Monday, 29 February 2016

The Left-Handed Spanner

Since Christmas I've read the memoirs of both Sally Mann, Hold Still, and Patti Smith, Just Kids. I'm lukewarm-to-ambivalent about the work of both women, and actively dislike the work of Smith's photographer soulmate, Robert Mapplethorpe, so may not really have been the ideal reader for either, but did, in fact, enjoy both. I turned 62 this month, and I'm finding that reading the recollected, reconstructed narratives of my slightly older contemporaries helps to give a more satisfying shape to my own, rather less exciting story. They may have been up on the stage, but I was down in the audience, so in a manner of speaking their story is also my story. I was always puzzled by the assertion that a lot of older readers give up on fiction altogether and concentrate on biographies, but I'm beginning to understand why.

One thing struck me forcefully in both books. Despite coming from opposite ends of the American social spectrum – Mann is a child of southern social privilege, wealthy and well-connected, whereas Smith is white working class from Chicago – both their careers are testaments to the importance in the arts (and no doubt in other spheres, too) of having, or cultivating, connections and patronage.

It's inescapable. It seems that, if you desire public approbation, then – no matter how talented or hard-working you are – without those helping hands to pull you up, you'll almost certainly get nowhere. If you're lucky, like Sally Mann, connections just seem to fall into place. Apparently, A-list artist Cy Twombly was a near neighbour and friend of the family. There's handy. If you're coming from nowhere, though, like Patti Smith and Mapplethorpe, then finding and making connections can become an all-consuming mania. It is truly cringe-worthy, to read how nakedly they craved acceptance into the insiders-only back room at Max's Kansas City club in New York, where Warhol's circle used to hang out. It would appear that being prepared to expose the depth of your neediness is the price of a seat at the top table. Now you're one of us!

Down here in the biography-reading audience, I think most of us – despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary – maintain a face-saving fiction that the people we read about have achieved the prominence that we ourselves have conspicuously failed to achieve for meritocratic reasons. Worse, we also like to believe that in the process of becoming eminent, they must at least have acquired a degree of wisdom about whatever field it is they are eminent in. But, like most beliefs, these are wobbly planks placed over an infinite abyss of disillusion. Don't look down!

The biography-worthy (a.k.a. "the lucky, needy, and ruthlessly self-interested") share an equally strong, corroborating faith in their own justification, but have no real idea about how they got where they are. How could they? As Thomas Pynchon once put it, "Life's single lesson: that there is more accident to it than a man can ever admit to in a lifetime and stay sane". Nonetheless, in a modern version of noblesse oblige, many feel an obligation to be generous with advice to less fortunate wannabees. Here's how I done good! But this is rather like lottery winners passing on tips on how to pick winning combinations. Hey, it worked for them.

Once – a long time ago, now – I attended a workshop given by two very prominent gallerists, both women with impressive, almost legendary records in the photographic world. I was flattered afterwards to be invited to send a portfolio of work to one of them; let's call her "Z". So I did. Now, let us be clear: twenty-five years ago I was less than unknown as a photographer, and still looking for my own "voice". To be honest, I wasn't much good, but apparently showed some signs of promise. Z's response was astonishingly encouraging. My work was very good, she said, my sequences were coherent, I had things to say, I was good to go. Had I considered approaching, say, the Tate or the Barbican for an exhibition? The rooms there seemed ideal for the sort of work I had to show, she thought.

Wow! Really? So, like an idiot, I sent proposals to both institutions, mentioning that "Z had sent me". Now, I suppose this may have been the art world equivalent of the humiliating initiation of the apprentice, being sent round the factory on his first day asking for a left-handed spanner. Certainly, the replies I got amounted to a polite packaging-up of "Ha Ha Ha Ha! You idiot!" But, actually, I think Z was simply being kind and encouraging and – perhaps because of her own eminence in the field – truly had not considered that unknowns don't get shows at the Tate or the Barbican. She had long ago forgotten about the sort of hole-in-the-wall places where unknowns do get to show their work, if they're very lucky.

So, as the psalmist says, put not your trust in princes (or princesses). Unless, of course, you really, really want to be a prince, too, in which case you don't have much choice. Lots of luck with that. But it would be a good idea to read some biographies before begging on your knees to be admitted to the places where the In-Crowd go.

Thursday, 25 February 2016

A Life on the Ocean Wave

Another little set from Tuesday for fans of sittin' on the dock of the Bay.

