Thursday 30 May 2013

Running on Empty

Posts have been a little thin this last week, I'm afraid, as I've finally got over some kind of creative block which has been interfering with my book-making for the last year or so.  I've taken plenty of pictures, some of them as good as or better than any I've taken before, and had plenty of ideas of what I might do with them, but somehow my book-making mojo had gone missing.  Suddenly, for no obvious reason, it seems to be back.  So I've been busy.

Apart from the recently-completed Elevation, I have two -- possibly three -- other books in process.  The more major project of the two is the sustained work I have been doing on the outskirts of Winchester -- the viaduct, the motorway, the river Test, St. Catherine's Hill and Twyford Down.  That's a fairly big job, though, and may not yet be finished.  The other one is something I thought I had finished way back in 2008 -- the year this blog started -- but which turned out to be unsatisfying, so I withdrew it from the public eye.

In 2006, I was still visiting Mottisfont Abbey, near Romsey, at some point on most weekends.  It had been the site of my first sustained "topographical" project, and the venue of my first serious exhibition.  The book Downward Skies was the enduring result of that.  It is still quite pleasing in parts, but could do with a tighter edit, and above all some re-scanning of the negatives.

2006 was pretty much the last year of the "old" Abbey, with its agreeably scruffy grounds and river walks.  Over the next few years the National Trust, who own the Mottisfont Estate, went in for a programme of "improvements" -- scrub clearance, tree thinning, new paths, interpretation boards, the usual coach-party-pleasing blandness -- and the place lost most of its interest.  For me, anyway.

I had previously been so focussed on the river, that I had never really paid attention to the chalk spring, the "font" that gives the place its name.  It's tucked away in a corner, and -- compared to the river -- seemed fairly static; it's just a twelve-foot diameter circular kettle of clear water, twelve feet deep and lined with flint, contained within a circular railing and open to the sky, eternally bubbling up and flowing away down an ornamental channel into the river.

One February afternoon in 2006 I found myself leaning on the railing and gazing into its depths, and the sheer gravity-defying magic of it put a spell on me.  It was unsettling and paradoxical,  like watching a film run backwards, or tracing a Moebius strip.  Hundreds of gallons of pure water were appearing out of nowhere and pouring into the Test, like a running bath forgotten somewhere back in antiquity.

February 2006
So I began to photograph the moods of this enormous watery lens, as it reflected and refracted the sky and the surrounding trees.  It looked very different in different weathers, and at different times of year.  By the summer I had collected a decent set of images, all variations on a single theme.  Then something weird happened.

It was always said that the spring had never stopped flowing, even in the driest summers.  Well, in late summer 2006, it did stop.  The water level fell, so that the run-off into the channel ceased, and more and more of the flint and chalk blockwork was exposed.  Dead leaves began to accumulate, and the water became green and stagnant.  Whether this was the result of climate change or simply a blockage was impossible to say.  But it felt like a warning, as if the font were a gauge attached to the balance of natural forces, and was now reading "zero".

October  2006
During the winter closed season the Trust decided not only to get the font flowing again but -- inevitably -- to "improve" it.  Out went the venerable railing, out went the overgrown borders, and the bland hand of neat'n'tidy was applied.  You may, like me, have noticed a pattern here, repeated over the years:  I find a nice scruffy spot to photograph; complete a project; the authorities move in to tidy up.  Hmm... Anyone got some delapidated spot within driving distance of Southampton they'd like to see sanitized?  Let me know, and I'll get to work...

Anyway, my first attempt at a book didn't work, so I'm having another go.  I've kept the old title, Water Gauge.  I'll keep you posted.

Oh, and the other reason I've been quiet is that I've also been catching up with the latest scandi-noir Arne Dahl on the BBC iPlayer.  What is the thing with the cleaner all about?  Very odd.  It's as if Peter Greenaway or David Lynch had been given a hand in the production.

