Tuesday 31 January 2012

The Ghost in the Machine

An inclination to invest inanimate objects with thoughts, feelings, and personality seems to be one of humanity's more indelible characteristics; what you might call an animistic cast of mind. It takes a far sterner rationalist than me to bin a favourite cup when its handle comes off, for example. Eventually I will do it, but there needs to be a suitable period of mourning first, while the cup lies in state on a shelf. Most young children, of course, seem to inhabit a permanently liminal world, where consciousness swirls in and out of things like a tide.

My daughter was particularly susceptible as a toddler, occasionally entering a state we referred to as "goggling", which involved holding her breath and trembling visibly in an open-mouthed, wide-eyed stare of rapture, as (we presumed) the toys arranged before her came to vivid life. She was our little living-room shaman. That animistic tide keeps going out much further as we grow, of course, until the edgy moment arrives so hilariously (and poignantly) captured by the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band: "Mummy, teddy's stopped breathing!"

But the idea that certain categories of thing acquire a personality in use is not just a vestige of childhood enchantment. New instruments need to be "played in" to develop their tone, and the quality of their final tone may well depend on the quality and character of their initial playing-in. What could be more full of personality than a pair of old shoes, and more devoid of personality than a pair of new ones? And who does not keep an assortment of pebbles, conkers and the like in their coat pockets, that gradually over the years acquire a deep patina and "pocket polish"? Ah, OK; just me, then.

I am convinced that cameras, too, exert some kind of influence over the pictures that emerge from them that far exceeds their mechanical functioning. You have to meet a camera half-way, get to know it, persuade it to do its best for you. Have you ever noticed how awful the first batches of images from a new camera are? You can set it on "auto everything" or on full manual, you can even use a cable release, spirit level and tripod in extremis, and still get rubbish. Blurry, over-exposed, poorly-composed rubbish. Yet, a few months later, if you've played it in nicely, you can forget to check what settings you're using, and you and your camera will still get your act together -- magic begins to happen.

I'm just about reaching that point with the used G3 I bought late last year. In some weird way, I had to exorcise the ghost in the machine installed by the previous owner, who had clearly not
liked the camera; after all, he'd sold it on "priced to sell" not long after he'd bought it. It's a bit like buying a dog from the kennels: it takes time for an abusive or unloving owner's traces to be erased. Sounds nutty, I know.

The opposite case is a disenchanted object. Sometimes, in the back of a cupboard or the depths of a drawer, you'll come across a keepsake, or a forgotten item once in everyday use -- a cigarette lighter, a pen, a postcard. You'll look at it, and remember why you kept it, but wonder where the magic went. The ghost has finally gone, and you can safely bin it.

Sunday 29 January 2012

In the Arena

As I mentioned in the previous post, I was booked to speak to the Arena Photographers group at 2:00 pm today, primarily to turn them on to (or off of) the joys and benefits of blogging for photographers. The Arena Group has been going for 25 years, and clearly has an active and distinguished membership. I must admit that, when first invited, I made the error of muddling the links on the Group's website to "photographers' websites" with the links to "members' websites", and very nearly refused the invitation, having seen what I took to be the celestial general standard of the Arena Group's work. Only when I began to wonder why Joel Meyerowitz or Lewis Baltz would be crossing the Atlantic to a village hall in Berkshire did the penny drop. Phew. Not quite that distinguished, then.

The day began with a phone call from the Chair, Graham, explaining that there had been a double-booking on the hall: could I make it for 12:00, instead? Now, the venue is an hour's drive away, it was already 10:00, and I had intended to spend the morning putting my presentation notes together, so it took a minute or two to agree, not least because I was still undressed, and at least one cup of tea short of full consciousness. But it's not every day you get to pretend to be famous, so why not?

When I arrived, I discovered it was clearly not being Graham's day. It was taking rather a long while to connect to the internet (rural West Berkshire is clearly off the grid -- my phone was struggling, too), but he stayed wonderfully calm and systematically swapped cables and dongles and eventually laptops until we had a combination that worked, everybody gathered in chairs in front of the screen -- about 25 people or so -- and I gave my piece. They seemed to enjoy it; at least, no-one fell asleep, walked out, or heckled.

