Saturday, 31 March 2012

Life Drawing

I wrote a few posts ago that I had once taken a series of life drawing classes.  The mere mention of this proved to be a magic Proustian key, unlocking a whole series of memories, without a madeleine in sight.  On reflection, those classes may have been one of the most important experiences of my life.

Stop me if you've heard this one before, but it was a major issue for me to be forced at school, aged 13, to choose between continuing with art or to begin the study of German.  Somewhere in this blog I must already have described how, once upon a time, my paintings used to be entered by primary school teachers for national competitions.  I was thought to have some talent.  But, in the context of the British grammar school of the 1960s, "talent" was trumped by "academic ability" (that is, the ability to pass exams) and I also had the latter capacity in generous measure.  Somewhere along the line, the note pinned to my back reading "artist" was plucked off, and replaced with one reading "Oxbridge candidate".

But I never gave up.  I would paint and draw at home, and occasionally exhibited and even sold a few small pieces of work locally.  In the sixth form, having been told firmly that studying Art A Level was completely out of the question, I was given the run of the art room in my free periods as compensation.  The art teacher, Alan Foxley, took pity on me, and invited me to take part in a series of life drawing classes he was running at the local FE college.  When he explained that this involved drawing naked women I had difficulty in feigning a suitable level of cool indifference.

What I hadn't anticipated was that his two models, extraordinarily, were volunteers from another local school.  I was amazed to discover, on successive weeks, as each stepped from behind a screen and removed a dressing gown, that I knew them both.  One of them I had admired from afar for years, and here I was, sat behind a drawing board, studying the gentle curve and dimple of her petite, naked form.  The other girl I only knew by reputation. She was known to her female friends -- unkindly, but I had it on good authority -- as "Sophie Stretchmarks".  Now, awesomely, gloriously, I knew why.

However, the magic of life drawing is that -- in the company of ten or so serious fellow artists -- a naked body ceases to be a naked body after about five minutes of concentration, and becomes something just as interesting: an intriguing 3-D puzzle of shapes, volumes, weights, highlights and shadows.  A life drawing session takes the form of a series of timed poses -- one minute, two minutes, five minutes, ten -- during which time your task is to render the form before you onto paper in a number of challenging ways with a variety of drawing materials.

You might be asked to do a one minute pose with a pointed stick dipped in ink, or to draw a series of imaginary cross sections, like the ones that build up the fuselage of a model aircraft.  At some point, you will certainly be asked to draw the "negative space" around the model.  It's all about turning off your pre-programmed responses, and actually looking, and actually seeing, and letting the fresh perceptions run unimpeded down the nerves in your arm from your eye to your hand.  It's hard work, but sheer joy.

One minute, ink on a stick.

At my first session, we did a final ten minute pose, using a box of stubby remnants of oil pastels.  I had never encountered pastels before, but I had hated crayons as a child. I loathed the waxy, scratchy feel of them, and the unsatisfying blotchy transparency of the colours.  But these oil pastel crayons were like drawing with fragments of expensive cosmetics, rich and smooth and opaque and not at all the anaemic experience that  "pastel-coloured" brings to mind.

"See all the colours," we were told, "Not just the ones you think ought to be there".  I knew exactly what he meant.  I can still remember the experience of gazing at the living, shifting colours on and of the model's body, and making bold marks and hatchings on the paper, rubbing colours into and over each other with a finger.  It was totally exhilarating.

After we had finished, Mr. Foxley saw my drawing, and said, "That's good.  May I take this home to show my wife?"  I walked home that night with a song in my heart.  I knew this was just the start of a life of applause, rich rewards, and the admiration of beautiful, pastel-coloured women.

Unfortunately, the song in my heart turned out to be "The Hedgehog Song".  I'm sure you know the one, by the Incredible String Band -- the chorus goes, "You know all the words, and you've sung all the notes, but you never quite learned the song" ...  I was pretty good for a kid, but I somehow never quite learned the song of making art.  The "Oxbridge candidate" label stayed firmly pinned to my back.  In many ways, I'm glad it did: I'd have made a terrible -- and probably quite reactionary -- artist in the context of the 1970s and 80s.

