Friday 29 April 2011


While the world goes mad, swooning over the nonsense taking place in London today, I have nonetheless been grateful for (yet another) day off work, so I can get on with putting together a book of my "university walls & windows" photographs.

It's a severe discipline, editing a picture sequence. Matches which seemed made in heaven must be put asunder (sorry, for some reason marriage vocabulary is leaking into my brain from somewhere) in the interests of the wider whole. Some favourite images won't make the final cut, because they don't fit, or seem to send the sequence in unwanted directions -- an image can actually be too good or too self-contained for a book.

This is a screen shot of me using BookSmart this afternoon, the (free) Blurb book composition software (yes, I am still using Windows XP at home). It makes the whole business of viewing page spreads and sequences so much easier. I used to make 6"x4" prints and assemble them in a "landscape" slip-in photo album, and it was a lot of work. Worst of all, it worked against wanting ever to change your mind, once parts of the book were assembled -- the frustration of simply moving everything up a page was immense. It reminded me of work in the days before PCs (ever typed an office memo with carbon-paper copies? Those were not the days). With BookSmart you can tinker endlessly.

I have a pool of 400 plus photographs to draw on: of these, about 150 are in the "select" category, i.e. resized and saved as JPEG files, ready for use in BookSmart. As I think I've said before, I'm keen to keep the book to 80 pages (it will keep the price down) and am using paired, facing images. That means the final book will have something like 100 images in it, which is a lot.

Both of these are useful constraints. It's too easy to let a book grow into a baggy monster by simply adding more and more. Also, creating suitable pairs and then ordering them into a satisfying order demands a lot more attention to the flow and "narrative" of the book than the usual "blank page / photo / blank page / photo" arrangement, not least because the book's viewers will have no choice but to notice that I'm up to something a little more sophisticated than just shovelling the pictures in. I hope so, anyway. I suspect most photo-book users pay little or no attention to the ordering of the images, which is a pity, given the effort that will have gone into it.

So, I'm set for the extra long weekend, and almost hoping for rain. An odd stretch of days this, with royalist pomp and circumstance at one end and May Day marches at the other. I must re-read Guy Debord's "The Society of the Spectacle" sometime soon...

Wednesday 27 April 2011

Other Arches Are Available

There are other substantial bits of transport infrastructure near St. Catherine's Hill, in addition to the romantic abandoned viaduct. Two large underpasses go under the elevated motorway; one allows the B3335 to pass beneath, the other carries the River Itchen on its way to the old water meadows beyond.

They're less obviously photogenic, but that only makes them more interesting.

Saturday 23 April 2011

Home Art Gone

Today is the day traditionally assigned as the day of William Shakespeare's birth in 1564, and also his death in 1616.

Fear no more the heat o' the sun;
Nor the furious winter's rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta'en thy wages;
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

Fear no more the frown o' the great,
Thou art past the tyrant's stroke;
Care no more to clothe and eat;
To thee the reed is as the oak;
The sceptre, learning, physic, must
All follow this, and come to dust.

Fear no more the lightning-flash,
Nor the all-dreaded thunder-stone;
Fear not slander, censure rash;
Thou hast finish'd joy and moan:
All lovers young, all lovers must
Consign to thee, and come to dust.

No exorciser harm thee!
Nor no witchcraft charm thee!
Ghost unlaid forbear thee!
Nothing ill come near thee!
Quiet consummation have;
And renowned be thy grave!

Cymbeline, Act 4, scene ii (for DJO)

Friday 22 April 2011

Good Friday

I live on the mountain
no one knows.
Among white clouds
eternal perfect silence

Han Shan, Cold Mountain Poems, no. XCV (trans. J.P. Seaton)

When men see Han-shan
They all say he's crazy
And not much to look at
Dressed in rags and hides.
They don't get what I say
& I don't talk their language.
All I can say to those I meet:
"Try and make it to Cold Mountain."

