Monday, 30 December 2019

Post-Christmas Christmas Post

 View from Morecombelake

Approaching rain in Lyme Bay

One of the little post-Christmas pleasures is coming back into the house after a few days away and finding a slew of cards on the mat, often from the sort of friends and relatives who don't really "do" Christmas but who – perhaps having been given a nudge by the receipt of one of my own cards (I try to send them out early enough to give people a chance to react with dignity), or perhaps just being in the habit of leaving things to the very last minute – managed to get something in the post, often with a few scribbled updates on their state of health and wellbeing. As I say, it's a pleasure to receive them; if nothing else, it's nice to know at least some of these people are still alive. As the years progress, this is increasingly less of a given.

Rainbow over Morecombelake

Lyme Regis, Boxing Day

We're back now from a week in Dorset, where for the past few Christmases we have rented a cottage in Morecombelake, situated close to the sea and some magnificent countryside, and spacious enough to accommodate family and partners without the tension and verbal skirmishing that can accompany too-close proximity (well, too-close proximity with me, anyway: nobody seems to mind if I often retire to the kitchen, in order to read [1]). The absurdly mild but changeable December weather this year has meant that the past week has been a warm, wet, westerly mix of wind, rain, and fog, which is not ideal from most points-of-view, but a few dry and bright interludes ensured that everyone got out of the house often enough to ward off cabin fever.

On Hardown Hill 

Fog near Upcot

Personally, I don't mind "bad" weather – I have wellington boots and an idiotic but warm and waterproof hat – and the erratic mood swings of the atmosphere resulted in an interesting bag of photographs. The "Jurassic Coast" is the sort of area where you can more or less point a camera at random and find a view worth recording, and such crazy, mixed-up weather just adds another element to the the mix. Longer-term readers will know my ambivalent views on "pure" landscape photography, however, and also on the challenges of periodically dropping into a scenic area for all-too-brief periods of time. Resident artists of all stripes are thick on the ground in the Lyme Bay area: it must be tough, trying to find a fresh angle on scenes and settings of such outstanding beauty. In fact, to be honest, I have yet to see much, if any, work on display – locally, at least – that does so. There's simply an awful lot of the same old same old. However, I'm content just to convey something of the exhilaration of striding through muddy lanes, onto rain-swept hills, and down to wind-battered shores in a landscape where the sea is always a restorative presence, not least when tempered by the prospect of a cup of tea and a slice of Christmas cake.

On Chardown Hill

1. I've been addictively reading my way through Mick Herron's "Slough House" series of thrillers. I was also given copies of  Isabella Tree's "Wilding" by two different people... I'm only intending to read it once, though.

Wednesday, 25 December 2019

Goose for Dinner

OMG, when you said let's have a goose for dinner this Christmas, I though you meant to eat, not as a guest... You keep her entertained, and I'd better go and quietly dispose of what has been in the oven for the last few hours... Do you think geese like beans on toast? Because I think that's about all we've got. And hide that pâté somewhere!

What do you mean, animals don't do Christmas? Of course they do. At least they do, down here in Dorset. At midnight, all the cattle in the barn sing, and at dawn all the birds kneel (I think I've got that right). If you, too, do do Christmas, have a great one; if you don't, sorry about all the inconvenience. Normal service will be resumed all too soon.

sotto voce at the door:
Don't worry, babes. I'll sit him in the back with a frisbee
in his hands, and he won't know the difference...

Saturday, 21 December 2019

Abandoned Cars Revisited

We're now away in deepest, darkest Dorset, which has become our Christmas destination of choice in recent years.  Not exactly off-grid, but close to the edge. Which will be swiftly followed by New Year in Bristol, another relatively recent innovation, so it's unlikely I'll be posting much for a while.

In response to popular demand, however, I am putting up the latest revisions of those "abandoned cars" composites I showed earlier. I hope you'll agree they've improved. If you don't, too bad, and you might as well keep your opinion to yourself, as I probably won't be posting any comments for a while, either. Surely you, too, have got better things to be doing?

I don't know if you've heard, but apparently we here in Britain are about to enter upon a national Golden Age... Yeah, right. For the few, not the many, perhaps, to coin a phrase. We'll just have to wait and see how that one pans out for the rest of us. So, best wishes for 2020, and buckle up for a bumpy ride!

Tuesday, 17 December 2019

Incident II

Do we live in a meaningful universe? Is there a plan lodged somewhere? Or competing, contradictory plans? Do coincidences open a window onto the underlying architecture of subjective experience? And is there any point whatsoever in asking such unanswerable questions? Well, probably not, and even if there is, I am not remotely qualified to supply any answers. But then, who is? The Pope, perhaps, or Richard Dawkins, or (possibly my favoured candidate) Joni Mitchell? But how would we even recognise the correct answers, given humanity's track record so far? [OK, that's quite enough stupid questions! Ed.].