But the lessons of life drawing are far from wasted in photography, or, indeed, in life.  If you need to be able to see clearly -- let's say, to be able to see both the wood and the trees -- you won't ever regret putting aside your lustful feelings, rejecting all received, cartoonish and clichéd ways of representation, and learning to let yourself see what is truly there, hidden in plain sight.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Shall We Stay Up Late?

Here's a great poem published in the current edition of the TLS (March 30 2012).

On Turning Fifty

for my daughter

We could stay up late with Stanley Kunitz,
   Harry Patch, Bob Hope and Run Run Shaw
To watch an autumn evening fall to bits

   Then paint or crayon, gathered on the floor
As cosy as the streets are cold and coaly 
   With every toy dismantled in its drawer,

And when we reach the time that's wholly
   Unfamiliar -- 3 or 4 a.m. -- yawning,
We could bet on who will roly-poly

   Down the hill and on till morning:
Harry? Stanley? Run Run? You, or me?
   Fizzy, we could giggle without warning,

Pray for biscuits, pop and cups of tea.
   You could mess with glue and glitter
And I could listen to the BBC

   While pipistrelles and whatnots flitter,
Fossicking for tasty, little things;
   Or I could make an origami critter

That flaps its head and folds its wings
   -- A creature nothing ever wants to catch --
Then caterwaul when Bob Hope sings,

   Or lean in close as close to Harry Patch
To hear him call me, softly, chum or mate,
   And with our front door off the latch

We'll trust the sunrise to procrastinate
   And every song-struck bird to wait...
So, Sylvie, shall we stay up late?

Stephen Knight

(Apologies to Stephen Knight and the TLS if this flagrant breach of copyright is unwelcome.  Instant takedown guaranteed.)

Incredibly, my own daughter's 18th birthday is coming up this year, and this poem captures my feelings beautifully.  It also puts me in mind of the song Father and Daughter by Paul Simon, which -- if it ever catches me unawares -- can reduce me to helpless sentimentality.
If you leap awake in the mirror of a bad dream
And for a fraction of a second you can't remember where you are
Just open your window and follow your memory upstream
To the meadow in the mountain where we counted every falling star.
Harry Patch, by the way, was the last surviving British combatant of WW1, who lived to be 111.  His whispered condemnations of the folly of war became a familar presence on the media in his last years.  Sir Run Run Shaw is a billionaire media mogul and philanthropist; the purpose of his presence in the poem is something I'm still thinking about.  If you don't know who Stanley Kunitz (not be confused with Lee Konitz) or Bob Hope are, then please don't admit as much to me.

Addendum 30/3/2012:  my colleague Debra has pointed out the fact that Kunitz, Patch, Hope and Shaw were -- of course! -- all centenarians (remember the poem's title).

Addendum 12/4/2012:  Charles has commented: "Just to say, this fine poem will be in Stephen Knight's new collection, to be published in September by CB editions ("  Charles is a distinguished small publisher, who also blogs as Sonofabook.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Little Lamb, Who Made Thee?

One of the unexpected aspects of getting older is the way anniversaries accumulate.  Barely a week goes by when one might celebrate this or mourn that, or simply wonder where the time went since some event of significance sped by on the ever-accelerating time-space luggage carousel.  If I don't soon get some kind of mental screen-saver installed, the words "How can it possibly be XX years since..." will have been burned permanently onto my synapses.

I have never particularly enjoyed spring as a season, and can find myself experiencing a back-to-front SAD syndrome, anticipating without much pleasure the coming months of relentless solar radiation sunshine. The weeks that surround that moveable feast, Easter, in particular, contain a cluster of anniversaries that predispose me to "that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts / Bring sad thoughts to the mind" (Wordsworth, "Written in Early Spring").