Gary Snyder, Cold Mountain Poems 24

Wednesday 20 April 2011

Hot Tub In The Rain

I have mentioned that we have been returning annually at Easter to the Welsh Borders for over thirty years. Quite a lot has changed in that time.

In the 1970s this upland area was, despite -- or perhaps because of -- its proximity to the lush English borderlands of Herefordshire and Shropshire, isolated and surprisingly "backward". Tumble-down farms without electricity, and ancient, muddy men in string-tied coats who had retreated to the one habitable room in their timber-framed farmhouse were commonplace. If you have read Bruce Chatwin's novel On The Black Hill, you will know how it was. There was a strong sense of a pre-WW2 Britain.

Indeed, if you have an affinity for such things, you can still sense a continuity with the standing stones, burial mounds and hillforts that litter the place, often used as the basis of improvised shelters for livestock, combined with rattling sheets of corrugated iron and flapping feed bags. It is a place where History telescopes in and out quite dramatically.

In those days, the many second-hand shops in towns like Llandrindod Wells and Presteigne were Aladdin's Caves of Victoriana. As farmers died and farms were cleared, large quantities of crockery, ornaments, books and furniture emerged into daylight, and were carted off to the nearest market town. My partner having a weakness for Victorian plates, and me having a weakness for books and bizarrerie, we spent many happy rainy-day hours rummaging through the heaped boxes and bookshelves in damp back rooms.

In the intervening years, much has changed. Things like quad-bikes and EEC grants have rejuvenated hill-farming, and many younger farmers are bravely trying to make a business out of what is, at heart, a way of life. But the main agent of change has been a steady influx of incomers, especially those in pursuit of alternative lifestyles and "quality of life". For all its remoteness, it has always been remarkably easy to buy organic wholemeal bread and even tofu in the Welsh Marches. Galleries, craft shops, meditation centres and the like are easier to find than a Post Office. Large properties with land have been relatively cheap, and communities of sophisticated, like-minded settlers are scattered everywhere.

This last week, we had an odd encounter. The Prof and I drove out to a pretty valley in the hills, where we intended to do a modest circular walk in the rain. Now, though we've walked for recreation most of our lives, we have never been "lifestyle" walkers, and have always found amusement in the people you encounter on long-distance paths like Offa's Dyke, kitted out with matching cagoules, gaiters, and those preposterous ski-pole type sticks people have started using, often with one in each hand. To be honest, we probably look more like a couple of tramps, in our battered wellies and improvised multiple layers of clothing, than public-sector professionals on vacation.

As we came out of a muddy field onto a track, we noticed up ahead that a farmer had recently built a little cluster of some truly ugly, wooden chalet-style holiday lets in a field. As we came nearer, I could hear music, which gradually resolved itself into the unmistakable, plangent sound of Adele singing "Someone Like You". And then, as we passed one of the little chalets, we saw something amazing: a naked couple sat in a garden hot tub, drinking wine with the stereo pointed out of the window, as the gentle rain fell and the sheep grazed.

I'm no Martin Parr, so I didn't have the nerve to get the truly brilliant shot that lay before me. Besides, we were giggling so much I doubt I could have held the camera steady (MP, of course, would have blasted the scene with his flash, then pretended to be looking up at the hillside). Another one that got away. Ah, well.

Sunday 17 April 2011

Ones That Get Away

It was good weather for colour photography last week -- overcast with occasional light rain and occasional soft sunshine, just right -- and I got some "pleasing but predictable" images. Hey, I was on holiday, not working for National Geographic, get off my case!

But if I ever needed a demonstration of why I'm not working for National Geographic, I got two. The first happened as we were walking across a field just below the brow of a hill. My hearing is not great these days, but I started to hear a strange pulsing noise, something like a cross between a hairdryer and an old-fashioned lawn mower. Just as I formed the words "What the...?" in my mind, a huge prop-driven aircraft came up from behind the hill, about 50 feet off the ground, and travelling at the speed of a fast bicycle. It was surreal.