I only ask as, having recently raised the subject of joyriding and abandoned vehicles, it seemed quite appropriate, if not inevitable, to come across the scenario above on Sunday afternoon, in a quiet corner of the Southampton Sports Centre. At first sight, it looked like an accident, but the multiple muddy tracks gouged into the grassy verges, the rifled contents of the pannier, and the missing registration plates soon told the true story. Yes, the incident may well have ended in a terminal skid (or simply an empty fuel tank), but it started with a stolen motorbike. A Yamaha Diversion 900, as it happens, which appears to be a fairly serious, but unflashy set of wheels.

So far, so normal. What happened next, however, rather raised the spookiness quotient of an everyday coincidence. You may recall that earlier that same day I had also, quite frivolously, conjured the idea of travel through space and time in Southampton, via the soon-to-be-notorious Shirley Stargate, which I had located near a prominent tower-block in an area unusually dense with mistletoe. So, this was the sight that greeted us in a puddle next to the abandoned motorbike:

Yikes! No trickery involved, I promise, and it gave me quite a start when I saw it for what it was, having thought it to be a crumpled plastic bag. Whether it came out of the bike's pannier, or arrived there independently, I couldn't say. But it's precisely the kind of thing that causes the susceptible mind to ask idiotic and unanswerable questions. Like: Do we live in a meaningful universe?, etc. However, on reflection, I think I'm more inclined to infer that there is some as yet unidentified force at work in the universe, that has a sense of humour. Or rather, a force which is chiefly detectable by means of the adaptation we have come to call our "sense of humour". What we might call the Weak Pun Force.

Anyway, by whatever means it got there, why it should be me that came across it, and whether any derivable "meaning" resides entirely in my own (very susceptible) head, I'm sure I might be able to find a use for it in future. So, thanks, Weak Pun Force, for that little moment of insight into the unreason of rhyme.

Sunday, 15 December 2019


Incident 14/12/2019:
It seems that a naked, Welsh-speaking man found in a distressed condition near the Shirley Towers tower-block, Southampton, yesterday, is claiming to be a druid who, on waking from a nap taken while collecting mistletoe, was startled to find himself in 2019, not 209 AD. He is receiving psychiatric help.

Friday, 13 December 2019

Abandoned Cars

It's curious, how quickly a new thematic obsession can take hold. One of the galleries I showed work in last year ago recently announced a theme, "Hinterland", for next year's open submission. I'm not sure whether I will be entering work or not, but sometimes just the suggestion of a theme is enough to kick off a new round of picture-making, like the nucleating particle around which crystals form out of a saturated solution. In this case, the word "hinterland" suggested the idea of abandoned cars in constructed "edgeland" landscapes, something that I imagine will resonate with a lot of us, on this morning of a Boris Johnson landslide election victory. I suppose it is what Thomas Joshua Cooper would call a premonitional work.

But, good grief. People, people, what were you thinking? Well, nothing much, probably. Or, at most – if you've listened to any of the surprisingly idiotic vox-pop interviews over the past few weeks – repeating whatever bite-sized tabloid factoids have successfully been lodged in the public brain, which is much the same thing as thinking nothing. Repeat after me: But where's the money for all this going to come from? (so where do you think any money comes from?). They're trying to block the people's will! (as expressed in a narrowly-won, advisory, non-binding referendum? Fuck off). Get Brexit done! (it will barely even have started, you tosser). They're taking our jobs! (I look forward to seeing you and your kids, next year, out in the fields picking crops, or unblocking a hospital lavatory). Say what you like about his sociopathic personality, but that Boris has got a lovely cheeky grin! (I think you've got that one back-to-front).

If the disadvantaged populations of South Wales and the de-industrialised North can be persuaded to believe that voting against their own interests is in their best interests – largely, I fear, out of some inchoate but visceral mistrust of interfering foreigners and metropolitan elites – then there's not a lot that can be done. Biased and personality-obsessed media coverage hasn't helped, and if the BBC now lose the license fee under a right-wing Tory government, they only have themselves to blame. Although I expect they'll try to blame Jeremy Corbyn, and his wicked plans to fund the persecution of Jews out of the public purse. What, you hadn't heard? The man is positively Hitlerian in his antisemitism, according to the tabloid press and many interviewees regularly hosted by the BBC, not to mention more Stalinist than Stalin in his unhinged desire to re-nationalise and thereby ruin everything in sight. What a monster: close call!

To return with some relief to picture-making... One of Martin Parr's early black & white projects, made before he became famous for his trademark lurid colour work, was "Abandoned Morris Minors of the West of Ireland". Such cars used to be scattered all over rural Britain, alongside the rusting agricultural machinery blocking holes in hedges or marking boundaries. But, now that agriculture is so much more industrialised and "efficient", they seem to be disappearing, along with the weeds and wildlife that thrived in the scruffy rural chaos. I suppose it might even be those darned Poles, scavenging up "scrap" metal wherever it can be found, such as the iron railings round the park or the bronze sculpture within it. Or so they say... However, TWOCking is still a popular urban pursuit [1] – in Southampton the abandoned remains of stolen cars often turn up in quiet city corners, or driven out into the New Forest car parks, usually with a "Police Aware" sticker already in the window, if any are left intact – so, if this particular theme persists, I should have no problem finding new subject matter.

