Monday 30 September 2013

It's Yesterday Again

Ceiling at Ash House Hotel, Martock, August 2013

Recently, I seem to keep reading variations on this paragraph:
"Previous technologies have expanded communication. But the last round may be contracting it. The eloquence of letters has turned into the unnuanced spareness of texts; the intimacy of phone conversations has turned into the missed signals of mobile phone chat. I think of that lost world, the way we lived before these new networking technologies, as having two poles: solitude and communion. The new chatter puts us somewhere in between, assuaging fears of being alone without risking real connection. It is a shallow between two deep zones, a safe spot between the dangers of contact with ourselves, with others."

Rebecca Solnit, "Diary: In the Day of the Postman", London Review of Books, v.35 no.16, 29/8/2013
You must have seen such pieces, too. Generally written by well-known writers advancing into late middle-age (Jonathan Franzen had a similar piece in The Guardian recently), they bemoan the state of the world, and in particular the negative impact of an all-pervasive technology on the human capacity for sociability, learning, eating real food, and tying shoelaces.  Particularly among the young. Surely, they ask, the downfall of civilization is imminent?  As a parent of two young e-adults, I do know the feeling.

The term for such literary grumbling is a "jeremiad", after those two sunniest of the Old Testament books, Jeremiah and Lamentations.  Given that Jeremiah was writing his Mr. Angry columns in about 600 B.C., we can be pretty sure the world must definitely have gone to Hades in a handcart several times over since, and that life in 2013 A.D. is nothing like as comfy or as convivial as it was in the good old days of the late Bronze Age of blessed memory.

Well, not really.  Certainly not for the unregarded, unrecorded majority of humankind.  Jeremiads are fun to read and to write, but almost always wrong.  Wrong, because the unfashionably optimistic Whig view of history is, on balance, a more accurate reflection of the way things have gone than the perverse idea that progress (usually, in jeremiad terms, "so-called progress") is always either illusory or heading backwards or so relative as to be just another word for standing still.

True, there is a rhetorical satisfaction in the assertion that advances in technology are balanced by a corresponding decline in the spiritual well-being of humanity.  Why, these new-fangled iron tools are putting too much commercial power into the hands of a few untrustworthy and mysterious blacksmiths!  And, worse, young people are losing the skill -- and the sheer satisfaction! -- of knapping their own flints.  It will be the end of the Stone Age as we know it, mark my words.  And, look, this famous shiny stuff of yours just goes blunt and rusty if you leave it lying around!  Call me old-fashioned, but I simply prefer the feel of a well-made flint handaxe.

It is probably an eternal truth that we, the middle-aged, will always disapprove of the young for merely inhabiting the world we have built for them.  Mobile phones, tablets and laptops are not invented, improved, manufactured, distributed or retailed by 19-year olds.  (They're not usually paid for by 19-year olds, either.  Harumph.)  As so often, Douglas Adams had wisdom to share on this subject:
"Anything that is in the world when you're born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything that's invented between when you're fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you're thirty-five is against the natural order of things."
Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt
Notably, Jonathan Franzen's last sentence in his Guardian piece sees him stumbling out of Jeremiah's harsh, flint-strewn desert into an oasis of sanity:
"The experience of each succeeding generation is so different from that of the previous one that there will always be people to whom it seems that any connections with the key values of the past have been lost. As long as modernity lasts, all days will feel to someone like the last days of humanity."
Exactly.  But, sometimes, the Bronze Age can feel as if it were just yesterday.

Valley Garden nursery, August 2013

Friday 27 September 2013

Is This Thing On?

Mottisfont Abbey, September 2013

One, two, three.  Testing, testing.  Is this thing on?  One, two, three.

Well, what a strange summer. The weather has been almost stereotypically summery, which is disturbing and disorientating.  As all good puritans know, we will surely pay a heavy price for this.

Luckily, I was far too busy with various work projects to enjoy much of this meteorological bounty, so will doubtless pay a much less heavy price than those of you -- grasshoppers! -- who lounged about in the sun, enjoying yourselves.  We did manage two days in Somerset in August but, as I said to someone recently, two days out of the county is not quite the same as two weeks out of the country.   Absurdly, I still have 10 unused days out of my annual leave quota of 30 days.

But, enough of this Stakhanovite self-righteousness!  Retirement is getting closer, and my days as an industrious ant are surely numbered (but in a good way, I hope).  The summer had its pleasures, too, and some of them I should share with you:

First, two weighty and well-produced career-survey photobooks.

The work of Saul Leiter will be familiar to those of you who follow photography closely.  After an active career mostly spent happily below the radar of celebrity, Leiter hit the big time late in life and in a big way when Steidl published Early Color in 2006.  The book I am recommending, however, is Saul Leiter: Retrospektive, published by Kehrer in 2012 to accompany an exhibition at the Hamburg Haus der Photographie (ISBN 978-3868282580).  It is a monument to both Leiter's decades of originality as a photographer and painter, and to the production values of German book-publishing.  (For anyone seeking an inexpensive introduction to his work, I highly recommend the little book published by Thames & Hudson in their Photofile series (a.k.a. Actes Sud Photo Pôche series).

Emmet Gowin should also need little introduction.  One of the outstanding independent artist-photographers of our time, he has published few books, but those books have been very influential and are much sought-after.  A mighty retrospective volume Emmet Gowin has just been published jointly by Aperture and Fundación MAPFRE, again in conjunction with a European exhibition, this time in Spain.  The quality of this production is truly outstanding -- on a par with the Pentti Sammallahti book Here Far Away I recommended last year -- and if you can afford a copy buy it now.  I ordered mine sight unseen, and this gorgeous object is bound to sell out quickly.

Second, an exhibition:  Pradip Malde is a contemporary photographer whose work I follow with great interest.  His understated yet passionate and pure photographs deserve your close attention.  He is based at Sewanee University in the USA, and his current exhibition The Third Heaven is showing there.  You can see an installation overview on his website, and his blog is showing individual images from this complex and challenging work, made in Haiti and featuring its resilient people, but about so much more.  I find his combination of sensibility and commitment admirable.

Talking of which, and third:  there is a fascinating two-part interview with John Gossage on the website A Photo Editor.  Gossage is the Real Thing, or at least one contemporary avatar of it.  Provocative, political, influential, unafraid to offend or to baffle -- if you know his books you'll know what I mean.  There are a lot of them, but The Pond (Aperture,1986) is generally reckoned a masterpiece, and another is entitled, with typical tact and reserve, Hey, Fuckface.   You can read the interview here: Part One  Part Two.

Somebody asked me once what the perfect reaction to one of my photographs would be, when someone saw it for the first time. I said it should be sort-of-like, “Huh.” That’s about right. “Huh” means “there’s something there…I don’t quite understand it…but there’s something that attracts me…something that I want to look at again.”
John Gossage

Finally, I should mention the Idiotic Hat Summer Survey.  Although primarily intended as an amusement, it did yield some interesting results.  Not surprisingly, given the self-selecting nature of the sample, most respondents liked this blog, and things generally divided 50/50 between those who come for the pictures, and those who come for the words.  More surprisingly, the blog comments received an overall thumbs-down, and many survey-takers took the trouble to add a "comment on comments".

Partly as a result of this, and partly because of the daily chore of removing the spam comments, I am now going to "moderate" all comments i.e. I will read them and decide whether or not to publish them, or report them as spam.  I am happy to receive any comments, but will only publish those that, in my view, enhance the post in question.

Let the new blog year begin.

Charmouth beach, August 2013