Saturday, 30 March 2013

Cheap Music

Is there a word for something which has become the best example of itself?  If there is, then the song "More Than a Feeling" by MOR rock-band Boston would be a good instance of it for me.  If you know the song (and how could you not?) then you will know how well it is capable of illustrating itself, being one of those meta-songs about the mnemonic power of music.

For me, it is always more than a feeling, when I hear that old song: I am instantly whisked back to a tiny study-bedroom in one of the "ziggurat" residence blocks of the University of East Anglia where I spent academic year 1976/77, alternately studying literary theory, getting high, getting low, and writing long poste restante letters to my on-again off-again girlfriend, who was away that year travelling in South America, whereabouts unknown.

I'd usually be listening to my little transistor radio late into the night, and once John Peel and the BBC were tucked up in bed I'd retune to Radio Caroline, the pirate radio station, then in its "Loving Awareness" phase and broadcasting from a leaky boat about 20 miles off the coast to the south-east of my desk.  The change of gear from Peel's acerbic proto-punk to the album-rock and classic pop of Caroline could be brutal, but also often a relief. That year, of course, was the year that particular old song was new, an instant classic, and it got played most nights on Caroline. 

It was a memorable time, 76/77, one of those turning-point years that everyone remembers.  A summer heatwave and drought was followed by the deep-freeze winter that ushered in the year of the Jubilee, when "punk" supposedly rendered the likes of big-hair Boston obsolete overnight.  The Sex Pistols were booked to play at UEA on 3rd December 1976 (plus The Damned, The Clash, and the Heartbreakers  -- the very first date of the "Anarchy in the UK" tour) but it was cancelled following the notorious "dirty fucker" TV interview with Bill Grundy on 1st December. Grrr.

I suppose you might say I was trying out for size being a punk academic that year.  Those were the early days of the "theory" revolution, and we felt we were sweeping away the complacent, canonical certainties of the gentleman scholars.  I was quite an angry, aggressive person in those days, and enjoyed (some might say, instigated) the inevitable confrontations. At least one visiting academic fled prematurely from the verbal roughing-up we gave him at a seminar.

It was in the air: the New Musical Express was having a moment, too -- writers like Ian Penman and Paul Morley had brought a new political and intellectual edge to music writing, and NME was, for some of us, required reading every week.  Though, it turns out, everyone else had stopped buying it for exactly the same reason.  Ah, well.

However, although I might have preferred the Sex Pistols in principle, after a few beers in the Union Bar I would get misty-eyed to the more maudlin juke-box hits of that year, like "I Don't Want To Talk About It" by Rod Stewart.  It seems my inner truck-driver is the solid-but-sentimental core around which more sophisticated personality traits have been temporarily draped and, like Van Morrison, as I grow older that truck-driver pushes more insistently at my waistband.

So, regrettably but truthfully, it's "More Than a Feeling" that evokes that time most pungently, not "Pretty Vacant".  As Amanda says in Noel Coward's Private Lives, it is extraordinary how potent cheap music can be. There's no denying it.

But, in the aggressive, punk-political spirit of those long-ago times, you'd have to counter:  "Come on: define and defend cheap, Amanda".

My monastic cell 1976/77
(wot, no internet?)

Thursday, 28 March 2013

The Marble Rolls

The sunshine finally broke through today, down here on the South Coast anyway.  They say it's been the coldest March in Britain since 1962, and they'll get no argument from me.  Although we have escaped the snow, it has been dull, bitterly cold, and perpetually windy.  You can sense the lift in mood as people arrive at work this morning, on the last day before the university's Easter closure.

