Sunday, 29 November 2009

Call Me Tischbein

This is one of my favourite pictures. It stands, framed, on my bedside cabinet, alongside a couple of family photos and a heap of bedside books. That's how favourite it is. It's a watercolour sketch by Johann Tischbein of the young Goethe, looking down onto the street from a window of what is now known as the Casa di Goethe, in Rome. Tischbein and Goethe were room-mates in this very chamber, on their Italian adventure in 1786.

Tischbein's other portrait of Goethe, "Goethe in an Idiotic Hat in the Campagna", is very famous, of course, but this one is far superior. I love everything about it. I love the contrast of interior and exterior. I love the simple colour washes of Prussian blue and terra cotta. But, in particular, I love its informality, the unself-conscious crook of one leg playing with a slipper, the untucked shirt, and above all that sense of the young genius craning out of the window to watch the sunlit street life below, putting together in his head the legacy of his classical learning with the reality of Rome. It's the ultimate holiday snap.

Although the focus is on that sunlit head and the hunched shoulders, there's also an innocent, mildly homo-erotic quality that shines through so limpidly that's it's easy to miss. My daughter, aged six, spotted it straight away, though: "Daddy, that lady's showing her bottom!" That hint of a smile in Goethe's breeches does put one in mind of the lines in Rilke's poem "Archaic Torso of Apollo" (also, as it happens, about the afterlife of the classical legacy -- see my post "You Must Change Your Life"):
... Sonst könnte nicht der Bug
der Brust dich blenden, und im leisen Drehen
der Lenden könnte nicht ein Lächeln gehen
zu jener Mitte, die die Zeugung trug.

(Literally: "... Otherwise, the bow of the breast couldn't dazzle you, and -- in the gentle turn of the loins -- a smile couldn't run to that centre which bore his fertility")
But this is not a picture of sexual desire, though it is a picture of one of the oldest love stories: North meets South. It is a picture of loving admiration and friendship, and of the sheer happiness of being young, talented, and away from home, with a whole lifetime of achievement ahead. Yes, I realise Goethe was 37 in 1786, but I was 17 when I first saw this picture in 1971, and therefore so was Goethe, as far as I was concerned. I wanted, more than anything, to be the young man in that picture.

I'm happy to say, I have been there, and more than once; in a sense, my life has been measured by its "Tischbein moments". During the three summers, 1971-73, that I spent hitchhiking around Europe with a succession of friends (see the post Songs Are Like Tattoos) I had so many such moments that I began to think I might indeed be Goethe. However, the three following years as a student at Oxford put a brake on that fantasy. Goethe I was not. There was clearly more to it than leaning spellbound out of high windows.

I recall a later occasion on a tour through the Basque Country and Northern Spain, one of several I made with my girlfriend and various other couples in the years following the fall of Franco. I awoke one September morning in Santiago de Compostela, in a gigantic creaking wooden bed like a boat in an ancient hotel room without running water, that was equipped with a wooden washstand and ceramic bowls that could be filled from a tap down the corridor. It was impossible not to feel that one had gone back fifty years, if not a century or two.

Throwing open the shutters onto the morning life of an ancient city and centre of pilgrimage, I breathed it all in. The voices, the clap of pigeons, the traffic, the freshly sluiced cobblestones, the geological complexity of the architecture, and -- still asleep in the gigantic creaking wooden bed -- the complicated woman with whom, I realised in that moment (after five or so years of an on-again, off-again relationship) I was going to spend the rest of my life. I admit I had to stand there for a minute or two longer, composed in my Tischbein moment, to see what I thought about that.

Self-portrait with backpack in a distorting mirror

Sunday, 22 November 2009

The Cloud Club

Next to the Pentagonal Pool is a flight of steps, leading up to a little-used back entrance to the Students Union. No doubt following some Health and Safety edict, these (along with most other steps on campus) were recently painted a peculiar shade of orange.

I have always been intrigued by the grandness of this entrance, and it has something of the feel of a discreet but magnificent club. There is a high mezzanine floor, just below a vast extractor fan in the roof, which I think of as the Cloud Club, as the glass is smoked and highly reflective, and the view inside is frequently obscured by clouds.