So, looking on the bright side, for lovers of the wabi sabi attractions of abandonment and neglect, the next few years could be something of a treat. Besides, it's so heartening, I think, that those lazy, benefits-guzzling, EC-grant-dependent inhabitants of Wales and the North voted so emphatically to stop sitting around waiting for heavy industry to return as if by magic – never gonna happen (not without nasty old state intervention, anyway) – and start standing on their own two feet, and not spending my tax-money on enormous flat-screen TV sets and mobility scooters. We have to assume they did read the bit about Tory plans to shrink the welfare state, and "make work pay"? Of course they did! And those plans must surely imply that good old Boris will be bringing back loads of well-paid, worthwhile work for them to do, mustn't they? Of course they do! They don't call him Britain Trump for nothing. So, come on, people, let's unleash Britain's potential, and show some of that spirit of enterprise that sets us apart from our European [smirk] "friends and partners"! Or you can at least learn to serve a decent latte in the City (and I don't mean Swansea) with a friendly smile. Besides, those 40 new hospitals promised by your man Boris (it was 40, wasn't it?) won't be cleaning themselves. It's all good.

1. No, not "trial without catheter", which is nobody's idea of fun, trust me, but "taking without consent" a car for joyriding purposes (although racing round the streets at night on noisy mopeds does seem to be taking over as the urban youth's sport of choice).

Sunday, 8 December 2019

Meteor Shower

Reading the elderly going on about the travails of advancing age probably gets old pretty quickly for the young, I imagine, and there certainly is rather a lot of it about. But then, there are more of us about, these days: a lot more. When I was a kid, my grandmother – something of an activist all her life – ran the local Over 60s Club. This was a club for old people: tea, chatter, bingo, and day-trips to Clacton and Margate. Her first husband, my grandfather, had died the year before I was born, aged 59. His father died in 1904, aged 45, and her own father had died in 1896 at the age of 50. So these "over 60s" were not just old people, but lucky people: survivors. If that generation made it to 65, particularly labouring men, celebrations were in order.

Today's elderly – barely middle-aged in body and spirit when the majority of us effortlessly passed the 60 mark – are destined to explore what, for most of the history of the human race, has been unknown territory. The brutal fact is, evolution has little interest in or use for those who have lived beyond their reproductive peak, so we are entering ever deeper into the unpredictable period where breakdowns are not covered by the original guarantee. True, there are convincing arguments that humanity's progress has been aided by the advanced child-taming skills of doting grandmothers, but the continued evolutionary usefulness of grumpy, worn-out grandfathers, moaning about these new-fangled "wheel" thingies what we never had in my day, is, at best, debatable. So it is something worth thinking and writing about, even if that does seem typically self-centred for the post-War generation. OK boomer! But, more than that, all this thinking out loud may lead to something being done about it: you'll thank us for it, kids, when your time comes.

I was struck by some of the observations in an article by Meghan Daum (Guardian, 17/10/19) about the perspective of older feminists on the #MeToo phenomenon (although slightly less struck, when I discovered she was only born in 1970). In particular this:
The world has changed so much between my time and theirs that someone just 10 years younger might as well belong to a different geological epoch. To a young person, someone like me is not so much an elder as an extinction. Is it any wonder, then, that older generations’ contributions to the conversation are, at best, a kind of verbal meteor shower, the flickering, nattering remains of planets that haven’t existed for eons?
Setting aside the fact that Daum is a mere child of 49, I love that image of the nattering meteor shower. Certainly, my planet is long gone. Literally so, in the case of the house where I was born, both my primary schools, the block of flats where I lived out my adolescence, and various other immemorial haunts of my younger years: all have been demolished and built over, with not a rack left behind. Less materially, but equally finally, rock-solid ideas and attitudes I grew up with have been challenged and consigned to history. From the same article:
Until 1960, the idea that women could compete with men in the job market, that men should do housework, that women had any purpose in life higher than having babies and men had any purpose higher than financially supporting those babies or going to war to protect them, was something close to unthinkable.
That we have come so far in so little time is a marvel. That we should expect all the kinks to have been worked out by now is insane.
I think I'd correct that over-optimistic "1960" to, let's say, 1980, but the point is nonetheless well made. The young have every right – a duty, even – to complain and to criticise, and to show little or no consideration for the aching shoulders on which they stand. My generation was equally ignorant and dismissive of the struggles of those who had actually created the conditions we enjoyed. Who actually set up the NHS and the welfare system, introduced free state education, or invented the juke box and the electric guitar? Not us. But with age a sense of perspective comes into play, as the fluidity of your own life solidifies: part history, part legacy, mainly rubble. The world I was born into, the world I was schooled in, the several worlds I worked in, the world I have retired into, and all the worlds to come are entirely different planets, all destined to become space junk. Once, it was possible to write:
What can the England of 1940 have in common with the England of 1840? But then, what have you in common with the child of five whose photograph your mother keeps on the mantelpiece? Nothing, except that you happen to be the same person.
George Orwell, England Your England
Now, in 2019, soon to be 2020, we are considerably closer to 2040 than we are to 1940, and yet to anyone over 60 the world of 1940 is just the day before yesterday, the vanished, war-torn planet of our parents' heyday. Do we still "happen to be the same person", though? It seems increasingly doubtful. I'm beginning to suspect I may not be the same person this afternoon that I thought I was this morning. Ah well, tomorrow is another me. Which is far from the pleasantly reassuring thought it once was. Memory and identity are closely linked, and both, it seems, are mutable.

