Sunday, 29 June 2014

Building Houses

 Another thing that impressed me in the Tyrol, as it always impresses me in mainland Europe, was the design quality of the new-build housing.  Now, clearly, the photo above is not of what we in Britain euphemistically call "social" or "affordable" housing, but neither is it a part of some luxury gated estate.  It simply shows a couple of ordinary houses on a newly-finished estate, just outside the village of Mutters, built with a level of architectural imagination that is, evidently, simply unthinkable in Britain.

But, let's be honest, and as someone said in my hearing recently, the accidents of decay generally have so much more aesthetic appeal than the deliberate designs of any architect, especially to the photographer.  Guilty as charged!   Here's some evidence to back up that proposition...


Nice... Though it's true, the chaos of new building does have its own attractions, too.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Glass Mountains

The Nordkette ("north chain") mountains dominate Innsbruck.  They loom at the north end of every street, and are used by infrequent visitors as a navigation device: if you can see mountains at the end of the street, then you must be facing north.  It must be a pretty sight in winter, though the predominantly grey geology is fairly dreary in summer.  Close up, though, the rocks have quite a sparkle -- there seems to be a lot of mica or some similar glassy, crystalline substance within the rock.

For a while I had some fun finding highly-reflective modern buildings in which to play compositional games, making mountains appear, multiply, distort, and disappear.  As most of these buildings seemed to be in and around the university, however, I suddenly realised was in the familiar territory of my Elevation series.  A strong feeling of repeating myself descended, and I abandoned the idea fairly quickly, perhaps too soon.

Friday, 27 June 2014

Cold Mountain

The mind has a fundamental ability to accommodate the extraordinary, simply in order to let us get on with our lives.  You can watch the process happening to a baby, which starts life in a permanent state of goggle-eyed gobsmackedness, but quickly gets things sorted into the "ordinary", the "ordinarily amazing", and the "amazingly amazing".  It's hard to tell how pleasurable or terrifying this process is, but to watch a baby figuring out that it is attached to its own toes but not to its mother or its teddy bear is deeply fascinating.

I mention this, because for the first couple of days after arriving in Innsbruck I was wandering around like a 60-year old child, with my mind boggling every time I saw the mountains  -- proper mountains with snow in summer -- looming at the end of every street.  I was still in a state of dazed enthusiasm when I picked up my hire car.  The guy who signed it out was from north Germany.  "Yeah", he said, "For the first year after moving here I was permanently looking up and going Wow!, then I got over it, but they are amazing, aren't they?"

They are indeed.  But then so is the ordinary blue sky beyond them, and the ever-changing clouds, and the way the rotation of the earth causes the sun to appear to cross from one side of the view to the other, only for everything to go dark every evening, etc., etc.  It's all amazing, if you allow yourself the luxury of experiencing it, rather than -- of necessity -- ignoring it as background noise most of the time.  The tricky bit -- especially with something as intrinsically amazing as a mountain -- is finding a way to photograph it that will convey how amazing it all is.  Of all the tasks I set myself in my recent residency, this was the most challenging, and the one I felt I failed in most conspicuously.

The least successful approach, for me, was to get kitted up and stride out in in Happy Wanderer mode (val-de-ri, val-de-ra-ha-ha-ha-ha...).  I had a great time, and did get some useful photographs, but on the whole they look just like every other photograph of a mountain landscape you've ever seen.  Yes, you can try some radical composition and juxtaposition of elements, especially those "hand of man" elements that a typical landscapist would carefully exclude, but the inescapable fact is that your typical mountain range is either too big or too far away to be anything other than decorative background.  Mainly what you can see up there is trees.  Lots of trees.

In the end, I decided the only way to express "mountains" photographically, without resorting to the tropes and techniques of landscape porn, was to find suitably ironic stand-ins.  Surrounded by overwhelmingly real mountains, I could nonetheless find convenient surrogate mountains and representations of mountains pretty much anywhere I looked.

Those recently-posted images of the red-and-white bordered mirrors to be found at every rail-crossing were one approach I liked; like a nineteenth-century tourist with a Claude glass, it seemed one could best render the landscape as a "landscape" when reflected, framed, and simplified.  Another variation on this approach was deliberately to include reflections of those ever-present looming background shapes in urban windowscapes.  I also rejoiced at every mountain-shaped heap of rocky rubble and road chippings I came across, which, if you think about it, stand in relation to a mountain in the same way sausages do to a pig; essentially the same thing, only less troublesome and easier to consume.

In the end, this photograph, taken from my hotel balcony on my last day, may come closest to the feel of what I was after. It says "There is a beautiful, mysterious, inaccessible mountain, just down the road; now try to forget about it, if you can, and get on with your life".

When men see Han-shan
They all say he's crazy
And not much to look at
Dressed in rags and hides.
They don't get what I say
& I don't talk their language.
All I can say to those I meet:
"Try and make it to Cold Mountain."