The Motion of the Earth

A day with sky so wide,
So stripped of cloud, so scrubbed, so vacuumed free
Of dust, that you can see
The earth-line as a curve, can watch the blue
Wrap over the edge, looping round and under,
Making you wonder
Whether the dark has anywhere left to hide.
But the world is slipping away; the polished sky
Gives nothing to grip on; clicked from the knuckle
The marble rolls along the gutter of time -
Earth, star and galaxy
Shifting their place in space.
Noon, sunset, clouds, the equably varying weather,
The diffused light, the illusion of blue,
Conceal each hour a different constellation.
All things are new
Over the sun, but we,
Our eyes on our shoes, go staring
At the asphalt, the gravel, the grass at the roadside, the door-
step, the doodles of snails, the crochet of mortar and lime,
Seeking the seeming familiar, though every stride
Takes us a thousand miles from where we were before.

Norman Nicholson

Norman Nicholson is a rather forgotten poet, now, but no-one has understood or expressed the experience of Britain's upland landscapes better than him.  His poem "Wall" is an anthology classic, the kind of thing kids used to read in the schoolroom to get a sense of the work simple words can be made to do.

A wall walks slowly,
At each give of the ground,
Each creak of the rock's ribs,
It puts its foot gingerly,
Arches its hog-holes,
Lets cobble and knee-joint
Settle and grip.

You might say it's Ted Hughes without the hysteria.  There's a self-consciously Anglo-Saxon rock to his diction, rhythm and alliteration, but then he was a very self-consciously Cumbrian poet.  But he balanced this bardic rootedness with a strong sense of the place of the Earth in the universe, and the geology, physics, and astronomy that extend and amplify our understanding.  There cannot have been many poets in the 1960s writing poems about "The Expanding Universe":

And if the universe
Reversed and showed
The colour of its money;
If now unobservable light
Flowed inward, and the skies snowed
A blizzard of glaxies,
The lens of night would burn
Brighter than the focused sun,
And man turn blinded
With white-hot darkness in his eyes.

This mix of elemental specificity of place and mind-blowing universality is something that is, for me, an essential part of the experience of being at large in hills, mountains and moors.  Out there, your face is pressed up against the display-window of a greater reality.

As is required by law, we will be in mid-Wales over the break, so I have front-loaded some posts to keep things ticking over.  Weather permitting, we will ourselves be at large in hills, mountains, and moors.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Takeaway Titles

It's annoying, when you've had a good idea for a post slowly cooking on your brain's back burner for a while, only to read it -- written better, by someone else -- in the pages of the TLS, of all places.  So it goes.

Barton Swaim in the Freelance column (TLS 22/3/2013) talks about his suspicion that certain book titles are frequently referenced by people who have almost certainly never read the actual book, for the simple reason that the title appears to encapsulate the book's presumed message in a handy phrase, which has often become common currency.  Books like Small is Beautiful, or The Shock of the New, or even The Black Swan.

As he says, "I suspect there are a lot of people of a certain age who honestly think they read The Third Wave by Alvin Toffler, whereas in fact they never did.  They've grown so familiar with the concept of the three waves ...  that they can write the words 'what Alvin Toffler called the third wave' in good conscience".

He calls these "energy-bar titles" ("As an energy bar frees you from the rigmarole of eating a whole meal while making you feel as if you have eaten one, these titles have the capacity to allow you to feel you've read what you haven't").  In his own admission, that's an infelicitous coinage.  My own offering would have been (is) to call them "takeaway titles", because the "takeaway" message is encapsulated in the title, with the added suggestion of an easy, unearned meal.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Marches Past

More archaeology from Marches past, in this case 2010 and 2009.

I miss that wall at the top, demolished to make way for a car park.  It always had something of the quality of those Roman garden murals, excavated at Herculaneum and Pompeii.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Two March Mornings

Two March mornings...  Not, as you might think, this year and last year, but 15th and19th March 2012.

Which only goes to show that March is a very changeable month.   But then they all are, these days...

Thursday, 21 March 2013

See Saw

Sitting at home on a dismal day, with the rain blowing against the window, I thought I'd explore the photographs sitting unused on my backup drive from last March.  This is never a waste of time.  As photographer Pradip Malde wrote on his blog recently, "It is strange how the work has already been done, but it takes a while for mind to catch up, to see what was seen; a mode of growth that may be particular to photography".