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Gateway to Empire

Continuing the local theme, I went for a walk down by the dockside in Southampton on Tuesday. It was a brisk, sunshine-and-showers afternoon, with the kind of soft brightness that digital cameras seem to be built to love. I suspect the climate in Japan must be rather similar to ours. I put together this little photo-essay, with as few words as possible. Let the pictures do the talking.

Mayflower Park on the waterfront, looking north towards town, then looking west. Some of this rubbish may well have been dumped overboard by the Pilgrim Fathers, on embarkation for (as they believed) Virginia.

Holyrood Church on the High Street was destroyed by bombing in 1940. Left as a permanent shell, it is now dedicated as a memorial to the sailors of the Merchant Navy. Once you step inside, it's a poignantly quiet spot on a busy street. It's actually very beautifully done, with a level of of tact and restraint not usually associated with Southampton. We British are rather good at war memorials. We've had a lot of practice, of course.

Town Quay docks and ferry terminal.  They are never pretty places, working waterfronts, but always full of interest. Unless, of course, you're waiting for your daily ferry back to the Isle of Wight, in which case it's about as interesting as a bus station. And, yes, that massive white thing in the distance in the second picture is one enormous ship.

Finally, three gateways/portals, all currently closed, but offering different kinds of potential access and benefits to the enquirer. I should probably say that my choice would most likely be the middle one, a Thai Restaurant on the old Mayflower Pier.

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

In Bruges

Southampton city centre has suffered badly from several rounds of brutal attention.

First, from the Luftwaffe, when the town took a pasting in the Blitz of 1940. Then, from the post-War town planners and developers, who – unlike their counterparts in France and Germany – decided not to restore the glories of the city's former mercantile architectural heritage, but replaced everything with the sort of boxy, cheap, half-hearted concrete structures you will find in any British town centre anywhere.

Then, when these brutalist constructions began to rot and the neglected pre-War buildings became expensively dilapidated, the planners came back for a second pass, bulldozed everything between the blocks of high-rise flats, and filled the spaces with high-density housing, multi-storey car-parks, and shopping malls, with the result that the few surviving mediaeval and Tudor buildings now look oddly out of place, like Disneyfied theme pubs on a housing estate.

Finally, in recent years the heritage ironists have moved in, putting "fun" installations into any remaining windy public spaces, and fixing interpretation boards onto the brooding remnants of the mediaeval city walls. Walls where few tourists ever walk, because although many tourists arrive in Southampton by boat, most stay no longer than it takes to catch a taxi or a train. Why would they? What is there to see?

The British may be rightly accused of many things, but an excess of civic pride is not one of them. And the curious thing is, that's just the way I like it. What is more sterile, or more stifling, than one of those prettified European city-centres beloved of tourists, with their hanging baskets and quaintly-animated chiming clock-towers, and oppressive sense of orderliness? The French may have no word for "entrepreneur", according to at least one authority, but they can lay fair claim to "bourgeois".

Sunday, 21 February 2016

Wild Goose Chase on Cemetery Lake

When you live in a carefully-disordered, random-access chaos, certain objects  particularly sheets of paper  have a way of vanishing for long stretches, then reappearing periodically, like whales coming up for air. They lead a sort of freelance, free-range life in among the more necessary, more coralled stuff. Today, one of these surfaced again.

It's a sheet of A4, on which I have printed these words, in what must be a 48 point type:
The wild geese do not intend to cast their reflection. The water has no mind to receive their image.
I can't now remember why I did this. It's a well-known poem or proverb – anonymous, I think – which Alan Watts and others have often used in their writings about Zen. A teasing sense of revelation flickers about it, like a half-remembered dream.

Whenever this sheet reappears, from between two books, or in among a sheaf of bank statements and electricity bills, it strikes me that these are words that all artists who work "with" the landscape – aligning this with that, echoing one thing with another – should remember. Deceptively simple, they mean so much more than they say.

I also always think, "I should do a blog post about that", and now I have.

Friday, 19 February 2016

Wall Poetry

I sometimes think there is nothing quite as evocative as the multi-layered manuscript that is a wall in a public place. An example of what palaeographers call a palimpsest. If I had the patience and the skill, I would probably make paintings like these. But – even better – I have a camera.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Desert Island Discs

Most countries have some sort of "honours" system, a way of rewarding prominent citizens for being prominent. Britain has a long-established hierarchy of official gongs, from the humble MBE, through various grades of knighthood, all the way up to peerages. But, as we know, this system is mainly operated by political patronage and down-payments disguised as charitable donations, and is hopelessly corrupt. Sir Mick Jagger?  Puh-lease....