The plane was clearly military, painted grey all over, and completely unmarked. No insignia, no numbers, no nothing. It was also very quiet, given it passed close enough overhead for me to count the rivets (that's a figure of speech -- I didn't actually count the rivets). We just watched open-mouthed as it hugged the ground and passed slowly into the next valley. We are used to jet aircraft screaming out of nowhere, but this was new; it was like something out of a Miyazaki anime movie.

On reflection, it was probably the SAS rehearsing their next humiliating encounter with pitchfork-wielding yokels. They were probably lost and looking for a phone booth (does their brand need urgent repositioning, or what?). But, more importantly: did I take a photograph? Did it even occur to me to get a camera out? Don't ask.

The second demonstration came at the end of a walk, in those final minutes as you amble back to the car, and start to contemplate a nice cup of tea. We passed through a churchyard, and I thought some of the monuments, especially the angels seen from behind, looked interesting against the landscape. I was tired, and took a couple of perfunctory snaps, without even checking the camera settings. Only today, as I go through the haul, do I realise how close I came to something really interesting. But: aperture wide open, shutter speed slow, focus off... All I have are some blurry, "what if..." pictures. Maybe next time.

Saturday 16 April 2011

Sunshine & Showers

Contrary to appearances, I've been away most of this week in Mid-Wales. It's handy the way Blogger will let you schedule posts in the future -- it keeps things ticking over. I'll get around to reading any comments as soon as I can.

Unfortunately, the week began with some appalling and tragic news from the family of one of my oldest friends; please don't ask, as I'm not going to talk about it here. However, the reverberations from this devastating bombshell continue, and I keep catching myself brooding about families and relationships, mortality and rebirth, and the way we all try to steer a steady course through a constant bombardment of surprises and setbacks. The imperative to "keep on keeping on" can sound idiotic, but it's all we've got. Gramsci's stoical formula -- "optimism of the will, pessimism of the intellect" -- is the best anyone has to offer on the subject, I'm afraid.

It may be my puritan soul speaking here, but it seems to me that there is a profundity about Bad News with which the joy of Good News can rarely compete. Good News is generally about beginnings, hopes, and sometimes well-deserved success, though the best Good News is always a miraculous escape or an unexpected, life-changing gift. Good News, as we all know, is relatively rare, and its effects are short-lived; it's a counter-intuitive experience, and the fear of "tempting fate" through enjoying good fortune is deeply ingrained (at least, in those of us of Scottish descent).

Bad News is what most of us have come to expect, and is usually about endings, frustration, or disappointment. But the very worst Bad News has the dispiriting effect of confirming the futility of our best efforts, and invests the world with a malevolence; it underlines the fact that catastrophe will, one day, overtake us all. To keep on keeping on can come to seem overwhelmingly pointless. Despite our love for new things, fresh starts, rebirth, and the remarkable persistence of life in an indifferent universe, I suppose our hearts can't ignore the deeper, levelling tug of entropy.

Easter, of course, is all about this tussle between life and death, decay and resurrection. I have always found the idea of the Christian Easter ritual of Tenebrae very moving, in which candles are extinguished during the night-time service, one by one, until the last one is concealed beneath the altar, leaving the church in darkness. A bible is slammed shut, and then the single lit candle is returned to the altar, and everyone leaves in silence. As a piece of symbolic theatre, it's hard to beat. That astonishing piece of polyphony, Allegri's Miserere, was composed specifically for this service in the Sistine Chapel, and it was long forbidden to perform it anywhere else or to transcribe it. Famously, the 12 year-old Mozart wrote it down from memory in April 1770, after one hearing, leading to its publication in England by Charles Burney in 1771.

The view from my bedroom on Monday

Anyway. April in Wales is a season of sunshine and showers, of sudden transfiguring sunlight and brooding hilltop clouds (though, as it happens, we've had an unusually dry winter across Britain, and drought threatens). It's good to pull on some boots and walk across an open landscape for no better reason than the pleasure of it. As I said to the owner of our holiday let, to my amazement I had realised that we've been coming to the area once known as "Radnorshire" every year at Easter for over thirty years now. We like it. I expect and hope that we'll be back next year.