I am not a "spray and pray" photographer.  Last March, I took 412 photographs in total, which is hardly anything for someone who photographs every day with a digital camera.  Even so, when my hand and eye are in tune, they often "see" things my conscious brain isn't quite ready for -- it might take a year or more for it to catch up.  "So that's what they were on about!"  The thing is, the camera just does what it's told.  "What that?  OK, if you say so!!"  The faithfully recorded image will sit there until I'm ready to see what I saw.

  Sometimes, I can't believe the riches I have passed over.  Generally, this is because I was in the middle of building a sequence, and good things got left to one side as irrelevant or inappropriate to the task in hand.  Or it may be because the new things felt stale at the time --  been there, done that -- but, in retrospect, may turn out to be the best examples yet of a familiar personal concern.

Monday, 18 March 2013

Bach on Bach : Coda

What I had meant to say in the previous post about the accidental BBC Bach mash-up (which may have been implicit) was this:

There was a moment -- during that initial minute or so when it still seemed the jarring cross-cut effect might have been intentional -- when my ears and brain suspended disbelief and something genuinely creative happened.  It didn't last long, but it was real. If you've ever sat through a free jazz performance or a piece of aleatory, experimental music, you'll know the feeling: ten seconds of real interest bought at the price of an hour of screaming tedium.

At the risk of sounding like a vicar turning his sermon ("And I thought, isn't the love of God just like a free jazz performance?") it occurred to me that the problem with much contemporary art is that it is predicated on the pursuit of nothing more than that fleeting experience of defamiliarization and disorientation.  Where Bach builds a magic space in your head, patiently, cunningly, others -- no need to name names -- hope to get lucky and create one by grabbing both of your ears and pulling hard.  But you can never build a substantial achievement that way.   Hence the endless churning of attention-grabbing but ephemeral novelties.

Of course, the great thing about chance is that it can reveal fresh solutions to old problems.  But, as we know, chance mainly favours the prepared. Whatever it was that happened during those ten seconds was interesting but not much use to me.  But, who knows, maybe one or two composers who happened to be listening had their ears pinned back -- "that's IT!" -- and stumbled to their manuscript books, fired up for an afternoon of pure creative frenzy...

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Bach on Bach

Something curious happened on BBC Radio 3 yesterday.

I was late getting out to do the Saturday morning shop (the Prof is away doing a conference gig, and it's surprising how late you can sleep without heavy hints being dropped about cups of tea) and on the car radio caught the tail end of some "re-inventions" of Bach by Stefano Scodanibbio on the New Releases spot -- a classic ECM release, modernist, airy, crystalline.  It's been end-to-end Baroque this week on Radio 3, and my ears were primed for precisely such interesting reclamations and explorations of this over-familiar territory.

Andrew McGregor, the presenter, said a few words about the Scodanibbio, and then said something like, "If you like your Bach to sound a little fuller, how about this version of the Magnificat?" and cued up the next track.  It was sensationally strange!  Over the slightly muted chorale of the Magnificat -- presumably a sampled recording -- someone was playing a crisp, loud harpsichord, in a completely different slow tempo and in a different key.  A little fuller?  I'll say... The effect was at first startling, and ear-opening, but as I became gradually attuned to it, it just became annoying.  It was really nothing more than a grinding mash-up of two pieces, which never interlocked or commented on each other, rather like being at an up-market 18th century fairground.

Then it stopped.  "Sorry about that", said Andrew, "We seem to have managed to play the Disc of the Week (Bach English Suites) over the Magnificat -- not sure how that happened...  Let's start again."

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Surprised by Snow

We were surprised by snow this week.  It was the good stuff, though, dry and fine-crystalled, blowing about in the wind like soap-powder.  While it lasted it was very decorative, a dusting of icing-sugar over everything, but was gone by lunchtime.  The cutting wind stayed on, however.

We've also had rain, fog, thunder, hail and bright sunshine.  It must be March...  The trees have decided, using whatever calculation it is they use*, that it is now Spring.  The mind of a tree is an unfathomable thing, slow to reach conclusion, but implacable in its resolve.

