Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Improvised Anarchy

On days when it's not been raining, I've been walking to work on a route that takes me along the edge of the semi-wild, semi-recreational area that occupies about 325 acres in the centre of Southampton, known as The Common.  It's threaded by footpaths. Some are arterial routes which are well-defined and metalled for cyclists and lightly-shod perambulators, but mostly they are muddy tracks which sometimes lead nowhere, as I found to my cost one morning last week when I decided to go "off piste".

There are few things as frustrating as being able to see your destination, but not being able to reach it because of a thick tangle of undergrowth or knee-deep mini-swamps.  I began to fantasize about keeping a machete in my backpack, but I don't think the police would understand.

I've also become an admirer of the visual chaos that allotments seem to foster.  There are several in the vicinity, but my favourite is the one tucked into a hollow behind some houses next to the university car-park.  Each morning the sun seems to rise on some new random arrangement of sticks, pallets, polythene sheet, corrugated iron, and the ubiquitous orange netting.  A lot of stuff seems to "escape" from the docks, and end up in the creative hands of allotment holders.   Things get more ordered and purposeful as the growing season progresses, but there's always an agreeable air of improvised anarchy.

Talking of the docks, here's an impressionistic version of the docks at night.  I see this view whenever I drop my daughter off at her friend's house in advance of a night's clubbing, and every time I think, "Must bring a camera next time".  This week was the first time I actually remembered, but the conditions were not ideal.  A wind-shaken car does not make a good tripod.

Monday, 25 February 2013

Second Acts

I recently discovered that there is a curious link between several quite disparate things.  This may not be news to readers in the USA, but it was news to me.

The first thing:
A while ago, I saw a picture of an art installation, "Five Car Stud" by Edward Kienholz, first shown in 1972.  It's night-time in the rural American South.  A circle of five vehicles have turned their headlights inward to create an illuminated tableau, where six white men are subduing a single black man on the ground.  According to the caption, they are about to castrate him.  It's really very disturbing, even though the models are quite crude.  It mirrors an actual incident from 1957, carried out in Alabama by a splinter group of the Ku Klux Klan, the "Ku Klux Klan of the Confederacy", founded by a prominent and murderously militant white supremacist, Asa Earl Carter.

The second thing:
Back in the 60s and 70s, with a string of minimalist, brutal, and ironically self-aware westerns, Clint Eastwood established himself as the contemporary film incarnation of the Wild West. One of the best of these movies is The Outlaw Josie Wells, portraying the outlaw career of an ex-Confederate bushwhacker, a veteran of the bloody guerilla campaign in Missouri, who, like many bitter young men on the losing side of the Civil War, headed west to continue the war by other means.  It's based on a 1972 novel known variously as The Rebel Outlaw: Josey Wales or Gone To Texas (men who had upped and left for the west would paint "GTT" -- gone to Texas -- on the door of their homestead).  The film is sometimes characterised as "revisionist", as it attempts to counter the simple-minded Hollywood stereotyping of "Good Union vs. Wicked Confederacy".

The third thing:
In 1976, the author of Josey Wales, Forrest Carter, published another book, The Education of Little Tree, which became a much-loved word-of-mouth classic, particularly among hippyish liberals.  It describes the author's early life in the Depression era, orphaned and then raised by his Cherokee indian grandparents in the mountains of Appalachia.  It struck a chord with the mood of the times, with its themes of closeness to nature, the wisdom of indian ways, and the interference of the "guv'mint" and racist "Christians" with the simple desire to live an authentic, self-sufficient life on the land, making a little cash on the side from an illegal still.

Here's the [fourth] thing:
Last year I came across a 1991 article from the New York Times, "The Transformation of a Klansman", by yet another Carter, Dan T. Carter.  It describes how the violent white supremacist from Thing One, Asa Carter (a distant cousin of Dan T.'s), wrote racist speeches for George Wallace, later opposed Wallace politically as a sell-out, failed, self-destructed, vanished, and -- amazingly -- re-invented himself as folksy, half-Cherokee popular author Forrest Carter of Things Two and Three.  You can read the article here and there's more here.  It's a very curious story,  and a demonstration of the idiocy of F. Scott Fitzgerald's assertion that "there are no second acts in American lives".

I have now read both Josey Wales and The Education of Little Tree -- how could I not? -- and can report that they're both quite engaging but minor reads, in their different ways.  There is no hint of the violently racist bigot to be found in them, to be sure -- quite the opposite, really -- unless perhaps you like to trace a continuity between that extreme mind-set and the Tea Party-ish America that demands gun ownership and freedom from "Big Government".  I'm not sure I'd buy that.

