Thursday, 5 December 2019

Second of All



Just in case you thought the photo-collages had finally gone away, here are a few I've been tinkering with this week. You may recognise many of their constituent elements: I do like to recycle. I have nothing in particular I want to say about them, or about anything much, it's been that kind of week. A busy week – I finally delivered about 150 Lego and Lego Technic sets [1] to a Lego dealer ("Hey, kid...") who gave me a very good price for them – but essentially unremarkable.


Although there's this: as an inveterate language-watcher, I've been annoyed by the use of the expression "second of all" which I keep hearing, especially on the radio in the mouths of political commentators like the ubiquitous Laura Kuenssberg. As in, "First of all, Boris Johnson is a narcissistic prat; second of all, he's a known and proven liar". Nobody used to say this ("second of all", I mean: the stuff about Johnson is well-established), and it makes no sense. "First of all" is surely a stand-alone expression, indicating absolute primacy in a list? And I suppose "last of all" is a useful alternative to "last but not least" as a list-finishing cliché, when "finally" seems a little too final. But no-one says "middle of all", do they? And what about "third of all" or even "thirty-third of all"? These are obvious and redundant nonsense. I wonder, did this start as a joke? One of those formulaic witticisms that lighten conversation? I suppose it could imply, "second and final item in a list of two", but, disappointingly, so rarely does. But, however it happened, it now seems to have established itself, like some invasive linguistic species, and being annoyed about it won't change anything.


1.  No, really, 150-odd sets, all carefully checked: they filled the entire back of our Renault Scenic, including the seats. 2019 turned out to be a memorable Summer of Lego.

Monday, 2 December 2019

Ancient Youth



I spotted these two in the British Museum on Wednesday. Unfortunately, I fumbled the focus and exposure, which doesn't leave much else to get right, so I've had to resort to various bit of magic to get a useful picture. In reality, I think these are some kind of funereal figurine (I forgot to take notes, always a mistake...) but, to me, they look like two girls who have just made the mistake of skinny dipping in the North Sea. Brrr... And, yes, the one on the left really does appear to have shades on and an interesting tattoo.

Not so much Celine and Julie Go Boating, then, as Tracy and Debbie go swimming. "S-s-sod this for a l-l-lark, D-d-debs! G-g-get yer kit on and w-we'll go for a latte"... Where they may well meet Mick and Rick, the jug-eared, idiot boys. Tasty! But, blimey, whatever happened to your nose, Mick?


Friday, 29 November 2019

Wet Wednesday



Black Friday? Don't make me laugh...
(No, please ... don't ... aargh!)

I was up in the Bloomsbury area of London on Wednesday delivering a bag of stuff to my daughter, and had planned to go for an autumnal afternoon wander about the still half-familiar streets and squares (I was a postgraduate student at UCL 40 years ago), camera in hand. But it was a miserably wet day: I have never seen such vast puddles in central London streets, which glum-faced tourists on ill-advised winter breaks were attempting to negotiate with their wheeled luggage, hoping to avoid another drenching from the bow-wave of a passing bus. Even the endless work of making London fit for the ultra-rich was on hold, as workmen in hi-viz vests and hard hats sheltered from the rain in doorways and beneath scaffolding. It was no fun at all.

So, instead, I headed for two favourite indoor haunts: the Grant Museum of Zoology, and the British Museum (of, like, everything), both conveniently nearby. My old trade union is currently on strike over pensions, pay, and working conditions so, the Grant being a part of UCL, I half-anticipated finding it closed, or blocked by the impassable barrier of a very wet, two-person picket line (some magic spells are permanently binding). However, it was open, and unpicketed, so I was free to pass within.

Quite why I am drawn to the grotesque spectacle of preserved and dissected life-forms is a question between me and my appalling subconscious dream-life, but there's no question that I am. Others, emphatically, are not, which may explain the relative lack of success of my photo-collage work, which does tend to lean heavily on a certain mock-horror sensibility. Although it has to be said the enthusiastic reception of Queen guitarist and stereoscopic photography enthusiast Brian May's project to reassemble a 19th-century French series of stereoscopic Diableries does give me hope. For the cognoscenti of carcasses and cadavers, however, the Grant Museum is a small but perfect sample of the bony and bottled horrors laid down, like vintage wine, in scientific cabinets of curiosities in most European cities [1].