Wednesday 29 May 2013

Smaller Elevation

As promised, I have made a smaller version (7" x 7" / 18cm x 18cm) of the new Elevation book.  It's identical in every respect, except ...  smaller.  And cheaper, of course.  Here it is:

It's available in four versions:
  • Softcover at £15.99
  • Hardcover at £25.00
  • Adobe Acrobat PDF at £5.49
  • e-book for Apple iPad/iPhone/iPod at £5.99
This release of the PDF is much smaller (about 10.5 Mb).  Remember to make these settings in the Acrobat View/Page Display menu:
  • Two-Page View (or "two up" depending on the version of Acrobat you have)
  • Show Gaps Between Pages
  • Show Cover Page in Two Page View
Otherwise, you will see a single page presentation, or the wrong pages will be paired on screen.

Saturday 25 May 2013

Just So

Many years ago, I upset my mother by telling her I had been deprived in my childhood, because I had not been read, or been given to read, children's classics like Alice in Wonderland.  This was perfectly true, and hardly surprising, as both my parents had left school at 14 in the 1930s, and were never big readers. They had no idea there was a children's canon that, as I discovered when I got to university, formed the bed-time bedrock of middle-class literacy.  Wind in the Willows?  Never heard of it. Treasure Island?  Arrh, Jim Lad, all about pirates, and parrots with wooden legs, isn't it?  Never actually read it.  Swallows and Amazons?  That was on TV, wasn't it? Seemed a bit girly.  And so on.  You name it, I haven't read it.

As a consequence, I find myself belatedly picking up these best-beloved books to read.  The latest in this line of never-too-late classics has been Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories.  Like Treasure Island, these stories are already over-familiar to everyone who has never read them. So much so, I could barely bring myself to read "How the Elephant Got His Trunk" (or, as I now know to call it, "The Elephant's Child").  What would be the point?  Yeah, yeah, the crocodile bites his nose and pulls it.

Well, you might as well ask, "Why bother to see Hamlet yet again?"   I discovered that these are genuinely, startlingly original pieces of writing.  They are truly spellbinding, begging to be read at bedtime, again and again, by a talented reader capable of bringing to life and inhabiting the different voices and registers that Kipling weaves so inventively, and so intimately.  Where else will you find something as delightful as "he smiled one smile that ran all round his face two times"?  As vivid as "Off ran Dingo -- Yellow-Dog Dingo -- always hungry, grinning like a coal-scuttle"?  Or as memorable as "One, two, three! And where's your breakfast?"

True, there are moments when cloying cuteness threatens to break out.  Victorian and Edwardian gents were 'sclusively sentimental about characterful little girls.  But when you learn that Kipling was still mourning the death of his own eldest daughter, Josephine, the sentiment seems more heart-breaking than toe-curling.  Little Taffy in "How the First Letter Was Written" is clearly the great-grandmother of many feisty little heroines who neglect and reject their household duties in favour of more inciting adventures.

True, there are some dodgy undertones that bubble up ("'Oh, plain black's best for a nigger,' said the Ethiopian").  But I think Kipling both honours and teases the language, traditions and manners of India and Africa, just as he does those of the common British soldier in Barrack-Room Ballads.  Nobody loves slightly bent English as much as Kipling.

With hindsight, this may be condemned as colonial "orientalism", or simple condescension, but his attitude could never be described as malevolent.  Kipling is an imperialist, but very far from racist.  That unfortunate swastika on the rock in the illustration to "The Crab That Played With the Sea" is a Hindu symbol for "auspiciousness", which is why it also appeared on the covers of Kipling's collected works. Kipling himself ordered it to be removed as "defiled beyond redemption" after the Nazis had usurped it in the 1930s.

The tone of the stories is one of controlled but intense playfulness. It's a story-telling voice, rather than a story-writing voice.  It is the relaxed, unbuttoned, domestic voice of upper-middle class Imperial Britain in 1902, heard in a nursery within a large house, buffered from routine by servants, nannies, and cooks, and secure behind the impenetrable firewall of the greatest Army and Navy the world had yet seen.

