Saturday, 31 July 2010

The Net of Heaven

The net of heaven
is vast, vast,
yet misses nothing

Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching (Ursula K. Le Guin's version)

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Hugin and Munin

I've been playing a double game, recently. As well as looking for interesting variations on the "white walls" and "dark walls" themes, I've been making parallel sets of pictures using both an Olympus E-P1 fitted with the 17mm lens and a Panasonic GF1 fitted with the 20mm lens.

It has made an interesting comparison, and I may post something about the results soon. The main purpose has not been to discover "which is better", however, but to explore the different inclinations and tendencies of two very capable cameras. All cameras have personalities, and these two are very different. I've felt quite comfortable (and rather privileged) with one slung over each shoulder, like Hugin and Munin.

Hugin and Munin, of course, are the pair of ravens who -- in Norse mythology -- fly out over the wide world, gathering gossip and intelligence, and bring it all back home to Odin, sat on his shoulders.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010


I'm about to discuss a pet digital photographic peeve of mine, but I'll try to avoid turning [RANT MODE] up to [HIGH].

Back in the days when I used film cameras, I would make extensive use of the hyperfocal distance, particularly in my landscape photography. Don't be put off by the name: it's perfectly legal (as Eric Morecambe used to say, "They can't touch you for it!"). It's a simple but very effective idea, which exploits a basic optical property of any lens, which is:

For any given combination of focal length and aperture, there is a distance -- the hyperfocal distance -- which, if the lens is focussed at that distance, has the unique property that everything from half that distance to infinity will then be in acceptably sharp focus.

Useful, no? For example, the old "standard" lens for 35mm cameras had a focal length of 50mm. At f/16, the hyperfocal distance for that focal length is about 21 feet. Set the lens to f/16, focus it at 21 feet, and everything from 10.5 feet to infinity will be in acceptably sharp focus. Guaranteed! No need to focus on anything in particular.

To make this easy, lens barrels used to be engraved with "depth of field" marks, so that if, for example, you had a 50mm lens on the camera and were using an aperture of f/16, you would simply line up the "infinity" marking on the focus scale with the "f/16" marking on the "far away" side of the DOF scale. Et voilĂ ! Hyperfocal distance set!

Naturally, there is some pedantic quibbling about that phrase "acceptably sharp". This involves the positively theological concept of an "acceptable circle of confusion", and there are some lovely equations you can do which will deliver different hyperfocal distances depending on the value you supply for the circle of confusion, but this kind of focussing is always going to be an approximate business, and anyone seriously troubled by the size of their circles of confusion needs to start that search for a Life right away.

But that was then, and this is now.

Hyperfocal-ish... Don't know about infinity, but both
the near and the far fences are acceptably sharp

Digital cameras are amazing things. The sheer brilliance of the programming that underlies their functionality is mind-blowing. I used to be a "manual only" kind of guy. I'd meter off the ground at my feet, make allowance for subject brightness and contrast, and -- more often than not -- set the camera at the hyperfocal distance for my chosen aperture. But now... Set a decent digital camera to "auto" and it beats my judgement 99 times out of 100, in a fraction of the time it takes me to say "Hmm, let me think..."

But. The one thing that virtually no digital camera has, and which every digital camera could really use, is a [HYPERFOCAL MODE]. It would be so easy! Assuming the camera's software knows the focal length and aperture currently in use, why on earth can't it do a moronic little hyperfocal calculation, and set the focus accordingly?

I keep re-reading camera manuals to see whether I've missed it or whether they've called it something cute like [FOCOMAT] or buried it in the "scene modes" somewhere, but no. I believe some Ricoh cameras do have this feature. Even the crude three settings for "zone focussing" that used to figure on ancient film cameras (flower! / people!! / mountain!!!) could be handy.

Perhaps there's a technical obstacle? My suspicion is that enabling the lens to be focussed at an actual pre-determined distance -- rather than reactively to whatever is detected by the camera's fancy focussing matrix -- may be too great an engineering problem to be worth tackling. If so, what a shame.

But I will send a free A4 print of the image of your choice to anyone anywhere in the world who can show me how this can be done (by simple software settings) on any one of these cameras: Canon 45oD, Olympus E-P1, Panasonic LX3, Panasonic GF1!

