Saturday 26 October 2019

Top Tips on Photographing Autumn Colours

I was all set to write a mildly amusing piece on "photographing autumn colours", when I realised I'd already written it. So – in the same generous spirit as getting out the supply of date-expired Haribos in anticipation of callers on All Hallows' Eve (known in this house as the "skanky sweets bucket") – here it is, once again. Mmm, chewy!

Moscow State Circus van, Bristol October 2015

It's that time of year again, which always seems to come round at this time of year, when photographers desperately in need of something – anything! – to photograph turn their attention to death and decay, deep in the woods. No, fool, not dead bodies – what are you, nuts? (or Sally Mann?) – we're talking about leaves. Yes, up here in the north of the Northern Hemisphere we're about to get yet another window of opportunity to make some perfectly competent pictures of dying foliage glowing in the sun, just like the millions of other identical pictures that have always already been out there, ever since the unboxing video of God's first roll of Kodachrome.

Not sure how to proceed? Here are our Idiotic Hat top tips:
  • Don't. Just don't. Really: don't bother.
  • If you must, however, why not assemble all your "autumn colour" images into a handy portfolio, album, or even a self-published book? This will make it easier for your children to discard them all when you die, and they're going through your photographs looking for family memorabilia.
  • Or why not photograph other photographers doing "autumn colour"? There will be plenty around if you research your locations properly (look for trees, for example) and, who knows, maybe you will embarrass a few into some kind of satori? What am I, of all people, doing out here, taking photographs which are nothing but soulless, second-rate copies of photographs of photographs of photographs? They'll thank you for it!
  • Maybe ask yourself, "Why do I feel compelled to document these particular colours out here, right now, when I generally walk straight past other, equally interesting colour combinations during the rest of the year?" Do you really need permission to notice colours? (see our – I'm afraid rather similar – "Top Tips on Photographing Sunsets").
  • Don't be content with insipid "natural" colours, especially as found in our pathetically drab British woods! They're not really "beautiful" enough, are they? If you can't afford a trip to New England or Japan for a proper Fall Color Workshop, why not simply exaggerate those lacklustre colours in processing? All sorts of techniques are available, from HDR to simply going a little crazy with the curves and sliders. Behold: I bring you autumn on planet Hyperbole!
  • And, by the way, NEVER cover your child in fallen leaves up to the neck for that cutesy album shot when out in the woods! Just don't do it, you idiot! Lyme disease, carried by deer ticks, is a serious business. Much more serious than any me-too autumnal snapshot.
Does that help? I hope there's a takeaway in there somewhere for everyone. Especially that last one. You're welcome!

Calibrating a tree for peak autumn.
Yep! Nearly there!

Sorry... I shouldn't be so cynical. If anything, it is a matter for celebration that so many people can derive so much pleasure from something as matter-of-fact and yet so mysteriously unpredictable as the turning of the seasons. It's an instinct that runs very deep. And yet...  Just as the Japanese haiku tradition ossified into seasonal tropes, keyed by conventional "seasonal" words ("moon", unqualified, always means "autumn", for example), so photography has a tendency to settle around a number of banal themes, of which "autumn colour" is just one.

Or, I should say, photography as a hobby. Photography as an art practice, for want of a better expression, is bedevilled by its own clichés, of course, but I think it's true to say that most hobbyists of any sort are conformists by nature, and want nothing more than to reproduce as closely as possible perceived models of excellence. Why else build yet another model of HMS Victory, or dress up as Luke Skywalker? There is a certain satisfaction, I suppose, in achieving an acknowledged benchmark of skill; it's how trades have traditionally operated, and the true underlying meaning of the word "masterpiece". About photography as a profession I have nothing useful to say, though, other than that if someone were to offer me good money to provide them with "autumn colour" pictures, I'd be only too happy to oblige. You want leaves, I got 'em. And you can always use someone else's kids for that "buried in leaves" shot...