You don't have to be a practising Christian or pagan to recognise the profundity of the rich mix of literal and metaphorical rebirths, deaths, and resurrections that characterise this time of year.  You do have to get out of the house, though.  Soon, we'll be in mid-Wales again, where the lambing sheds will be ringing with loud new life, amid the stench of blood and shit, while the crows and kites peck over the heaps of little carcasses outside.  It's a lot more real than the racks of chocolate eggs in the supermarket.

I'll never forget the Easter when our son, aged about seven, asked the farmer's wife -- who had offered us the chance to feed some lambs -- why some of the little lambs died.  "Because their mummies don't want them, that's why!" she boomed, tossing another one onto the pile.

Talking of resurrections, I was over at the Viaduct on Sunday, and I detect the preliminary signs of a conservation effort.  Fallen bricks have been gathered into neat stacks and covered with sheets of polythene, and scrub has been cleared in places.  I suspect this signals the beginning of the end of this particular project.  Ah well, one door closes, another door opens...  The trick is not to let either door shut in your face or hit you on the backside.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Corded Bales

We had a distinguished visitor on campus today, and right outside my office window, as it happens.  It was the Queen's second spare heir, Edward (that's Prince Edward to you) a.k.a. the Earl of Wessex.  I can reveal that, disappointingly, he is not quite the mighty Anglo-Saxon atheling, clad in clinking warrior bling, that his resonant title might bring to mind.  Though I expect you've already seen the pictures; yes, that Earl of Wessex.

Apparently, "we have been awarded special permission to name the area outside the Life Sciences Building the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Plaza".  Nice one, Your Majesty, break out the vintage Tizer!  Edward was here to open it (the Plaza, not the Tizer), insofar as it is possible to "open" a paved architectural non-space.  You see, it's our 60th anniversary, too.  I must say it's strange to think that this University has been in existence for 60 years, and that for nearly 30 of them I have been working here.

Oddly, especially given Edward's ambivalent relationship
 to things military, the uni lined up a dozen officer cadets,
 rather than a dozen profs or theatrically-inclined students.

All over the campus these weird vertical banners have appeared, proclaiming "Our people are changing the world for the better".  I think we must have employed the same agency that came up with the "Glasgow's miles better" campaign.  As one of my colleagues pointed out, there is a curiously Maoist ring to this slogan.  Perhaps such self-consciously bushy-tailed corporate "branding" does have an affinity with totalitarian social engineering? It's certainly not very British. And "Our people" rather than "we"?  It seems some of us have not been pulling our weight, world-changing-wise, and a period of what Maoists call "self criticism" (but managerialists call "appraisal" and "performance-related pay") may be in order.

Way back in November 2008, when this old blog was new, the University closed one of my favourite lunch-time photographic haunts for a programme of "improvements".  I wrote about it in this post.  This week, finally, nearly three and a half years later, the Valley Gardens re-opened.  As I feared, all its previous character has been landscaped out of existence, and it has become a tidy, unimaginative municipal park.  A nice place for "our people" to eat their sandwiches.

I feel more like Matthew Arnold's Scholar Gipsy every year... It's a poem I first studied 40 years ago, but only really now come to understand, as I begin to find my ancient places invaded by those "young light-hearted masters of the waves".  Resistance is futile!  Shake out more sail!

Then fly our greetings, fly our speech and smiles!
  —As some grave Tyrian trader, from the sea,
    Descried at sunrise an emerging prow
  Lifting the cool-haired creepers stealthily,
    The fringes of a southward-facing brow
      Among the Ægean isles;
  And saw the merry Grecian coaster come,
    Freighted with amber grapes, and Chian wine,
    Green, bursting figs, and tunnies steeped in brine --
  And knew the intruders on his ancient home,