Hyperfocal-ish... But, no matter how great the DOF, nothing
will stop the wind blowing stuff out of focus...

Monday, 26 July 2010

Heart of Darkness

"And this also," said Marlow suddenly, "has been one of the dark places of the earth".

It still is, sometimes, especially if you spend your lunch hour crawling around in the spaces under bridges and walkways. The horror, the horror, the horror!

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Black and Blue

Another little set from this week's lunchtime wanderings. That third image is -- to my eyes -- compelling in a way I don't really understand. Despite the slightly out-of-focus blue surface (a risk with the E-P1 on autofocus, which is a little random) it all just works.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

The Enemy Within

Last weekend I visited Romsey, a small market town near Southampton, to do the weekly shop. Normally it's a fairly sleepy place, but from the second I got out of the car I could hear that unmistakable quavering sound on the wind of enthusiastic semi-pro rock bands playing live. It was a very sunny day, and the town was heaving with people -- I had walked straight into the annual Beggars Fair, "a free festival of music, dance and street entertainment, around 70 acts in 20 venues in a day and a half of non-stop entertainment, all around the town of Romsey". Oh, God.

I do my best not be a curmudgeon, but being among the British middle classes en fĂȘte brings out the worst in me. It's the men, mainly. Over the last decade, a whole style of conspicuous consumption has evolved, whereby regional account managers and systems analysts are keen to be seen in public doing leisure. This involves elaborate hi-tech sandals, calf-length shorts, an expensive "leisure" shirt, designer sunglasses (which they, without irony, would call "shades"), and quite often an annoying (nay, idiotic) hat. An all-over tan and a close-cropped head to disguise the bald spot are also essential. And drink, lots of drink. Kenton from The Archers is their archetype. This is a style picked up on expensive foreign holidays, in yachting marinas, and on gap year adventures. Clutching pints, knots of these grinning dorks stand around at events like the Romsey Beggars Fair, doing leisure.

The younger generation are even more annoying. The junior regional account managers and their little gangs of drinking buddies clearly spend more time in the gym than is healthy, and want you to know it. Shirts off, gentlemen! Check the abs! (but you can leave your hat on). And they're all so tall and good-looking! I suppose they must throw away the duff ones when they're babies, like Spartans. And, amazingly, the fashion for elaborate upper torso tattoos has spread like a disease from its natural home among the disaffected and subcultural underclasses to, well, the junior regional account managers of Romsey. Astonishing. Ugly. Inappropriate. Intimidating. I could go on.

Such men as these think this world is their world by right, that their fit, rich, shouty, well-appointed masculinity is its own argument and justification. They are, I suppose, the Tory Party at play. But I say these men are The Enemy Within. If I didn't think I'd get my arse kicked all the way back to Southampton, I'd stand on a soapbox, and declaim:

Women of the world: for God's sake stop tolerating and encouraging these fools. Unreconstructed male vanity is a social poison: these preening gumps should not be admired, they should be forcibly made to take on a proper share of family life: cooking, tidying up, collecting kids from school, taking time off from work to arrange inconvenient hospital visits, and missing "must watch" TV -- yea, even The Big Match -- to watch tedious school entertainments. Being the regional account manager is really not that big a deal. And stop buying into this "boys like football, girls like shoes" bullshit: surely we threw out all that nonsense 30 years ago? And if you don't make your bloke put his shirt back on sharpish, act his age, and stop pretending to be David Beckham, it will all end in tears -- for you. Guaranteed.

As for me, I did my shopping and wished I'd brought a camera so I could illustrate this little rant. But I didn't.  Next time!

Monday, 19 July 2010

Hot House

Can't get enough of those graduation greenhouses marquees. Constructed from thick white PVC with transparent PVC windows, they're a seasonal treat. It's no joke standing around inside one, though -- when people talk of academic "hothousing", they're generally talking metaphorically.

Check the close-up of this last one: it's so hot in there that the face of the guy in the idiotic hat has melted into a Picasso:

Sunday, 18 July 2010

These Are a Few of My Favourite Things

If, like me, you're attracted by the effects of time and wear and tear, then you are probably very fond of certain wabi sabi hotspots in your house, and reluctant to "decorate" them out of existence. The repeated passage of grubby hands over white plaster, the mark-making of those same small hands with pencils and crayons, the interesting way the ceiling plaster is crumbling just where the light from the garden projects soft colours through the gap in the curtains... These are all everyday visual delights I'll be sad to lose.