Now there's a Guardian... 

Demon Bat has a side-splitting laugh in the bath

The British Museum, of course, needs no introduction: it is the grand imperial attic, stuffed with excavated bric-a-brac, extorted loot, and questionably-acquired gifts from many generations of intrepid British adventurers abroad, who were mainly avoiding the dreariness of family life (or, in some cases, the law) in warmer climes. I have never quite learned to love the BM – it's too big, and too all-embracing – but it is full of wonderful things, wonderful things [2], and I have never yet visited it and not come across some treasure I'd never seen before. It was certainly worth enduring a slow, shuffling queue in the rain, in order to have my soggy backpack examined for explosives or potential weaponry, and I'm sure finer weather would have meant a far longer wait.

Once finally inside, I was pleasantly surprised to find that they've been putting a lot more effort into selection and presentation in recent years, and that my previous comparison with Hamburg's museums may have been a little unfair. After all, the BM curators have probably been to the same seminars, and read all the same articles. Thankfully, the "interpretation" is both informative and also still reasonably adult: there is no equivalent of the Natural History Museum's abysmal descent into "Creepy Crawlies" terminology here: no "Curse of the Pharoahs" gallery or "Saxon Bling" wing. Yet, anyway.

I love the eye-rolling lion:
"FFS don't take on so, Brit, this Frederick wasn't so great..."

Child in Hercules costume says, "Right on..."

1. I have to admit, even I found Edinburgh's Surgeons' Hall Museum hard going. Not recommended for the even slightly squeamish visitor to that fine city.
2. Obligatory allusion to Howard Carter and Tutankhamun.

Tuesday, 26 November 2019

The Dark Wood


Taken with Olympus Camedia 3000z (3 megapixels), 2002

Camera design is a curious business. In the heyday of film, "form follows function" was self-evidently the driver of the way most cameras looked. Setting aside view cameras, which are hilariously functional – got a picture problem? Hey, there's an app a knurled knob for that! – a roll-film camera has quite strict requirements that must be accommodated before the design team is let loose. Film of a certain fixed dimension must spool across the camera back in evenly-spaced increments, and be kept flat at a rigidly-fixed distance from the lens and shutter assembly, and the mechanisms to achieve this must be resilient, easy to use, and lightproof. However, the whole box also needs to be opened regularly so that film can be removed and replaced – quickly, and without mishap – under conditions of excitement and even mortal danger. Some kind of viewfinder is pretty much essential, too, whether it be a sophisticated arrangement of prisms and mirrors, or a wire rectangle on a stick. Add into that the shape and size of the human hand, and the position of the human eye in the human head, and a certain optimal size and shape more or less determines itself.

Of course, good function and optimal shape don't, in themselves, produce attractive cameras. I think most of us would agree that an Olympus OM SLR is a thing of beauty, whereas a Zenit EM SLR is not, and yet the differences between the two devices are really quite small; not unlike the differences between two people, both in possession of the full, functioning complement of anatomical features, and yet of radically different attractiveness. It's a moot point whether to blame the instinct of engineers to play safe or the urge of designers to create marketable novelty for the most breathtakingly butt-ugly cameras: perhaps this is more often than not the result of one team temporarily gaining the upper hand over the other. Odd, isn't it, for example, how everyone still cites the well-engineered but fairly conventional Olympus SLRs, XAs, and even Trips as design classics, but the design-heavy, all-in-one Olympus IS family or (if you can even bear to look at one) the egregious AZ-330 Superzoom have vanished without trace? Although my personal favourite Olympus film camera, the Mju (Stylus, in the USA) – a perfectly elegant and functional compromise between engineering and design – is apparently enjoying a well-deserved cult moment.