But we also have an alternative, more honourable institution, which is no less sought-after. It is a radio programme called Desert Island Discs, first broadcast in 1942. The programme's simple but brilliant formula is that someone has to pretend they have been shipwrecked onto a desert island, and can rescue just eight records from the sea. Yes, records. Look, never mind why they're saving records rather than, say, food. It's just a conceit, yes? Plus Desert Island Survival Snacks would not make good radio. And, yes, obviously, the programme was conceived in the days before LPs, let alone CDs; by "record" they mean "single coherent work", whether it be an Abba single or a Beethoven late quartet.

Anyway, every week, some notable is chosen to nominate their eight recordings, as well as a book (other than Shakespeare or the Bible, which due to their natural buoyancy have washed up already) and a luxury. The idea is that the eight records are a way of talking us through the stages of the guest's life, in conversation with the host, currently Kirsty Young.  If this venerable programme has taught us anything, it is that few modern lives are very eventful, and that eminence in, say, astrophysics or athletics does not guarantee good taste in music; very far from it.

Now, there comes a "Ballad of Lucy Jordan" moment in everyone's life, when you accept, finally, reluctantly, that you will never, ever be invited to select your eight discs and flirt outrageously with Kirsty. Oh, well. But, hey, given that I'm still glowing with a post-birthday sense of entitled narcissism, that doesn't mean we can't put the show on right here!

Cue music and seagulls... Da da da-da dah ...

"My guest this morning is..." No, no, never mind all that, Kirsty, let's accept that I am both Everyman and Nobody incarnate, Cohort of 1954, and get straight to the records. Really, no-one wants to know where I come from, how I left there, ended up here, and what I thought the point of it all was. Ask me again in twenty years. What they want is a chance to bask in the exquisite sunlight of my immaculate taste.

Although, I had not anticipated how difficult this exercise is, for anyone who actually likes their music. Just eight records? EIGHT?? Entire performers and genres, whole phases of my life, all slipped beneath the waves! You could drown several times over in the time it would take you to flip through all those discs, hundreds of them, floating around in the tide. So, in the end, I divided up my life-so-far into phases that were both biographical and musical; oddly, these did seem to coincide quite neatly. But, after much agonising, I also decided to confine myself to a "pop" selection, 1954-2000. After all, no-one really wants to hear the Goldberg Variations or Spem in Alium or a Bach cello suite yet again on DID, do they?  We can always do Part Two – The Serious Stuff – another time... So:

1. 1954-61
Lonnie Donegan - Puttin' On the Style
What can I say? Lonnie was the kingpin (hey, there's another song, but from another life-phase!), and I was a five-year old pioneer of the skiffle air-guitar. Together, we rocked!
Runners up:
Ronald Binge - Elizabethan Serenade (A staple of the BBC Home Service.  The feeling it invokes matches something inside that I can't name but still treasure).
Little Richard -Tutti Frutti (My Mum and I used to walk out to go shopping, and stop off in a cafe for her to have a cigarette and a cup of coffee.  There was a juke box!).
George Shearing - Lullaby of Birdland (Dad was a jazz fan, and owned the EP with the photo-montage of the Quintet carried in a basket by a stork.  Photo-montage?  I wonder...).

2.  1961-68
Ike & Tina Turner - River Deep Mountain High
Crikey! Oo-wee, baby! And check that video! Wow! What riches! What years!  I more or less stuck in a pin, but this track is the business, isn't it?  In fact, all of these take me back instantly to Saturday teatimes in front of a black and white TV. Six-Five Special, Ready Steady Go, Juke Box Jury, Top of the Pops... As kids, we had no real idea of how new all this was, but couldn't wait for it to be our turn. 1968 marked the advent of colour into our lives, what you might call Sixties 2.0.
Runners up:
Manfred Mann - 5-4-3-2-1 (This one always brings it all back. Uh-huh, it was the Man-freds...).
Rolling Stones - Get off of  My Cloud (Hey! McCloud! Get offa my ewe!)
Procol Harum - Whiter Shade of Pale (Eternally perfect: Bach meets sixth-form poetry. Shame about the video).