Gary Snyder, Cold Mountain Poems 24

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Real Good For Free

One afternoon in Innsbruck, I was hanging around near the tunnel that runs between Universitätsstrasse and the Old Town, which is a favourite spot for buskers.  Although much shorter, it's very reminiscent, acoustically, of the tunnel in London running from South Kensington underground station to the Natural History Museum, where you can often hear African musicians of real talent playing. In general, I have a lot of time for street musicians, so long as they can actually play their instrument, don't sing travesties of Neil Young or Bob Dylan songs, and don't have a dog on a string.  For some reason, I have a deep prejudice against anyone who keeps a dog on a string.

Although I was busy concentrating on looking for photographs, I gradually became aware that I could hear some unusually good street music.  Truly wonderful music.  Somewhere, someone was improvising on a piano, with the freedom, confidence and fluid imagination that can only come from the soul of a talented musician.  As I turned a corner there he was, sat at an upright piano on the pavement.

It was magical.  I stood there listening for 20 minutes or so in the sunshine, entranced, while he wove intricate patterns that transformed an ordinary afternoon into a movie starring me, a passing cast of extras, and two rival balletic flocks of pigeons.  I could hear the influence of Esbjörn Svensson, bits of Michael Nyman in romantic mode, and was inevitably reminded of Keith Jarrett (Vienna Concert Jarrett more than Köln Concert Jarrett), and when he paused for a break I went over for a chat and told him so.  He was pleased.  In fact, he said, just last year Keith Jarrett himself had listened to him play for ten whole minutes.  Jarrett's companion had tried to interrupt, but had been told, "Shh, I'm listening".  It probably doesn't get better than that, does it?

I bought his CD Working Piano for 8 euros.  His name is Gregor Blösl, and he has a website at  Why not give him a listen?  And, no, I didn't think to ask how the hell he managed to get his piano out there onto the street.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Man on Wire

The Herzog-Friedrich-Strasse -- the street that runs up to the famous "Golden Roof" -- is probably the main touristic hotspot in Innsbruck.  Parties of visitors from all parts of the globe converge on this spot, to gawp up at the slightly underwhelming gilded acreage on display.  The original intention, of course, was exactly the reverse: the roofed balcony was constructed in 1500 so that Emperor Maximilian I could gawp down on the Great Unwashed performing various jousts, feats and tributes below.

With its cloistered luxury goods and souvenir shops, restaurants and pavement cafes, all leading to its gleaming golden bait, it's a bit like one of those funnel-shaped traps designed to channel fish into an easily-harvested concentration.  Most tourist towns have such a place, probably known locally as "Pickpocket Place", "Ripoff Row", or something similarly knowing.  It's where you go if you've got a couple of grand in spending money burning a hole in your designer pocket, and it's where the tour-guide inexorably leads your little flock in order to offload a script of dry, incomprehensible facts in the language of your choice.  Whenever I found myself cruising that street and its narrow alleyways for camera fodder, the expression "shooting fish in a barrel" generally came into my mind.

On the holiday weekend, the street was super-packed, because -- bizarrely -- some sort of inter-schools long-jump competition was being held there during the afternoon.  An elevated runway and sandpit had been constructed right down the middle of the street, forcing everyone into the cloistered sidewalks.  I suppose the 16th century jousting must have been rather similar, minus the commentary broadcast over the PA system. I retreated into a shop doorway to lurk inconspicuously in the shade.  And then saw something amazing, that nobody else nearby seemed to be noticing.

High above the street, a tightrope had been strung across, and a man was attempting to walk it.  He got most of the way across, then wobbled, and fell.  Luckily, he had a safety wire.  But, for quite a while, he simply dangled there, getting his breath, like a hanged man.  As he twisted his way back onto the wire he wobbled about and fell a few more times, and the movement caught the eye of a few more people, but essentially he was unobserved, walking in the sky, hidden in plain sight.

An interesting event, but not a particularly interesting picture.  But, as so often in visual matters, the image of sky-walking slotted itself into my brain somewhere.  So when, later that afternoon, I found myself under the portico of the State Theatre, I was able to see this rather more satisfying image of sky-walking, also found hiding in plain sight:

Or so I thought, until I checked the sequence of the images, and found I had actually been at the State Theatre at 14:30, and in Herzog-Friedrich-Strasse at 15:00.  Hmm, well...  Make of that whatever you like.  There's probably an interesting post there about causes, correllations, and coincidences, but I'll save that for another time.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Tongues of Fire

As I have already mentioned, there was a significant public and religious holiday while I was away in Austria, namely Pfingsten, the equivalent of our abandoned Whitsun and Whit Monday holiday, which marks the celebration of Pentecost.