Then along came digital. Tiny sensors meant tiny focal lengths, and that, along with no film to advance or replace meant, shape-wise, pretty much anything was possible, not least because much of the engineering had become sophisticated miniaturised electronics, tucked away in corners on printed circuits. There were limits, of course – human hands and eyes remained incorrigibly analogue, as they do to this day – but there was something of a Cambrian Explosion of camera-forms, most of which were doomed to die out in the ensuing Darwinian struggles. But, as was probably predictable, it was the most conventional-looking cameras that made it through the mass extinction of the early 2000s, reconverging on the very same designs as the film SLRs and compacts they had all but extinguished.

Personally, I have rarely been a pioneer in anything, but have often been an early adopter. It's an important distinction, and something you generally learn the hard way if you've ever worked for a living with computers and software. I bought my first digital camera around 2001, a flat, slab-like Fujifilm Finepix 1300 with a mighty 1.3 (one point three) megapixel sensor, which produced images 1280 x 960 pixels in size. It had a tiny 1.6" rear screen, and used four AA batteries: I remember thinking for ages that the ability to use rechargeable AA batteries was an essential feature in any digital camera. I was impressed, however. I had spent quite a few years working with the colour negative film-processing cycle: buy film; expose film; drop exposed film off at camera shop for "dev & contact"; wait a week; pay for and collect negatives and contact sheet; examine contact sheet; drop off negatives at commercial darkroom for selected proof prints; wait a week; pay for proof prints; order a fine print or two; etc. So the speedy turnaround time of digital came as a revelation. It was also effectively cost-free, even given the extortionate price of printer ink. The quality was pretty good, too, provided you wanted nothing bigger than a 6" x 4" print. I did, however, so I was not going to be giving up my medium-format film workhorse, a Fuji GS645S, any time soon.



all Olympus Camedia 3000z (3 megapixels), 2002

Over the next few years, nonetheless, I kept upgrading until around 2005 I arrived at a Canon EOS 350D DSLR, with its awe-inspiring eight megapixel sensor [1], and I never again bought a roll of film, or paid for "dev & contact". Sorry, camera shop! In the hybrid middle period there, though, between the Fuji and the Canon, I had an extended creative relationship with Olympus, in the form of a Camedia C3000z (3 megapixels) and then a C5050z (5 megapixels). [Apologies if this is about as interesting as a list of my old cars: I'll get to the point, eventually]. It is a curious and marvellous thing, and something I only fully recognised recently, that my single Greatest Hit to date (in terms of sales, exhibitions, and noises of approval), the series I self-published as The Revenants, was developed exclusively out of photographs made at that time using these two cameras. In fact, more than half of those pictures were taken with the three megapixel Camedia, which is pretty astonishing.

You are invited!

Also around that time, in 2004, I was stopped in my tracks by something in a camera shop window. On display were six eye-catching little cameras, all in a row, each in a different-coloured, metallic, asymmetrical casing, set out like high-end watches, or an array of rather fancy cigarette lighters. Amazing! It was the Olympus Mju-Mini Digital. Only four megapixels, but as smooth and rounded (and about the same size) as a bar of soap, as featureless and streamlined as an alien spacecraft, weatherproof, and a rather wacky triumph of curvy design over the nerdy knurled-knobbliness of the typical camera. Now, this was clearly intended as a "gendered" product, but I am very susceptible to compact, jewel-like objects (I blame my inner crow), and was smitten. Until I discovered that the design team had actually gone completely mad: there was no viewfinder at all, FFS, just a 1.8" LCD! What were they thinking?! [2]  For me, anyway, that was a thought too far outside the box for comfort and, as they say on the forums: deal-killer. But, like catching a glimpse of some unattainable beauty in the street, the impression stayed with me, and no other camera has ever quite captured that same, ungadgety allure. I mean, six colours! Those curves!