Oprah Winfrey did remove the much-loved Little Tree from her list of recommended reads in 2007, having discovered the truth about its author's murky past, but a decent book with a wholesome message written by a thoroughly bad man is still a decent book, surely?  (Ever looked into Henry Williamson's politics?) This seems to me more properly viewed as an instance of D.H. Lawrence's dictum:  "Never trust the teller, trust the tale. The proper function of a critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it."

In this case, however, the tale seems to have done a pretty good job of saving itself.  The Education of Little Tree has been published by the University of New Mexico Press since 1985, has sold millions of copies, and appears to have achieved the hallowed status of a set text in American schools.  However, the University Press is taking no chances.  Even today, the book's preface makes no mention whatsoever of Carter's previous life, and continues to describe it as "Carter's autobiographical remembrances of life with his Eastern Cherokee hill country grandparents".

It probably goes without saying that Carter had no known Cherokee ancestors.  He was working on a sequel to Little Tree when he died in 1979, suffering heart failure after a fist-fight with his own son.  No family members attended his funeral.  Which is reasonable, as Little Tree would say.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Bristol Motet

There are few things that would  cause me to drive to Bristol and back in a single evening just for fun, but the opportunity to hear the 40-part motet Spem in alium by Thomas Tallis performed live is certainly one of them.

Bristol is a fine city.  We used to live there, in the second half of the 1970s and the first half of the 80s, during what I think of as the Punk, Reggae & Riots years.  It was a good time in a place congenially disposed to good times. Everyone should have a "lost decade" in their life, and that was mine.  When other, more sensible folk were putting their student years behind them and busily establishing careers, I ... well ... was not.  I had a job, cataloguing Russian and German books in the university library, but it was the sort of routine-but-absorbing work that goes well with a hangover or the after-effects of a shining white night without sleep.

My partner's sister still lives in Bristol and, as it happens, has a member of the Exultate Singers lodging in her attic.  Which was how we came to be at the Tallis performance at St. George's last night; the offer of a meal followed by an evening of Renaissance polyphony was a sisterly birthday offering, and well worth a four hour round trip.

If you don't know Spem in alium, or could not care less about choral music, it's hard to describe its impact.  Composed by Thomas Tallis around 1570, it is thought to have been performed for Henry VIII Elizabeth I in the octagonal banqueting room of the royal Nonsuch Palace, with a choir of five placed in each of eight balconies -- the ultimate in surround sound.  The effect of the dynamic swelling of the volume and harmonies is overwhelming and spellbinding, and many people find themselves weeping spontaneously.  Forty-strong choirs are hard to maintain and rehearse (the piece has sixteen bass parts alone), so it's not something you get to hear often.

But, as it turned out, for me the highlights of the evening were the setting of the Miserere by contemporary Scottish composer James MacMillan, and two pieces by Carlo Gesualdo.  If you don't know about Gesualdo, he's best summarised as "that Renaissance nobleman who slaughtered his wife and her lover having discovered them in bed and hung their mutilated bodies on the front of his palace, was allegedly a practitioner of Dark Arts, and wrote angst-ridden music with strange discordant harmonies that now sound incredibly modern".  Oh, that Gesualdo!  His story and legacy are sufficiently strange for Werner Herzog to have made a film about him (Tod für fünf Stimmen / Death for Five Voices, 1995).

Most amazing of all, however, was the transformation that has been wrought upon Bristol itself.  By daylight, I had just about recognised the hilly, higgledy-piggledy Georgian warren of enormous, multi-story buildings stacked onto a multi-level, terraced site above the river Avon.  Driving back through the centre at night, however, it seemed that every other former shop, bank or institution was now revealed as a fast-food outlet, restaurant or club.  On a freezing February night, long, lively queues of young people were stretched along the streets outside the most popular venues, and the place was ablaze with colour and lights.  It was as if a switch had been thrown, and an alternative city to the one I though I knew by daylight had been unveiled, like some trick of stage lighting.

It's a common enough story, of course, but the extent of it still took us by surprise. Most symbolic of this transformation is that the venerable George's bookshop -- situated on its strategic central corner opposite the University just before the nose-dive descent of Park Street, and once the home of one of the best second-hand book sections outside London -- is now a Jamie Oliver restaurant.  Very popular it appears to be, too.

It was a strange but not unpleasant feeling, to emerge from the emotional and musical intensity of St. George's, where we had been surrounded by hundreds of grey-headed academics, artists and culturati -- people just like us -- into the neon streets of a party town, watching the equally intense hedonistic antics of thousands of youngsters -- people just like we once had been.

Amor, io sento l'alma
Tornar nel foco av'io
Fui lieto et più che mai d'arder desio.

[Oh love, I feel my soul
Return to the fire where I
Rejoiced and more than ever desire to burn.]