People have a right to point their cameras at whatever they like, and to imitate whatever models they choose, obviously, although I personally have an instinctive dislike for groupthink, and its tendency to sneer at anyone who chooses to be different. I prefer outliers, oddballs, misfits, and weirdos (though, naturally, I am myself none of the above). I would like to think that we can all, to our own limited capacities, in William Eggleston's words, be at war with the obvious. In fact, there's your Top Tip for Autumn Colour: this year, why not be at war with the obvious?

Obviously autumn
Bristol October 2015

Thursday 24 October 2019


Despite being whatever the instinctive opposite of a flag-waving, chauvinistic, Brexit-supporting, royalist, Thatcherite, Tory-voting ████ is, I seem to have started a collection of Britannias, as a subset of my "Guardians" series. I'm not sure why; these things have their own logic. I suppose she is a handy symbol for the Matter of Britain (a.k.a. Whatever is the matter with Britain?). As Billy Bragg says, it's our country, too, and we'd like our flag back, ta very much.

Once you start looking into it, however, it seems that practically every European country has a female personification, dressed in Roman garb, and clutching a shield and a weapon. Damn you, Rome, you said we had something special going... We even learned to stomach your disgusting fish sauce, and your appalling taste for slaughtertainment. Then you ran off in the 5th century and we've never heard a peep from you since. So who's this Germania, then, not to mention Belgica, Helvetia, Polonia, or any of the other statuesque warrior-women clad in your imperial cast-offs? I think you have some explaining to do.

Meanwhile, Britannia thought we might as well be doing a little empire-building of our own... It looked easy enough: overwhelming armed force, unquestioning belief in one's right to rule, some novel technology to overawe the populace, and a bottomless bucket of cash to co-opt or corrupt the local aristocracy. And so it proved. Stinky sauce and gladiators be damned, though: football, she realised, was something the world needed to be hearing about... And, for the select few, cricket... No need to thank us, just try not to beat us every time, perhaps?

Maybe the offside rule is a little too complicated?

Tuesday 22 October 2019

Giving Tuppence

Oh, look, it's my two penn'orth of Brexit commentary! The sight of Big Ben under scaffolding in the background seems fairly appropriate. I suppose I could have gone the extra mile and put the EU stars on one of the shields, but I couldn't decide which was which, and besides, "a nation divided" and seemingly two-dimensional and pressed out of tin is about where we are. I should probably have sunk them in the Thames up to their necks, as well.

If you are familiar with our pre-decimal coinage, you may recognise these two: the reverse of an "old penny" always bore an image of Britannia. The one on the left is from a Victorian penny, the one on the right, with a distinct resemblance to Jane Austen, is from the 1797 "cartwheel" penny. I can't decide whether that's an olive branch she's brandishing, or some kind of lead-weighted cat o' nine tails... Perhaps the latter disguised as the former.

Leaden-footed satire aside, it's an interesting exercise, isolating the engraved image from an original about 1¼ inches in diameter. I don't use any specialised software for my extractions, just the standard Photoshop eraser tool, using a mouse. I do own a graphic tablet with a "pen", but never remember to keep it charged, and besides, three decades of using a mouse have given me a certain facility: it's a familiar tool in my hand. I find this yields a much more sensitive result than trusting an algorithm to identify edges, especially when the matrix or image background is confusingly similar. It also gives a usefully intimate knowledge of the subject, whether it be a statue in a museum or a relatively tiny coin. Above all, as in the case of these two pennies, it gives you a proper admiration for the skill of the original sculptor or engraver, as you follow each twist and turn in the curves and the changes of angle of attack. I can enlarge the scanned or photographed image to pixel level if necessary; at best, they worked with a magnifying glass. I can reverse a slip: they couldn't.