Early on, I thought this might be a useful thematic peg on which to hang my picture-making.  Pentecost has some useful iconography -- mighty rushing winds, cloven tongues of fire, descending doves, the spontaneous gift of languages, the colour red, green branches, and so on.  I'm sure you can see how that might work, and I still haven't altogether abandoned the idea.  Oddly, though, when I described to Austrians how the protestant Pentecostal churches in Britain routinely induce a state of glossolalia in celebrants, they hadn't a clue what I was talking about, and I suspect they thought I was pulling their leg, Martian-style.

In the process of scouting for Pentecostal imagery, I began to notice the occasional presence of more "exotic" i.e. non-European iconographies, something which is so familiar in self-consciously post-modern, multi-cultural Britain as to be unremarkable, but, scattered among the plentiful and rather insistent markers of Tyrolean identity ("overdetermined" is probably the technical word), they stood out as conspicuous points of interest.

I think I may have been primed to notice this on my first day, when I was filmed for TV in a state of post-travel exhaustion, pretending to photograph in a courtyard garden near to the gallery.  The owner had installed what I took to be Tibetan prayer flags and other distinctly non-European decorative touches in a very European space.  It was intriguing, and rather beautiful.

Whether those things were in that garden out of a spiritual or an ornamental impulse, I can't say.  Beyond a certain point, the difference between the two is moot.  Despite what horror stories would have you believe, a fancy "devil" mask hanging on a suburban wall has no residual occult powers, out of context. Where do you go to see the great mediaeval altarpieces, or the religious masterpieces of the Renaissance?  The vast majority are now in museums or galleries, removed from the churches or cathedrals that commissioned them. Which is just as well, as I am constitutionally allergic to ecclesiastical interiors, probably because of my radical protestant roots and pagan inclinations:  I feel positively repelled by that cold, damp, sepulchral force-field emanating from most churches. But, more to the point, what are you supposed to feel or do, standing before these decorative relics of religiosity?  Do you pray, repenting the miserable imbalance of salvation and damnation in your life, or simply admire the choice of colours and brushwork?

Pentecost seems to point back, symbolically, to a real but dangerous desire for an overwhelming and unmediated experience of some ultimate but quite possibly savage Real Thing (just ask Semele).  Despite its claims, it has always seemed to me that religion is fairly poor at putting us in touch with any such Real Thing; indeed, much of theology seems to comes down to sophisticated ways of explaining away its absence.  The fakery and hysteria, the glossolalia, snake-handling and fire-walking of fringe sects do have a certain vitality by contrast, but have rather too much in common with self-harm for my taste, rather like someone deciding to set fire to their local mobile telephone mast, in order to get a better signal.  Hey, it could work!

And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.
Acts 2:17
Funnily enough, I have been having a lot of dreams lately...  Though if my kids are prophesying, they're keeping very quiet about it.

Monday, 23 June 2014

Really Right

One of the more shaming aspects of everyday Austrian life, for a Brit, is the marvellous infrastructure.  It was amazing and admirable, to me, that I could walk five minutes from my hotel into the village, board an electric train-cum-tram that runs every 30 minutes, and be in the heart of Innsbruck 30 minutes later.  A return trip costs 5.60 euros.  Moreover, the trams and buses still run to the same daily timetables on a public holiday.  In Britain, there might be a bus twice a day, but more likely there wouldn't be.  And on a bank holiday?

I think most of us find that using public transport in any country is the quickest way to expose the inadequacy of one's command of the language.  My German ought, in theory, to be quite good.  Certainly, if it's a discussion of aesthetic philosophy or something similarly abstract, then I'd probably be able to understand and even contribute, if only at the level of nodding and murmuring, "Really? Right ... Right..."  But buying a bus ticket is the true test of fluency and yet, oddly, has never figured in any examination, written or oral, that I have ever sat.

The problem is the sheer depth of idiomatic understanding required.  It is no good stepping up to a bus driver, and burbling, "Good day to you, sir, I will buy some ticket, which take me after the central station, and then let me to come back this same place later by this same exact day. Please, sir."  No good at all: he is too accustomed to hearing the right ritual exchange, pitched at the right level of formality and politeness, and briskly expressed using the right vocabulary.  Something like, "Hi, there.  Central station, please.  Super Saver return?  Cheers, mate!"  Except spoken in Austrian German, obviously.  What he certainly doesn't want is to tell you how much your ticket will cost, only for you to gape in incomprehension --  numbers over twenty are weirdly hard to hear, aren't they? -- or, worse, to hand over a 50 euro note for an 80 cent fare.

Luckily, as it happens, every tram and bus driver in Innsbruck -- as in most large European towns --  has a remarkable fluency in English, something that is simply taken for granted by every tourist.  Tellingly, the main tourist bus service is called The Sightseer -- in English.  Its drivers appear to be recruited from a pool of advanced linguists with infinite reserves of patience and tact, who in a country like Britain would have been encouraged into the diplomatic service.