Jhan Gero (fl. 1540-55)

Thursday, 21 February 2013

The Dancer and the Dance

I think you may have to be (a) British and (b) born between 1950 and 1960 to fully respond to this poem, with its compacted nostalgic references, from stamping "the pawprints of badgers and skunks in the mud" (though if she has Wayfinders in mind, I don't know how the skunk got in there) to "the clever smell of my satchel".  My kids have no idea what a satchel is.

And, no, Carol Ann Duffy is not the poet whose bed I usurped, as some have suggested: other prize-winning female poets are available.

The Captain of the 1964 Top of the Form Team

Do Wah Diddy Diddy, Baby Love, Oh Pretty Woman
were in the Top Ten that month, October, and the Beatles
were everywhere else. I can give you the B-side
of the Supremes one. Hang on. Come See About Me?
I lived in a kind of fizzing hope. Gargling
with Vimto. The clever smell of my satchel. Convent girls.
I pulled my hair forward with a steel comb that I blew
like Mick, my lips numb as a two-hour snog.

No snags. The Nile rises in April. Blue and White.
The humming-bird's song is made by its wings, which beat
so fast that they blur in flight. I knew the capitals,
the Kings and Queens, the dates. In class, the white sleeve
of my shirt saluted again and again. Sir!...Correct.
Later, I whooped at the side of my bike, a cowboy,
mounted it running in one jump. I sped down Dyke Hill,
no hands, famous, learning, dominus domine dominum.

Dave Dee Dozy... Try me. Come on. My mother kept my mascot Gonk
on the TV set for a year. And the photograph. I look
so brainy you'd think I'd just had a bath. The blazer.
The badge. The tie. The first chord of A Hard Day's Night
loud in my head. I ran to the Spinney in my prize shoes,
up Churchill Way, up Nelson Drive, over pink pavements
that girls chalked on, in a blue evening; and I stamped
the pawprints of badgers and skunks in the mud. My country.

I want it back. The captain. The one with all the answers. Bzz.
My name was in red on Lucille Green's jotter. I smiled
as wide as a child who went missing on the way home
from school. The keeny. I say to my stale wife,
Six hits by Dusty Springfield. I say to my boss, A pint!
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
My thick kids wince. Name the Prime Minister of Rhodesia.
My country. How many florins in a pound?

Carol Ann Duffy (b. 1955)

Of course, like any decent poem, it's double-edged.  At the same time as she invokes the nostalgia, she paints a picture of a man hopelessly lost in his own past, a bore trapped by the trivia of his boyhood promise.

And no, she's not thinking of The Eagles ("Saturday Night")...

Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul.
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

from Among School Children, W.B.Yeats

Or, at least, "he" isn't.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Dem Bones

It's funny, how advancing age can make you as body-conscious as an athlete or, worse, some preening gym-rat.  I've been having various age-related, wear'n'tear issues with my personal infrastructure and, after a number of sessions with physiotherapists and podiatrists, have become acutely aware of myself as, essentially, a skeleton strung together with tendons.  The posters they have on their clinic walls don't help: mainly Look and Learn-style pictures of cadavers playing tennis or lifting heavy crates.

Do you know those Dance of Death and memento mori engravings that were so popular in the days before the discovery of penicillin (not to mention soap)?  That's how I keep seeing myself, sat at this computer, self-consciously adjusting my posture to align dem bones properly.  If I look out the window, I see skeletons bobbing along the pavement, or hunched behind the wheel of a car (straighten that spine!).  It's a bit like the scene in Pirates of the Caribbean where the moonlight reveals the crew of the Black Pearl to be skeletal zombies (oops, spoiler alert).

It all reminded me of the days when I was young and nothing hurt, and I had a thing about bones and print-making.  I would spend hours carving and cutting pictures into lino and wood.  Unfortunately, my main aesthetic influences back then were album covers (remember, these were the days before the internet) so everything came out looking like Death Metal artwork.  I dug these two ancient proof prints out of a drawer, and although they are unfinished I found I was pleased with some of the touches.

I'd like to say it's something that I might take up again one day, but I know my ageing fingers couldn't hold or control those little woodcutting gouges for more than 10 minutes without screaming in protest.  Did you know there are no muscles in your fingers?  It's all done with bones and tendons...

Notes for the linguistically-challenged:  "Totentanz" is German for "Dance of Death".  The legend around the image is "Radix malorum cupiditas est" i.e. The love of riches is the root of all evil".  "Furcifer" is Latin for "one who is destined to be hung on the two-pronged fork" i.e. a "gallows-bird"...

Monday, 18 February 2013

All in One

The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way.  Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see.  To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion -- all in one.