Even where our recently installed kitchen has exposed a palimpsest of plaster colours and remnants of paint probably dating back to the house's origins in the 1930s... To my eye, it's more attractive as it is than repaired and freshly painted over.

But as an excuse for inaction it's wearing thin, so I've been documenting some of my favourite bits.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Flags of All Nations

If nothing else, the World Cup livened up our Staff Club. The flags were still there until quite recently, hastily gathered up before the arrival of the Proud Parents. "What, you mean the university staff drink beer and watch football in here??". 'Fraid so. But not while they're teaching your kids, honest.

Brazil & Cameroon

Switzerland & Brazil

An unknown emerging nation

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Work Life

Big table or small tent?

The graduation ceremonies are upon us, and I had the surprise and pleasure of an old friend turning up in my office -- a fellow fugitive from Stevenage New Town -- whose daughter has graduated from our highly-rated School of Archaeology. We managed a condensed chat and a quick coffee before he had to resume parental duties.

It's strange, being visited in one's place of work. It almost feels more intimate than being visited at home. After all, we do spend an awful lot of our time at work, and tend to shrink or expand to fit the roles we play, and bend ourselves to these relationships we do not choose but which dominate our weekdays. On occasions when I have visited others at work, I have noticed what I took to be their discomfort at the breaching of a wall between two separate compartments in their life.

I am very lucky, in that my work and leisure personalities can and do have a high degree of similarity; I don't even need a separate set of "business" and "leisure" clothes. I also have the pleasure of working with an intelligent and constitutionally friendly group of people in a creative and stimulating environment. Others -- I think of my various friends who work as school teachers or in highly-pressured business environments -- have to put on a work persona like a suit every morning. This must be emotionally and psychically tiring.

Of course, the new government has plans to apply a lot more destructive pressure on this creative and stimulating environment. We have yet to see how this will work out. But I've had a good day today in a number of ways, and I'll save worrying about that for another day.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Mike Skipper

Our teachers and mentors hold a bizarre place in our lives that transcends reality and occupies the same sort of mental space as those inescapable recurring dreams that can take decades or a lifetime to shake off. I still find myself having repetitive, one-sided conversations with men or women I haven't met for 30, 40, 50 years, and of which they themselves have been utterly oblivious. Not least because most of them are now dead. Typical! What is more frustrating than a teacher who goes and dies before one has had a chance to set them straight? Or, more rarely but even more frustrating, one who dies before you have had a chance to thank them? Do teachers know about this endless esprit de l'escalier? I think they probably do, as they themselves were taught in their turn.

I have mentioned the name Mike Skipper a couple of times in this blog, in the posts "I'd Like To Thank..." and "Tears in the Stop Bath". For reasons I can't recall, I googled his name today, and discovered to my astonishment that he was dead. In fact, had I but known it, there was a memorial for Mike at Oxford Brookes University just a few weeks ago, the week before my friend John Wilson's memorial in Oxford.

Insofar as I have ever had one, Mike was my photography teacher. When I first moved from Bristol to a new job in Southampton in 1984, I decided to take a photography course run at the recently-opened Southampton branch of the Oxford Darkroom, which would teach the basics of developing film and making prints in a hands-on manner, and would culminate in an exhibition of participants' work.

We were a very mixed bunch that included a policeman, a teacher, a builder, and the various species of misfits that are familiar from any evening class environment. Mike would come down from Oxford to take our weekly classes, and he seemed very exotic to us, as he had only recently arrived from the USA. He was a small, dapper man, with cropped hair and a moustache and the sort of distinctive dress sense that led us stolid Brits to assume he was gay, which as far as I know he wasn't. He always wore highly-polished black leather lace-up shoes.

Mike Skipper's shoe

He was a very good, patient teacher. Our sessions in the darkroom were a revelation to me. He kept his own El-Nikkor enlarging lens in a pocket of his voluminous herringbone tweed overcoat, and would polish negatives vigorously between finger and thumb with a cloth before sliding the carrier into the enlarger, which made us gasp. I remember him showing us how to use our hands to paint with light to darken edges, and how to cup the light away from areas that would otherwise print too dark. Standard stuff, of course, but then so is learning to read.