* Yes, yes, log tables, twigonometry...  You'll have to do better than that.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Twenty Three and a Half Degrees

My bicycle leans on our back wall at much the same angle as planet Earth leans on space --  a distinctly casual, street-corner 23.5 degrees, or thereabouts.  That crucial tilt of our planet's axis from the vertical explains pretty much everything about climate, varying day length, and seasons, or so I was taught at school.  The angle of inclination of my bike, as far as I know, has no effect on the Earth's climate.

Or...  Does it?  That bike spends a lot more time leaning against that wall than it should.  And, although I walk whenever I can when I feel like it, I drive to work much more often than I should.  It seems that, by letting that bike lounge around all day, I'm doing my bit to screw things up, climate-wise.

Now, we all need to be reminded, constantly, of the way our small choices add up to big consequences.  If only so that we cannot claim, as the sea-level rises and the forests burn, that no-one ever told us it could have been otherwise.  Moralists are annoying, of course.  Everyone accepts the truth that over-fondness for biscuits will lead to weight gain, but no-one likes to be told that the overweight are, morally, second-class citizens.  The morally-trim are annoying, in the same way thin or young or good-looking people are annoying, because they are a walking critique of and rebuke to the rest of us.

What we need is facts, and arguments backed by well-researched figures, not holier-than-thou finger-wagging.  Enter my old friend, Science Man.  I've talked about Andy before (for example, here and here).  He's my go-to man when I have a scientific or environmental conundrum, particularly one that involves the use of numbers, a language I do not speak.

For example, I was exercised by the way so many homes now have central-heating systems operated by a condensing boiler. On a cold morning you see vast plumes of water vapour belching from every house's boiler vent, like traction engines getting up steam.  Surely Britain would soon be disappearing under a veiling smog of boiler-generated cloud-cover?  Apparently not:
"Don't worry  about the water vapour. Whenever you burn a carbon based fuel you get carbon dioxide and water. The only difference with a condensing boiler is that some of the latent heat that was used, inadvertently, to turn this water into steam is recovered and so doesn't go to waste. So, an ordinary boiler will also be emitting steam but you don't see it because it hasn't been condensed. Plus because the ordinary boiler is less efficient there'll actually be more water vapour emitted than from a condensing boiler."
Reassuring, simply put, and (to the best of my limited knowledge) correct.

So, if, like me, you need your eco-conscience to be pricked by evidence and convincing arguments, and don't like to be hectored with trendentious assertions, you may welcome the advent of Andy's blog, Seven Billion to One.  However, if you find fault with his reasoning and reckoning there, take it up with him, not me.  As I say, I don't speak numbers.  Or ride a bike as often as I should.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013


There are many good things about having an exhibition, but it's not something to be undertaken lightly and is always more time-consuming and more expensive than you anticipate.  Printing aside, the main consumers of your time and money are generally the same thing -- in a word, framing.

I've been lucky with my shows, in that I've either managed to secure funding to cover framing, or the gallery has generously footed the bill.  This is not normally the case, however, and even if you do the work yourself using reasonably cheap "off the peg" frames, you're looking at a minimum of £20 each, and considerably more if you like to print larger than A4 / 8" x 10".  Do the arithmetic.

I don't have a lot of my work framed at home, there are maybe six pieces of various sizes hanging on walls around the house, and another 10 just hanging around.  Mainly, they're items of sentimental importance, or leftovers from old shows.  It would feel a bit egocentric to fill your house with your own pictures.  But framing anything is always an aesthetic challenge: the classic white window-mount in a plain frame works well in a gallery, but looks a little cold at home.

I have several large Tom Phillips prints, for example, stored in tubes, which will some day demand the full-on treatment from a talented specialist (insert advert here for Bron Janulis, frequent flyer on this blog and expert framewrangler).  Or not. They're quite safe in those tubes, after all...