John Ruskin, Modern Painters (1856)

Well, maybe.  I like the sound of that, though I expect David Beckham has something similar to say about kicking a football.  It sort of makes a camera sound like a short-cut to enlightenment -- nothing "sees" more clearly than a camera -- but recording and seeing are not the same thing.  And cameras (if they have souls, which I'm pretty sure they do) have camera souls, not human ones.

There is an interdisciplinary degree known as "PPE" (Philosophy, Politics and Economics) which is offered at Oxford and some other universities.  What a shame you can't also study PPR, i.e. Ruskin's "all in one", Poetry, Prophecy and Religion.  Now that would be worth three years of anybody's time.

You can imagine the exam:  Three hours.  Use the right side of your brain only.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Hopes, Fears, and Mysteries

A while ago, a commenter mentioned my apparent (photographic) attraction to the manifestations of change'n'decay, and I made this response, which -- in retrospect, and read as if written by another person -- amused me enough to repeat it here:
To paraphrase William Blake, when asked "When you observe entropy, do you not see a grey sludge, about as exciting as porridge?" I reply, "No, No, I see an Innumerable Company of the Heavenly Host crying 'Wow, Amazing, Look at That!'" *
Heh.  Suit yourself.

But, who to trust, William Blake or a scientist -- say, Brian Cox?   Not Brian "Things Can Only Get Better"** Cox, but Brian "professor" Cox; the one who earnestly expounds entropy,  the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and the heat death of the universe on prime-time TV.  Though, of course, they are one and the same man.  Maybe that should have been "things can only get flatter", Brian?

It says something about the nature of our species, that although the cumulative best efforts of our best minds have revealed an ultimately futile destiny for us and for the entire universe (depressing, unless you're abnormally fond of a very quiet life), we still turn -- in pursuit of inspiration and visionary joy -- to the ravings of assorted deranged wishful thinkers.

Remarkable, really, that both tendencies can be sustained in our minds at the same time.  It's that old Hopey-Changey Thing, I suppose. A hundred years from now, the science will inevitably be obsolete, but the hopes, fears and mysteries will probably remain exactly the same.

* "When the Sun rises, do you not see a round disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea?" O no, no, I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying, `Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty.' I question not my Corporeal or Vegetative eye any more than I would Question a window concerning a Sight. I look thro' it & not with it. (William Blake, A Vision of the Last Judgment)

** The title of an irritatingly uplifting song from 1991 by D:Ream, a band in which Brian Cox played keyboards, and which helped propel Labour to power in 1997.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Secret Sauces

Quite a few people have asked me about my typical "workflow" or, in other words, how I process my images.  Now, I'm not about to give away any hard-won secrets, but my basic procedure is pretty bog-standard, and I'm happy to share it.

I'm assuming that (given the option) you record your images as RAW files, and that you're using either Photoshop or Photoshop Elements, with the (free) Adobe Camera Raw plugin, and in a version which is sufficiently recent to offer Colour Curves (I use Elements 10).  If not, none of this will make sense.
  • First, I open the RAW file in the Elements editor.  The Camera Raw plugin opens automatically.
  • I have the Shadow and Highlight Clipping warnings active, so that blown highlights show as bright red areas, and clipped shadows as bright blue.  Don't you?  If you don't, this may be the most important tip I have to share.
  • I adjust the Exposure, Recovery, and Fill Light sliders until all or most of the red and blue alerts have disappeared.  I'm mostly bothered about the highlights.  I rarely fiddle with any of the other settings.
  • Once opened in Elements, I adjust the Levels, by sliding the black and white point indicators to meet the furthest left and right data on the histogram, and then adjust the grey slider to give a good overall "look".
  • I then use the Colour Curves tool to adjust the highlights, midtones, and shadows to give an even better overall look.
  • Then -- and you may find this surprising -- I click "Auto Levels" to see where Elements thinks I'm going wrong.  Sometimes it's an improvement, sometimes it's not.
  • That gives me a standard, "good enough" starting point, which I save as a new TIFF file.
I then apply various spells and secret sauces to make the image work for me.  You'll have to find your own, but here are a couple of well-known ones:

1.  "High Pass" sharpening.  That is:
  • Make a new layer which is a duplicate of the background layer
  • Apply the High Pass filter to it, generally with a Radius between 1.5 and 2.0, just enough to show edges but no colours
  • Change the layer type to Overlay, Soft or Hard Light, with an Opacity somewhere between 75% and 95%
  • Flatten the image (my hard drive is too small to keep unnecessary layers hanging around).
If you've been nervous of using layers, this is a good introduction to how they are used.  It's also very effective.