At some point, it seems our mental flexibility and openness begin to ossify, and we start to lose patience with the flow of endless novelty and endless change, not least because this ceaseless churning causes us – once we have tired of swimming against the tide – to drift to the periphery, away from the lively centre, where the young congregate and the action is. We have come to like our world just as it is, thank you very much; it defines who we are, and any change to it threatens the stability of our identity. Than which – as you will know if you have ever suffered mental imbalance or "experimented" with psychoactive substances – few things are more terrifying. Which introduces the unmentionable spectre that flickers at the edge of every older person's vision: the prospect of dementia. Which is an outcome of advanced age that is quite explicitly not covered by the original guarantee [1].

It's natural for the robust young to advocate radical change and enjoy the inconveniences that accompany adventure. They're still just a preliminary sketch of who they will become, have little to lose, and some vigorous, random strokes and splatters of ink may reveal exciting new possibilities. If not, they still have time to bin the whole thing, and start again. We older folk, by contrast, are pretty much at the stage where we have to start thinking of ourselves as finished works, and worry that any more fiddling about may risk spoiling the whole thing, even if the completed picture is not quite the masterpiece we had hoped. And then there is always the underlying fear that the whole thing may have been carried out with materials so unstable that it will self-destruct or get scrambled before the final finishing touches can be applied.

Self-help gurus and "life coaches" are often advocates of risk, of life as permanent revolution. To what degree anyone actually lives, or could live a whole life like that, I couldn't say. It must be exhausting. But it's a half-baked philosophy that regards a reckless, narcissistic optimism as the highest, aspirational good. Live the dream, become your best self, whatever the cost! Which is fine, if you're young, strong and/or beautiful, have a trust fund or a bankable talent, or simply tend to land on your feet. None of the above? Then a more cautious approach to life may be appropriate in your case, especially if you hope to live a long life in relative comfort. Have you considered enhancing your pension prospects, for example?

One of the most quoted and yet most stupid poems ever written is "Come to the Edge" by Christopher Logue (whose adaptation of Homer, War Music, by contrast, is brilliant):
Come to the edge.
We might fall.
Come to the edge.
It's too high!
And they came
And he pushed
And they flew.
The temptation to rewrite that last line is overwhelming. Perhaps as, "And his case comes up next Friday", or maybe, "But they pushed back, and said, 'No, you first...'" I mean, nobody needs to be encouraged to be an idiot. Even someone as level-headed, mild-mannered, and essentially grounded as me took foolish risks when I was young, coming perilously close to disaster and even an early death on several occasions. Did I really believe I was invulnerable? I may well have done, but I got away with it: even if I ticked none of the other lucky boxes, I have always tended to land on my feet.

I suppose that if there is one thing that divides age from youth, it is the inability of the young to hear the spectral shouting coming from within that ancestral, nattering meteor shower: "Get away from the edge! You CANNOT fly, you IDIOT! And do up that coat! It's cold: where are your gloves? And wear a vest, fasten that seatbelt, and don't play with matches, run with scissors, or have unprotected sex with strangers, and, and, and ..." Well, it seems I can certainly hear them now, reluctant as I still am to act as their ventriloquist's dummy. Let the young make and learn from their own mistakes, I say; meanwhile there is new, scary terra incognita lying ahead for us old folk to explore. And, yes, I'm about to quote that other stupid, much-quoted, but rather better poem, Tennyson's "Ulysses":
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are...
But, listen, Ulysses, let's get a few maps and Rough Guides before we leave, this time, yeah? And, by the way, has anyone checked whether the boat insurance has been renewed [2]? And, um, have you mentioned this plan to Penelope?

1. That's right, as Chico Marx says, there ain't no sanity clause.
2. But there definitely is a Ship of Theseus clause.

Thursday, 5 December 2019

Second of All

Just in case you thought the photo-collages had finally gone away, here are a few I've been tinkering with this week. You may recognise many of their constituent elements: I do like to recycle. I have nothing in particular I want to say about them, or about anything much, it's been that kind of week. A busy week – I finally delivered about 150 Lego and Lego Technic sets [1] to a Lego dealer ("Hey, kid...") who gave me a very good price for them – but essentially unremarkable.

Although there's this: as an inveterate language-watcher, I've been annoyed by the use of the expression "second of all" which I keep hearing, especially on the radio in the mouths of political commentators like the ubiquitous Laura Kuenssberg. As in, "First of all, Boris Johnson is a narcissistic prat; second of all, he's a known and proven liar". Nobody used to say this ("second of all", I mean: the stuff about Johnson is well-established), and it makes no sense. "First of all" is surely a stand-alone expression, indicating absolute primacy in a list? And I suppose "last of all" is a useful alternative to "last but not least" as a list-finishing cliché, when "finally" seems a little too final. But no-one says "middle of all", do they? And what about "third of all" or even "thirty-third of all"? These are obvious and redundant nonsense. I wonder, did this start as a joke? One of those formulaic witticisms that lighten conversation? I suppose it could imply, "second and final item in a list of two", but, disappointingly, so rarely does. But, however it happened, it now seems to have established itself, like some invasive linguistic species, and being annoyed about it won't change anything.