There are alternatives, of course.  I print all of my potential "keepers" as small 5" x 7" proof prints, which are then attached to a large bulletin board with powerful little magnets, and may stay on view there for months.  The better ones migrate into handy free-standing clear plastic frames which can sit on my bookshelves until I get bored with them.  It's a good way of identifying the images with "legs", the ones that will reward viewing over a long period.

A while ago I came across a new product, the so-called Fracture.  If you've got photographs to display, but don't want to go to the trouble of framing them, this could be an interesting alternative.  In essence, you upload your digital image to the people at Fracture (based in Florida), who print it directly onto a sheet of glass, which is then backed with foam for hanging.  Sounds mad, but it works, and is a very effective, unfussy and contemporary-looking way of showing photographs.  I've had a couple made and, despite the modest price, it's a quality product delivered in Apple-standard bespoke packaging.

They're clearly targeting the "utter amateur using a digicam" market, which I think is a mistake.  There's surely far more money to be made from all the cash-rich, time-poor "prosumers" out there.  For example, their working assumption is that you want a borderless rendering of a 4:3 ratio image, which speaks volumes.  But square and custom sizes are available, and it's easy enough to subvert the "full bleed" approach when using the upload wizard and to put a border around your image. Actually, I think a rectangular image well-placed on a square Fracture with a white or black surround could look very good, though I haven't tried that myself.

It could be a very classy, eye-catching way of putting on a relatively inexpensive exhibition.

Der Widergänger, Fotoforum Innsbruck, 2010
photo  ©  Louise Barrett

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Bright Lights

I happened to be down by the docks last night and it was fairly foggy, so as I also happened to have a camera with me I thought it would be worth a few exposures just to see what would happen.

Part of the problem of photographing the dockside at night is the intensity of the illumination -- you can practically feel the holes being burned into your camera's sensor -- but the fog was helpfully obscuring and diffusing the more distant lights into a soft blaze.  With a bit of judicious cropping and a lot of tweaking I came up with these:

There's something there, but I need to think a bit more about what it is, exactly.  Those lights in the sky, by the way, are the cab lights of giant cranes, looming invisibly in the fog.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Let's Hear It For Wikipedia

One of the causes I support financially, from time to time, is Wikipedia.  In the contemporary Dictionary of Received Ideas*, the entry under "Wikipedia" would read, "Scoff at its inaccuracy; refer to well-known examples of biographical inexactitude.  Nevertheless, use it constantly".

Having worked as an "information professional" since the days of print-only reference sources -- which were updated annually at most, and far less frequently, if ever, in most cases -- I know a thing or two about the problems involved in "looking stuff up" (sorry to use such a technical term).  Frankly, people who are sniffy about Wikipedia have no idea what they are talking about.  These are same spoiled e-brats who expect cameras that deliver perfect, grain-free images at ISO 64000.

Errors?  Of course there are errors!  You think there are no errors in printed reference sources?**  Have you never seen an "errata" page, slipped shame-facedly somewhere inside an "authoritative" source like a dictionary? Have you any idea how long you would have to wait to see a corrected edition of, say, a monumental encyclopaedia of film, which turns out to be riddled with proofreading errors?  Reference work is like the X-Files: trust no-one.

The amazing thing about Wikipedia is not how bad it is, but how good it is, given the "wiki" model.  It's evidence for the efficacy of that counter-intuitive but very contemporary phenomenon, crowd-sourcing; or, to use the more contentious label, the wisdom of crowds. Lots of people who know a little can, collaboratively, outweigh one person who knows a lot, it seems.