2.  A useful trick for dull images is to apply "local contrast" via the Unsharp Mask tool.  Make a note of your usual settings, then change the Radius  to 50 and the Threshold to 0, and then try applying various amounts starting around 20%.  I don't use this so much these days, but it's a genuine free lunch.  But don't forget to change the settings back!

When it comes to printing, there is no substitute for
  • Calibrating your monitor (I use Spyder2 Express)
  • Getting custom ICC profiles made for your usual printer/paper combinations (see this post)
In addition, you can save a lot of frustration and expense by realising that -- no matter how well-calibrated your monitor is and how good your profiles are -- a print will never begin to match the brightness and snap of the image as seen on screen unless you adjust its brightness and contrast before you print it.  This is also a useful tip if you're thinking about making print-on-demand books, cards, or calendars, e.g. via Blurb or VistaPrint.   Send them files which have been pre-adjusted for printing!  Sounds obvious, but how many people do?

For my printer (an Epson Stylus Photo 1400), I usually increase the brightness by 20 and the contrast by 5.  It looks awful on screen, but good on paper. If you've got loads of storage, you could add an adjustment layer for Brightness and Contrast to each image, but I tend to make the adjustments just before printing, then discard them.

Finally, make backups.  Lots of backups.  Duplicate your backups on CD, DVD, portable hard-drives, in rented cloud storage, whatever you have access to.  It's insane to have all your image files in one place.  USB-connected hard drives are relatively cheap, and you can simply reproduce the same folder structure on a couple.  It's then just a question of remembering to copy files, or running backup software.

Oh, and never overwrite or delete your RAW files (or your original unedited JPG files, if that's all you have).  I'm always amazed how many people do that.  But then most people used to discard their negatives, too.

No highlight left behind...

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Vegetable Leather

I've mentioned the grotesque Gunnera manicata (or Giant Martian Brazilian Rhubarb) before. They grow all along the stream running through the University campus.  Once upon a time, someone must have thought it was a good idea.  They probably looked great in some plantsman's catalogue of Exciting New Invasive Species.

The first time you see them, they are quite amusing and/or gobsmacking, in a triffid-ish kind of way.  The leaves grow to be four to five feet across (120-150cm), and are held up by rhubarb-like stalks covered in spines straight out of the Special Effects Department.  They look like their sap must surely etch glass, or hospitalize anyone foolish enough to attack them with a machete.

As the year progresses into winter, however, the stalks lose their rigidity and kink under their burden like bent drinking straws, and the massive leaves collapse onto the ground to rot.  I believe the gardeners accelerate the process by snapping the plants over at the end of the season.  I presume they wear chain-mail gauntlets and full bio-hazard suits.

As the leaves appear to be made out of the vegetable equivalent of leather, however, they take forever to rot down.  By December and January, nothing looks deader than a dead Gunnera leaf.




But they're just hiding underground and, like all the best unkillable alien zombies -- they'll be back!

I've been photographing them for years.  A decade or so ago, the University asked me if I would give them a selection of images so they could choose one for the official Christmas card.  As it happened, the previous year it had snowed, and I had a truly magnificent shot of rotting gunnera covered in snow, down by a bit of the stream where the banks and the water run an interesting irridescent orange colour because of the unique combination of brick clay and bacterial pollution that occurs there.  It was clearly The One.

To my amazement, the PR people rejected it, and instead went for a dull shot of some snow-covered apples, that I'd slipped in as a makeweight.  Asked why, they explained -- in that patient, cautious tone you use with potentially dangerous lunatics -- that the picture of those things down by the stream was not really in the intended seasonal spirit, and yes, despite all the snow.

Ah.  I think it was around then that I realised that, in certain crucial senses, I was never going to be entirely normal in my aesthetic responses, and might as well make a virtue out of it.  Amazingly, the PR people haven't yet asked me for any more festive photos.  Their loss, I think.

Sunday, 10 February 2013


Picking up the theme of "quality books" again, I was meant to be going to a showing of the film How to Make a Book with Steidl last night at the John Hansard Gallery, but the weather was awful, the timing was inconvenient (18:00-20:00 on a Saturday!), my cough had started up again, and in the end I just stayed at home.

If you've got a reasonable amount of disposable income, and photo-books are your only (or main) expensive habit, you won't need any introduction to the output of Steidl Verlag, based in Göttingen.  They are, in the words of Cole Porter, The Tops.  They are the Louvre Museum, the Colosseum, nay, the Mickey Mouse of book production*.  As I have said before, the Germans get books, in the same way they get cars.  To hold and page through a Steidl or Kehrer photo-book is like getting behind the wheel of an Audi or BMW.

But Steidl books are a special case, because they are what you get when perfectionism, entrepreneurial drive, printing craft know-how, and immaculate taste are embodied in one man, printer-publisher Gerhard Steidl.  Such obsessive hands-on direction is a rare thing in this "good enough" world.  I suppose Manfred Eicher of ECM records would be another stand-out (and German) example.