1.  No, really, 150-odd sets, all carefully checked: they filled the entire back of our Renault Scenic, including the seats. 2019 turned out to be a memorable Summer of Lego.

Monday, 2 December 2019

Ancient Youth

I spotted these two in the British Museum on Wednesday. Unfortunately, I fumbled the focus and exposure, which doesn't leave much else to get right, so I've had to resort to various bits of magic to get a useful picture. In reality, I think these are some kind of funereal figurine (I forgot to take notes, always a mistake...) but, to me, they look like two girls who have just made the mistake of skinny dipping in the North Sea. Brrr... And, yes, the one on the left really does appear to have shades on and an interesting tattoo.

Not so much Celine and Julie Go Boating, then, as Tracy and Debbie go swimming. "S-s-sod this for a l-l-lark, D-d-debs! G-g-get yer kit on and w-we'll go for a latte"... Where they may well meet Mick and Rick, the jug-eared, idiot boys. Tasty! But, blimey, whatever happened to your nose, Mick?

Friday, 29 November 2019

Wet Wednesday

Black Friday? Don't make me laugh...
(No, please ... don't ... aargh!)

I was up in the Bloomsbury area of London on Wednesday delivering a bag of stuff to my daughter, and had planned to go for an autumnal afternoon wander about the still half-familiar streets and squares (I was a postgraduate student at UCL 40 years ago), camera in hand. But it was a miserably wet day: I have never seen such vast puddles in central London streets, which glum-faced tourists on ill-advised winter breaks were attempting to negotiate with their wheeled luggage, hoping to avoid another drenching from the bow-wave of a passing bus. Even the endless work of making London fit for the ultra-rich was on hold, as workmen in hi-viz vests and hard hats sheltered from the rain in doorways and beneath scaffolding. It was no fun at all.

So, instead, I headed for two favourite indoor haunts: the Grant Museum of Zoology, and the British Museum (of, like, everything), both conveniently nearby. My old trade union is currently on strike over pensions, pay, and working conditions so, the Grant being a part of UCL, I half-anticipated finding it closed, or blocked by the impassable barrier of a very wet, two-person picket line (some magic spells are permanently binding). However, it was open, and unpicketed, so I was free to pass within.

Quite why I am drawn to the grotesque spectacle of preserved and dissected life-forms is a question between me and my appalling subconscious dream-life, but there's no question that I am. Others, emphatically, are not, which may explain the relative lack of success of my photo-collage work, which does tend to lean heavily on a certain mock-horror sensibility. Although it has to be said the enthusiastic reception of Queen guitarist and stereoscopic photography enthusiast Brian May's project to reassemble a 19th-century French series of stereoscopic Diableries does give me hope. For the cognoscenti of carcasses and cadavers, however, the Grant Museum is a small but perfect sample of the bony and bottled horrors laid down, like vintage wine, in scientific cabinets of curiosities in most European cities [1].

Now there's a Guardian... 

Demon Bat has a side-splitting laugh in the bath

The British Museum, of course, needs no introduction: it is the grand imperial attic, stuffed with excavated bric-a-brac, extorted loot, and questionably-acquired gifts from many generations of intrepid British adventurers abroad, who were mainly avoiding the dreariness of family life (or, in some cases, the law) in warmer climes. I have never quite learned to love the BM – it's too big, and too all-embracing – but it is full of wonderful things, wonderful things [2], and I have never yet visited it and not come across some treasure I'd never seen before. It was certainly worth enduring a slow, shuffling queue in the rain, in order to have my soggy backpack examined for explosives or potential weaponry, and I'm sure finer weather would have meant a far longer wait.

Once finally inside, I was pleasantly surprised to find that they've been putting a lot more effort into selection and presentation in recent years, and that my previous comparison with Hamburg's museums may have been a little unfair. After all, the BM curators have probably been to the same seminars, and read all the same articles. Thankfully, the "interpretation" is both informative and also still reasonably adult: there is no equivalent of the Natural History Museum's abysmal descent into "Creepy Crawlies" terminology here: no "Curse of the Pharoahs" gallery or "Saxon Bling" wing. Yet, anyway.

I love the eye-rolling lion:
"FFS don't take on so, Brit, this Frederick wasn't so great..."

Child in Hercules costume says, "Right on..."

1. I have to admit, even I found Edinburgh's Surgeons' Hall Museum hard going. Not recommended for the even slightly squeamish visitor to that fine city.
2. Obligatory allusion to Howard Carter and Tutankhamun.