Then there are Kipling's own illustrations. They are bold, Beardsley-esque, and really not very good.  Often described as "woodcuts", I'm pretty sure they are actually ink drawings in the woodcut style (though I'd be interested to know for sure?).  The Cat That Walked By Himself is an exception, and rightly popular, though few people seem to realise it is by Kipling himself.  Most of them are crowded, mannered, uncertain of line, and too reliant on the use of large black shapes -- they have none of the delicate clarity of a Beardsley, but no compensating vigour of shape or composition.  Above all, it's hard to make out what they're meant to be -- never a good thing in an illustration --  and it's no wonder Kipling felt the need to write a commentary on each.  Some of these commentaries are so whimsically strange you have to wonder what Kipling used to put in his pipe.

But I am much taken with them, Best Beloved, and if I am ever blessed with grandchildren I shall scare them something hijjus at bedtime with my gritted-teeth rendering of the Crocodile in "The Elephant's Child".

Royal Mail Just So centenary stamps
Illustrations by Izhar Cohen

Wednesday 22 May 2013


After much procrastination, I have finally committed to a version of the "university walls and windows" series, which I have published with Blurb.  It is called Elevation.

I chose that title because most of the images are square-on views of the sides of buildings on the university campus (what, on an architect's drawing, is called an "elevation").  It turns out the word "elevation" has a number of special uses, all of which I'm happy to appropriate.

The height of something above a given or implied place, e.g. sea level
A raised area
Nobleness or grandeur; loftiness of thought
A scale drawing of the external face of a building or structure
The external face of a building or structure
A dancer's ability to jump high
(Roman Catholic Church) The lifting up of the Host at Mass
The angle between the horizontal and the line from the object to the observer's eye (the line of sight)
(Linguistics) A change from a pejorative meaning to a positive meaning
(Psychology)  A pleasant moral emotion, the opposite of disgust.

There are four versions available:
  • A conventional printed hardback book, 12" square, 48 pages, costing £55.25
  • A downloadable high-quality PDF version, readable on anything, costing £5.99
  • An e-book for Apple iPad / iPhone / iPod, costing £5.99
  • The "book preview" on my Blurb page, costing nothing at all.
I'm not seriously expecting anyone to buy the hardback, and I will make a smaller 8" square version.  I'm perfectly happy if you go for the PDF or -- best of all, if you can -- the e-book, which is a thing of beauty, and a real bargain at £5.99.  Be aware that the PDF is LARGE (about 26 Mb).  Most of you, I'm sure, will be perfectly satisfied with the Blurb book preview, which is of poorer quality, but did I mention it is free?

EXTRA INFORMATION added on 24/5/13  for PDF purchasers:
To optimize your "viewing experience" you should make these settings in the Acrobat View/Page Display menu:
  • Two-Page View (or "two up" depending on the version of Acrobat you have)
  • Show Gaps Between Pages
  • Show Cover Page in Two Page View
Otherwise, you will see a single page presentation, or the wrong pages will be paired on screen.

Monday 20 May 2013

Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics

I received some comments about the formatting of the most recent post, as seen on an Android phone.  Every other platform I was able to check looked fine.  I looked at the underlying HTML and, sure enough, there were some inconsistencies in the code, which I have now corrected by hand.  It's handy Blogger allows you to do that; I quite often have to remove surplus line-breaks and rogue italics by editing the HTML.

Blogger is especially profligate in its use of SPAN elements, and the opening and closing bracket pairs can easily get out of synch, if you do a lot of cutting and pasting, etc., using the normal "Compose" mode.  However, this is the kind of thing most modern browsers can take in their stride, so I guess Android is just more sensitive to bad and "deprecated" code (I do love that special hacker's usage of "deprecate").