Or so the theory goes:  how this would have worked out in, say, the case of Galileo is fairly clear.  Luckily, burning at the stake is no longer an option.  As Flaubert's Dictionnaire des idées reçues has it:
ORIGINALITY: Jeer at it, you will be thought a most superior person.  Express scorn and hatred for all forms of originality;exterminate it if you can.
For a counter-balancing example of the witlessness of crowds, check out the Zeitgeist Statistics of crowd-sourced book cataloguing project LibraryThing.  Apparently, these are the Top Ten authors with at least 50 ratings:
Don Wood (5), Luigi Serafini (4.76), William M. Gaines (4.75), The Kyoto Costume Institute (4.75), Janet Arnold (4.74), Rudolf Kittel (4.71), Arthur G. Bennett (4.68), Ollie Johnston (4.67), R.C. Sproul (4.67), William Little (4.66)
Huh?  Who? A little investigation reveals that Mad Magazine still has a big following, historical fashionistas are big readers, and Christians may not be above a little ballot-stuffing.  Amusingly, down there with the 50 lowest-rated authors (all with nul points) are Ian Rankin, Arnold Bennett, Pierre Corneille (no argument there), William McIlvanney, and somebody called Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (gotta be made-up, that one).

An example.  Recently, I came across the evocative expression "tide diamonds".  I had no idea what it meant, other than it probably had nothing to do with walking on the beach to see what fresh bounty the sea had washed up overnight.  Before the Web, well, where would you start?  The dictionary is no help at all. Nowadays, obviously, straight to Wikipedia.  So that's what a tide diamond is!  What a wonderful (and, to a land-lubber, perfectly useless) thing to know.

So, the next time an appeal for cash from Jimmy Wales pops up on Wikipedia, why not cough up a tenner?  It's a damn sight cheaper than a set of encyclopaedias.  And, as a supporter, you even get to wear a Wikipedia button badge, if so inclined.

*  If you don't know it, this was one of Flaubert's better ideas, never completed.

**  Some errors are deliberate.  Known as "mountweazels" or "ghost words", they are inserted into dictionaries and encyclopaedias as traps for copyright thieves.  One of my colleagues at Bristol University library, prankster Paul Woods, whose death I was saddened to hear of recently, was in the habit of inserting ghost entries into the catalogue there.  The most notorious one may still exist (if the card catalogue still exists):  look up "Polar Bear" should you ever be in the library.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Diamond-encrusted Skulls

My partner's sister's son (my nephew-in-common-law?), was a junior member of that Bristol-based grafitti scene that gave rise to the Banksy phenomenon.  I'm pretty sure he knows the identity of the Man of Mystery (as does half of Bristol), though he's not telling, of course.  Being an upstanding citizen, I knew nothing about any of this, until I was given a couple of little Banksy books by said relations-in-common-law (Existencilism and Banging Your Head Against a Brick Wall) which, ten years and a multinational art-world sensation later, are now sought-after collectibles. I was impressed, as everybody is, by the wit, inventiveness and May-68-ish political immediacy of the early, stencil-based Banksy.

If I was 20 or 30 years younger, I can see how this whole Street Art Scene would have been very much my can of spray paint.  The delight in the mild sense of danger reminds me of the days when we used to go fly-posting at night, one partner clutching a roll of incendiary posters, the other a carrier bag full of gloopy wallpaper paste and a brush.  It's not something to do if you take pride in your appearance.

However, the passing years have gradually endowed me with a degree of taste and discrimination, plus a grudging respect for the law, and the repetitive, imitative nature of most grafitti strikes me as little more than empty me-too posturing.  Not to mention being downright ugly, and utterly insensitive to context.  The noise these young people today call music, etc.

Bordeaux, 2010

The occasion for these CFC-free musings is that the other night I watched the film Exit Through the Gift Shop for the first time.  If you haven't seen it, I recommend that you do.  In many ways, it's a common-law-cousin of Man on Wire.  French obsessives with carte blanche to abandon home and hearth to pursue unlikely and dangerous hobbies are clearly not limited in supply.

I must admit that, to me, the whole film has the air of an elaborate Banksy prank, sprayed over a solid core of truth.  The central character, Thierry Guetta a.k.a. Mr. Brainwash (whom everyone calls "Terry"), is simply too genially barmy, in a puppy-eyed way, ever to have pulled off the massive and improbably triumphant show of his own hastily knocked-out work, "Life is Beautiful", which is the climax of the film.  The transformation from "fanboy with a video camera" to "swivel-eyed art nazi" is deeply unconvincing. He is also way too poor ever to have paid wages and supplied materials to the army of "elves" who actually manufacture the dreadful, derivative artwork that, after many pitfalls, delays and distractions, finally goes on display to a jostling horde of witless LA trend-seekers.