Tuesday, 26 November 2019

The Dark Wood

Taken with Olympus Camedia 3000z (3 megapixels), 2002

Camera design is a curious business. In the heyday of film, "form follows function" was self-evidently the driver of the way most cameras looked. Setting aside view cameras, which are hilariously functional – got a picture problem? Hey, there's an app a knurled knob for that! – a roll-film camera has quite strict requirements that must be accommodated before the design team is let loose. Film of a certain fixed dimension must spool across the camera back in evenly-spaced increments, and be kept flat at a rigidly-fixed distance from the lens and shutter assembly, and the mechanisms to achieve this must be resilient, easy to use, and lightproof. However, the whole box also needs to be opened regularly so that film can be removed and replaced – quickly, and without mishap – under conditions of excitement and even mortal danger. Some kind of viewfinder is pretty much essential, too, whether it be a sophisticated arrangement of prisms and mirrors, or a wire rectangle on a stick. Add into that the shape and size of the human hand, and the position of the human eye in the human head, and a certain optimal size and shape more or less determines itself.

Of course, good function and optimal shape don't, in themselves, produce attractive cameras. I think most of us would agree that an Olympus OM SLR is a thing of beauty, whereas a Zenit EM SLR is not, and yet the differences between the two devices are really quite small; not unlike the differences between two people, both in possession of the full, functioning complement of anatomical features, and yet of radically different attractiveness. It's a moot point whether to blame the instinct of engineers to play safe or the urge of designers to create marketable novelty for the most breathtakingly butt-ugly cameras: perhaps this is more often than not the result of one team temporarily gaining the upper hand over the other. Odd, isn't it, for example, how everyone still cites the well-engineered but fairly conventional Olympus SLRs, XAs, and even Trips as design classics, but the design-heavy, all-in-one Olympus IS family or (if you can even bear to look at one) the egregious AZ-330 Superzoom have vanished without trace? Although my personal favourite Olympus film camera, the Mju (Stylus, in the USA) – a perfectly elegant and functional compromise between engineering and design – is apparently enjoying a well-deserved cult moment.

Then along came digital. Tiny sensors meant tiny focal lengths, and that, along with no film to advance or replace meant, shape-wise, pretty much anything was possible, not least because much of the engineering had become sophisticated miniaturised electronics, tucked away in corners on printed circuits. There were limits, of course – human hands and eyes remained incorrigibly analogue, as they do to this day – but there was something of a Cambrian Explosion of camera-forms, most of which were doomed to die out in the ensuing Darwinian struggles. But, as was probably predictable, it was the most conventional-looking cameras that made it through the mass extinction of the early 2000s, reconverging on the very same designs as the film SLRs and compacts they had all but extinguished.

Personally, I have rarely been a pioneer in anything, but have often been an early adopter. It's an important distinction, and something you generally learn the hard way if you've ever worked for a living with computers and software. I bought my first digital camera around 2001, a flat, slab-like Fujifilm Finepix 1300 with a mighty 1.3 (one point three) megapixel sensor, which produced images 1280 x 960 pixels in size. It had a tiny 1.6" rear screen, and used four AA batteries: I remember thinking for ages that the ability to use rechargeable AA batteries was an essential feature in any digital camera. I was impressed, however. I had spent quite a few years working with the colour negative film-processing cycle: buy film; expose film; drop exposed film off at camera shop for "dev & contact"; wait a week; pay for and collect negatives and contact sheet; examine contact sheet; drop off negatives at commercial darkroom for selected proof prints; wait a week; pay for proof prints; order a fine print or two; etc. So the speedy turnaround time of digital came as a revelation. It was also effectively cost-free, even given the extortionate price of printer ink. The quality was pretty good, too, provided you wanted nothing bigger than a 6" x 4" print. I did, however, so I was not going to be giving up my medium-format film workhorse, a Fuji GS645S, any time soon.

all Olympus Camedia 3000z (3 megapixels), 2002

Over the next few years, nonetheless, I kept upgrading until around 2005 I arrived at a Canon EOS 350D DSLR, with its awe-inspiring eight megapixel sensor [1], and I never again bought a roll of film, or paid for "dev & contact". Sorry, camera shop! In the hybrid middle period there, though, between the Fuji and the Canon, I had an extended creative relationship with Olympus, in the form of a Camedia C3000z (3 megapixels) and then a C5050z (5 megapixels). [Apologies if this is about as interesting as a list of my old cars: I'll get to the point, eventually]. It is a curious and marvellous thing, and something I only fully recognised recently, that my single Greatest Hit to date (in terms of sales, exhibitions, and noises of approval), the series I self-published as The Revenants, was developed exclusively out of photographs made at that time using these two cameras. In fact, more than half of those pictures were taken with the three megapixel Camedia, which is pretty astonishing.

You are invited!