The downside of universally superb infrastructure is that going "off piste", literally or metaphorically, is tricky.  Wherever you want to go, there is a maintained path that defines the best route, and getting off the path can be difficult, not to say hair-raising.  It's like walking along one of those boardwalks that lead through a fenland nature reserve to the observation hides. Off the path, chaos reigns, and nature runs riot.  As a photographer, wanting to find a better place to stand (the good old "foot zoom") is innate, but in a landscape where a false step or getting lost can be life-threatening, this needs a certain degree of care.  Nobody fences off pits and precipices when a perfectly good and well-signed path exists that carefully avoids them.

To a seasoned British rambler -- used to "public footpaths" that have been lost in undergrowth, ploughed up, fenced off with barbed wire or grazed away by aggressive livestock, and which need military-level map-reading skills to follow -- it is quite amusing to see a party of euro-hikers, all kitted out with heavy boots, three-quarter leggings, knapsacks and the obligatory paired trekking poles, proceeding up a waymarked gravelled path that would not disgrace a National Trust property in Berkshire, and certainly would not challenge a three-year-old child in flip-flops.  Things are so clearly laid out and colour-coded that people can wander off into the mountains clutching one of those 3-D bird's eye views of the area with little painted trees and dwellings, an approximation more like a pirate's treasure map than a 25000-scale Ordnance Survey map, without which we would not even leave the carpark for a pee, in Britain, with any confidence of returning safely before nightfall.

Talking of walking and inadequate vocabulary, I had a curious conversation one morning with the owner of the hotel I was staying in.  She had seen me on TV the previous evening, and came over to my breakfast table to express her delight at accommodating a media celebrity, and -- as people will -- to share her thoughts on photography and landscape.  She recommended various local scenic routes, and went on to praise the benefits of trekking poles.  I'm afraid at that point I retreated into "Really?  Right ...  Right...", not least because I couldn't quite understand what she was saying.  Her "cross" (Kreuz) kept coming up a lot, and how her Trekkingstöcke helped her with it.  Was she a devout Christian rambler?  Did she have a particular burden, physical or metaphysical, which it was her cross to bear?  Perhaps she had helped carry one of those ubiquitous wayside calvaries up a mountain?

My non-committal phatic noises saw me through, but I grabbed my dictionary as soon as I got back to my room. It turns out that das Kreuz, as well as its primary meaning of "cross", also means "the small of one's back".  Really? Right!

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Wherever You Go, There You Are

A nice little Innsbruck set, here.  I like to think you can see me meeting Austria half-way in these images.

Anyone spot the inter-textual reference to a very famous photo-book in the final image?

Friday, 20 June 2014

The Noise of History

As I have frequently had to point out, I am no student of history, but (to adapt Thomas Beecham's comment on the English and music) I do love the noise it makes.  My ten days in Austria exposed my ignorance at every turn, so I decided -- at the very least -- that I should shake a few Wikipedia articles on Austrian history, just to see what they sound like.

Now, who can resist a noise like this: "His son Philip the Fair married Joanna the Mad, the heiress of Castile and Aragon, and thus acquired Spain and its Italian, African and New World appendages for the Habsburgs"?  It seems Joanna the Mad was the sister of Catherine of Aragon, of whom even I have heard.  Mediaeval and early modern history does seem to consist entirely of a complex dynastic board-game. OK, you might get a mad wife in this round, but you also pick up Spain in the process.

In the end, the main noise European history seems to make (apart from the rattling of the dice in the dynastic cup) is the groan of one people throwing off the yoke imposed by some other people's self-appointed rulers.  Only to throw up a Napoleon, who changes the rules and sets in process a whole new level of nationalist-dynastic gameplay.

Meanwhile, down here at the bottom, the cattle need milking, those fields won't plough themselves, and we have tithes, taxes, and rents to pay.  I hear we're all Bavarians now. Or French. One or the other.  What is a French, anyway?

Wednesday, 18 June 2014


North Bank gable end, Innsbruck

During a conversation in the back room of an Innsbruck cafe with Rupert Larl, where we were paging through some of the work I had done that week on my laptop, he asked me who my influences were.  He had noticed, he said, that photographers often had certain other artists they would turn to, when in need of refreshment or inspiration: what we in Britain might call "touchstones".  He had also noticed, he went on, that the work of these touchstone-artists often bore little or no obvious resemblance to the work of those whom they inspired.

I found this a difficult question to answer at the time.  When you are busily creating new work, especially out of context -- cut off from friends and family, familiar surroundings, even your native language -- matters of influence are not uppermost in your mind.  I did occasionally find myself making negative comparisons -- "No, way too Martin Parr", or "Yikes! Sorry, I just don't do Gilden-type street grotesques" -- but in the main I was trying to feel my way towards something that I hoped would be both uniquely mine and uniquely of that time and place.  In my case, that requires shutting off the chattering, analytical mind and letting the eyes do their thing.

However, it is an interesting question.  So here are a few brief thoughts on some personal touchstones.