Graham has an interesting line in faceted landscapes

Although I am not by nature a "joiner", I think such groups are important, and perform a vital function for artists and enthusiasts working in isolation. A large part of their session is spent showing and viewing each other's work, and there is nothing more likely to encourage and stimulate one's "growth"and persistence as an artist than sharing work with like-minded people. It's empowering, it's fun, and it's good to know you're not alone.

Although, speaking purely personally, I myself appreciate a level of ruthless honesty in a critique of my work that most people mistake for an unforgivably aggressive lack of manners, and instinctively back away from. This kind of "tough love" critique you can generally only get from a professional, puritanical curmudgeon who holds him or herself to the highest, most unforgiving standards, and cannot understand why you wouldn't want to, either. These are in short supply. I'm thinking Thomas Joshua Cooper. I don't think Tom is much of a joiner, either.

But it's a great thing, to see people taking each other seriously as photographers, and producing good work, and I enjoyed myself. Thanks to Arena for inviting me.

[N.B. For the person who asked: this post took me 90 mins to produce, with a break for a beer halfway through!]

Thursday 26 January 2012

Quick Singles

No boundaries, but a couple of quick singles today. They're always useful (are you listening, England?) because every sequence needs "filler". A sequence (especially a book sequence) in which every image is a smash hit never seems to work -- there's no rhythm, no narrative, just "Bang, Bang, Bang!"

I've been a bit quiet this week because (a) I have to earn a living, (b) I've been struggling with a cold and some botched dentistry (is there any other kind?), and (c) I've been invited to give a talk to a photographic group (emphatically not a "camera club") this weekend, and need to make sure I've got something to say. I'll tell you all about it after Sunday.

Saturday 21 January 2012

Fours and Sixes

Sportsmen talk about finding their form, and I think I've hit a certain groove recently: I find that I keep hitting boundaries. Here are a couple from this week -- I'll leave it to the umpires to decide whether they're fours or sixes.

If you've been following this blog for a while, you'll recognise how this recent work builds on elements in the "university windows" theme that ended up as the Curriculum book. I think of it as "trees and facades" and already have enough fours and sixes to start considering it as a new sequence. The problem, as ever, will be knowing when to stop...

Usually, there comes a point when I'm simply repeating and refining what I already have; the thrill has gone but the compulsion to go on has not. In life, continuing beyond this point is a necessary virtue, in art it's not...

Thursday 19 January 2012

Like A Falling Star

I saw this interesting configuration of elements the other morning, and it put these words into my mind:

... how he fell
From Heav'n, they fabl'd, thrown by angry Jove
Sheer o're the Chrystal Battlements: from Morn
To Noon he fell, from Noon to dewy Eve,
A Summers day; and with the setting Sun
Dropt from the Zenith like a falling Star
On Lemnos th' Ægean Ile ...

John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book I

Ever read Paradise Lost? No? Not many people have. I probably wouldn't have myself, if it hadn't been a set text at school. It gives off a stuffy aura that is somehow off-putting, and I suppose few kids these days can manage even the most basic of the Biblical and classical references in what is a highly-allusive text. Lothlorien and Tatooine, yes; Arcadia and Scythia, not so much.

But, open it and start reading, and you'll find that it is one of the most glorious things ever written in the English language, a grandiloquent, intensely visual epic story told in the grand style; in places it resembles a sophisticated graphic novel, or screenplay. Just read that extract above, describing the fall of Mulciber, architect angel of Hell, out loud -- really out loud -- and feel the thrill it sends down your spine. There's magic there, and plenty more where that came from.

Should you feel like giving it a go, there's quite a good online version here.