The young light-hearted masters of the waves --
  And snatched his rudder, and shook out more sail;
    And day and night held on indignantly
  O'er the blue Midland waters with the gale,
    Betwixt the Syrtes and soft Sicily,
      To where the Atlantic raves
  Outside the western straits, and unbent sails
    There, where down cloudy cliffs, through sheets of foam,
    Shy traffickers, the dark Iberians come;
  And on the beach undid his corded bales.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

The Narrow Road to the Deep South

We had some very misty mornings last week.  I remember from my geography lessons that this is the result of a  stagnant high pressure system trapping dirty air close to the ground; it's the particles of smoke and pollutants which enable the water vapour to condense out.  It's the same high pressure that has been elbowing out the warm fronts that ought to have brought us much-needed rain.  Back before the Clean Air Acts, this was how the classic Sherlock Holmes pea-souper smogs of London used to happen.

I was pleased with this image as a photograph, but I think it gains something by being given the Japanese print treatment:  Hokusai-san comes to the Southampton campus.  I promise I'll stop doing this soon...

Sunday, 18 March 2012


It must be the time of year.  In parallel with my flirtation with pinholes and lens adapters, I've been having a little fun with Photoshop filters.  In general, I regard these as the work of the devil, as they encourage the sort of lazy, complacent non-achievement that "instant" results of any sort do.  I get the impression that painters and printmakers feel much the same way about photography, but we won't go there today.

But sometimes, if one has a general interest in image-making, it can be instructive to see what happens when you relax the strict boundaries that, inevitably, you end up placing around your "practice".  I am always mindful of the life drawing classes I did 40 years ago, when we were set exercises such as, "do a one minute drawing using ink on a pointed stick", or "draw a series of cross-sections through the model's body", or "draw the space around the model", etc.

The purpose of these exercises was not to produce finished drawings, but to open your perceptions in a useful way.  As George  Clinton said, "Free your mind, and your ass will follow".

The original photograph

An Henri Rivière lithograph filtration

A Samuel Palmer aquatint etching effect

The ones I have chosen to show are hardly radical transformations, but I think the interesting thing is how these "pictorial" filtered versions reveal what are both shortcomings and hidden properties in the original version; things that could be worked on to improve it.  Notice, for example, how the "lithograph" version enhances the sharpness and definition of the shapes (look at the bricks and branches), whilst simplifying the colours, and how the "aquatint" version pulls the tonalities together in a more satisfying way.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Fund Raising Degree Zero

My old college  -- one of the oldest and, some might say, most prestigious of the Oxford colleges, but far from one of the wealthiest -- is having one of those alumni-pumping drives that have become such a feature of British higher education in recent times.  It's an art that has been refined in the USA over decades, but is still in its infancy here.  The usual pitch is partly an appeal to nostalgia, partly an appeal to conscience, and partly the standard charity shakedown.  "Give us your money", the universities say, "Or the pretty young student gets it".

I am constitutionally resistant to this sort of thing.  Call me old-fashioned, but I believe in taxes.  Take my money, please, and buy me some excellent schools, hospitals and universities.  There are a select few charities and causes that receive my tithe but, beyond that, I am a lowly public servant with a high-maintenance photo-habit to feed.  Have you seen the price of Epson inks?  Besides, when you have studied and worked at a range of universities -- ancient, red-brick, plate-glass, and pre-fab -- the argument that Oxbridge students are in danger of receiving a second-rate education due to lack of funds tends to lose any force.

But Balliol's pitch is quite cunning.  They take the implied threat to the pretty young students to the next level: they get one of them to call you at home on the phone, at that expansive moment after dinner when you are contemplating the possibility of alcoholic refreshment.  What terrible threats or incentives are used to persuade these talented young people to operate from a call-centre I cannot imagine.  Perhaps it's touted as work experience.

So, I'm studying the bottle of Laphroaig the other evening when the phone rings.  A young man, his voice cracked with strain and anxiety, begs me not to hang up, or they'll hurt him again; badly, this time.  "Please, please, please, say you'll give a little money, or ...  OW!!  ... sorry, sorry, a lot of money, or..." Actually, no. It wasn't like that at all.