This week, armed with the 70-300 telephoto, I finally captured an image of the Cloud Club which does it justice. I think it will make a suitable closing image for the "Mirrors, Windows, Walls" sequence:

I opened the sequence with a quotation from journalist Sidney J. Harris ("The whole purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows"). I'm thinking of closing it with these words from Ciceros' De Natura Deorum:
"The authority of those who claim to be teachers is often found to be an obstacle by those who are keen to learn."
Or perhaps these from Daniel J. Boorstin's The Discoverers:
"The greatest obstacle to discovering the shape of the earth, the continents, and the oceans was not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge".

Friday, 20 November 2009

The Long Shot

Although, as I said in a recent post, I'm most comfortable working within the short focal length range of a "normal" zoom, I think my favourite lens for when I want to have some fun is the Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS. On an APS-C DSLR, the zoom range becomes the equivalent of a 110-480mm lens (in 35mm terms), which is quite some reach, but the built-in "image stabilisation" means that it's still a hand-holdable lens under most circumstances. You can really reach out and grab those interesting vignettes in a landscape that otherwise get overwhelmed by context. For example, this oak on campus has been catching my eye all week, as I take my morning coffee break in the Staff Club:

The long lens, used from a slightly elevated position, gets in amongst the branches in a way I could never achieve with my feet on the ground in front of its magnificent bulk. The foregrounding and isolation of decorative detail puts me in mind of the nineteenth century sketches of the likes of John Ruskin and Edward Lear. The flattening perspective of the telephoto lens comes in handy, too, for sculptural juxtapositions like this one:

Or it can compress the reflections in a campus window into something like a painter's canvas:

That two-dimensional look is something I always find attractive in a photograph. At heart, I suppose, I'm still a drawer and painter who uses photography.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Autumn Leaves

I've been keeping my eye open for chances to photograph autumn leaves without falling into cliché. It's not easy, but I quite like these two. I like them because they say "autumn leaves" without saying "photo competition entry".

And then there's this one. The first couple of times I passed this logjam of Japanese acer leaves I averted my eyes and hurried past. But eventually I gave in and gave it a couple of shots. Sigh.

Monday, 16 November 2009

The Best is the Enemy of the Good

I knew I'd regret getting sucked into gearhead world, but -- like Joni Mitchell and Hell in the song "Blue" -- I thought I'd take a look around it, though. Having earned a bit of spare cash (did I mention I sold thirty pictures at my recent exhibition?) I found myself in the unusual position of having the option, should I so decide, to buy pretty much anything that took my fancy, and at a time when new and exciting photographic gear seems to be emerging every week. Within reason, obviously: there was no point in even looking at the Leica M9 but, hmm, perhaps the X1?

I'm just no good at spending money, though. It gives me little pleasure. I do enjoy the thrill of the chase -- getting good stuff cheap, sniffing out, running down and snapping up unconsidered trifles at a bargain price -- but there's no fun to be had (for me, anyway) in simply looking up the good stuff in the catalogue, typing in my Visa number, and waiting for it to be delivered. It feels like cheating. So, as a compromise, I decided I'd pass up on the Panasonic GF1 or the Olympus EP1 this time round, bank most of the money against next year's crop of photo-novelties (hello, GF2 and EP2) and hunt out something tasty on Ebay instead.

I like Ebay. It reminds me of what was once my favourite magazine, the Exchange & Mart, which my friend Alan and I use to pore over together in our early teens. The Exchange & Mart -- which finally ceased in print just this year -- was a typographic and typological miracle, columns of tightly-packed classified ads expressed in a special language of categories, abbreviations, and euphemisms which you had to master to get anything out of it. We rarely actually bought anything -- that wasn't the point. As I have written before, growing up in a new town gives you a thirst for and curiosity about Old Stuff. The Exchange & Mart was a weekly dictionary of Stuff, and a practical education in the value people put on it, and indeed in what people value. Why is a used Gibson Les Paul guitar so expensive? Why is a used Ford Willys jeep so cheap? Who is this writer Henry Miller, and why are his books mixed in with thinly-disguised pornography? And why do people have such a thing about SS ceremonial daggers?