Friday 15 April 2011

Five Finger Exercises

There's an old joke that I like very much, which can be varied to taste. A man is walking along the street in New York and asks a musician in the street, "Can you tell me how I can get to Carnegie Hall?" The musician answers, "Practice, baby, practice!" Sometimes the musician is a classical virtuoso like Jascha Heifetz, sometimes it's a jazz legend like Miles Davis, and sometimes it's just a busker, but the answer is always the same: "Practice!"

It seems most aspiring artists, of whatever stripe, choose to ignore the significance of practice -- it's boring, it's too much like work, it requires an uncongenial level of self-discipline. That's why most aspirants, however talented, never get to Carnegie Hall. They prefer to believe in (and blame) luck. But, in the retort also attributed to various "lucky" bastards, "It seems the more I practice, the luckier I get!"

It's no different with photography. You can't expect to see pictures unless you constantly practice visualising them, and you can't expect to capture the pictures you see unless you constantly practice using the camera. It's that simple; it's like playing scales, or sketching. Except, of course, it's nowhere near as boring.

Now, I don't know where the photo equivalent of Carnegie Hall is, and I also know that, wherever it is, I won't be going there any time soon. But, like the busker in the joke, I'm here to tell you to "Practice, baby, practice!" Get out there and take some pictures.

Wednesday 13 April 2011

Animals Inside

Longer-term readers of this blog may recall a post from June last year (Snails in Outer Space) in which I was startled by an exhibition of work which closely resembled some of my own. I attributed the resemblance to a sort of "morphic resonance" (see the post Blogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home from way back in 2008), whereby the same ideas are bubbling under all over the photographic world, and then emerge simultaneously in various places, like cicadas.

Well, perhaps not surprisingly, it's happened again. This time, it is the exhibition and book, "Animals are Outside Today", by Colleen Plumb. When my kids were small and my interest in photography beginning to grow, I found that I was taking a lot of pictures that featured toy animals, or animals in zoos and museums, and became fascinated by the way these ambassadors of wildness had found themselves imprisoned in these domesticated scenarios (yes, thank you, Dr. Freud, we'll let you know). It was, I suppose, my first real "project"; as a consequence, it wasn't terribly good.

This all came about in the time before digital, of course, and most of the images are on 35mm film. I did scan quite a few, but scanning gets old pretty quickly, once you've started to use a digital camera. It's a tedious process with mixed results, at best. I still like some of the individual images, though. But they are now so associated with what now seems like such a very long time ago -- a time when toy animals would turn up arranged in parties and patterns all over the house, or a weekend visit to the local zoo was an Event -- that I almost don't feel I "own" them any more; it's as if someone else took them.

As another example, Paul Graham's new book Films will surely strike a similarly (morphically) resonant chord with many. Who hasn't toyed with the idea of making a set of pictures with those attractive pointilliste colour fields that you see, either using a grain focusser in the darkroom, or at a 100% view in Photoshop? But it seems that Paul Graham didn't, like everyone else, make a few and then think, "Nah, too easy..." Maybe he's running on empty, and looking for a new direction? Or maybe he's had the courage to go all the way down a road that many have contemplated, but few have dared follow?

In a way, that's the essence of "morphic resonance", if that's not too pretentious a term, in this context: many people seem have the same ideas at the same time, but most of us distrust our instincts, and only a few pioneers take the leap into practice. Thereafter, of course, the idea is obvious and available to everyone, and is doomed to become a commonplace. Bluetits pecking the tops off milk bottles? So last century.

Monday 11 April 2011

April is the Busiest Month

A busy few weeks ahead, as I try to work around the ridiculous run of public holidays coming up -- April is one long holiday this year. And can Easter get any later than this? Posts will be thin, I'm afraid.