Some years later, in 2009, I came across a used Mju-Mini in red on Ebay, and put in a low, but winning bid. To justify this ridiculous gear-lust – at the time I was going steady with a Canon 450D – I had some half-baked idea about a lo-fi project using an ultra-portable, weatherproof camera, the sort of thing you'd do with a smartphone today, but then promptly forgot all about it. It was, I'm ashamed to say, a bit of a one-night stand. Then, this week, looking for something completely different, I found it again in the back of a cupboard, and the half-baked idea reignited: not least because I'd been looking at those old three-megapixel Olympus images from 2002-3 – many of which, despite various backup disasters, have survived – and wondering what it was that had given them whatever quality it was that they clearly had. One thing was certain, though: it was not an overabundance of pixels.

Trying to think back 15 years or so, two things did immediately come to mind. First, at that time, all of what I took to be my "serious" work was still being done on film. Even the family snaps were continuing to accumulate as 6" x 4" prints in paper wallets [3]. The digital camera was pretty much a toy, something to have fun with, to experiment with. It was relatively cost-free, after all, and would never amount to anything serious, anyway, or so I thought, so I ended up snapping away in all sorts of unlikely places. Second, through those casual experiments, I was finding out what a digital camera was good at, and what it was bad at (and that when it was good, it was very, very good, and when it was bad, it was hopeless). So I then started snapping away consistently in the most likely unlikely places, with results that trumped pretty much anything I'd ever done on film. I imagine this is something like what is meant by shoshin, or "beginner's mind" in Zen.



all Olympus Camedia 3000z (3 megapixels), 2002

But there was a third thing, too. Fifteen years ago I was 50, the father of two young, school-age children, with both my own and my partner's parents in terminal decline, working part-time in a stalled professional career, and assailed on all sides by the routine tribulations of responsible middle age. I found myself to be some considerable distance from the person I had imagined I was destined to become:
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
ché la diritta via era smarrita... [4] 
In short, I was in mid-life crisis territory, and it was photography that seemed to be holding open a last door onto a more interesting future. True, by then I'd had two modest exhibitions of my film-based work, but this was proving too expensive in time, money, and attention to sustain. It seemed digital photography might yet prove to be just the thing to keep that door open; which it did.

Motivation like that – urgency combined with means and clarity of purpose – comes only rarely in a lifetime. When it does, good things can happen, and any limitations merely serve to stimulate creativity. Without it, no amount of megapixels or seductive design will help: you're just wandering aimlessly in the dark, hoping to find an exit. Now, at 65, I've been sensing its return. I may have slipped through that one door, but it's clear there are many more doors beyond, which is an exhausting and daunting prospect. But I'm not yet ready to let those doors shut on me, either, if I can help it. Beginner's mind may be the answer: if I'm lucky, perhaps the time has come to see mountains once again as mountains, and rivers once again as rivers. [5]

Who knows? But maybe a little red camera from 2004 can help, if only by reminding me of some of the choices I made along the way, and how I once found a path out of the dark wood.



all Olympus Camedia 3000z (3 megapixels), 2002

1. Early on, I remember working out how many megapixels would be needed to make an 8" x 10" print at 300 dpi, the answer being eight, occupying between 15 and 20 MB of storage as a TIF file. This seemed an improbable figure, especially in the days when 32 GB was a perfectly respectable capacity for a hard drive.
2. Unheard of, then; standard, now.
3. Something I am now profoundly grateful for. In the future, a Digital Dark Age will be uncovered, a black hole in the communal memory, as various convenient "clouds" dissipate into thin air, taking with them an entire generation of family snaps and personal souvenirs.
4. Opening words of Dante's Inferno: "Midway in the journey of our life I found myself in a dark wood, the straight way lost".
5. "Before I had studied Zen for thirty years, I saw mountains as mountains, and rivers as rivers. When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point where I saw that mountains are not mountains, and rivers are not rivers. But now that I have got its very substance I am at rest. For it's just that I see mountains once again as mountains, and rivers once again as rivers." Qingyuan Weixin, quoted in Alan Watts, The Way of Zen.