The film is not, in fact, a "how to", but a portrait of Steidl, as "he collaborates with the world famous photographers Joel Sternfeld, Robert Frank, Ed Ruscha, Jeff Wall and Robert Adams, at their studios and other places of work, in New York, London and Paris, in the Katar desert, and, last but not least, in Göttingen. Here, in "Steidlville", their works are printed on Steidl's own machines, in three shifts. In goes the idea, out comes the finished book".

Disappointing not to see the film, but I see it's available on DVD now, so I've ordered myself a copy.  You can get a flavour of it at this website, including a trailer.  Not a single car-chase, of course, but you will get to hear Steidl say "Fuck ze mid-tones!" to Joel Sternfeld.

Not quite Steidl-ready, but one day, one day...

* Odd, how "Mickey Mouse" has gone from a witty example of the Best of the Best to a synonym for "crap", but never mind.

Friday, 8 February 2013

Who Put the Urgh in Burger?

I've been trying to get my head round this horse-meat brouhaha.

Overseas readers may not know this, but in recent weeks it has emerged that leading supermarkets and fast-food chains in the UK have inadvertently been stocking beef products such as burgers and lasagne which are, in fact, anything up to 100% horse-meat.  The cynic in me wants to put that "inadvertently" in quotes, but their shock and surprise does seem genuine enough.  French readers, of course, are shrugging their shoulders and wondering what all the fuss is about.

Now, last weekend, I could cheerfully have brained (with a family-size frozen lasagne) any number of Tesco customers, all wandering around the store asking -- in the sort of loud, self-satisfied voice that only morons are blessed with -- where the "Shergar burgers" might be located.*  Chuckle!  As so often, I was bemused by the unloveliness of much of the indigenous population of Shirley and Millbrook, Southampton.  It's quite striking. I mean, I'm no oil painting, as they say, but Saturday morning in the Tebourba Way Tesco can be quite the freak show.  There's a photo-project there for someone, but not me, thanks very much.

But back to the meat.  What was particularly weird was the way the horse-meat was discovered.  It seems the likes of Burger King are suspicious enough of their suppliers that they routinely DNA-test their burgers.  Blimey!  It seems equine DNA had started turning up, mainly in the "meat filler product" (some sort of protein-bone-and-fat slurry prepared from offcuts and used to fill the gaps between bits of actual meat) supplied from Poland.

Well, I don't know about you, but the concept of "meat filler" is quite revolting enough, never mind what species is/are being ground up to provide it.  Given the proven edibility of actual horse-meat, you'd have thought the use of such a substance in food intended for human consumption would be the bigger scandal, but no.

There's clearly a major taboo at work here.  Of course, the attitude to animals in general on these islands is a source of amusement and perplexity to the wider world.  Donkey sanctuaries and Pet Rescue Centres really do exist here.  No, really! Why, it's as if the British thought animals had souls, and were not just meat-machines which we, as God's Top Species, are free to use and abuse as we see fit.  I doubt there's another country in the world where the question "Do goldfish have feelings?" would figure on a university philosophy exam paper.

But the horse taboo is a deep and genuine one.  I suspect there must be pagan, atavistic religious feelings at work.  There is, after all, nowhere else in the world where images like the ones below have been created, and preserved, for hundreds -- and, in the case of Uffington, thousands -- of years.

Eric Ravilious, Westbury White Horse, 1939

Eric Ravilious, Uffington White Horse, 1939

I had never before considered there might be ambiguity in the expression, "I'm so hungry I could eat a horse!"  I think I'd always assumed it was a quantitative thing: I'm so hungry, I could eat something as big as a horse!  After all, horses are often invoked whenever coarseness, large size or inedibility are concerned:  horse-chestnut, horse-laugh, horse-mushroom, horse-radish, etc.  But maybe it's really qualitative:  I'm so hungry, I could break thousands of years of taboo, and eat ... a horse!  After all, there's quite a taboo around eating lots of things, but when hunger bites, it's been demonstrated repeatedly that we'll tuck in to pretty much anything, including each other.

Though I'd have to be pretty damned hungry indeed ever to eat a meat-filler burger from a fast-food chain.

[N.B. for anyone who has ever doubted the wisdom of "burning in the corners and edges" of a photograph, check out what Ravilious has done in those two watercolours.  See how it helps to stabilize and focus the composition, though he may have overdone it a little on the Uffington picture.]

* Again, for overseas readers:  Shergar was a famous Irish racehorse who had a very short but blazing career in 1981, who was put out to stud and then kidnapped,  never to be seen again, in 1983.  He is the Lord Lucan of the horse world.  Lord Lucan, yet again for overseas readers...  Oh, look it up.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

It's That Picture Again, Again

Some pictures just keep on giving, don't they?