3 & 4. 1968-72
Fairport Convention - A Sailor's Life
Those teen years... Finally, it was our turn. I was a huge fan of these pioneers of electric folk, and this track was the first spine-tingling indication of where things were heading. Best listened to in a darkened room with a single candle, deep in a torrid imaginary affair with Joni Mitchell.
Jimi Hendrix - Voodoo Child (Slight Return)
WHOAH! Those opening bars still give me the chills, every time.  Inside, in the secret place where we are superheros, this is who I am. If I don't see you no more in this world, I'll see you in the next one, and don't be late...
Runners up:
Joni Mitchell - Case of You (Joni, Joni, it's not you, it's me... Which bar did you mean, btw?)
Led Zeppelin - Rock and Roll (Yes! Yes! Oh, yes! Flailing about, looking like a prat, feeling like an immortal... Really got that air-guitar down now!).

5.  1972-77
Steely Dan - Bodhisattva
University... If I knew then what I know now, I'd have done some work.  Instead, I had fun, which I felt I'd earned by getting to university (first in the family, etc.).  A temple ball, a fresh two-ounce tin of Golden Virginia, some new friends from new strange worlds, and Steely Dan on the stereo. Add a shoe-box full of salted pistachios, straight from Iran, and this, my friends, is heaven, and I have been there.
Runners up:
Bob Marley -- Lively Up Yourself ('cos reggae is another bag).
Michael Hurley - Twilight Zone (Everything is weird...).
Weather Report - Black Market (My introduction to jazz fusion, a much maligned genre).

6. 1977-84
Ijahman Levi - Are We A Warrior? 
Emphatically not! Do we 'ave to 'ave a war? Sweet long summer nights in St. Paul's, Bristol. Bloody Thatcher, though, managed to get me out on the streets, holding up one end of a trade union banner. Babylon!
Runners up:
Police - Walking on the Moon  (Never fails to remind me of walking from a friend's squat off the Caledonian Road, through Islington and Hackney, back to our squat in Dalston at 2 a.m. London was eerily quiet at night in those days, and the pavements were oddly cushioned, too, which made walking difficult).
Talking Heads - Once in a Lifetime (Rarely off the turntable when we lived in Bristol. Still feels as Zeitgeisty as it did then).
Graham Parker & the Rumour - Hey Lord Don't Ask Me Questions (Ditto.  Saw him live twice. Awesome).
7 & 8.  1984-2000
Jackson Browne - Sky Blue and Black
Finally, Dad Rock!  I listened to early Jackson Browne a lot in my college years, and then kind of forgot about him. Some of these later tracks are brilliant, though: what better evocation of the bitter-sweet memories of a hedonistic youth is there than The Barricades of Heaven? I know exactly where the Barricades of Heaven are located. But Sky Blue and Black...  If you have tears, and have ever loved and lost, prepare to shed them now. You're the hidden cost, and the thing that's lost in everything I do. I'll never stop looking for you. That's the way love is...
Paul Simon - The Cool, Cool River
I absolutely love this track (in fact, I love this whole album, Rhythm of the Saints). It always brings tears to my eyes when the rhythm changes: "I believe in the future we shall suffer no more.  Maybe not in my lifetime, but in yours, I feel sure..."  It says there is hope, and that the future will belong to the humblest, now living in resilient poverty at the margins of the First World feast. Hard times? I'm used to them! A good note to end on, Kirsty!
Runners up:
Joni Mitchell - Night Ride Home (It would never have worked, Joni. I'm glad you found happiness... Me, too! Yes, two kids! Who'd have thought it?)
Van Morrison & The Chieftains - Raglan Road (Let grief be a falling leaf at the dawning of the day).

Which ONE record would I take? Do you know, I think I'd rather have none of them than one of them? As the man said, "heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter". Oh, all right, probably Steely Dan.

Book:  Oh, God. This is worse than the music. Let's say the complete Oxford English Dictionary. That's about as close to inexhaustible as you can get.
Luxury:  An enormous box of HB pencils and unlined A5 notebooks.

Cue music... Da da da-da dah ...

Phew. I think that went rather well, though, didn't you, Kirsty? It's been an honour.

Monday, 15 February 2016

A World of Mud

Seen from a lofty viewpoint at the top of the Gorge, with the Portway and the Clifton Down railway running in parallel, the Avon seems perfectly contained in its channel. In the distance plumes of smoke and steam rise from the industries of Avonmouth, and beyond them the hills of Wales can be made out, despite the haze.