Wednesday 18 January 2012

The Owl of Minerva

Here's an enlightening quote, from the "Blowback" section of Doonesbury, commenting on this recent strip:
The quote in the first panel of today's strip comes from "Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush," Ron Suskind's terrifying article in the NYT Magazine of October 17, 2004. Here's the full quote, which reveals just how delusional that administration was: "In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn't like about Bush's former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House's displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn't fully comprehend -- but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency. The aide said that guys like me were 'in what we call the reality-based community,' which he defined as people who 'believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. 'That's not the way the world really works anymore,' he continued. 'We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.'" My guess is that the senior aide was Karl Rove, but who knows? They were all crazy.
Scary, or what? It seems post-modernism has been driving the policies of the most powerful nation on earth. On the other hand, if you think about it, is post-modernism as a creed any more scary than fundamentalist or "End Times" Christianity? And, if you think about it a little further, Rove (or whoever it was) is pretty much stating a reality. Here is Hegel, that exemplar of clearly-expressed common sense, writing in 1820:
One more word about teaching what the world ought to be: Philosophy always arrives too late to do any such teaching. As the thought of the world, philosophy appears only in the period after actuality has been achieved and has completed its formative process. The lesson of the concept, which necessarily is also taught by history, is that only in the ripeness of actuality does the ideal appear over against the real, and that only then does this ideal comprehend this same real world in its substance and build it up for itself into the configuration of an intellectual realm. When philosophy paints its grey in grey, then a configuration of life has grown old, and cannot be rejuvenated by this grey in grey, but only understood; the Owl of Minerva takes flight only as the dusk begins to fall.

Preface to The Philosophy of Right
Basically, what he is saying -- trust me -- is what everyone (except experts) knows to be true about complex social events: that experts always get them wrong, until they've become history. But lack of understanding never prevented a politician from acting, and acts, however stupid, always have consequences. What those consequences are, we only discover afterwards. Sometimes, long afterwards.

In 1972 Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai was asked about the consequences of the French Revolution and, famously, he confused the events of 1789 with Les Événements of May 1968 and, as a consequence, delivered up an unintended but much quoted bon mot: "Too soon to tell", he replied.

Delicious. It seems that sometimes the Owl of Minerva can be knocked out of its tree prematurely, but usually only by accident...

Sunday 15 January 2012

By Candle-Light

When we got back from our walk about 4:30 this afternoon, we found the house in darkness and none of the switches would turn on a light. Our daughter was sitting bathed in the eery light of her laptop display. "Power cut", she said.

It's been a while since we had a proper power cut. This is, after all and despite appearances, one of the world's most advanced economies. I did oversleep a couple of weeks ago because we'd had one during the night, and my antiquated bedside radio alarm cannot reset itself, but that's the only one I can recall in the past year or two.

What you rediscover at such moments is how deeply you take things like electric light for granted. Turn off the power, and the darkness returns, instantly. Silence, too. The electric kettle won't work, the fridge is off, the radio is off, the computers are down, the central heating pump has stopped, there's nothing except the annoying tick of a battery-operated wall clock. It's quite fun, really, until you trip over your own carelessly-dropped backpack in the hall, going to fetch candles.

It didn't take long to return ourselves to something like 19th century conditions. We put candles and nightlights in strategic spots, and had a pan of water heating on the gas stove. We know where we keep the torches and the batteries. But once you try to actually do something more complicated than admiring your partner's hair in the candlelight you realise how difficult life must have been at night, before electricity.

Just making a pot of tea is quite tricky. Pouring boiling water in semi-darkness is not very sensible, to start with. You simply can't see inside the teapot, so it's hard to judge -- other than by weight -- when enough water has been poured in. In fact, it's hard to judge whether the water is going in the teapot at all. So the prospect of preparing a meal by candlelight was not enticing. Unless you were wearing chain-mail fire-proof gauntlets, you'd probably want to leave that until daylight.

Reading? Forget about it -- I can't imagine how anyone coped with any sort of close work, especially in the days before the widespread availability of spectacles. Evenings, for the elderly and short-sighted, must have been fraught with hazards. No wonder everything always had its allotted place, preferably inside a cupboard or drawer: you were less likely to trip over stuff or walk into it. I guess you'd probably have hunkered down by the fire with a simple meal and got to bed very early indeed. No wonder families were so large.