A pleasant young man named Tom was on the line.  I said, up front, that if this was the Old Members Shakedown then forget it:  I ain't got none.  No problem, said Tom, and we proceeded to have a nice chat.  Or rather, I proceeded to deliver a monologue about how things were in Olden Tymes, when the world was young, women were still regarded as a separate species, and a young man could spend three years playing at radical politics and perfecting his joint-rolling technique and still come within a whisker of a first.  Happy days!

Tom did get the odd word in edgeways, however, and I discovered he had an interest in Roland Barthes.  Roland Barthes! Well, that was me away for another ten minutes.  "Have you read S/Z yet?  No?  You should!  What about Camera Lucida?  No?  Really?  You have so much, ahem, pleasure of the text to come, I envy you!"

Oh, dear.  Late middle age has few native pleasures, but pompous bloviation at the expense of the young is certainly one of them.  The irony is, of course, that I never studied Barthes at Balliol.  For that, I had to escape the Oxford force-field and spend a year as a "comparative literature" post-graduate at the University of East Anglia.  I always say I did more work -- both as hours put in and as hard thinking done -- in that single year at UEA than I did in my three Oxford years put together, and it's true.  I'm sure things are very different now, but back then the Oxford English degree was a shapeless, ill-disciplined thing, with no sense of itself as a subject, or any coherence.  Or maybe that was me, I do get things confused.

What I do remember is that no-one was expected or encouraged to ask dangerous questions like:  Why are we studying this subject?  What purpose does it serve?  And what is this "literature" thing, anyway?  My tutor backed away in horror when I mentioned in my 3rd year I had been having these, you know, thoughts.  "Well," he said, "It's a bit late to be thinking about that now..."  I think he thought that I meant I wanted to change my subject of study.  To him, a scholar of the old school, the answers to those questions were so self-evident, that even to ask them was to be, well, unsound, practically a scientist. To me, though, these were the questions that kept me awake at night.  I was beginning to suspect that it was the subject itself that was unsound.

The Room at the Top of the Stairs
(Staircase 10)
I'm told it was once Howard Marks' room, too

Whatever.  It was pleasant to be reminded of those long-ago days, when it seemed not unreasonable to believe I might be on the brink of some Big Thoughts and a much larger life than anyone of my background could have been expected to have.  It was almost like picking up the phone, and finding my 20-year old self on the other end.

Sorry, I wanted to say, I've let you down, haven't I?  That's OK, I replied, it's good to know I'm going be happy, and stop lying awake asking myself these bloody questions.  And is that really the same girl from St. Anne's I met last week that I can hear in the background?  Yes, I said, that really is her, it's all going to work out just fine.  But you'd better get off the line now, this conversation must be a breach of all sorts of logical and cosmic telecoms regulations.

So, against every principle, I worked out the cost of a telephone call from 1974 to 2012 -- surprisingly cheap after 6:00 p.m. -- and sent them the money.  I wonder if they'll name a building after me?

Summer 1974
Yes, front row, rolled-up trousers...  That's him/me.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Doing the Hahnemühle Rag

The best advice with photo-printing is "find a paper you like, and stick with it".  Although I've experimented with other papers, I've found that Epson printers with Epson inks like Epson papers best, and the Epson papers I like best are Premium Glossy, Premium Semigloss, and Matte Heavyweight -- totally bog-standard, cheap and cheerful choices.  Now that I've had custom ICC profiles made for these papers on my printer, and worked out a standard routine for getting a reasonable approximation of what I see on screen onto paper, I'm pretty happy to concentrate on actually making images I like.

However.  In the process of looking for something else, I came across these cute little tins of thirty 10cm x 15cm round-cornered "postcards" of various Hahnemühle papers, and on a whim bought a tin of Photo Rag 188, a pure cotton rag, matte finish "art" paper, and downloaded the free ICC profile for my printer.  To be honest, I was impressed that there actually is a profile for my printer, the Epson Photo Stylus 1400, a humble A3 dye ink printer.  Most "fine art" paper manufacturers do not consider dye inks (as opposed to pigment inks) worthy of contact with their precious papers.