But the Avon is tidal, getting a massive push upstream twice a day from the Bristol Channel, which has the second highest tidal range in the world. When the plug is pulled, the brimming channel becomes a dismal mudbank. Further downstream, about half-way to Avonmouth, the River Trym flows into the Avon at Sea Mills. It, too, is affected by the tidal flow, and becomes if anything even more dismal at low tide.

When I was there last week it was especially grim, as it was apparent that the recent heavy rains had caused the Trym to overtop its banks at high tide, leaving a muddy trail of detritus smeared all over the grass. Curiously, alongside the expected litter of containers, wrappers and bottles, there was an improbable quantity of plastic balls, presumably lost or left outside in riverside gardens and playing fields, and flushed out by the water from their hiding places.

Saturday, 13 February 2016

Sing a Song of Sixpence

I forgot to mention my traditional birthday present to myself. In my post about the "Keats Walk", Sixpence a Pint, I mentioned the letter Keats wrote to his publisher while staying in Winchester, in which he says "there is on one side of the city a dry chalky down where the air is worth sixpence a pint". Without doubt, I would say, that dry, chalky down is Twyford Down, in those days still joined by a neck of land to St. Catherine's Hill.

So, being a sentimental sort, I bought myself a George III silver sixpence on Ebay, minted in 1818, the year before the famous walk through the water-meadows.  Who knows? This very coin may have jingled in the immortal pocket.  It's certainly been in and out of a few Christmas puddings and bride's shoes in the meantime, too.  Maybe I should give it a wash.

This talk of poets, letters, and sixpences reminds me of an old post from 2008, which I may as well revive here. If you have ever sat a literature exam, it may amuse you. Or possibly induce a panic attack. You may turn over your papers NOW:

"When I try to put all into a phrase I say 'Man can embody truth but he cannot know it' ... The abstract is not life and everywhere draws out its contradictions. You can refute Hegel but not the Saint or the Song of Sixpence."
W. B. Yeats, in his last letter, 4th January 1939.

Questions (Time: 3 hours. Use one side of the paper only):

1. In your two penn'orth, was Yeats quite the full shilling?
2. By "the Saint", does Yeats mean the popular 1960s TV drama starring Roger Moore? No? Are you sure?
3. Discuss the impact of decimalisation on The Song of Sixpence. Please show your working.
4. Can you refute Hegel?
5. Can a woman know truth but not embody it? Are men thereby always and inevitably wrong?
6. Draw a contradiction.

Friday, 12 February 2016

Whale of a Time

It was my sixty-second birthday this week (yes, now you remember!) and I celebrated it in Bristol. "Celebrated" may be the wrong word for such a low-key observance; "passed" may be the better choice. My partner had to be in Bristol for work, and the restaurants are considerably better there than in Southampton. In the end, though, we settled for a Thai curry at home, and a whole bottle of beer each.  Yay!

My best present was, as always, the thing it hadn't occurred to me to ask for: a James Bond-style pen from my daughter, containing:
  • Screwdrivers (Phillips and regular)
  • Scraper
  • Short blade
  • Hole punch
  • Tweezers
  • Saw
  • Wire strippers
  • Long blade
  • File
  • Fork
Oh, and a pen, naturally.  Now I will be equal to any situation, provided I remember to take my "pen", of course.  No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to... Aiee! Ow! Stop it!! Is that ... a fork?

It was a beautiful day, and I went for a lengthy circular walk that included the Knoll Woods nature reserve, the banks of the Avon, and the Bennett's Patch meadows beside the Portway.  Where I encountered these:

Now, sadly, multiple whale beachings have figured prominently in the news recently, but I wasn't expecting to see any this far up the Avon. On closer inspection, however, you will see they are made out of basketwork. Yes, these are Wicker Whales! And, no, there doesn't appear to be any sacrificial Jonah, Ahab, or Edward Woodward trapped inside. Originally, it seems, they were installed in the town centre, as part of Bristol's year as European Green Capital. Now, they are forever breaching and sounding alongside the Portway. At least, until they rot away, or some idiot sets fire to them.

Monday, 8 February 2016

Well Done, You!

Sometimes, I find I've taken some photographs that are so good, that I cannot understand why the world is not beating a path to my door. Or at least that part of it that cares about really, really good photographs. It soon wears off, of course. But, right now, I'm high-fiving myself (I wonder, is that the same as the sound of one hand clapping?). I mean, seriously, I just go for a walk round the block... Look what happens!