But, as I walked down to the corner shop to get some more matches, the streetlights suddenly came back on, and we were restored to the 21st century. You could hear muffled cheers coming from inside houses all down the street and a few chirping smoke alarms, presumably triggered by all the candle-smoke. It was a little trial run, I suppose, of how things could be going in the future.

Friday 13 January 2012

Mild Winter

What a strange winter it's been so far. I think I'm correct in saying that this morning was only the third time I've had to scrape frost off the car. Of course, things could change radically over the next couple of months, but it's odd to look back and recall the heavy snowfall and freezes of twelve months ago. We've barely needed the central heating this year that, last year, was taken down by a frozen pipe.

Still, there was a certain glacial clarity in this week's winter sunshine that seemed to hold a promise of cold days to come.

On Wednesday I was about to back the car out of the garage after taking it in for its annual MOT test, when I saw this little tableau through the side window, including that strange reflection in the car parked next to me. The camera was on the passenger seat, so I wound down the window and grabbed the shot -- I think I still had reverse gear engaged and my foot on the clutch.

Thursday 12 January 2012

A Kiss With A Fist (Is Better Than None)

It's been a while since we had a rant, so here we go.

One of the things that strikes me as most characteristic of human society, the older I get, is our bottomless capacity for what you might call therapeutic self-delusion. We see what we want to see. This seems to be a characteristic particularly evident in those who are in love with the idea of art. Art lovers are like people trapped in an abusive relationship, staggering out of the house with a black eye, only to return later that evening for more of the same.

Artists of a modernist, post-modern or conceptual persuasion, of course, are the habitual abusers. They adore basking in the sunshine of the love of the art lovers, but are violently opposed to the idea that any sentimental little bourgeois could possibly understand what they're on about. Much art has, in essence, become little more than two fingers waved in the tear-streaked face of an incomprehending yet love-struck public. It's not a pretty sight.

Just like the victims of abuse, art lovers provide their own justifications for this appalling behaviour. The cult of "genius" has let a lot of real monsters off the hook, socially and artistically. I'm both impressed and depressed by the public's ability to take the cold, cosmic pessimism of modernist despair and turn it into something cosy, optimistic and trite. Oh, he's really saying "We should pay more attention to our everyday surroundings", or "It's the small things that matter", or "You have to work really hard to see the point of this work, its pointlessness is its point, that's why I love him it so"...

Sweet, really. Artists don't deserve it, by and large. You want to say: Listen, they mean it, these bastards: they believe in nothing, they abhor "beauty", they despise the very idea of transcendence, and want nothing more than to humiliate you for your persistent soppy belief in the "truth of feelings". And yet they also want to take your money, love and admiration as if by right. Leave him, girl, he ain't worth it!

Pointless. We see what we want to see. That human gift for therapeutic self-delusion will labour as hard as is necessary to re-read work of deliberate in-your-face meaninglessness as work of revelatory significance, to the point where a room with the lights going on and off, or a blank sheet of A4 crumpled into a ball (both actual works by Martin Creed) are prime candidates for the most prestigious art prizes and exhibition spaces in the land.

Ah, but that is precisely the point, say the art lovers, squinting painfully through two swollen black eyes.

Meanwhile, dear old David Hockney is offering us shelter from the storm. He's everywhere at the moment, putting the case for painting and the pleasure and discipline of looking. I particularly enjoyed the slogan on the poster for his recent exhibition, "All the works here were made by the artist himself, personally". It reminds me of the reassurances of purity printed all over my morning box of muesli, or on the old Levi's jeans label ("bar-tacked at points of strain"). He may deny that this is a dig at the likes of Damien Hirst, but I don't believe him.

And that other thing he has been slyly slipping into public consciousness -- a Chinese saying that "to paint you need the eye, the hand and the heart. Two won't do" -- may well end up doing a lot for the health of contemporary art and art-lovers. Having the words that help you to say "No" is a big step out of any abusive relationship.