This caused me to wonder what operating systems my visitors are using in general, so I looked at the Blogger stats for the last month:

Pageviews by Operating System (20/4 - 20/5/2013)

Platform         Pageviews

Windows ....... 3474 (71%)
Macintosh .....   788 (16%)
iPad .................185   (3%)
Linux .............. 147   (3%)
iPhone ............ 114   (2%)
Android ........... 85   (1%)
Win NT ............ 17 (< 1%)
PlayBook ......... 11 (< 1%)
Other Unix ......... 9 (< 1%)
BlackBerry .........4 (< 1%)

Interesting.  I would have expected a higher proportion of Mac users than that, if only because that is usually said to be the OS of choice for photographers, graphic designers and allied trades, particularly in the USA.  Which made me look at my demographic over the same period:

Pageviews by Country (Top Ten, 20/4 - 20/5/2013)

United States ....... 1397
United Kingdom .... 926
Russia ................... 382
Sweden ................. 275
Germany ............... 225
France .................. 201
Canada ................. 146
Estonia ................... 94
India ...................... 69
Austria ................... 46

Even more interesting.  I'm getting 50% more US visitors than UK visitors, which is a surprise.  Those Russians and Estonians, I suspect, are mainly robotic visitors, though it is true I do have a couple of friends who travel to Russia frequently on business.  The others all make sense.

Now, I do have my doubts about the accuracy of Blogger's built-in statistics.  Not least because they can differ substantially from those delivered by Google Analytics, the "industry standard" stats package for the Web, which, like Blogger, is owned and operated by Google (you guessed!).  Does anyone else observe this discrepancy?  Go figure, as they say.  But the Blogger stats are handy, and can't be that wrong.

The disappointing thing is that a monthly total of 4834 means I'm getting about 160 visits a day, a proportion of which is almost certainly illusory.  Compared to this blog's heyday around 2010, visits would appear to be down by about 50%.  I blame Facebook and Twitter.  Not to mention the billion other bloggers out there, competing for your attention.  Gertcha!  Git orf my demographic!

But: many thanks to those of you who have stuck with my long-form bloviations.  Frankly, to adapt that well-known expression, I would simply never have enough time to condense my thoughts into 140 characters.  But, here's a thought for those of you who do use social media: see those icons below this post?  The B, the T, the F, and the G+1?  It would be much appreciated if you were to use them occasionally.  Who knows, it might drag in a few more customers, and I might feel more like it's worthwhile carrying on doing this for another year or two.

Sunday 19 May 2013

Corner-Shop Window

The time has long passed when I had to concede that I would never shoot film again.  Hardly a wrench, for me.  Unlike a lot of self-declared film-nostalgists, I did actually get through a fair amount of the stuff (averaged out, around three medium-format rolls of colour negative a week, plus a diminishing amount of home-processed 35mm and medium-format black and white) and it cost me deep in the purse, as they used to say in the old film-era ballads.  I've already described the horror of the darkroom, so won't go there again.

And yet I still have film cameras cluttering the house, ranging from cute little Olympus pocket cameras (Mju and XA), through various old "folders", box cameras, and a couple of SLRs, to my Fuji GS645S, the film camera with which I had the most extended romance.  All of which I bought second-hand (more likely, third- or fourth-hand).  It's hard to recall now, but film cameras used to be robust enough to have many owners over several decades, and were cheap.  The Agfa Isolette folder I used for the project that became the book Downward Skies --  with top of the range f/3.5 Solinar lens and Synchro-Compur shutter -- was made in 1954 (same year as me) and cost me £15 in 2001.

It's a shame they won't get any more use, but none of them is worth enough to sell on, and practically impossible to give away.  Here, please take this device off my hands that -- if you use it -- will cost you more money over a single year in film and processing than the price of decent digital camera! Um, no thanks.