Ebay has the same attractions, but with the added delights of pictures and interactivity. There is an exciting sense of risk, but also a compensating sense of community (decreasingly so, sad to say) . It's all about strategy. There's no sense in wading in and placing an early, hopeful but modest bid. But there's also no sense in making bids that overvalue the item you're after. You need to feel out the market, bide your time -- maybe sitting out the first few times your object of desire comes up for sale, just to watch what others are willing to pay -- and then make a calculated pounce. The ultimate satisfaction, which truly gratifies one's inner market trader, is to realise that no-one else is going to bid, and that the the price is going to stick at 99p for an item without a reserve price and worth considerably more.

So, what was I going to take a caculated risk on? As I have bought into the Canon SLR system in a modest way, I thought it might be worth taking a look at "L" lenses. It should come as no surprise to long-term readers of this blog that I am a "kit zoom" photographer. Eighty percent or more of my work is done with the EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS zoom lens, which comes attached to the bottom-of-the-range DSLR I use, but which I have found to be a perfectly satisfactory lens, though I am not the kind of person to put it on a tripod and photograph test cards to calibrate the degree of its perfection or my satisfaction. It takes very nice pictures.

However, camera manufacturers run two parallel universes, as far as lenses are concerned. There's an affordable "consumer" range, in the main perfectly adequate assemblages of glass, but in plasticky housings and far from weather- or dust-proof, and then there's a "professional" range, with stellar optics, and robust, weather-proof housings. The main difference, of course, is weight, size, and above all price-- you can add a thousand pounds or more to the cost of your pathetic, plastic, "consumer" lens
for the pro equivalent. That's a lot of money.

In the case of Canon, the pro lenses are designated "L" (for "ludicrously expensive") and have a tasteful red line around the barrel. It's hard to avoid conflicted feelings... On the one hand, you suspect that that you may be falling short, somehow, on image quality; on the other, if like me you have arte povera tendencies, it's fun to laugh at foolish "advanced amateurs" overburdened with their collection of heavy and expensive lenses.

So, having a bit of funny money I thought I'd see what all the fuss was about. I settled on the EF 17-40mm f/4 L USM: one of the cheaper L lenses, but with a good reputation, and covering the sort of modest zoom range I like. I got into my Ebay stalker's hide, and waited, watched and pounced. For £390 I thought it was a reasonable bargain.

Now, if you are susceptible to "fit and finish", a lens like this is a pleasure to handle.
It's big, weighty, and everything is just right, from the damping of the focus and zoom rings to the feel of its heft in your hand. My little 450d practically squeaked with delight as I slotted it in. You just know it's going to take your photographs into a new dimension.

Except, it doesn't, not really. Or, at least, it hasn't. In fact, I'm losing a lot of shots I would have got before, doubtless due to the lack of built-in image stabilisation. "IS" in its various guises has been one of the real advances made possible by digital photography -- with good technique you can hand hold at shutter speeds that were previously impossible, and guarantee sharpness at more normal speeds. As you get older (or colder, or both) this is a serious advantage. And the cheapie 18-55mm zoom has it, and the "stellar" 17-40mm doesn't.*

Of course, the shots I do get are pretty good, quality-wise. Several people remarked on the "fossil marble" image in the post Fishy Rice, which was the first "L" image I've posted. There is a certain descriptive clarity which the lens brings to the image-making process which, normally, I would have to bring out in post-processing. But it really doesn't make me think, "The sheer quality of this lens is worth all the shots I'm missing because of its lack of IS". In the end, it's a lens designed for 35mm film cameras, and the game has changed since then.

This is in many ways a pleasing result. I'll stick with my nice, cheapie zoom, and recoup my money on Ebay. I've had a little adventure into gearhead world, and returned intact. But the fact that I've had the lens on the camera all week and have no pictures I really want to share with you speaks for itself. As someone (Voltaire?) once said, "The best is the enemy of the good"...