However, prank or not, it is fascinating to watch the genuine footage of street artists at work.  I, for one, hadn't realised that Shepard Fairey of Obama "hope" poster fame had first established himself as a street artist in Boston.  I liked the idea of painting the shadows of street furniture permanently onto the street, or of sticking up giant paper cutouts onto walls like enormous transfers.  It must be fun, hanging out and doing cool stuff in lofts and warehouses, with the prospect of art-scale fame and riches dangling just out of reach.  Although giving your best efforts away for free as an elaborate in-joke or exercise in self-branding -- what the marketing folk call a "loss leader" -- seems a pretty risky strategy.  Lots of fun, but it must be very sad, hitting 40 and realising you have missed the boat, and that the joke was on you all along.
There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.

Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, 4 iii
That, of course, is where Exit Through the Gift Shop pulls its final punch, and becomes a fairy-tale rather than a cautionary tale.  The story arc of the Tragical True History of Thierry the Delusional Frenchman is rewritten -- at the very last moment, in the very last act -- into a late-Shakespearean "problem play", with improbable reconciliations, showers of treasure, living statues, and everything.

Up until the unlikely dénouement, I had felt genuinely uncomfortable watching the crash and burn of a talentless wannabe, who has decided to emulate his heroes, rather than merely act as their willing gofer and Boswell.  It made me very aware of the insecurities felt by anyone who takes the risk of "making art".  My God, you think, don't DO it...  Why has no-one told you that you really are no good at this, that you are trying to play in the wrong league?

At the same time, in effect, you are also being asked to ask yourself: do I look like this to others?  Am I also self-evidently not "the real thing"?  What bankable essence is left when you subtract Mr. Brainwash from Banksy?

I am told these are questions that loom at 3 a.m. round the bed of even the most prominent artists, mocking and undermining their achievement.  The criteria for "success" are so subjective, so market-driven, so accidental, so temporary.  The question of consensual fraudulence between artists, galleries, and collectors in the artistic marketplace is never far away, and has never been more topical.  And that -- whatever the truth of the matter of "Mr. Brainwash" -- is the real subject of Banksy's excellent film.

Southampton Common

Monday, 4 March 2013

Spring Water

Among the first reliable indicators of spring is the awakening of the bacteria in the campus stream...

Whether it's iridescent films in the Pentagonal Pool, or orange mats in the bed of the stream, the microfauna and flora are starting to sing their (inaudible) happy song, as the supply of nutrients and pollutants starts to rise.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Here's Two I Made Earlier

No real connection between these two, other than that they were taken on the walk to work.  Last week, not this, which has surely been the most unpleasantly flat, dull, chilly, and windy week of the winter and -- let's be honest here -- I have actually driven in every day and do not feel remotely guilty.

Though I'm not sure how I will pitch this to my physiotherapist when we meet later this week.

Friday, 1 March 2013

On the Road Again

Cars are notoriously difficult objects to photograph.  Done professionally, it's highly specialised work, and fiercely competitive: just to be in the game, you need to have access to an enormous studio with vast overhead lighting "softboxes" costing hundreds of thousands of pounds and equally vast reflectors which can be manoeuvred into position, not to mention even vaster acreages of mobile neutral background.  It's a big, expensive job.

Apart from the obvious problems of photographing complex and highly reflective surfaces, the main problem is the same one encountered when photographing fashion or products for advertising:  real life does not look real or life-like enough.  Or rather, unfiltered, unaided reality as recorded by a camera is unconvincing and uncompelling to the human eye.  Blemishes, distortions and distractions that our brains filter out of reality when seen through the eye get foregrounded in a 2-D image.  Photographers of objects have to put a lot of work and know-how into manufacturing "eye candy".  Making yet another mid-range hatchback look distinctive is quite a challenge.