However, I know there are people out there who still use or would like to use film, and in the spirit of the traditional card placed in the window of a corner-shop, I make them this offer:

Mamiya C330f  (incl. Beattie screen, collapsible viewfinder, soft case, body cap, manual)
80mm lens (silver)
55mm lens (black)
180mm lens (black w. original leather case)
Porrofinder (damaged mirror but useable)
Porrofinder, metered
Paramender (fixes parallax)
Right-angle grip with release button
Mamiya quick release plate

WHOLE LOT sold as kit:  to you, dear reader, £350

The Mamiya C330f is the real deal, a twin-lens reflex with interchangeable lenses, and capable of the very highest quality in medium-format photography.  All metal, all beautifully machined, totally robust.  With the grip and porrofinder attached, you can even use it hand-held, which I usually did.  It looks great on top of a tripod, though, if you're that way inclined; it says "serious photographer at work" almost as much as a view camera.  The Beattie screen is simply magic, and brightens up the viewfinder to an amazing degree.

This may have to be UK only, but we can discuss that: it's mainly a question of the cost of packing and postage. PayPal preferred. Anyone interested should contact me via email. If you don't have my email address, leave a comment with your email address  (I will delete your comment immediately on receipt).  Preference to long-term commenters.  As they used to say in the Exchange & Mart:  no time-wasters, please!

I also have a WANTED card to put in the window:

Does anyone have any unwanted old Instamatic (110) size transparencies in their mounts (or even just the mounts)?  I need to scan some old 110 negatives, and that seems the most practical way of doing it. I also need one of those Instamatic transparency adapters, to make them the same size as a 35mm transparency (I know Gepe used to make them).  If you can help (or have a better suggestion for scanning 110 negatives), please contact me as above.


Wednesday 15 May 2013

Concrete Poetry

One thing that is very hard to fake is the harmony of chance, whether it be the self-ordering of the natural world, or the unintended by-products of human activity.  One of the great advances of 20th century art -- perhaps the greatest -- was to grant us permission to regard these non-intentional, aleatory markings and arrangements as an expressive form in their own right.  Much of abstract art is, to my mind, simply the attempt of professional artists to take credit for recognizing what is all around us.  "Appropriation" is not restricted to stealing other people's photographs.

As soon as you try to paint or draw this mysterious harmony it starts to evaporate.  Deliberate marks have their own beauty, of course, but to recreate deep harmony takes considerable skill.  In the end, it is hard to separate one's admiration of a painting from one's admiration for the talent of its painter, most obviously where hyper-realism is the goal (see the work of John Salt or Eliot Hodgkin, for example).  But few people grasp the extent to which an artist like Picasso was trying and failing, in his work, to escape the prison of his own boring facility.

Not so random marks on a wall.  They are simply there, to be remarked, to be used, or to be ignored.  No success or failure attaches to them.  Though it might be said that, in admiring them, you are merely admiring your own sensibility.  Well, and why not?  What else are you going to do with it?

The wonder of photography, in its purest form, is its ability to put in the hands of anybody -- anybody! -- the means to frame selections from the world and say, in effect, I saw this, and was moved to preserve it and to share it with you.  It's one reason why photo-purists reject image manipulation, going right back to the reaction of Group f/64 in the 1930s to the "painterly" conventions and tweakings of the Pictorialists.  It's like a implied breach of trust.  Though it's interesting how much emphasis purists tend to put on their skill -- particularly their skill at re-rendering a photograph to more nearly resemble their original "vision" -- presumably to put some distance between themselves and "anybody".

It's also why "found" photographs so often trump the deliberate work of self-conscious photo-artists.  They come to us with their mystery and their harmony restored, with any of the original photographer's intentions and associations shorn away, and with the perfect, open charm of a concrete object that has bobbed up into our consciousness from the hazy depths of the past. 

© 2011 John and Teenuh Foster 

Monday 13 May 2013

The Sense of a River

You can feel the presence of a living body of water, even when you can't see it.  The vegetation, the light, the wildlife, all announce that you are now entering the riparian zone.