* There is an argument over whether in-lens IS is superior or inferior to in-body IS. Clearly, a camera system wth in-body IS would mean that the qualities of such a lens migh have a better chance of shining through.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Stormy Weather

In the last year or so I have been noticing a new sort of cloud over Hampshire. What I keep seeing is a downward-breaking plume, falling away from a horizontal cloud or cloud layer, as if a large object had plummeted through the the cloud, or a strong local suction had been applied to it from below. It sometimes has a bit of a twist, but is quite wispy and is nothing like as dramatic as a tornado funnel cloud, but nonetheless noticeable. This element of verticality in the sky is striking and, to my mind, new.

I saw a particularly fine example this week over Southampton as I drove to Romsey to do a Saturday morning shop. As often happens when driving, my mind went off in two different but related directions. First I thought, "Perhaps these unusual clouds are the precursors of storms, or even tornadoes", and then the words in Hertford, Hereford and Hampshire, hurricanes hardly ever happen sprang into the forefront of my consciousness, and repeated themselves like a mantra.

It took me a while to place the words. Is there anything more infuriating than a name or memory that stays just out of reach? Upsetting, too, if it goes on for too long: once you've watched relatives vanish into the hell of dementia all the humour goes out of memory loss. Luckily, I soon remembered that those words are, of course, one of the elocutionary phrases Henry Higgins inflicts on Eliza Doolittle in the musical and film My Fair Lady, and which figure in the song "The Rain in Spain", once a staple of light radio but now, I suspect, unheard from one year to the next.

The memories flooded back. "On the Street Where You Live", "Wouldn't It Be Luverly?", "With a Little Bit of Luck", "I Could Have Danced All Night" ... I know every note, every word of those songs, although I loathe most of them. In 1964 we went on a family expedition to London to see the film, and we owned the soundtrack LP which was played constantly until the soundtrack of West Side Story took its place. Ah, more, better songs! By the time I reached Romsey I was singing "The Jets Song" and feeling very good.
When you’re a Jet,
You’re a Jet all the way,
From your foist cigarette
To your last dyin’ day.

Of course, the inevitable next thought had to be: they don't write them like that any more, do they? And the truth is, of course, they don't. The ability to write popular songs with the sheer variety, melodic inventiveness, fun, wit and narrative cleverness of those classic musicals seems to have vanished from the world.

Not only don't they write them, they don't play them on the radio, either, and it's such a shame. It made me feel sorry for youngsters brought up on an exclusive diet of beat-driven rock and pop. And worried, too: what if you never learn to recognise and appreciate these more sophisticated qualities simply because you have never learned to loathe "I Could Have Danced All Night", or laughed out loud to "America" or "Gee, Officer Krupke"? And perhaps you can't ever really appreciate beat-driven rock and pop unless you have sat through an hour of dross on Two-Way Family Favourites, yearning to hear just three precious minutes of Elvis or the Beatles.

As it happens, when I had finished the shopping in Romsey, the front page of the local paper caught my eye. It seems a mini-hurricane had torn through South Hampshire on Tuesday, leaving a swathe of mild devastation (fallen trees, damaged roofs, blocked roads) from the New Forest to Winchester. And those words popped back into my mind: In Hertford, Hereford and Hampshire, hurricanes hardly ever happen... Well, maybe things are starting to change. Perhaps I'd better check where the rain in Spain is mainly falling, these days, though -- if my geography is worth anything -- I doubt it ever fell mainly in the plain.

Storm passing over Llandrindod Wells, Wales

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Fishy Rice

Not so unusually these days, but perhaps still worthy of remark, I do all the cooking in our family (and I do mean all -- I cook evening meals six or seven nights a week, plus lunches at weekends for anyone too idle to make their own). When the kids were younger, this would often mean two meals every night, and occasionally three, as someone had usually decided that day that they didn't like rice / pasta / potatoes any more. As it was a rare meal that pleased more than three out of four, I have learned to cook a last-minute omelette or operate a grill whilst feeding myself with the other hand.