But, that was a paragraph ago, and I'm pretty much over it now. It's nice while it lasts. It's why we do it, isn't it, when we could be inside in the warm, watching the TV or reading the paper? Some of us, it seems, have a need that drives us on to seek that periodic Big Tick, as emphatically awarded to me by these two. Well done, you!

The trick, I suppose, is neither to be discouraged by having to mark your own work, nor ever to be tempted to cheat. And not to care that it might seem a little strange to many, still to be setting yourself homework, at your age...

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Paint Job

Weird scenes inside the wasp mine.  What are they mining in there?  It looks oddly like bubble-gum to me, which is not improbable, I suppose, as wasps notoriously have a sweet tooth*.  Though whether bubble-gum is an extractable natural resource I'm not sure.  But wait...  Maybe wasps make bubble-gum?  Which would explain a lot.  Though, in comparison with honey, it's a pretty poor product, frankly.

However, bubble-gum does have its plus side.  Not least as a way of educating the young by means of the enclosed, fact-packed and informative cards.  It's surprising how much you can learn from bubble-gum cards.  Anyone remember "Great British Roadkill"?  Or were those stickers?

* I am well aware that wasps don't have teeth, thank you.

Friday, 5 February 2016

Cemetery Lake

Having checked out the Ornamental Lake on the Common on Monday, I thought that on Thursday I'd have a look at "Cemetery Lake", which I don't recall ever visiting before.  The name doesn't refer to some ancient British lacustrine funerary custom, but merely to its proximity to the Old Southampton Cemetery, which is situated at the very south end of the Common.

It turns out to be a much more interesting spot than the Ornamental Lake, mainly fenced off and surrounded by trees and gorse bushes, and therefore a haven for water birds of all sorts.  I was also lucky with the weather, on a day which was forecast for heavy cloud.  Gradually, I'm realising I have a perfect little landscape project in the making within walking distance of our house.  Which is both good news and bad, for someone still struggling to complete another "little" landscape project that has so far occupied five years and counting...

Thursday, 4 February 2016

In and Around the Lake

The variety of Southampton Common never ceases to amaze me.  This week I took a path I had never taken before, and it took me into the area around the so-called Ornamental Lake, a rather drab stretch of water, much visited by young mothers with toddlers in prams, and squabbled over by seagulls, moorhens, and overfed ducks.

The quality of the woodland and open spaces there is subtly different – more birches, more broom, more bracken – and everywhere there were golden-brown heaps of last year's leaves and bracken lying over some treacherously soft mud, with the loops of bramble trip-wires beginning to spring up already.  In summer these thickets must be impassable and unvisited by all but the most determined humans, ideally equipped with a machete. Which may account for the many deer-tracks heading down towards the waterside.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Good Times, Bad Times

A phone snap of one corner of Idiotic Towers

Compared to other, more harmful addictions and compulsions – gambling or shoplifting, say – the obsessive acquisition of photo-books is pretty mild stuff.  I suppose if it really got out of control you'd have a problem, but as a threat to health, sanity, and a stable family life it barely nudges the needle.  In fact, there may even be significant benefits to be derived from the private contemplation of the best work photography has to offer, presented in the most congenial medium known to humanity.  Plus, remarkably, in the longer term there need not even be a financial downside.  Very few other affordable pleasures in life keep their value so well or even, joined with a little luck and good judgement, yield a return on investment comparable to the sort of interest rates otherwise only available to the very wealthy.  In fact, are there any others?

The main downside is space, lack of.  Those of us who share our lives with accumulations of books know that the price we pay is that we will never, ever be able to swing a cat indoors, whether this be understood as the family moggie or a particularly brutal means of chastisement.  Whichever, there simply isn't room.  For which both pets and very naughty children have reason to be grateful.

Now, people who refer to photo-books as "coffee-table books" are either missing the derogatory implications of that term or, which is worse, failing to acknowledge the effort, ambition and achievement represented by publication.  As if somehow the compilation and editing of a sequence of photographs into its final published book form were a cynical exercise in parting fools from their money.  Obviously, actual "coffee-table books" – large, illustrated books, intended primarily for ostentatious display rather than for reading or study – do usually contain many photographs, and there are photographic coffee-table books (and I'm not just thinking about Helmut Newton's grotesquely OTT Sumo, which came with its own set of legs).  But these are as different from the photo-books that interest me as, say, [insert your own choice of two glamorous airheads] are from Tilda Swinton or Emma Thompson.