That's (part of) me, top left. That's Chris Huhne with the battering ram.

I was told a very amusing story by an old friend, now a prominent employee of the BBC, about the way Mr. Huhne was carefully sidelined from the action on the night a small group of us assembled in a house in Jericho to break into and occupy the Indian Institute in Oxford the following morning (in retrospect an astonishingly foolhardy and pointless action which cost several people their university careers).  But, as any good journalist knows, a single source is not enough to go public with a humiliating anecdote about a litigious and angry public figure, however hilarious.

You've got to wonder, though, haven't you?  What was he thinking?  As so many have said, the qualities that make successful politicians are precisely the ones that should disqualify them from ever holding public office.

Monday, 4 February 2013

Nothing But Blue Skies

Ever since Mike Johnston fingered me as a prime example of "a photographer who doesn't put horizons in his pictures" (in front of 30,000 people on TOP) I've been thinking about that observation.

Of course, we all walk around covered in labels that other people -- with varying degrees of justification -- insist on hanging on us. As an instinctive contrarian, I've spent most of my life rejecting them, though I do suspect this means it's easy to practise cunning Br'er Rabbit-style reverse psychology on me from time to time.  One day, I must ask the Prof how she inveigled me into doing all the cooking for the past 20 years, for example, though that may simply have been me reacting, contrarian-wise, to the labels hung on my gender.  "Real men don't cook"; oh, really?  Eat that, mate!

But Mike had a point.  I do have a problem with skies.  Several problems, in fact.

  1. One of the obvious disadvantages of being a photographer is that you have no control over the sky that happens to be happening over your chosen subject.  You can fake it in Photoshop, of course, or decide to wait and see, or come back later, but by and large you're stuck with that large area of over-bright randomness doing its own thing overhead, like some clown mooning from a passing car or making bunny ears at the back of the group.

  2. If you're going to include the sky, then unless it's pretty overcast you have to throw away some of your exposure range at one end or the other: either end up with "blocked" and noisy shadows or accept a white featureless blank up top.  Exclude (most of) the sky, and you have more creative options.

  3. Back in the early days of digital, with less well-designed sensors and software, the problem of ugly purple-fringing and other artefacts around branches seen against a bright sky used to drive me nuts.  I have spent entire afternoons carefully painting the edge of every damn twig in a tree.  It was a chore comparable to spotting out dust marks on darkroom prints.  I avoided trees against skies, which is easier said than done, and can form the basis of a whole aesthetic of horizonless images.

  4. Skies are generally pretty dull.  Don't get me wrong, I enjoy a good sky, but they don't happen anywhere near as often as they should.  By and large, the sky is like expanses of featureless grass: ubiquitous, and not particularly interesting.

  5.  "Good" skies tend towards the tacky end of the aesthetic spectrum.  They're the province of the users of graduated filters, polarizers, and HDR software.  No sky was ever that blue, no cloud so pneumatic, no sunset quite so psychedelic.  Big skies and sunsets are nature's way of exposing your lack of taste.

  6. A pictured sky is never negligible.  You cannot ignore the compositional weight of clouds, vapour trails, and blue, pink and grey areas in a two-dimensional image.  You can use them, if you're lucky, but you cannot ignore them.  If they're all wrong, for your purposes, you have three choices:  wait, fake it, or cut them out. 

The problem, of course, is that landscape pictures without sky can feel claustrophobic and airless, and people may build entire theories about your personality or artistic "message" based on that.  I don't blame them -- I would, too -- but put those labels somewhere else, please.  And, who knows, I may be just about to start including lots of sky in all my photographs, though somehow I doubt it.  See 1-6 above, especially 5 and 6.




Subtle, but...  It's just the sky.

Addendum 5/2/2013:

I should mention two outstanding photobooks which take the sky as their subject:  Richard Misrach's The Sky Book (Arena, 2000) and the more recent Sunburn by Chris McCaw (Candela, 2012). Examples of artists who take the "problem" of the sky and work with it to produce something radical.

Friday, 1 February 2013

Pond Water

Well, I did say things might be a bit sparse this week.

We've been viewing and evaluating presentations from teams of smiling optimists in suits (never my favourite type of person) who want to sell us their version of a steam-powered spoon-feeder for students.  You know, something to take all the effort out of looking stuff up, in the way Google does.  I have already made my views known on the subject of easing the pain of higher education (see A Modest Proposal) so won't go on about it.