I remember that year with great fondness. I set up my first darkroom in trays on the floor of an easily-darkened corridor of my flat between my bedroom and the living room, and hung my developed strips of film over the bath. Many nights I would print until the small hours. Going for a pee in the night could be hazardous, though, if I had been too tired to empty and wash the trays that evening. Looking at an old box of prints now, I find it hard to believe quite how bad they really are. Learning how to improve is a wonderful thing.

Mike and I got on well during the course -- our backgrounds and aspirations were not dissimilar, and I like to think it must have been clear that this was not a temporary enthusiasm on my part. At the exhibition that was the culmination of the course Mike took me aside and said some very kind things that convinced me I had started on a lifetime journey. After it was over, however, Mike went the way of all teachers (or perhaps I went the way of all students) and I never saw him again.

I knew he had started working as a technician at Oxford Brookes, and it appears he eventually made it onto the teaching staff. I get the feeling his career as a photographer never quite took off -- but then, whose does? -- but I do like the idea of Mike as a technician turning on successive generations of students to the skills and mysteries of the darkroom, and making them gasp as he burnished their precious negatives with a cloth from his pocket.

Mike Skipper 1984

But you were wrong, Mike, just WRONG about colour! I wonder if you ever changed your mind? I certainly did, and I would have liked the chance to talk to you about it. Oh, well.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Oi, Nazraeli, No!!

I've kicked myself a couple of times over not snagging copies of Todd Hido's books when they came out -- I like his work very much, and the books fall into that "instant pension fund" category I discussed a while ago. So I ordered myself a copy of A Road Divided as soon as it appeared.

I was less than delighted when it arrived, however: where I had anticipated a normal-sized photobook, this thing is an inflated 43 x 34.5 cm, difficult to look at without binoculars, and impossible to shelve. That's a normal octavo book on top of it in the picture, and the Guardian broadsheet newspaper beneath it. I stood on a chair to get the angle.

The pictures are, of course, excellent, but not well served by being presented gallery wall size. It's like trying to browse a stack of 20" x 16" prints in your lap. They're moody pieces, with large areas of featureless tone, and you're hardly going to be playing "Where's Wally?" with them. At that size you need to be about four or more feet away from the print -- I don't know about you, but my arms are not that long.

Notice also the blistered cover. Quality control at Nazraeli is clearly not what it might be. As the book lacks a dust-jacket, those bubbles are doomed to wear through pretty quickly. Luckily, I bought my (signed) copy from the Photo-Eye online bookstore, and they arranged a replacement (signed) copy direct from Nazraeli, who were generous enough to let me keep the original, too, which I will pass on to a good cause.

But this has to stop! I know everything is bigger in the US, but this is ridiculous... How do the publishers imagine anyone actually looking at such oversized books? On a ladder?

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Surfer Ticket Time

Graduation ceremonies approach, and we're getting the place ready, putting up marquees and finally doing a little hoovering.

I've never understood the attraction, myself -- despite being moderately proud of my three and a half degrees, I've never attended a degree ceremony. People say that, like weddings, it's really for the parents. But then, I've never got married, either. In Joni Mitchell's words, "We don't need no piece of paper keepin' us tied and true" ... (or maybe in Bob Marley's: "Ain't got no surfer-ticket on me, man").

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Beige Revelation

In which it is revealed that the silver lining itself has a beige lining. Make of that what you can.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Open Day

Once in a while, about three or four times a year, I have to spend a Saturday morning at the Enquiry Desk in the library. It's a rare opportunity for a back-room type like me to come blinking out into the spotlight, and do that helpful thing with the punters that makes librarians such a popular breed. It's nice to get all the smiles and (metaphorical) strokes.

Today was unusual, in that my Saturday duty coincided with a University Open Day. We had 12.5K registered visitors in one day -- busloads of parents with pre-uni teens in tow -- so I was unusually busy, smiling until my face ached, and describing how many books we have, and how this includes both a decent proportion of well wicked old ones (as one parent described them) and thousands of electronic titles, how long they can be borrowed for, and what a joy it is in general to be a student in Southampton.

The most pleasant side effect of all this was to see oneself as others saw one, and to appreciate, as several parents put it, how great it must be (is!) to spend one's working day in such a fabulous place as a university library, being brilliantly knowledgeable and helpful, innit?

There are worse things, it's true.