Another phone snap, another corner

Probably the very first book I sought out was Josef Koudelka's Gypsies.  In 1984 I arrived in Southampton to take up a new job, and there happened to be an exhibition of Koudelka's work hanging in the John Hansard Gallery on the university campus.  It is hard to exaggerate the impact those photographs had on me.  Although I had taken an interest in photography before, from then on it became an all-consuming passion.  I ordered a copy of Gypsies via the campus bookshop – it was still available then new as an inexpensive Aperture paperback – and, without realising it, took the first step towards hopeless addiction.  Not long after, a show of Thomas Joshua Cooper's landscape work appeared in the same gallery.  Along with it came copies of his book Between Dark and Dark, produced by the Graeme Murray Gallery in Edinburgh, each copy enclosed in a custom-made shipping box, and wrapped in tissue-paper like some up-market trinket.  I was hooked.

Fay Godwin's Land, Raymond Moore's Murmurs At Every Turn, Martin Parr's Bad Weather, A Fair Day, and The Last Resort,  Jem Southam's Red River and The Raft of Carrots, Chris Killip's Isle of Man and In Flagrante, Paul Graham's A1, Beyond Caring, and Troubled Land, Peter Fraser's Two Blue Buckets, John Blakemore's Inscape and The Stilled Gaze, John Davies' Mist Mountain Water Wind and A Green & Pleasant Land... The 1980s and early 1990s saw the sudden appearance of carefully considered book-length collections from a new generation of British photographers.  The important Barbican exhibition catalogue Through the Looking Glass in 1989 acted as a sort of checklist of names to watch out for. You subscribed to the journal Creative Camera, and pounced on each new book as soon as it was announced.  Specialist publishers like Travelling Light, Cornerhouse, and Dewi Lewis began to emerge.  Books started to be imported from abroad, primarily but not only from America, by specialist shops and galleries.  William Eggleston, Joel Meyerowitz, Richard Misrach, John Gossage, Michael Schmidt, Luigi Ghirri... At Zwemmer's and Shipley's in Charing Cross Road in London you could handle undreamed-of treasures, and drool over the production values of German publishers, or the sheer brilliance of Japanese graphic design.  To protect the stock from drool, the cover of every item in Zwemmer's was swathed in a clear protective wrapping, sellotaped up like a Christmas present.

What, more?

Those were good times for British photography and its enthusiasts.  Good times never last, however: both Zwemmer's and Shipley's have now gone, and photo-book publishing has changed radically, and not necessarily for the better, in recent years.  When it comes to collecting, like any sensible player, you've got to know when to hold 'em, and when to fold 'em.  Now is very much a time to fold, in my opinion.  There are simply too many books being produced by too many half-baked photographers with barely enough material to fill a book, and too many of them are gimmicky productions from publishers with more than half an eye on their future status as "collectibles".  This may sound odd coming from a collector, but "collectability" has become a major problem, in two ways.

First, too many people have started collecting photo-books for the wrong reasons.  The most wrong of these is anticipation of inflated resale values.  I mentioned above, half-jokingly, the "return on investment" of buying photo-books.  This is best illustrated by examples:
My partner bought me a copy of Peter Bialobrzeski's first book Heimat some years ago for my birthday.  She hadn't heard of him (neither had I, come to that) but she saw it in Zwemmer's, and thought I'd like it.  It will have cost around £30.  It is now out of print, and there are currently nine copies for sale on Abebooks: the cheapest is £117, and the dearest is £420, averaging out around £225.
A few years ago, American photographer Alec Soth started to publish books under his own imprint, Little Brown Mushroom, selling them directly via his LBM website.  One of the first titles in 2010 was a little book of 40 pages, in the style of a child's reader, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, by Australian Trent Parke.  I can't remember exactly how much it cost, but it was cheap, and I think the postage from the States was more than the book.  Fifteen dollars, perhaps? There were 1000 numbered copies, and it sold out pretty fast.  There are five "as new" copies for sale currently, at an average price of £250.
One of the most sought-after, most highly-rated photo-books is the Japanese masterpiece Karasu, by Masahisa Fukase, originally published in Tokyo in 1986, and published in English as The Solitude of Ravens in paperback in the USA in 1991.  In 2008, this book was beautifully reprinted by the Rat Hole Press in Tokyo, in hardback, in a robust slipcase, in a limited edition of 1000 copies.  It cost £50: expensive, but rather less than the £400 or so you'd pay for the American paperback in uncertain condition, or the £4,000 generally asked for the Japanese first edition.  Right now, copies of that 2008 reprint are being offered for around £600.
These are just three random examples from my own shelves, but very typical.  In fact, it would be hard to find an out-of-print monograph of any significance that is selling second-hand for less than twice its original cover price.  Obviously, like painters, neither the authors nor the publishers see any of this "aftermarket" value, and neither do the specialist booksellers dealing in new stock.  But neither do collectors.  If I were to take my copies of these three items to a second-hand
 bookseller I'd be offered something like £50, at most.  I could sell them myself via Amazon or Ebay, of course, and let greed and acquisitiveness take their natural course.  But something has gone wrong when such inflated prices are so quickly asked for what are, after all, mass-produced objects.  Who is paying this sort of money for something they could have bought at a reasonable price, had they been paying attention, not so very long before? Why do they want it so badly now?  Needless to say, it should be a matter of principle never to pay such silly, exploitative amounts for any book.