I'm not a good cook, understand, or even particularly enthusiastic; it's just that I can be bothered, and the Prof can't. After over 15 years of family cooking I have evolved a repetitive menu of set meals which I can cook on autopilot and with which, no doubt, I have dulled the palette and gustatory curiosity of my children. I'm as predictable as a school canteen: if it's Friday, it must be toad in the hole. In that respect, I resemble 80% of traditional Mums. Though my own mother was a deeply unenthusiastic cook, who relied on staples like frozen burgers, instant mashed potato and tinned and frozen vegetables to get us through the week. By comparison, I'm Nigel Slater.

Just to, um, vary the blog diet a bit, I thought I'd pass on a store-cupboard recipe I made up years ago in a tight spot, and have cooked ever since. It's called "fishy rice", because that's what it is.


1 tin of mackerel in oil
Long grain white rice (approx. 300 ml by vol. *)
1 heaped teaspoonful of Marigold Swiss Vegetable bouillon powder (accept no substitutes) in 450 ml of boiling water
1 onion, chopped
[optional] 1 clove of garlic, finely chopped
half a red pepper, chopped
half a green pepper, chopped
two or three mushrooms, chopped
[optional] a handful of shredded white cabbage, or some frozen peas
Tomato puree
Jamaican hot pepper sauce
Salt & pepper
Random herbs (a.k.a "mixed herbs")

* I have found that one of those small Chinese tea bowls contains enough rice for one person, and contains roughly 100 ml, which makes the "one and half times by volume" calculation for the water very easy.

Pour all the oil from the tin of mackerel into a heavy bottomed saucepan. Heat the oil gently, and fry the onion and garlic until soft. Add the random herbs, salt and pepper, and the other vegetables and stir fry until you're bored with it.

Add the mackerel, breaking it up into chunks and stirring it in with your favourite spatula. If it's getting too dry, add a little olive oil. Add the rice, and stir to coat the rice with oil. Add a few good dashes of hot pepper sauce.

Pour in the vegetable stock -- this should make a wonderful sizzling sound. Stir, adding a good squeeze of tomato puree -- about 10 cm from a tube. Bring to the boil, then cover the pan with a square of aluminium foil, and press the pan lid into it to give a good tight seal. Reduce heat to the lowest you can possibly manage, and cook for 20 minutes.

Turn off the heat, and leave to stand for 5 minutes. Remove the lid and foil, stir and serve. It ain't pretty, but if you get it right it's very tasty. The secret ingredient is the oil from the tin, obviously (please don't tell me about mercury poisoning, etc.). I can report that if, under stress, you forget to put the rice in, it tastes quite good anyway with pasta. Serves two greedy adults plus two picky children.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009


It's time to make this year's Christmas / New Year cards (via VistaPrint, as usual). As has become my habit, I'm doing two: one which gestures vaguely in the direction of "picturesque", and one which doesn't. If you have commented on this blog before now and would like to receive one, just email me your terrestrial address if I don't already have it.

I was heartened to see my statistics take an unexpected leap upwards earlier this week. On closer investigation, however, I discovered that this was because a website specialising in "corporal punishment" had linked to an earlier post concerning my primary school, which happens to mention the use of the cane. Be assured, you very strange people, that spankings and "severe French lessons" do not and will not figure prominently in the subject matter of this blog, so you might as well stop reading now. Unless, that is, you have enjoyed what you have found. But don't even think about asking for a Christmas card until next year.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Three Square

The challenge of working with extreme contrasts in light intensity, which you get at this time of year particularly, has almost become a project in its own right. I've been refining a set of moves during exposure and processing that work well for me and my extremely casual (almost careless) modus operandi; I don't think I could ever resort to a tripod, multiple exposures and HDR software. Nothing particularly clever or secret, merely shooting RAW, exposing for highlights, and making use of the tools within Photoshop Elements 6 like "Adjust Colour Curves". It helps, of course, if you're not afraid or ashamed of inky black shadows...