Raymond Moore and Fay Godwin.  I have already discussed this foundational pair in the post Ray and Fay, so won't expand on that.

Josef Koudelka and Thomas Joshua Cooper.  Among the first two exhibitions I saw in the John Hansard Gallery after moving to Southampton in 1984 were a Koudelka retrospective -- mainly selected from his classic "Gypsies" and Exiles" period -- and a Cooper retrospective covering  his "small dark prints" phase, i.e. the period up to and including "Dreaming the Gokstadt".  I had never seen such stunning work before, and immediately enrolled in a darkroom evening class.

Emmet Gowin.  Gowin's use of the whole, distorted circular image projected by a lens intended to cover a smaller format than the 8" x 10" view camera is magical.  The sometimes shocking intimacy of the images of his wife and her family is still fresh after 40 years.

Harry Callahan.  Callahan is simply the Master to anyone who tries to live the gospel of photography.

Jem Southam.  Jem's preferred austere, diffused yet rich palette and ability to find strong compositions in apparent chaos are a perfect match for the British landscape.  It is always a surprise to me to find that he is not better known abroad.

Susan Derges. She is probably the most exciting contemporary innovator in the field of the "camera-less" photograph, best known for her large, unique images made by immersing sheets of light-sensitive paper into rivers and at the seashore at night.  She manages to capture the stunning, fractal beauty of flowing water.

Luigi Ghirri.  When I saw Ghirri's masterful book from 1978 Kodachrome for the first time, not so long ago, I felt like dropping my cameras into a deep hole.  What was the point in continuing? Then, when I looked some more, the sensation went into reverse, and I felt like going out and finding more, better photographs.  I feel a very strong psychic affinity with his way of seeing.

Pentti Sammallahti.  I have mentioned Sammallahti several times in this blog.  The Finnish dog-whisperer, and wizard of monochrome tonality.  These days, his retrospective collection Here, Far Away is the book I turn to first, to remind me what the point of all this is.

Saul Leiter.  The Leiter of Early Color is, like Callahan, an exemplar of why taking a camera into the street, speculatively and with an open heart, is a form of poetry.

Cathedral of St. James, Innsbruck

Tuesday, 17 June 2014


In the Tiroler Landesmuseum, where I spent Thursday afternoon last week, I found myself photographing the corridors and staircases between galleries.  These utilitarian, transitional spaces say a lot about a building, and are often more characterful -- and revealing of institutional attitudes -- than the main display rooms.  I found their neutral, calm coolness extremely attractive on a hot, humid day.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Yesterday's Papers

I am trying to get hold of a download of the 3-minute TV spot which was made about the Innsbruck exhibition (it seems the online clip was only available for one week), but in the meantime here is a full-page feature from the local paper, followed by what I hope is an accurate rendering of its content.

By the way, if you are puzzled by the picture of me apparently attempting to hypnotize Rupert Larl, that is in fact me demonstrating the aggressive style of street photography practiced by the likes of Bruce Gilden.

Fotoforum is celebrating its 25th anniversary. And it is being celebrated with an exhibition by Mike Chisholm, who is not a professional photographer, and does not define himself as an artist.  Mike Chisholm is a blogger, who uses his Idiotic Hat blog as his main platform, and regards galleries as a secondary outlet.

He photographs every day.  He does this mainly in his lunch break, mainly on the campus of the University of Southampton, where he works as a librarian.  With degrees in literature, he is is less interested in the subject matter of his photographs, than what can be made out of it.

The reality of his immediate personal surroundings provides a sort of poetry to Mike Chisholm.  He is a creator of illusions, so that, for example, a rusty old box becomes, in the viewer's imagination, a Japanese dragon.  The sober surroundings of the campus are transformed, in Mike Chisholm's concentrated gaze, into a world of picturesque beauty.  He never interferes with what is there, but skillfully composes what would appear to be of minor interest into the main subject.  Inspiration becomes visible.  The title of the exhibition, " A Tourist from Mars", is a hint:  through Mike Chisholm the "tourist", the everyday environment comes to seem like that of another planet -- full of secrets, riddles and passion.

As part of the Anniversary Fotoforum director Rupert Larl has invited the Briton to photograph for ten days in the Tyrol.  "I'm interested to see what draws his attention", says Larl.   It is possible the results will be seen not only on his blog but in a further exhibition.  That would mean Mike Chisholm will have broken all the records at Fotoforum:  he would become the only artist to have shown his work at Fotoforum three times.  He already holds the record for the most sales, following his 2010 exhibition.

Friday, 13 June 2014

Cabinets of Curiosities

Mithraeum in a museum... 

In recent days the heat and humidity here have been oppressive.  People keep telling me that this weather is unseasonal, but what other sort of weather is there these days?