Also around that time, in 2004, I was stopped in my tracks by something in a camera shop window. On display were six eye-catching little cameras, all in a row, each in a different-coloured, metallic, asymmetrical casing, set out like high-end watches, or an array of rather fancy cigarette lighters. Amazing! It was the Olympus Mju-Mini Digital. Only four megapixels, but as smooth and rounded (and about the same size) as a bar of soap, as featureless and streamlined as an alien spacecraft, weatherproof, and a rather wacky triumph of curvy design over the nerdy knurled-knobbliness of the typical camera. Now, this was clearly intended as a "gendered" product, but I am very susceptible to compact, jewel-like objects (I blame my inner crow), and was smitten. Until I discovered that the design team had actually gone completely mad: there was no viewfinder at all, FFS, just a 1.8" LCD! What were they thinking?! [2]  For me, anyway, that was a thought too far outside the box for comfort and, as they say on the forums: deal-killer. But, like catching a glimpse of some unattainable beauty in the street, the impression stayed with me, and no other camera has ever quite captured that same, ungadgety allure. I mean, six colours! Those curves!

Some years later, in 2009, I came across a used Mju-Mini in red on Ebay, and put in a low, but winning bid. To justify this ridiculous gear-lust – at the time I was going steady with a Canon 450D – I had some half-baked idea about a lo-fi project using an ultra-portable, weatherproof camera, the sort of thing you'd do with a smartphone today, but then promptly forgot all about it. It was, I'm ashamed to say, a bit of a one-night stand. Then, this week, looking for something completely different, I found it again in the back of a cupboard, and the half-baked idea reignited: not least because I'd been looking at those old three-megapixel Olympus images from 2002-3 – many of which, despite various backup disasters, have survived – and wondering what it was that had given them whatever quality it was that they clearly had. One thing was certain, though: it was not an overabundance of pixels.

Trying to think back 15 years or so, two things did immediately come to mind. First, at that time, all of what I took to be my "serious" work was still being done on film. Even the family snaps were continuing to accumulate as 6" x 4" prints in paper wallets [3]. The digital camera was pretty much a toy, something to have fun with, to experiment with. It was relatively cost-free, after all, and would never amount to anything serious, anyway, or so I thought, so I ended up snapping away in all sorts of unlikely places. Second, through those casual experiments, I was finding out what a digital camera was good at, and what it was bad at (and that when it was good, it was very, very good, and when it was bad, it was hopeless). So I then started snapping away consistently in the most likely unlikely places, with results that trumped pretty much anything I'd ever done on film. I imagine this is something like what is meant by shoshin, or "beginner's mind" in Zen.

all Olympus Camedia 3000z (3 megapixels), 2002

But there was a third thing, too. Fifteen years ago I was 50, the father of two young, school-age children, with both my own and my partner's parents in terminal decline, working part-time in a stalled professional career, and assailed on all sides by the routine tribulations of responsible middle age. I found myself to be some considerable distance from the person I had imagined I was destined to become:
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
ché la diritta via era smarrita... [4] 
In short, I was in mid-life crisis territory, and it was photography that seemed to be holding open a last door onto a more interesting future. True, by then I'd had two modest exhibitions of my film-based work, but this was proving too expensive in time, money, and attention to sustain. It seemed digital photography might yet prove to be just the thing to keep that door open; which it did.

Motivation like that – urgency combined with means and clarity of purpose – comes only rarely in a lifetime. When it does, good things can happen, and any limitations merely serve to stimulate creativity. Without it, no amount of megapixels or seductive design will help: you're just wandering aimlessly in the dark, hoping to find an exit. Now, at 65, I've been sensing its return. I may have slipped through that one door, but it's clear there are many more doors beyond, which is an exhausting and daunting prospect. But I'm not yet ready to let those doors shut on me, either, if I can help it. Beginner's mind may be the answer: if I'm lucky, perhaps the time has come to see mountains once again as mountains, and rivers once again as rivers. [5]

Who knows? But maybe a little red camera from 2004 can help, if only by reminding me of some of the choices I made along the way, and how I once found a path out of the dark wood.

all Olympus Camedia 3000z (3 megapixels), 2002

1. Early on, I remember working out how many megapixels would be needed to make an 8" x 10" print at 300 dpi, the answer being eight, occupying between 15 and 20 MB of storage as a TIF file. This seemed an improbable figure, especially in the days when 32 GB was a perfectly respectable capacity for a hard drive.
2. Unheard of, then; standard, now.
3. Something I am now profoundly grateful for. In the future, a Digital Dark Age will be uncovered, a black hole in the communal memory, as various convenient "clouds" dissipate into thin air, taking with them an entire generation of family snaps and personal souvenirs.
4. Opening words of Dante's Inferno: "Midway in the journey of our life I found myself in a dark wood, the straight way lost".
5. "Before I had studied Zen for thirty years, I saw mountains as mountains, and rivers as rivers. When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point where I saw that mountains are not mountains, and rivers are not rivers. But now that I have got its very substance I am at rest. For it's just that I see mountains once again as mountains, and rivers once again as rivers." Qingyuan Weixin, quoted in Alan Watts, The Way of Zen.

Friday, 22 November 2019

Book Club 2019

I've managed to keep a tight rein on my book-buying habit this year – just, you know, the odd one, plus essential purchases, the occasional lucky impulse buy, a few shrewd investments, and one or two completist and curiosity items, so nothing too extravagant – but nonetheless I do have some recommendations, if you're in the market for some outstanding books in the run up to Christmas. I've provided links to the publishers, who, in most cases, will sell you a copy direct.