Friday, 22 November 2019

Book Club 2019

I've managed to keep a tight rein on my book-buying habit this year – just, you know, the odd one, plus essential purchases, the occasional lucky impulse buy, a few shrewd investments, and one or two completist and curiosity items, so nothing too extravagant – but nonetheless I do have some recommendations, if you're in the market for some outstanding books in the run up to Christmas. I've provided links to the publishers, who, in most cases, will sell you a copy direct.


Altered Ocean, by Mandy Barker. What an outstanding and timely project this is, creating beautiful but unsettling constructed simulacrums of animation out of strictly inanimate oceanic plastic pollution. A truly handsome book, and endorsed by David Attenborough, no less. It's a more satisfying, more purposeful approach than her previous, much-acclaimed publication, Beyond Drifting, in which items of plastic debris are presented as if microphotographs of plankton (work which I thought was overpowered by its presentation, the fastidious mocking-up of a battered old scientific textbook). Category: Curiosity purchase.



O Hanami, by Paul Kenny.  Greg Stewart's Kozu Books is producing some wonderful books with exemplary production values. You can read an interview with Greg here. If I could persuade Kozu to publish a book of my work, I'd be a very happy man. Like Mandy Barker, Paul Kenny's work is also poetic and constructed (I believe he mainly uses a scanner, not a camera) but psychologically darker, creating compelling imagery from natural and man-made flotsam and jetsam. His previous volume from Triplekite, Seaworks 1998-2013, is unobtainable and highly sought-after: I couldn't believe my luck, a couple of years ago, finding a used copy for a very modest price. This one is likely to suffer the same fate. Category: Shrewd investment.



Abstract Mindedness, by Doug Chinnery. Really compelling work, this, also from Kozu. It is actually one of the most inspiring books I have bought in a long time: I love Doug's use of an astringent natural colour palette against dark backgrounds. Check it out. Doug Chinnery is something of a "name" in the British alt-landscape photography world, but deserves to be more widely known. His work is unconventional but camera-based, using layered multiple exposures and "ICM" (intentional camera movement) [1]. Category: Lucky impulse buy.



The World's Edge, by Thomas Joshua Cooper.  The summation of a major project by a major artist; practically a life's work, and certainly one that has caused him to risk his life several times over. I shared my own thoughts on TJC's project in a previous post, which also includes a link to a video of him presenting the work. This man is the photographic equivalent of film-maker Werner Herzog i.e. a certifiably-sane giant in a world that prefers bite-sized mediocrities. Category: Essential purchase.



Des Oiseaux, by Pentti Sammallahti.  What to say? A well-presented, well-chosen selection of the outstanding work of one of the world's outstanding photographers, all of which happen to feature a bird or birds somewhere in the frame. It's a clever idea for a series, and Éditions Xavier Barral have brought out similar, uniformly-packaged, bird-themed volumes from Graciela Iturbide, Michael Kenna, Bernard Plossu, Terri Weifenbach, and Yoshinori Mizutani. I believe only the French version of the Sammallahti is still available, but come on, who reads the text in photo-books? Category: Completist purchase.

And what about a couple of non-photographic books?


Six Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm, illustrated by David Hockney.  I have already described these illustrations and the impact they had on me as an impressionable 16-year-old. This is a lovely, tactile edition from the Royal Academy, cloth-bound and printed on good paper, small, but not as absurdly tiny as the original Petersburg Press edition: it would make a perfect present. Category: Essential purchase.



City Works Dept., by Philip Hancock. A book of poems published by CB Editions, a "small" (as in, one-man) publisher, run by Charles Boyle. Charles has a gift for talent-spotting, and Philip Hancock is no exception. It's not often you find poetry written out of a white-male, working-class sensibility (Philip Hancock earns a living as a painter-decorator for a local authority). These are not raps or performance-poetry rants, however, but quietly crafted, original, and insightful poems: the real thing. There's a good review of the book here. They remind me powerfully of old home-town friends, or indeed the person I would have been, had I left school at 16 for employment, rather than pursuing higher education. Category: Lucky impulse buy.

To finish, it would be foolish of me not to at least remind you of two of my own recent productions, wouldn't it?