On Wednesday evening, it broke into a thunder-and-lightning spectacular accompanied by torrential rain.  As I rode the Stubaitalbahn tram back up from Innsbruck to Mutters, I had a panoramic view of the lightning strikes on the Nordkette mountains, and could see improbably tall curtains of rain moving up the Inn Valley towards us.  It was raining as I headed back to the hotel, but I managed to beat the monsoon-style downpour that followed shortly.

Thunder in mountainous regions has a quality all of its own.  In a more even landscape, each crack and roll of thunder is more or less the same, just closer or further away.  Here, the extremely variable relief plays acoustic tricks with the volume, quality and duration of the sound.  A bright, overhead flash, close enough to make you duck reflexively, might create merely a muffled, hollow sound easily confused with a small pile of logs falling over.  Whereas some strike beyond the mountain horizon that simply lights up the clouds can issue forth from some tortuous, serpentine route with an echoing boom like hell's own armoured division opening a barrage from the next street.

Installation "The Past Trying to Grow older", Michael Fliri, 2014

To avoid the heat, I've been visiting museums and galleries in the afternoons.  An air-conditioned space full of rare, beautiful, or even risibly ugly stuff is a perfect escape -- cheaper and far more rewarding than some tourist-trap bar -- and like most European cities Innsbruck is well-supplied.  You can stash your bag in a locker, make use of well-tended "facilities", and sometimes there's even a free water-cooler.  As well as the Folk Art Museum, I can recommend the Tiroler Landesmuseum (Tyrolean State Museum), especially if you have read the popular book 1913: the Year Before the Storm, by Florian Illies.  Examples of paintings by many of those unfamiliar names can be found and even if -- like me -- you have a constitutional aversion to the silliness and "erotic" heavy-breathing of much of the work of Symbolist and similar painters, it's always good to inform your prejudices. And let's not forget that artists of the calibre of Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka were Austrians who, whilst not native to the Tyrol, visited the area for inspiration and relaxation.

Yesterday I visited Schloss Ambras.  Even if you know absolutely nothing and care less about the history of the aristocracy of southern and central Europe, and their tendency to treat large chunks of territory as the ultimate playthings, you may be aware of the Wunderkammer of Archduke Ferdinand II.  I have always liked the idea of a Cabinet of Curiosities, and this is one of the most famous, and the only one still in its original 16th century location.

I have to say I was a little underwhelmed by the 16th century obsession with coral.  Cabinet after cabinet is filled with the ugly plasticky stuff, sometimes carved into religious scenes, sometimes simply polished up a bit and mounted "as is".  Look, it's just like a tree, but orange!  And so is this one!  And this is an orange forest!!  The exotic armour and weapons pall after a bit, too (conservation note:  go easy with the Brillo pads, guys!  It's OK for iron not to be super-shiny...).  But the weird stuff...  Oh, yes.

Top of the list is the objet they put on the tickets:  an amazingly lively and intricately-carved wooden figure of Death (yes, him again...) capering around as an archer.  It's about 10 inches high, and would make the perfect plastic assembly kit.  Goths would buy those by the coffin-load.

Then there is the antlered deer skull around which a tree trunk has miraculously grown (honest, your worship, it was just like that when we found it!).  Not to mention the skull of Gregor Baci, who took a lance through the eye socket and out the back of his head (that's gotta hurt) but lived to tell the tale, with the added bonus of becoming a walking conversation piece, due to the fact that the surgeons decided simply to trim the lance fore and aft, rather than attempt to remove it.  It really is the ultimate piercing -- again, I see a marketing opportunity here.

Plus there's a stuffed crocodile and a couple of stuffed sharks hanging from the ceiling (which in my Big Book of Tropes come under "alchemy", but never mind), and portraits of Vlad Drakul, and various freakishly distinguished people.  Oh, and lots of fascinating stuff.  But, in a way, the most interesting insight into the 16th century mind comes from various fine and undoctored specimens of fossil fish.  Apparently, these weren't regarded as real fish entombed in rock -- despite what you would have thought was the undeniable evidence of their utter verisimilitude -- but as "sports of nature".  Nature, to them, clearly had a keen sense of humour.

Though one does wonder what Hilary Mantell's Thomas Cromwell would have made of some of the more obviously manufactured "sports", had he accompanied the Archduke on one of his shopping sprees.  Perhaps some even more intriguing piercings might have resulted.

Schloss Ambras gardens

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Opening & Installation

It's taken me a while to get around to this -- there's been so much else to do -- but here, finally, are some pictures of the gallery installation.

The FotoForum gallery, centrally situated in the heart of Innsbruck's Alte Stadt, is celebrating its 25th anniversary this summer, and I have both been invited back (following my 2010 show here) and chosen as the featured artist for the 25th year celebration, which is very gratifying, given the consistently high standard of photography that has been shown here over that time.  The exhibition has been featured in the local press, and on the regional television.  Here's a link to the 3-minute news slot dedicated to my show and the gallery's anniversary: [sorry, the link may already have gone] obviously, it's in German, but I think you'll get the idea.  I have now pretty much got over seeing the way I must  look and sound to other people, but it was an unpleasant surprise, I have to say.  It makes you realise why people who appear on TV can be such a vain bunch.

