is a fake from start to finish, a purely impersonal, unmanipulated photograph being practically impossible. When all is said, it still remains entirely a matter of degree and ability." Sound familiar? It's a point that is still being made, every ten minutes or so, somewhere out there on the Web.

And, talking of tiresome, consider these prophetic words from the same essay (written, remember, in 1903):
Some day there may be invented a machine that needs but to be wound up and sent roaming o'er hill and dale, through fields and meadows, by babbling brooks and shady woods – in short, a machine that will discriminatingly select its subject and by means of a skilful arrangement of springs and screws, compose its motif, expose the plate, develop, print, and even mount and frame the result of its excursion, so that there will remain nothing for us to do but send it to the Royal Photographic Society's exhibition and gratefully to receive the "Royal Medal."
We're not quite there yet, but some clever idiot, somewhere, is doubtless working on it. Robotic factories, driverless cars, artistless art... Who needs jobs? And who needs messy, fallible people, anyway?

Whoah, more people... Who says the Germans are dying out?

View from the Kennedy-Brücke into the Binnenalster

1. As well as German and English, I studied Geography at A-Level. One of our teachers, Les Ransley, was a dab hand at blackboard art. Quite often, we'd come into the classroom and find him preparing an elaborate graphic illustrating some geographic or climatological concept. A favourite was a large chalked "W" out in the Atlantic, alongside which were the smaller, partial words "arm", "et", "esterlies", enclosed in a fat arrow pointed at the British Isles. Hence, rain...