First, Standdescribed here (with link to my Blurb Bookstore). A "magazine" of just twelve tree-based digital images. Very slim, very cheap, very desirable. Any comparison with its author would be invidious. I am definitely not a tree, for a start.



Second, Prestidigitation, a "best of" selection of my digital imaging, described here (with link to my Blurb Bookstore). Intended as a gallery or publisher calling card – something to leave behind when I am ejected from the premises – it's also quite a satisfying overview of my constructed work of recent years. It, too, is in the slim, bendy Blurb magazine format, so will present very little challenge to any overcrowded bookshelves. I really should put something similar together for my "straight" photographs: a project for the weeks when we are snowed-in over Christmas, perhaps (I'm hoping that's just a first, feeble, seasonal joke, obvs – It don't snow here / Stays pretty green... – but in these days of uncertain climate, you never know).

1. I have to say, in the wrong hands, which is most, I tend to find "ICM" images unsatisfactory and even annoying. The insistence on "in-camera" effects, as opposed to good, honest photoshoppery, seems a contradictory blend of the desire to disrupt the conventions of photography, while wishing to stay firmly within the bounds of the conventional photographic process. The resultant, uncontrolled effects very quickly become their own clichés. I confess I also find the po-faced "ICM" monicker hilarious. Personally, I generally prefer HHI (hand-held instability).

Tuesday, 19 November 2019

The Long March


Mottisfont Abbey, March 2015

Spearywell Wood, March 2015

I arrange my digital files primarily by the camera used, then by month, then year. For example, any pictures taken today on the X70 will be uploaded straight into a folder "images\fuji_X70\nov19". Then, those raw files that get processed into TIF files will end up in a sub-folder under that, named "...\converted". This may seem an odd sort order, but it works for me. It's not particularly logical, but that's the order of collocation I like: camera, month, year. By using abbreviated names rather than numbers, of course, the sequence is also alphabetically-ordered by month, just to mix things up some more. (Have I mentioned I used to be a librarian? This is why you can never find anything without our help...). Still, at least I do have a working, easy-to-use system with its own idiosyncratic rationale, rather than chucking everything into one pot and promising myself I'll sort it all out one day, or relying on some clever software package to do the work for me. Let's not even mention "keywording". There is nothing – literally nothing – anyone can tell me about the principles of indexing, or the usefulness of metadata that I don't already know: I just choose not to bother with it at home.

Periodically, I like to open one of these folders, more-or-less at random, partly as a nudge to my memory, and partly just to see what's in there, and whether anything worthwhile may have been overlooked. Recently, I happened to open the folder containing files taken on a Fuji X-E1 in March 2015, and was surprised by how much Good Stuff had gone unprocessed. Perhaps not so surprising: it was just six months after my retirement, as well as an exhibition and residency in Innsbruck, but also just a few months after undergoing a debilitating surgical procedure, so I was in a very mixed and muddled state of mind. It was hard to tell whether things could only get better, or only get worse. Significant landmarks and thresholds had been passed or were approaching, not least the looming reality of old age. Something of this is inevitably reflected in the pictures I took at the time, many of which have an eye for the incongruous and minatory, and a fascination with the grotesquely tangled and truncated shapes and colours of winter woodland, and the semi-chaos of "edgelands".

Hollybrook Allotments, Southampton, March 2015

Hollybrook Allotments, Southampton, March 2015

Bus shelter, Lordswood Road, Southampton, March 2015

Why March? Well, perhaps because – if we make the calendrically asymmetrical assumption that the "winter" months are December, January, and February – then the current month, November, stands in the same relative position to winter, seasonally, as March. Even if they are not proper twins in terms of the solar year, the two months are nonetheless mirror images of each other: one marking the gateway into the bleakest months ("Abandon All Shorts, Ye Who Enter Here"), the other marking the way out. It can be hard to tell the difference, after all, between an entrance and an exit. Part of the wisdom of age, it seems to me, is not so much learning to tell the difference, but to stop caring which is which. Just take the damn photograph.