Those three minutes of TV took about two hours to arrange and film (I have no idea how much longer they took to edit).  We borrowed a rather beautiful nearby courtyard garden, where I wandered about pretending to photograph.  If you've ever wondered what it's like to be filmed for TV, it looks like this:

The photo below shows Rupert Larl, the gallery owner, being interviewed.  Rupert is very much Mr. Photography in this part of the world, with an international reach and reputation.  He has a fund of entertaining and enlightening anecdotes about the photographers he has met and worked with, from William Eggleston to Michael Schmidt and Luigi Ghirri.  As his English is considerably better than my German, I'm afraid to say we've mainly spoken in English.  In a photographic analogy I like very much, Rupert says his English is imperfect but expressive, like using Grade 5 paper.  He is also a native of Tyrol, and a student of its history and culture, and thus a useful source of contextual information.  Correction, too: he insists that Tyroleans are not death-obsessed, but stereotypically happy, hedonistic, thigh-slapping types.  My towel rail, he suggests, will have been made in Vienna.  Hmm, maybe so, but I still wouldn't have it in my bathroom.

This is the first room of the exhibition, long, and largely artificially-lit:

And this is the second (better seen in the interview shot above), which is an old metal-working workshop, with beautifully diffused natural light coming from skylights:

My time here is drawing to a close, and I will have a haul of about 1500 photos to review by the end.  For me, that's an enormous number: an average of 150 a day is about ten times my normal rate.  If I get an anticipated "hit" rate of between 2.5% and 5%, I should end up with enough material for a book.  But that's a long way off.  First I must squeeze the best value out of my one remaining day, and then figure out how to get the hire car back to the airport on Saturday.  Oh, and go back to work on Monday.

I should express my thanks to Rupert Larl for giving me this wonderful opportunity, and also to Heinz Hafele, for his help with the German version of the "text" I read out at the opening, as well as several lifts home at awkward hours.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

A Sentimental Journey

I have already mentioned that I first came to the Tyrol in 1966, as a 12-year old boy.  It was our first holiday abroad as a family.  Except, we were no longer the complete family we had been a year or two previously.  My sister, rather older than me, had unexpectedly left home, and her absence was, obviously, felt rather keenly.  I think the decision to go abroad for the first time may have been both a sort of consolation prize for me, and a way of drawing a line under the happy memories of former family holidays.  The choice of Austria was, inevitably, a direct consequence of having recently seen the film The Sound of Music.

It was all so wonderful and strange.  We travelled by coach all the way from London, crossing the Channel on the ferry, driving down through Belgium and Germany, to arrive late in the night at the Gasthof Lamm in Tarrenz, in the valley of the Fern Pass.  To awake for the first time in the bright, southern light, and to open curtains onto a vista of sunlit, snow-capped mountains is something you never forget.

That was a watershed time in my relationship with my parents.  We were never again to enjoy the uncomplicated, unconditional familial love we felt then, during that holiday.  They seemed to age, thereafter, and to have less ability to cope with a bumptious know-it-all teenager.  There were rows, threats, tears, and sulks. I developed a liking for the unconventional, the illicit, and the strange, and these were all things that -- probably rightly -- filled my parents with anxiety.  They were good, but conventional people, who found the world of the late 1960s an alien place.

When they died, just a few years ago, having stoically endured much ill-fortune and declining health, I felt very deeply the unbridgeable gulf between us.  There is less talk of a "generation gap", these days.  Certainly, the young resent the magically smooth, prosperous path through life enjoyed by their so-called "boomer" parents, but we live, mentally, in much the same world as our children.  This was not so back then.  The generation that had been born into the aftermath of WW1, lived through WW2, and established the British "welfare state" found the frivolity, rebelliousness, and pure ingratitude of their own children baffling and at times repellent.  Such breaks in the continuity of social life are, of course, the historical norm, but are also what can sever, irretrievably, one generation from another emotionally.

So, I had a personal agenda of "unfinished business", a sentimental journey I was finally ready to make by returning to the Austrian Tyrol, and yesterday I drove the 60 or so kilometres from Mutters to Tarrenz, taking the slower, scenic route.

I had two goals in mind.  First, to see the Gasthof Lamm again, which in 1966 was on a steep bend in the road, and emblazoned with a painted slogan on the blank gable end: Ei, ei, warum vorbei? (something like, "Hey, friend, journey's end!").  Second, to see if it was still possible to walk straight out of the village into open, cultivated fields and pasture, and stroll along a network of paths to the town of Imst, visible across the flat valley floor a mile or so away, where I shared a first ever cold beer with my father.  The first I knew would succeed, due to the Internet; the second I was pretty sure would fail, due to the passage of time.