Don't see what you want to see, see what is truly there. If you don't like it, leave it alone. But be open to surprise. Admire and support the ones who help you see what is there, not those who play on your worst fear, that there is nothing there. Do you know the song "Simple" by K.D. Lang, on her album Hymns of the 49th Parallel? It's one of my favourites, and always seems to hit the right note:
I worship this tenacity
And the beautiful struggle we're in
Love will not elude us
Love is simple
Amen, sister.

Sunday 8 January 2012

Beercans On The Moon

It is one of the truths revealed by photography that the moon is far smaller in the sky, objectively, than we perceive it. I think it's generally said to be "half a degree of arc", which sounds as tiny as it looks in this photo. Yet, it appeared so enormous and clear to my brain that I could practically see the astronauts' footsteps, and the "beercans on the moon" (a song by the beat combo The Fugs, m'lud; I see Ed Sanders has got an autobiography out).

Getting closer doesn't seem to make it much bigger, either. But it does make for a more satisfying photograph. So much for "context"...

Thursday 5 January 2012

The Dark Side of the Viaduct

Not being at work this week, I've been setting up little adventures for myself. Today, after I had dropped my daughter off to catch her bus to college at 07:50, I headed straight on up the motorway for St. Catherine's Hill and the Hockley Viaduct. I wanted to see what the place would look like in an early morning light, rather than the customary late afternoon light. It was still dark and it was raining, but I like being outdoors at times and in weathers when others usually are not and, besides, the chances were that it would clear up as it got light.

It didn't; at least not straight away. In fact, it got worse. Halfway up the south end of the hill near the viaduct, overlooking the motorway cutting, I had to shelter in the trees from heavy rain driven horizontally by a very strong, gusting westerly wind. The trees were creaking and rattling so much it sounded like some weird musical performance was taking place around me. But it blew over, and around 09:00 the sun came up over Twyford Down, and there was a beautiful strong south-easterly light for about an hour. I went back down the hill and photographed "the dark side of the viaduct" for a bit.

Then it rained again, and I drove home for a nice hot cup of tea.

Tuesday 3 January 2012

Two Houses, Both Alike

Here you go, two pictures from yesterday afternoon, taken in difficult late afternoon winter sunshine, one taken with a Panasonic G3, the other with an iPhone 4s. But which is which?

Obviously, the iPhone image is half the resolution of the 16 Mpixel G3, but with a degree of Photoshop and with both downsized as JPEG files, I think you'll agree the, um, phone does a creditable job as a camera. The camera, on the other hand, wouldn't work as a phone, no matter in which direction I pointed it, or how loud I shouted into it. Nor would it let me look at my email, or check the traffic situation on the M3 going home from Winchester.

I think if your main interest was in simply recording what things looked like, and sharing small images with other phone and computer users, then the iPhone 4s is actually pretty remarkable. Though it does cost rather more than many decent cameras, of course...

On the other hand, I am very pleased indeed with the used G3 I bought a couple of months ago (having looked at the specs of the GX1, and thought, why not go for the same sensor with a built-in viewfinder?) and am perfectly happy with the free LG P500 Android smartphone that came with the cheapest pay monthly contract on Orange. The camera on that phone really is a POS, but everything else is fine.

Until someone comes up with something compellingly new -- say, the sort of array of linked multiple smartphone imagers that several people have proposed as a potential portable digital view camera (now wouldn't that be something?) -- I can't see serious photographers abandoning cameras any time soon, except as an equivalent to the "toy camera" work that some people do with Holgas, Dianas, and the like. And the iPhone is already too good for that, I'd say. But "convergence" is clearly the name of the game, and it can't be long before smart-ness starts being built into cameras. It would be handy to save backups of one's files in the Cloud, for example, or to email them to the News Desk, or to receive firmware updates directly.

I think I'd feel an idiot holding a camera to my ear, though.

Sunday 1 January 2012

New Year's Day 2012

I like to get out on New Year's Day and take a photo or two, however perfunctory. I left it a bit late today, so all I managed was a stroll round the neighbourhood. It was pouring with rain, so I had the LX3 under my coat, and was the only pedestrian on the streets.

There you go, "context". One resolution down. It's a start, anyway.