I'm not surprised I didn't pay proper attention to these particular photographs at the time – they're austere, a bit disconcerting, not exactly reassuring – but now they speak to me quite clearly of a certain "mind of winter". At the risk of sounding conceited, I'm pleased to say they also look pretty good to me: there's nothing quite like the passage of a few years to enable you to see your own work as if through third-party eyes. And it's a bit of a boost, after several years of setbacks, near-misses, and frustrations, to realise: I'm a lot better at this photo-lark than I sometimes think. Carry on, there! Who knows? The best may yet be to come. Which, along with a flu jab and a recently-serviced boiler, is a good way to enter the upcoming cold months.

Mottisfont Abbey, March 2015

Mottisfont Abbey, March 2015

Burgess Road, Southampton, March 2015

Friday, 15 November 2019

Small Black Cameras


Southampton Sports Ground (Panasonic LX15)

I think many "serious" photographers affect a disdain for gearheads that is often more than a little disingenuous. Obviously, the kind of person whose main interest is serially comparing, discussing, and accumulating gear, rather than actually producing photographs, is into a different kind of activity than an actual, active photographer, but "comparative hardware studies" are, after all, something that can be done professionally. I mean, blimey, you can even earn a few quid and a following just by videoing yourself opening the boxes! Plus, photography being a gear-based enterprise, for any actual, active photographer not to have strong opinions about the gear they use would, frankly, be weird. These don't have to be a pixel-peeping fixation on costly, high-spec apparatus: I myself am a "kit zoom" kind of guy, prefer lower-end cameras, favour Fuji, and mainly buy my stuff second-hand, almost as a matter of principle. But that's a strong set of opinions in itself.

However, immune as I am to most gear-talk and gear-lust, one ridiculous obsession that I do have is with the "small black camera". I can't resist them. It all started with an Olympus Mju and an Olympus XA, back in the days of film, and has gone on from there: whenever I see a used, well-engineered black compact going for a good price, I struggle to pass it by. It's an especially ridiculous obsession, because I have little or no need for yet another such device, and usually end up selling them on. For a start, the image quality is rarely good enough, although the Fuji X20 and X70 are exceptional in this regard (and I have both, which is why I have little or no need for yet another such device).

Usually, I find that the handling characteristics of the more recent compacts are impossibly fiddly. Tiny cameras bristling with tinier buttons and dials (and, worst of all, with a touch-screen occupying most of the back) are prone to springing unwanted surprises in actual use by clumsy adult hands, such as switching the camera into movie mode, moving the focus point into a top corner, or kicking off some unknown and unwanted function such as "Beard Recognition", or "Apocalypse Emulation". Looking at many modern cameras, it can be hard to recall that, like the best breads and beers, a photograph is still just the product of three simple, traditional ingredients – aperture, shutter speed, and focus – plus the new-fangled novelty of variable ISO. Anything else is packaging.

Southampton Sports Ground skip (Panasonic LX15)

The latest specimen compact to pass through my hands – it followed me home, honest – is a Panasonic LX15 (or LX10 in the US). This is actually a really great little camera, unfairly maligned as "disappointing" by many of its initial reviewers when it appeared in 2016. I've been impressed by the quality of its raw files, and it handles very well: much better, IMHO, than that overpraised succession of Sony RX100 models, which I have found (yes, I've had a couple of those, too...) to be too-tiny booby-traps with buttons far too prone to fat-finger malfunctions. But, nice as the Panasonic is, I really have no practical use for this latest small black camera, so, as usual, having sated my curiosity, I'll be selling it on.

However, for a change, I thought I'd pass on the chance of a genuine bargain to a reader of this blog. Here's the deal. The camera is in excellent, unmarked condition (I suspect its previous owner was one of those serial gearheads, as it's barely been used), boxed with all its bits and pieces, and comes with the genuine, dedicated (and expensive!) Panasonic leather case (also boxed). It's yours for £250 plus P&P (probably about £10 within the UK; anywhere else, we'll have to see) [1]. If you're interested, email me (my address is in the "View My Complete Profile" section at top right). Save me from myself! [2]

Stress test: passed! ("contre jour", no lens hood...)
(Panasonic LX15)

1. If you don't think that's a bargain, check out the used prices for the camera and the case, both in top condition. 
2. I can change, I swear! However, if Fuji were ever to decide to launch a version of their APS-C sensor X70 with a modest zoom (say, 35-70mm equivalent, preferably a version of the novel, manual, twist-to-start-up pancake zoom on the small-sensor X20, which I love), then I might even consider buying one NEW... Has to be black, though. Silver (or, FFS, brown) compact cameras are just silly.