Now, I've tried similar papers of various brands in the past, but never been convinced of their virtue.  There were some lovely papers, to be sure -- hand-made from angels' cotton socks steeped for 100 years in the purest unicorn pee -- but they all yielded indifferent (and occasionally bizarre) print quality on my printer.  This indicated to me that they were right to disdain my amateurish dye inks, and I simply accepted my lowly place in the Order of Things.  I was expecting the same experience with the Hahnemühle Photo Rag, but I had been suckered by the idea of those cute "postcards". In a tin! I know...

To my surprise, the print quality, on the evidence of some tiny 10cm x 15cm prints, is really very good indeed. Astonishingly good.  I'm impressed.  The colours are "wrong", in that they are too warm, but I'm sure a custom ICC profile would fix that.  It's the overall "gestalt" of the image, and in particular the shadow detail, that looks so good.

Here is an image as seen on my screen, followed by scans of prints of the same 8cm square portion (bottom centre left) printed at 360 dpi on Epson Premium Glossy and on Hahnemühle Photo Rag, with levels adjusted to 1.21:

Epson Premium Glossy

Hahnemühle Photo Rag 

Obviously, scans of prints are not accurate representations, but I think you can see what I'm talking about.  There is a clarity and separation to the shadow tones which is an improvement over the Epson paper, and the highlights are held beautifully, and really "sing".  There is an overall unity to the image which is very attractive, it's like having one's composition played through by a gifted musician.

There's no way I'd use Photo Rag as my "standard" paper -- it's too expensive and a "fine art" matte finish doesn't suit all types of photograph.  In the end, you really can't go wrong with Epson's own papers, and I have always been happy to use them, whether for exhibition purposes or for proof prints.  But for special prints of special images, I can well imagine using Photo Rag.  I've got a pack of A4 on order to see if the quality scales up, or whether there is a cutesy "miniaturisation" factor at work.  The A4 doesn't come in a tin, sadly.

UPDATE 16/3/2012:

As I suspected, the improvement at A4 is less visible: still there, but somehow with less impact.  There is a definite tactile pleasure to be had from the paper -- the paper's cotton is clearly derived from angels' bedsheets -- but I am not intending to print my own cut-out clothing.  It's curious how larger size affects one's perception.  My tests (above) were the equivalent of a 24cm x 24cm image @ 360dpi -- about as big as I'd normally aspire to -- but it just goes to show how picture-making is about wholes, not parts.

The tin will come in very handy, though.  I have a thing about tins.

Monday, 12 March 2012

Small Change

Up on Twyford Down yesterday the sun was intense, and we discovered that the stony field has been ploughed and seeded in the last week or so.  This had brought out the detectorists, as the area is next to a Roman road, and apparently has a number of "hotspots" for Roman era finds.

I asked this man if he'd had any luck, and he said he'd "only" found a few bronze Roman coins.  I think I'd be fairly happy with that, though that's easily said when you haven't spent the afternoon systematically swinging a mine-detector back and forth over a ploughed field.  It must make your arm ache, and the headphones must create a weird sense of isolation.

You do have to wonder at the cavalier attitude to small change in ancient times.  Most fields in Southern and Eastern Britain seem to be liberally sprinkled with low denomination coins.  Perhaps pocket and purse technology had not yet been brought to perfection.  I'm confident I lost no money walking over the field myself -- I checked -- so it can definitely be done.

This notice gave us pause for thought.  Amongst other useful tips on sharing a field with cattle, it says:

If you feel threatened by the cattle:
Do not panic and run away, they are probably being inquisitive and will run to keep up with you.
Raise your voice -- but do not shout -- and raise your arms to make yourself look bigger -- but do not wave them about.  Make eye contact with the cattle to keep them at a distance.  Do not use a stick to scare or hit them.
Walk briskly away, keeping an eye on the cattle and on your footing.