Altered Ocean, by Mandy Barker. What an outstanding and timely project this is, creating beautiful but unsettling constructed simulacrums of animation out of strictly inanimate oceanic plastic pollution. A truly handsome book, and endorsed by David Attenborough, no less. It's a more satisfying, more purposeful approach than her previous, much-acclaimed publication, Beyond Drifting, in which items of plastic debris are presented as if microphotographs of plankton (work which I thought was overpowered by its presentation, the fastidious mocking-up of a battered old scientific textbook). Category: Curiosity purchase.

O Hanami, by Paul Kenny.  Greg Stewart's Kozu Books is producing some wonderful books with exemplary production values. You can read an interview with Greg here. If I could persuade Kozu to publish a book of my work, I'd be a very happy man. Like Mandy Barker, Paul Kenny's work is also poetic and constructed (I believe he mainly uses a scanner, not a camera) but psychologically darker, creating compelling imagery from natural and man-made flotsam and jetsam. His previous volume from Triplekite, Seaworks 1998-2013, is unobtainable and highly sought-after: I couldn't believe my luck, a couple of years ago, finding a used copy for a very modest price. This one is likely to suffer the same fate. Category: Shrewd investment.

Abstract Mindedness, by Doug Chinnery. Really compelling work, this, also from Kozu. It is actually one of the most inspiring books I have bought in a long time: I love Doug's use of an astringent natural colour palette against dark backgrounds. Check it out. Doug Chinnery is something of a "name" in the British alt-landscape photography world, but deserves to be more widely known. His work is unconventional but camera-based, using layered multiple exposures and "ICM" (intentional camera movement) [1]. Category: Lucky impulse buy.

The World's Edge, by Thomas Joshua Cooper.  The summation of a major project by a major artist; practically a life's work, and certainly one that has caused him to risk his life several times over. I shared my own thoughts on TJC's project in a previous post, which also includes a link to a video of him presenting the work. This man is the photographic equivalent of film-maker Werner Herzog i.e. a certifiably-sane giant in a world that prefers bite-sized mediocrities. Category: Essential purchase.

Des Oiseaux, by Pentti Sammallahti.  What to say? A well-presented, well-chosen selection of the outstanding work of one of the world's outstanding photographers, all of which happen to feature a bird or birds somewhere in the frame. It's a clever idea for a series, and Éditions Xavier Barral have brought out similar, uniformly-packaged, bird-themed volumes from Graciela Iturbide, Michael Kenna, Bernard Plossu, Terri Weifenbach, and Yoshinori Mizutani. I believe only the French version of the Sammallahti is still available, but come on, who reads the text in photo-books? Category: Completist purchase.

And what about a couple of non-photographic books?

Six Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm, illustrated by David Hockney.  I have already described these illustrations and the impact they had on me as an impressionable 16-year-old. This is a lovely, tactile edition from the Royal Academy, cloth-bound and printed on good paper, small, but not as absurdly tiny as the original Petersburg Press edition: it would make a perfect present. Category: Essential purchase.

City Works Dept., by Philip Hancock. A book of poems published by CB Editions, a "small" (as in, one-man) publisher, run by Charles Boyle. Charles has a gift for talent-spotting, and Philip Hancock is no exception. It's not often you find poetry written out of a white-male, working-class sensibility (Philip Hancock earns a living as a painter-decorator for a local authority). These are not raps or performance-poetry rants, however, but quietly crafted, original, and insightful poems: the real thing. There's a good review of the book here. They remind me powerfully of old home-town friends, or indeed the person I would have been, had I left school at 16 for employment, rather than pursuing higher education. Category: Lucky impulse buy.

To finish, it would be foolish of me not to at least remind you of two of my own recent productions, wouldn't it?

First, Standdescribed here (with link to my Blurb Bookstore). A "magazine" of just twelve tree-based digital images. Very slim, very cheap, very desirable. Any comparison with its author would be invidious. I am definitely not a tree, for a start.

Second, Prestidigitation, a "best of" selection of my digital imaging, described here (with link to my Blurb Bookstore). Intended as a gallery or publisher calling card – something to leave behind when I am ejected from the premises – it's also quite a satisfying overview of my constructed work of recent years. It, too, is in the slim, bendy Blurb magazine format, so will present very little challenge to any overcrowded bookshelves. I really should put something similar together for my "straight" photographs: a project for the weeks when we are snowed-in over Christmas, perhaps (I'm hoping that's just a first, feeble, seasonal joke, obvs – It don't snow here / Stays pretty green... – but in these days of uncertain climate, you never know).

1. I have to say, in the wrong hands, which is most, I tend to find "ICM" images unsatisfactory and even annoying. The insistence on "in-camera" effects, as opposed to good, honest photoshoppery, seems a contradictory blend of the desire to disrupt the conventions of photography, while wishing to stay firmly within the bounds of the conventional photographic process. The resultant, uncontrolled effects very quickly become their own clichés. I confess I also find the po-faced "ICM" monicker hilarious. Personally, I generally prefer HHI (hand-held instability).