Wednesday, 13 November 2019

Inglorious Mud



It may not surprise you to learn that I'm not really interested in sport or games of any sort. I was a regular member of various teams at school – I was the First XI Hockey goalkeeper for six years – and for some while was a keen participant in junior judo, but I never felt part of either the jock set or the sports fan-base, and haven't played football, rugby, cricket, hockey, or visited a dojo in the 47 years since leaving school. That whole homosocial sports experience of packed terraces, locker-rooms, and Ing-ger-land! chanting leaves me cold. I sincerely couldn't care less about the fortunes of any football team, or whether England ever win the Ashes. I do love to walk, however, and usually do a few miles most days, but truly dislike running, even for a bus. I seem fairly healthy, nonetheless, and – unlike many runners – my knees are still reasonably good at 65.

To be honest, I don't understand sport. I'm not terribly interested in "winning" artificially-constructed contests as a life-goal – it always seems like some sort of trap – and must have been off school on the days when the rules and tactics of the various games we were required to play on Wednesday afternoons and (for the unlucky, chosen few) Saturday mornings were explained. In fact, I suspect those rules and tactics were never actually explained to us: it was just sort of assumed that boys have a special gene that gives us an instinctive grasp of offside, knock-ons, drop-goals, and all the rest of it. Yet my entire grasp of rugby, after six years of playing the game, never evolved beyond running aimlessly around a muddy field knocking people over, getting rid of the ball ASAP in order not to be knocked over, and periodically being required to form a "scrum" – an unpleasant experience necessitating close face-to-buttock contact, accompanied by much surreptitious punching and elbowing – or a "lineout", a jumping contest in which, at 5' 6", I was clearly never going to shine, except as a stable object for some taller lad to use as a springboard.

Rugby is so much more fun when played with girls
(Boys' v. Girls' Grammar, Stevenage 1970)

But of all the games I fail to understand, golf stands unchallenged, head and shoulders above even squash and chess. I've gone on about this before, so won't repeat myself. I mention it only because I like to walk through our municipal golf course, which at this time of year can offer some pleasant vistas, if you ignore the golfers. No need to ignore them, though, this week: the greens are waterlogged, and – unlike other, more mud-spattered pursuits – it appears golfers are not allowed to trample the ground into a boot-swallowing mire. Although, I admit, the temptation to go and kick up some soggy clods on the manicured greens is strong, like jumping into a pristine patch of snow. Which reminds me of an event, many years ago now, when our daughter was about 4 or 5 years old.

We'd had our garden lawn returfed, and part of the process of bedding down the rolls of turf is to leave a sprinkler on for most of the day to give them a good soaking. Obviously, to walk on the lawn at this stage is totally forbidden as it would completely mash up the new grass, something I made abundantly clear to our kids. However, if you're 4 or 5 years old with an impish taste for mischief, any such strict rules laid down by The Patriarchy are to be regarded as more by way of negotiable guidelines. So I looked out of the kitchen window to see a gleeful mite clog-dancing in the water spray, right in the middle of the newly-laid turf. I was more than a little annoyed, and did my best Angry Daddy act, to no avail. She merely laughed and – effectively giving me the finger – challenged me to come and chase her off, if I thought I was hard enough. Which, for the sake of the new lawn, was something I was not going to be able to do. Some very one-sided hilarity ensued. Grrr. Just you wait, young lady! Although I still haven't decided on a suitable reprisal, some 20 years later. As I say, negotiable guidelines...

My goal is beyond...

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.