Make eye contact with the cattle?  What is this, a job interview?

Friday, 9 March 2012

Hasselblad Award

It has been announced that British photographer Paul Graham will be the recipient of the 2012 Hasselblad Foundation International Award in Photography, worth a cool £95,000 / $150,000.  Now that is what you call recognition ("Hey, I recognise you, aren't you Paul Graham?  Please accept this massive cheque!").

The Foundation’s citation reads like this:

Paul Graham is one of the most brilliant photographers of his generation. During the course of his nearly 40-year career, he has presented an extremely focused body of work, at once perfectly coherent and never monotonous. In images both sensitive and subtly political, he makes tangible the insignificant traces of the spirit of the times we do not normally see. With his keen awareness of the photographic medium, he has constantly developed innovative forms of working with all aspects of photography. This makes him a profound force for renewal of the deep photographic tradition of engagement with the world.

As it happens, I have good reason to recognise Paul Graham myself.  It's been a few years since I last told this story, so here is a rewritten version of an afterthought to a post from 2008.  I should probably title this post "I've danced with a man, who's danced with a girl, who's danced with the Prince of Wales", or something of the sort.

I used to live in Bristol in the late 70s / early 80s. I lived with my girlfriend in the top flat of a typically Bristolian converted Georgian house in the Redland area.  It was around that time I first began to be seriously interested in photography, but had developed no taste or sense of history and was generally pretty ignorant.  For years I had got by with a Kodak Instamatic and a Russian Fed 3 rangefinder bought for my 11th birthday, but had been persuaded of the advantages of SLRs by a friend, and when I first picked up an Olympus OM-1n in a local camera shop I was smitten.  Truly, madly, deeply. I started down that road which, presumably, will not be unfamiliar to most readers of this blog.

Now, there was another flat underneath us, and I happened to know that one of the guys in there was some kind of artist, and having regular dealings with various arts organisations. I knew this, because we kept getting his mail. Sometimes letters with an Arts Council logo would arrive, and sometimes those dismal postcards of rejection ("Thanks for your interest...").  His name was Paul Graham.

Famously, Paul self-published his first book, A1: The Great North Road, an unusual step in those days, and copies were prominently on display in our local bookshop. I couldn't help but notice it:  apart from the author's familiar name, I happen to have been born right next to The Great North Road.  Looking through it, I thought the images were static, drab, badly composed, and generally pretty poor stuff (had this guy never read Amateur Photographer, for God's sake?).  But I bought one anyway, mainly because of the novelty of having a book where the publisher's address was also mine.

Despite my curiosity, I didn't introduce myself, or get my copy inscribed. Paul Graham was visibly cooler than me, a man approaching 30 with a nine-to-five job whose coolness quotient, once quite high, was in steep decline.  Besides, I thought he wouldn't react well to the pointers on photo-technique I'd be obliged to pass on.  Just as well, really: I simply wasn't ready to recognise and engage with one of our most innovative photographic artists, someone genuinely miles ahead of the game.

Now, of course -- now that I have developed a little taste and a sense of history -- it's one of my most treasured photobooks (and have you seen the price people are asking for copies?? If only I'd got it inscribed... "To my idiotic upstairs neighbour. Now please go away"). I did learn a lesson from this, though, one that I try to pass on whenever I get the chance.

These days, I'm alert and waiting for what I think of as that Hendrix Moment. You know: when you hear or see something so astonishingly new that you can't yet see it or hear it for what it is and, in self-defense, shout out "Rubbish!" along with all the other idiots who think they know a thing or two.

So, don't be an idiot.  Do yourself a favour.  If someone is attracting attention for work you can't fathom, or which you whole-heartedly detest, please reserve judgement.  You know nothing.  They, apparently, know something.  Why not try to figure out what it is?

Not Seeing the Viaduct for the Trees...