 The presence of a busy motorway -- just yards beyond the trees beyond the viaduct -- is somehow less obvious.  Apart, of course, from the constant noise.  There is no transitional zone, no distinctive ecology, although it's true the motorways themselves are becoming an ecosystem in their own right.  The bounty of roadkill along the central reservations and verges is one reason for the rapid spread of carrion eaters like the Red Kite, I'm sure.

Maybe it's that lack of a distinctive sense of transition that leads pheasants, foxes, badgers and deer to stride boldly out across the carriageway.  After all, you don't see a constant flow of such creatures floating downstream, Eeyore-like, having mistakenly tried to dash across the river.

Sunday 12 May 2013

Rainy Day

It was good to get out of the house and go for a stroll in the spring rain this afternoon, through the meadows that lie alongside the River Test where it passes under the Hockley Viaduct.  It is odd, though:  the first swallows and swifts are appearing, but things are generally so behind schedule it feels as if we're having April in May.

St. Catherine's Hill in the rain

Hockley Viaduct in the rain

But nothing brings out the saturation of the colours like a rainy day.  It always feels like a slightly high-risk activity, though, as far as delicate electronic kit is concerned.  One of these days I'll invest in a weatherproof camera.

Friday 10 May 2013

R and R

Last week, on May Day, I found this cryptic symbol sprayed on the pavement next to a bus shelter on Hill Lane in Southampton:

I photographed it mainly because of the shadows, of course.  Then, at the weekend, without realising what I was looking at, I found something very similar in a tunnel under the railway line near Hockley Viaduct outside Winchester:

Is it an "R"? Or a "12"? Or is it the common symbol for some infrastructural object  -- pipes or wires, maybe?  It seems too simple, discreet and utilitarian to be someone's grafitti "tag".  I'm intrigued.

Wednesday 8 May 2013

Faking It

Reports of academic fakery are all over the place at the moment.  This recent article from the New York Times is particularly interesting, as it explores the issues and motivations behind a recently-uncovered systematic fraudster of some eminence in the Netherlands.  Psychology aside, it seems to boil down to three things.  First, if you want to get ahead, tell 'em what they want to hear.  Second, so much academic work is less than rigorous in its evaluation of data (especially if the data are leading to the "wrong" conclusion) that downright fakery is just one easy psychological and ethical step beyond.  Third, nothing succeeds like success.  A cynic might say, so what's new?  No-one ever got anywhere by playing by the rules.

Issues of the ethics of "manipulation" trouble photographers, too.  I have lost count of the number of agonized (and mainly specious) discussions I have read of how far it is "right" to alter or enhance what the unmediated lens delivers.  Obviously, photo-journalists are a special case, and stand in the same relationship to "truth" as journalists: get caught faking it, and your career is likely over.  Amongst others, Magnum's Paolo Pellegrin fell foul of this high standard recently.  But, just as journalists also stand in relation to novelists on a spectrum of writing as "truth telling", so PJs stand in relation to artist-photographers as far as visual truth is concerned.

It's an interesting question -- and one which I am not remotely qualified to discuss -- whether "truth" has a necessary aesthetic dimension.  A lot of people seem to think so.  Famously, Buckminster Fuller was of the opinion that "when I am working on a problem I never think about beauty. I only think about how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong." Though I think I am more inclined to favour H.L. Mencken's equally famous view that "For every problem, there is one solution which is simple, neat, and wrong."

By the same token, one might wonder whether the reverse is true, that in creating an aesthetically-pleasing object, one is also creating a truth, or at least something very like it. A lot of the supposed "value" of art resides in that rather dodgy presumption.  Can you reverse-engineer the beauty of a sausage into the "truth" of a pig?  I don't think so, but I'm not aware that anyone has ever tackled that particular problem.  A good sausage is its own kind of truth, of course.