Second, some publishers are now chasing the high-end collector's market from the get-go.  I have no problem with limited edition runs, and moderate-to-high prices.  It makes sense.  Imagine if CDs were prohibitively expensive to produce, package and distribute to a high-enough standard, but had only a modest audience, so that a reasonable return could only be ensured by limiting production to 500 or 1000 copies, priced around £30-£50.  You would both feel differently about the value of your music collection, and yet happily pay the price if you love music and wanted to support musicians and the infrastructure that makes recorded music possible.  But certain publishers – the name Nazraeli comes to mind – routinely go one step further, by publishing two (or even three) editions simultaneously.  A "regular edition" of, say 1000 copies, plus a "deluxe edition" of 50 or fewer copies, generally comprising a signed, numbered book and an original print, presented in a box or slipcase.  This commercial logic also makes sense – those 50 copies may make the difference between breaking even and making a profit – but it introduces an unwelcome air of preciousness to the enterprise.  I suppose you can't blame publishers for wanting a piece of the scarcity action up front.  But, for me, the whole point of a photo-book is that it costs £30, not £1000, and that it is a robustly-made object to be read and enjoyed, not handled with white gloves and kept in a vault for fear of damaging its ultimate resale value.  And fashions change.  Hint:  I suspect you won't be able to give away a Michael Kenna deluxe edition in twenty years' time.  I trust it will have truly given its fifty investors purchasers £1000-worth of pleasure, over and above the identical, standard £50 edition...

A further complicating factor is self-publication and publishing-on-demand.  Before the advent of web-based on-demand services like Blurb, Lulu, Pikto, Magcloud and the rest, producing a book was a major enterprise.  It was (and still is) incredibly difficult to persuade a "proper" publisher to undertake a photo-book.  I know, I've tried!  If you've never seen it, it is well worth watching the video How to Make a Book with Steidl (fun trailer here – "Fuck ze mid-tones!").  Gatekeeper-publishers like Gerhard Steidl act like bouncers, controlling access to an exclusive club.  It may seem unfair, and a little arbitrary – no trainers! – but it does make getting in all the more desirable.

Self-publication, too, used to be very hard.  First, it cost a lot of money to produce even a small run of a decent-quality photo-book – we're talking thousands of pounds – and second, distributing and selling copies was next to impossible for a self-publisher.  Again, I know this from personal experience.  But the web has changed all that.  Setting aside on-demand books (like, ahem, the Blurb books you can see at the My Blurb Bookstore link over on the right), a significant proportion of the items you'll see in the newly-published lists on, say, Photo-Eye are self-published by relative or complete unknowns.  Presumably Photo-Eye themselves are acting as gatekeepers, filtering the Good Stuff from the flood-tide of photo-dreck, but it's still pretty overwhelming, and so much of it is, to my taste, dull stuff spread too thinly, with more emphasis on attitude than art.  Or indeed craft: as with all desktop publishing, excruciatingly bad layout and typography choices are frequently made by amateurs, and these are too often passed off as "innovation".  Well, I ain't buying it!

In the end, the golden rule is the same as it always has been for any form of collecting: develop a strong personal taste, and only buy books because you like them, or because you think they're important (but cheap!) early "straws in the wind" of some new trend you like the look of; never buy them just because you think they're going to be valuable, and never pay inflated prices for the ones that got away.  They're just books.