But I was wrong, on both counts.

Yes, the hotel is still there, as I knew it would be.  But the bend has been straightened, and the hotel much extended, and although it still bears the same slogan, it is no longer painted but applied in plastic lettering, and on a different wall.  It seems to be something of a local hotspot, now, with discos and music nights in the bar.  Frankly, I would never have recognised it, and found that I felt nothing much at all, which was no real surprise.

So I then followed my nose, and walked along a deeply-culverted stream, and down an alleyway between some tumbledown, barn-like, traditional houses, past a calvary at a crude fountain and drinking trough, and found myself on a path that led out into the flat, open valley floor, where in the distance, across neat patches of barley, vegetables and pasture, I could see Imst gleaming in the warm afternoon sun.  I looked around at the steeply-cliffed, enclosing valley sides, with a hint of rumbling thunder up in the mountains, and realised with a surge of unexpectedly intense emotion -- I actually wept -- that I was finally back in the most beautiful place in the world.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Mountains Are Made by Ants

I rode the local cable-car up onto the Muttereralm mountain on Sunday afternoon.  Not the ski-lift -- that's out of action in the summer months, for obvious reasons.  Having spent three hours on foot on Friday only getting half the distance the cable goes, it seemed several kinds of wonderful to cruise effortlessly past my previous benchmark, thirty feet above, in a matter of minutes.  It's a sensation not unlike those dreams of effortless flight one has, disrupted only when the car lurches periodically over one of the sets of rollers on the mighty stanchions holding the whole thing up.  It took me most of the journey to figure out how that works.

At the top is a small leisure complex, apparently aimed at preventing most people from ever setting foot on the mountain itself.  Which, if you ask me, is a good plan.  It's a paradise out there, and as Joni Mitchell pointed out long ago, people have a way of trying to improve upon paradise, one way or another, generally in the interests of convenience, not to mention Health and Safety.

Mind you, H & S is not as prominent in the Austrian mind as it has become in the British mind.  One of the leisure activities available up there is an alarming innovation known as "mountain carting".  A rough, unfenced track has been constructed, running from the top to the bottom of the cablecar route, joining and running alongside the main driveable track about half-way down.  Essentially, you get on a tricycle and roll down the mountain at speed, negotiating hairpin bends and avoiding unfenced drops into areas full of jagged rocks and very solid trees.  It's insane.

When I trudged up that same track on Friday, people would occasionally zip past, shrieking, whooping, and screaming fervent prayers to Our Lady of the Speedway.  I fully expected to find a mangled corpse impaled upon a pine stump at every sharp turn in the road.  One guy screeched to a halt (yes, these things do have brakes) and offered me a lift.  I had to insist that I was headed up, not down.

My plan on Sunday was to get my boots in some snow if at all possible.  How much further could the bare rocky peak be? A lot further, apparently, especially if you manage to select the track that runs round the mountain, and not up it.  No problem, I had a wonderful couple of hours up in the high forest, with views of the  scree- and snow-streaked peaks on the north side of the valley, and occasional vertiginous glimpses down onto a tiny, faraway Innsbruck, with miniature aircraft coming in to land at Kranebitten aiport.

It did occur to me that if my business here was to achieve an unclichéd view of the Tyrol, this was probably not the ideal place or way to do it.  Although I did notice something which I don't think has previously been remarked upon.  Despite what you may have learned at school about tectonic plates, orogenies, and erosion, it is self-evident that mountains are made by ants.  This is their realm.  Red ones, black ones, brown ones, small ones, big ones, even scary ones the size of a beetle.  No matter where you look, no matter where you sit, it turns out to be seething with ants. The entire Alpine landscape is clearly a series of enormous ant-hills.

But, a mile or so away from the screaming mountain carters, this is simply a beautiful, awe-inspiring landscape, in which it is a privilege to wander. Sometimes, in some places, the world is simply what it appears to be. I was constantly put in mind of the words of the Navaho Blessing Way chant:
In beauty may I walk.
All day long may I walk.
Through the returning seasons may I walk.
On the trail marked with pollen may I walk.
With grasshoppers about my feet may I walk.
With dew about my feet may I walk.
With beauty may I walk.
With beauty before me, may I walk.
With beauty behind me, may I walk.
With beauty above me, may I walk.
With beauty below me, may I walk.
With beauty all around me, may I walk.
In old age wandering on a trail of beauty, lively, may I walk.
In old age wandering on a trail of beauty, living again, may I walk.
It is finished in beauty.
It is finished in beauty.
Or, if you prefer something simpler, there are the words of Kurt Vonnegut's Uncle Alex:  If this isn't nice, then what is?

[ A general note: while I am in Austria,  I am processing these images on a netbook computer, with a screen the size of a paperback book, and a touchpad rather than a mouse.  I am therefore a little out of my comfort zone, and may not be doing them justice.  Normal service will be resumed when I get home...]