To add to the fun, I am also suffering an Access-All-Areas Virus, and am pleased to report my doctor was sufficiently impressed today to prescribe antibiotics.  Doctors seem to fall into three camps: the ones who will sign a scrip for some trophy pill at the slightest symptom (Yay! Antidepressants!), those who are reluctant ever to prescribe anything more exciting than two paracetamol, and those who always refer you to a specialist, involving a pointless six-month wait and then dreary hours waiting in hospital corridors.  Mine is a paracetamol man, so I must have made a more immediately convincing case (or more ugly spectacle) than any of those steam-powered spoon-feeder merchants.

Anyway.  Something in all that (spoons, germs, ugly spectacles) put me in mind of a book recommendation.

Up until now, I have been indifferent to the phenomenon of Stephen Gill.  I am always suspicious of those psychogeographers, trustafarians and derivistes who have made Hackney and Stoke Newington their happy hunting ground; not least, I suppose, because we have a lot in common.  Et in Hacknio ego.  But Gill's projects, for me, smacked too much of attention-grabbing-but-pointless gimmickry.  I mean, why, Stephen?  Why bury your photos in the ground to rot on Hackney Marshes, and why put bits and bobs (including live insects) inside your camera, when photographing Brighton?  Hey, I'm completely mad, me!

Of course, if you're a book collector with half an eye on your pension fund, you'll know that not snapping up copies of those early books and burying them somewhere more archivally-safe than Hackney Marshes may have been an error of judgment  -- copies of Hackney Wick are going for £500-1000 -- but even greed couldn't make me warm to his particular oeuvre.  I have to like what I buy, and I found his pictures tacky and uninteresting.

But then I read about his Coexistence project, chosen as a "book of 2012" by several reviewers I respect, and started to come round.  The project itself is the usual elaborate rigmarole:

In the summer of 2010 I was asked if I would be interested in making a photographic response to an area containing a pond situated within an industrial wasteland – the remains of the deceased steelmaking industry in Dudelange, Luxembourg. My only previous experience with ponds had been during my teenage years, when an obsession with pond life led me to spend long hours in my bedroom wearing a lab coat and peering into a microscope. That obsessive immersion into a strange and disorientating world had a profound effect on me personally, and certainly left its mark on many of the photographic studies I have subsequently produced. I knew that the pond in Dudelange would be teeming with unseen life now that its industrial past had come to an end. From the 1920s until it was put out of use in 2006 the pond had been used to cool the blast furnaces, and tiny but dense communities would be now forming and thriving in the absence of that extreme heat. For the eight months leading up to my first visit to the territory, my mind increasingly started tuning into microscopic worlds within worlds, and I became ever more aware of the many parallels between patterns and processes in the pond and those in our own lives as individual humans within societies. Slowly I became committed to the idea of attempting to bring these two apparently disparate worlds – so physically close yet so different in scale – visually closer together. Grappling with the idea of knitting together these parts of life that coexist but don’t belong together nor are ever usually seen together, I decided to make a photographic study that would resemble a kind of tapestry. The University of Luxembourg kindly taught me to use one of their medical microscopes so that I was able to study single drops of the water, and I began searching the pond for diatoms and other minuscule creatures and plant life. The more I thought about the human factor that was so essential to the series forming in my head, the more I wanted to involve local people from the small town of Dudelange, which has a substantial community of families with Portuguese and Italian origins. Many of these people used to work in the steelmaking industry. For health and safety reasons it was not possible to invite people to come to the cooling ponds, so I decided instead to take the pond to the people. I filled a red plastic mop bucket with water from the pond, and dipped my underwater camera into this pond water prior to making portraits of the Dudelange residents. Later on I also dipped the prints into the pond itself, so microscopic life was also transferred onto the surface of the paper.

Yeah, right.  Don't tell me, Stevie, then you pour the pond-water in your ear?*  Hey, don't call us, we'll call you.

But this time I really liked the actual images, particularly the microscopic work.  If you have ever spent time copying coloured chalk diagrams of spirogyra and euglena from the blackboard, you'll know the appeal.  And then I read about Gill's workshop, where the skills of hand-crafted bookbinding are practised, and how Coexistence was being produced in an edition of 1500 hand-bound copies in six different marbled covers (250 copies of each variant), with leather quarter-bound spine, foil blocked lettering, speckled book-block edges, available for £30, signed, direct from Gill's own Nobody Books outlet...  Well, I had ordered a copy of the Number Three binding before you could say "PayPal".

It is a thing of beauty, and I can't stop picking it up to admire it.  It has a very satisfying heft and a bookish quality that only the Germans really understand these days.  Sweet.  Unfortunately, all copies of all six variants are now sold out at Nobody Books, though some may still be available from other outlets.  If you can find a copy, I recommend it: you won't regret it.

* I'm assuming you know the classic Bob Newhart sketch