More interesting, though -- and, it seems, more difficult, or maybe simply less profitable -- is making photographs that express the reality of the experience of driving, rather than merely trying to provoke the desire to buy a new automobile.

I came late to cars -- I was 30 when I passed my driving test -- but discovered I had latent petrolhead tendencies.  I actually don't care much about cars, as such, but it turns out I'm a good, safe driver, who loves to drive, in pretty much any conditions.  Stop-start trips through town?  Emergency dashes to the railway station? Long motorway cruises at constant euro-speeds?  Narrow country lanes with oncoming tractors?  Snow, ice, rain, fog, hot sun?  It's all good driving to me.  But I don't see much photographic work that truly captures this central modern experience.

There are plenty of visual shorthands that say "road trip".  Quite a few of them were established by Robert Frank in The Americans: the witty shots in the side mirror and the rear-view mirror, the road heading relentlessly for its endlessly-postponed vanishing point, the wide-angle interior shot of the driver's rapt face with lots of wheel and dashboard ...  Frank's influence on the "road trip" genre is inescapable.  Amusing, now, to realise this work was dismissed at the time as "meaningless blur, grain, muddy exposures, drunken horizons and general sloppiness".  Who knows what seminal work is currently being dismissed by the pundits?

Robert Frank

But few of these instant classics really say much about the experience of driving.  Anyone who drives -- and some mornings it can seem that everyone in the world drives -- knows that driving is not simply "sitting in a car behind the wheel".  It's a whole mindset that can include boredom, anger, meditative silence, lively conversation, one-handed eating, music, disturbing incidental noises ("What was that?"), bizarre roadside scenarios ("What was that?"), aching discomfort, and a pressing need to pee at an early opportunity.

I suppose one might as well complain that most landscape photography has little to say about the experience of walking, from the discomfort of wearing allegedly "breathable" fabrics in steady rain to chasing down windblown maps.  But, in a way, that is what divides sterile "fine art landscape photography" -- basically yawn-inducing eye-candy which is no different in impulse from commercial car photography -- from really-engaged art made in (or from) the landscape.

I like, for example, Todd Hido's use of the car windscreen as a framing and textural device in his books A Road Divided and Roaming.  It captures that feeling of distanced, open-ended discovery you get, as the landscape scrolls past like a back-projection.  Hido, unlike most of us, actually bothers to stop and take a photograph.  To get out of the car -- brushing off crumbs, straightening the back, breathing the air -- would break the spell.  Hido's habitual sense of immanent mystery (and sometimes imminent threat) is very much to my taste.

Todd Hido, A Road Divided

At the other end of the spectrum there is Martin Parr, with From A to B: tales of modern motoring, which was a BBC TV series and book in 1994.  Martin Parr is a much misunderstood one-off, not least by the romantics of photo-journalism (his admission to Magnum was bitterly opposed).  If there's another human being on the planet who is a world class photographer and a collector of watches bearing pictures of Saddam Hussein, not to mention photo-illustrated trays from Butlins, I'd be very surprised.  I had the good fortune to do a workshop with him at Duckspool in 1990.  Martin photographs what is there, not what he wishes to be there, and zeroes in on precisely those things that other photographers would exclude or be repelled by.  He often uses a macro lens and a ring-flash: there are no evocative tricks of the light in Parr-world.  He's all about showing, not telling, and what he shows us about our relationship with cars is true, if not very flattering.  But we make the choices, he simply documents them.

Then there is Lee Friedlander, whose series America by Car is a synthesis of all these approaches, with a big dose of his characteristic irony and humour. He uses the doors, mirrors and windshield of his rental car as a constant presence, so that roadside America becomes a series of tableaux framed by plastic and leatherette.  Robert Frank got there first, but had an altogether more earnest, less 21st century message to convey.

Lee Friedlander, Nebraska 1999

Of course, sometimes it's just a relief to get out of the car, even if it is very wet, windy and cold,and the mist has reduced the visibility to about ten yards.  If you can persuade everyone to get out, that is.