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

A Perhaps Hand

Spring is like a perhaps hand
(which comes carefully
out of Nowhere) arranging
a window, into which people look (while
people stare
arranging and changing placing
carefully there a strange
thing and a known thing here) and
changing everything carefully
spring is like a perhaps
Hand in a window
(carefully to
and fro moving New and
Old things, while
people stare carefully
moving a perhaps
fraction of flower here placing
an inch of air there) and
without breaking anything.
e.e. cummings

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Smash and Scatteration

It's that time of year again, when the sun finally gets far enough round the corner of the house to shine through the window in the back door and make that smash and scatteration pattern all over the wall, where it reflects off the chrome of the kettle.  Those little clouds are bits of steam from the recently-boiled kettle catching the light.  And, yes, I'm afraid the kitchen has gone another year with bare undecorated plaster.

Friday, 2 March 2012

Bram Stoker's New Book

I was surprised and amused to receive an email from Amazon today, announcing "Bram Stoker's New Book".  A little annoyed, too.  I find Amazon's attempts to second-guess what I will like on the basis of what I have bought or looked at in the past as annoying as my grandmother's habit of finishing my sentences for me.  It arouses my contrarian instincts.  This can only get worse as Google combines its billion-dollar busybody algorithms to get inside our heads.

But Amazon's message reveals something about the constructs made by these electronic curtain-twitchers.  Like their real-life equivalents, they lack the imagination to understand anything that is not within the bounds of "the normal", or strictly contemporary.  A new edition of a classic is released and it's hey, chick-lit fanciers, Jane Austen's got a new one out!  Well, no, actually.

I would encounter something similar when I used to train new cataloguers.  Even highly-educated people have generally not given much thought to the complexities of what we loosely call "bibliography" i.e. the business of texts, books, authors, and publishing in its full historical context. To most of us, the poems of, say, John Donne simply are.  He wrote 'em, someone published 'em, we read 'em -- simple!  Again, not quite.

Even the basic business of authors' names has to be approached with caution, and some historical and multi-cultural awareness.  Ask a programmer to design a database that includes names and, ten minutes later, they will generally hand back something based on the assumption that a name consists of a forename and/or initials plus surname.  The sophisticated ones will have presumed that the inversion of these elements is necessary ("Donne, John").  Fine, as far as "the normal" (i.e. the contemporary Western name) is concerned.

But what about a mediaeval writer like "Gerald of Wales" a.k.a. "Giraldus Cambrensis", or some aristo like the "Duke of Wellington" a.k.a. "Arthur Wellesley"?  Or a Chinese writer like "Mao Zedong" a.k.a. "Mao Tse-Tung", whose "surname" is actually "Mao"?  Or what about pseudonyms like "Sapper" or Victorian matrons like "Mrs. Humphrey Ward"? And what about so-called corporate authors, ranging from the "Home Office" (which one? the British, Australian, or Canadian Home Office?) to the "Starship Enterprise"?  Come to that, who did write the Bible? Come back in a couple of months, Mr. Programmer, and we'll see what you've got.

If you're worried about recent moves towards Big e-Brother (and you probably should be) I think complexity will be our ally in the resistance to "targeted relevance".  Yes, 80% of web users are simple-minded folk looking for the same stimuli again and again -- Google will have them covered.  But you and me, my friends, we are too multi-faceted, too restless, too unpredictable to be pigeon-holed by any algorithm.  Yes, last week I was looking at Arctic exploration, but this week I'm interested in old pseudo-reflex film cameras that could be adapted for digital TTV ("through the viewfinder") imaging.  I had never heard of TTV two weeks ago.

Who knows what I'll be looking for next week, but I can pretty much guarantee it won't be anything that could be anticipated by the patterns of my past behaviour.  So those "targeted" adverts will just amuse and annoy me, Google and Amazon, and I certainly won't be buying Bram Stoker's "new book".  Didn't you read my post about Dracula?