But back to photography.  Now, let's just accept that there is inherent jiggery-pokery involved in capturing the beams of light reflected off a scene, snapping them off just so, and turning the withered beam-ends into electrickery which can be stored, passed through wires, and reconstituted like instant coffee into a 2-D representation bearing a sort-of resemblance to the original scene.  Miraculous! Frankly, to worry about the truthiness of the end product seems downright ungrateful.  But it's usually the ethical truth people are worrying about, rather than the epistemological truth.  How far is too far?

Consider these three images, recently submitted to my own Ethics Committee:

The first I showed in a recent post.  It's a "straight" photo, inasmuch as anything which been slightly cropped, and had its colour-channel levels, saturation, and sharpness adjusted in Photoshop can be said to be "straight".  The Ethics Committee are not even slightly troubled by it.

The second, obviously, is the same file, a little more tightly cropped, and rendered as a monochrome image, so as to resemble the colour and tonal range of a platinum-type print.  It looks really great printed on Hahnemühle Matt Fine Art paper.  But it's a fake, in that it is not a platinum print, with all the skill and artisanal wizardry that would imply.  Do I care?  No.  But I think the Ethics Committee would have a problem, if I were to go very much further down this road, to the point where I could be said to be trying to pass this off as a hand-crafted platinum print.  I could easily put an irregular "hand-coated" border around the image, for example, and maybe varnish it to give it a more interesting finish.  I have seen precisely such work for sale in expensive limited editions.  We're in "wood effect" or "tribute act" territory here, I think.

The third, equally obviously, is the same file as the second, but with the cow moved by the power of Photoshop in an attempt to "improve" the composition.  If I were a carpenter painter, and had scraped out my first attempt and replaced it elsewhere on my canvas, no-one would have a problem.  It's what painters do.  But one of the most venerable taboos of art is "truth to materials".  To start moving things around in a photograph is something that divides the Ethics Committee violently.  "It's no longer a true photograph!", shouts one faction.  "You're stuck in the past by your own self-imposed rules!!", screams the other.  Committee adjourned, sine die.

The fourth version -- in which the cow has been removed, and an enormous, glistening roast-beef joint occupies the pen, with the words MEAT IS MURDER printed on it -- is not shown here because it is on display at the Dosh Kerching Gallery in London, vastly enlarged, and gratifyingly highly priced.  Wittily, it is part of a conceptual series about the ethics of representation.  I didn't even bother to show it to the Ethics Committee.  So sue me.

Monday 6 May 2013

Bank Holiday

It's been a bank holiday weekend here and, unusually, it hasn't been raining.  We went out for a bit of a stroll yesterday out by the viaduct and the wetlands down by the Itchen Navigation.  I took some pictures.

Today I've got my feet up, doing some reading.  I'm reading The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt.  It's a good book.  That's it.  See you later.

Friday 3 May 2013

Journey's End

About halfway down Hill Lane, at the south end of Southampton Common, is Southampton Old Cemetery.  It was one of England’s earliest municipal cemeteries, established by the Southampton Cemetery Act of 1843, and covers 27 acres.  Although a team of council workers is generally at work somewhere in the grounds, nature has pretty much been allowed to have its way and, as I said in the previous post, so many trees have grown to full height -- including giant redwood conifers and monkey-puzzle trees -- that the crowded, tilted and tumbled gravestones appear to be a species of undergrowth in a forest.

I ended up in there on my May Day walk.  It's always something of a personal dare, for me, to enter a graveyard, on two levels.

First, I am immediately rendered into an 8-year-old trespasser, as primed to be spooked as the audience of a horror film.  I was raised as a sort of Baptist-agnostic in a town without much history, where the few conventional graveyards belonged to rural Anglican churches swallowed up by the new-build estates, and thus represented an older, alien way of death.  The clean, modern way of "disposal" was cremation, of course, and a dank, overgrown bit of ground containing actual bodies (or more probably, and worse,  skellingtons) seemed to exhale infection and spiritual danger.  There were other dangers, too; a boy was caned in front of our school morning assembly for taking green marble chippings from a grave, and distributing them in the playground. We just didn't know how to behave around dead folk, and it was best simply to leave them alone.