As a non-royalist, I'm contemplating the best response to the wedding. Maybe we should demand the right to work on the "extra" bank holiday, a sort of anti-strike? I'm not a militant anti-royalist, more like those peasants in Monty Python and The Holy Grail, unaware that they even had a king ("Listen, strange women lyin' in ponds distributin' swords is no basis for a system of government").

Isn't it odd, how startling originality quickly becomes a commonplace? I think by now probably most people think that "April is the cruellest month" is a piece of folk wisdom, which probably has something to do with tax returns. It's possible, of course, that they're right.

Saturday 9 April 2011

The Necessary Subject

An interesting exchange between photographers John Gossage and Lewis Baltz, part of a joint interview by Monte Packham, which you can read in full on the American Suburb X blog:

"LB: I think this is one thing we have in common: that the subject of the work is the person looking at it. If you want to get a little more Zen about it, the subject is necessary for the completion of the work.

JG: Yes.

LB: And the intellectual or imaginative engagement of the viewer is what makes the work finally a work. And if you interpose another human in the work, then he or she becomes the subject, which I think is too simplistic.

JG: I think it’s to be used incredibly sparingly and delicately.

MP: Do you see yourselves as the first protagonists when you take photos, so that you are actually the subjects of the work?

JG: No. The work isn’t autobiographical, at least not intentionally.

LB: That’s another ‘chasing the tail’ thing. In a sense everything you do is autobiographical, even the decision to be objective is subjective and so on. But if you place us next to any kind of work that’s ‘subjective’ or ‘autobiographical’ you see immediately that we’re not about that. It’s not about our journeys through the world; it’s about a universe we’re trying to look into."

I know, I know, my pictures couldn't be less like Gossage or Baltz in either intent or execution if I tried. But I admire their work, and it's always interesting to hear intelligent voices discussing and edging jokily around the most important subjects.

Thursday 7 April 2011


I knew I should have heeded the warning, he was totally upfront about it. But I went and read Ctein's post on "My Favorite Web Comics" and have paid the price. I think Wondermark, by David Malki, is superb -- try this one, and if you find it funny start hitting the "random" button, and say goodbye to your evening. If you liked the old Punch caption competitions, based on Victorian and Edwardian cartoons, you'll love it.

Several of the others mentioned by Ctein are pretty good, too. So much talent given away free of charge on the Web. Makes you wonder why on earth the Guardian still employs the radically unfunny Steve Bell. Are they hoping that one day (a) he'll learn to draw and/or (b) recover his 1980s Falklands-era form?

Monday 4 April 2011

Viaduct VII

A couple more pictures from Sunday at the Viaduct.

As it happens, these ones were taken with the Olympus E-P1, which I had reboxed for resale several months ago. What with one thing and another, it had remained parked in its box under my table ever since, and I felt like taking it out for a trot. Somehow the elapsed time has made the hole in my wallet feel less acute.

The sharpness of the photographs is not entirely convincing, though this may be the result of combining Panasonic in-lens and Olympus in-body image stabilisation; one or the other probably ought to have been turned off. I guess some more tests are in order. On the plus side, I always like Olympus colours. And cameras have personalities -- I like to give them a chance to show what they do best, rather than nail them to a tripod and insist on doing it "my way".

As I think about it currently, I am doing several things with these pictures:

  • Trying to give a sense of the presence of an abandoned man-made landscape feature which is too large to photograph in its entirety;
  • Letting the formal idea of "arches" and "spans" inform the imagery.
  • Trying to capture the "here-ness" of a particular place.
  • Playing my usual games with scale and spatial relationships.
  • Relating the Viaduct to the cluster of prominent landscape features nearby -- the M3 motorway, the Twyford Down cutting, St. Catherine's Hill, the River Itchen and the "Itchen Navigation" canal.
  • Giving myself a reason to get out of the house at the weekend, and a creative focus. For example, one day soon (?) I will get up at the crack of dawn and be there on top of the viaduct -- with a stepladder -- to capture the long arched shadows of the viaduct cast across the Itchen's meadows at sunrise. I know they're there because the Google satellite image shows them!