Second, I am acutely aware, surrounded by all those ranks of headstones, and all those picturesque monuments, and all those fading inscriptions, of the way generation after generation of amateur photographers have come here in search of clichés.  I tell you, it takes courage merely to raise a camera.  But I have a blog to feed, and an invincible belief in my own capacity to enter into the Valley of the Shadow of Death and emerge unscathed and with a decent set of snaps.

That second one gave me a bit of a start.  What my presbyopic vision took for a grinning Hallowe'en-style pumpkin skull turned out to be merely an eroded "lamb and flag".  Phew.  I knew that.  The first one has a bit of a mocking monkey face on it, too, if you're that way inclined.  Paranoia?  Paranormal? No,  pareidolia!

Thursday 2 May 2013

May Day

Wednesday being my regular day off, I took a walk down a long road in the May Day sunshine.  As a photographer, you have an ambivalent relationship with the sort of sunshine that gladdens other people's hearts.  Too harsh, too contrasty, you're thinking, as everyone else is rejoicing and casting off clouts way too soon.

In such circumstances, I seek out reflective and translucent surfaces, and places where the light may be playing interesting tricks, transforming dull things into exciting things.  You really can't beat a very long north-south road with varied domestic and corporate architecture down one side and natural vegetation down the other, with an assortment of bus shelters, barriers and other interesting street furniture.  Especially if it leads, say, to a picturesque Victorian cemetery so overgrown with trees that the jumbled gravestones appear to be growing out of a sun-dappled forest floor.  Happily, I know just such a road, called Hill Lane.

Along the way I came across these two two-dimensional May Queens, revealed as semi-divine beings by the sunshine on dull corporate advertising matter. One was on a bus shelter placard facing out onto the road, the other was on a vinyl banner attached to the railings of a local sixth form college.

Wednesday 1 May 2013

Pan Pipes

A pen, a trough, a cow, a double fence and some thorn bushes at the bottom of the east side of St. Catherine's Hill.  Nothing more, nothing less.

Yet there often seems to be a disquieting mystery at the heart of such quiet harmony, one which puts me in mind of those hysterical but memorable words, quoted from Büchner's Woyzek, displayed on screen at the start of Werner Herzog's film The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser. Over a shot of a wheat field writhing in a blustery wind, accompanied by Pachelbel's Canon, we see a text: "Don't you hear that horrible screaming all round you? That screaming men call silence?"*

Well, I did say they were hysterical words (as in "excessively emotional or agitated", rather than "wildly funny") but I'm sure you understand what he means.  We're not talking about tinnitus here.  Longer-term readers may recall my own experience with El Tiburón, and you may have had similar experiences of your own.

Büchner's words are an example of what I like to call "heavy breathing", a tendency both Romantics and Modernists have in common.  That is, a tendency to talk up the hidden horrors of the world, and their attendant alienation, in such a way as to draw an audience into unwilling complicity.  "Hmm, yes, I think you like this too, really, don't you, my dear?"  It's the seamy side of the Sublime.

A more venerable account of the experience is embodied in the etymology of "panic", originally an inexplicable surge of fear experienced in a wild place, said to be the mischievous god Pan making himself known.  Perhaps that terrible screaming is simply the sound of the piper at the Gates of Dawn, playing in a key and register normally beyond the range of human ears.

Sheep on Brown Clee hill

* Actually, to be accurate, the text we see is "Hören Sie denn nicht das entsetzliche Schreien ringsum, das man gewöhnlich die Stille heißt?" with English subtitles, delivered in two bites.  The German might more accurately be translated as "Don’t you hear that terrible screaming all around, which is customarily called silence?".  To be even more accurate, Herzog's film is actually called "Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle" i.e. "Every man for himself and God against everyone" which pretty much lays Werner's cards on the table.