N.B. I had a notable failure on Sunday, which was photographing the motorway bridge over the river, which runs parallel to the Viaduct. I had wanted to capture the blur of a large articulated lorry seen through the tangle of branches, but traffic was light that afternoon. Why? Because I was going to title the post "Why A Truck". Heh. Another time.

Sunday 3 April 2011

Viaduct VI

Another Sunday afternoon wandering about on, under, and around the arches at Hockley Viaduct. The spring sunshine came and went, and rain threatened but never fell. Most of the time I was whistling (attempting to whistle) the Aria of the Goldberg Variations, or singing (attempting to sing) the theme from the Sharpe TV series, "Over the Hills and Far Away". I have no idea why. It's what I do when I'm out on my own, trying to get "in the zone".

Saturday 2 April 2011

Oh, What Can It Mean?

I've been off work Thursday and Friday, feeling unwell. I've been burning a lot of plates at both ends, spinning a lot of candles in the air, and generally mixing my metaphors; never a good idea. It's finally given me a sore throat and a splitting headache. As I'm normally up at 6:30 (a.m. these days, sadly) just those couple of extra hours in bed are enough to take me into Oddly Meaningful Reverie territory. Once, I would spend most of the daylight hours wandering around in there, my favourite form of exercise. Given half a chance my daughter would, too. She has inherited that idle daydream-believer gene.

Thursday morning, I found myself inwardly contemplating a colour scheme. A table-cloth, in large pastel-coloured squares. Then a sort of bold pattern of hooped stripes, running round a cylinder. Very bold, same colours as the table-cloth -- pink, yellow and green. A roll of sweets. Pastel-coloured round tablets, with a concave surface. Smooth on the tongue, then fizzy... What the hell were they called? The effort of trying to remember the name brought to mind a sequence of corner-shop sweets, packaged in a similar way: Smarties, Fruit Pastilles, Fruit Gums, Rollo, Munchies, Spangles, Love Hearts, Trebor Mints, Polos, Fruit Polos... No, none of the above.

Then my inner eye was distracted by the large glass jars of loose sweets on the high shelf behind the counter. Sherbet Flying Saucers, Liquorice Allsorts, Dolly Mixtures, Murray Mints, Chocolate Rainbow Drops, Sweet Peanuts, Aniseed Balls, Cough sweets, and various other soft, hard, moulded, dusty, fuzzy, lemony, and medicinal-looking lozenges I never quite got around to trying. So many sweets, so little pocket money!

Yeah, yeah... Sweets, sweetshops, childhood, nostalgia, etc. I can go there any day. But what were those concave fizzy things called? Not knowing and not being able to remember steered me into some more unpleasant thoughts and feelings. Frequently, these days, I'm getting these "senior moments" when the names of things seem to come adrift from the things themselves. If I am destined to get dementia in old age, I expect this is how it will start. For all I know, it may already have started.

When I finally roused myself and started stumbling around the house, I asked my partner, working at her laptop in the kitchen, if she knew what these sweets were called I'd been dreaming about, and described them, but she gave me The Look. One of the reasons our life together works is that she doesn't put up with any of my nonsense. There is an entire alternative life story, probably spent dreaming in bed, which that Look has saved me from. My life may not have turned out quite as I'd imagined -- whose does? -- but I dread to think what might have happened if I'd managed to hook up with another lazy daydreamer. It was a silly question, anyway: in the families of the professionally moral middle-classes, kids didn't spend their time with noses pressed against the glass display of confectionery in the local cornershop honing their connoisseurship of brands, flavours and trends, consumers in training.

In the end, Google saved me. Refreshers! Of course. How could I possibly have forgotten? Good question, but I don't think I'm a candidate for the brain scan quite yet.