I'm reminded, getting up close with the 1797 Britannia, which I'm pretty sure will have been cut directly into the coin die, that William Blake was earning his living doing workmanlike engravings around that time. As Tom Phillips says in his recent TLS review of the Blake exhibition at Tate Britain, "It is one of the pleasures of looking through books of the period to come across the words 'Wm Blake sculpt.' beneath a plate". However, and appropriately, perhaps, the engraver of the 1797 penny was Conrad Heinrich Küchler, a German immigrant working at the Soho Mint, in Handsworth. Now there's a pennyworth of irony.

Saturday 19 October 2019

The War That Never Happened

We hear a lot, these days, about "toxic masculinity". I think most of us know what that means, and most of us agree there's a genuine problem in there somewhere that needs addressing. I'm sure if I had been born female I'd be very wary of men, and our capacity for careless harm. Or, if born gay, our capacity for quite deliberate harm. But toxic femininity is a problem, too. As is toxic anything, come to that. The difficulty is that the description "toxic X" easily tips over into the prescription "X is toxic". But a poisonous substance can be useful in measured quantities – indeed, some are highly beneficial and in daily domestic use – just as benign substances become deadly in overabundant and inappropriate application (when drowning in Malmsey wine, for example). So, when it comes to matters of gender I'd hope we can talk less about essence, and more about dosage.

That said, I come from a generation and class whose gender was quite heavily policed. I can't speak for my female contemporaries, whose experience must have been similar, but to grow up in the 1950s and 60s was to be quite clear about what big boys did and didn't do. Not crying was the least of it: a boy who cried in front of his peers hadn't even made it to basic training in masculinity. Suppressing the urge to cry quite quickly became a hardwired reflex, not least because a certain level of cruelty was deemed appropriate in the raising of male children. As a mild example, my grandfather – who was "illegitimate" and had grown up in a Liverpool orphanage in the 1890s, immediately followed by service in WW1, and therefore knew a thing or two about harsh upbringing – discovered that I was afraid of earthworms. So, with the best of intentions, he decided to tackle this weakness head on: he would throw worms at me when digging in the garden. "What, are you a girl?" he would snarl, "Only girls are afraid of worms!" Point taken, grandad.

There was a positive side to this, too. Twice at primary school I suffered accidental injuries that required hospital treatment, but even at that tender age I knew that the essential thing was, in that Baden Powell-ish expression, to "grin and bear it", even as I stared at a painfully dislocated thumb, now positioned midway across my palm. I confess that to be praised to my father by my fearsome headmaster as a brave little chap made my heart sing; I resolved that, although I might be small, a certain fearlessness would be my thing. Boys, I suspect, are particularly susceptible to this kind of Spartanisation; Kipling's poem "If" is its manifesto. We may, rightly, be skeptical about the values of "patriarchy" today, but the idea of becoming a fully-adult, responsible male as an aspiration [1] rather than a statement of biological fact – cringeworthy as it may sound to some 21st-century ears – lies at the root of much that has been positive in our culture.

A lot of this childhood "toughening up", it strikes me now, was preparation for the Next War. Not unreasonably: several previous generations of my family, like most others, had seen extensive military service at the sharp end of war. It seemed entirely probable, when I was born in 1954, that I, too, would find myself involuntarily conscripted into some brutal conflict, and I imagine it seemed quite sensible to start basic training ASAP. National Service (the requirement for young men to waste two precious youthful years in the armed forces) was still very much a reality – National Servicemen saw combat of varying intensities in Malaya, Cyprus, Kenya, and Korea – but thankfully this came to an end around 1960. For young Britons born after 1939, the Next War never came.

Which was confusing. When you've spent your entire childhood playing with toy soldiers, assembling scale models of fighters and bombers from plastic kits, and conducting running skirmishes and ambushes in woods, fields, and streets armed with replica weaponry, not to mention reading weekly tales of romanticised wartime heroism in various boys' comics, it comes as something of an anticlimax to realise you will never be tested under fire, or given the chance to have "a good war", as the expression goes. For you, there will be no parachutes behind enemy lines, no beach-head landings, no aerial heroics. Which, of course, was also a profound relief, as very few boys of my generation could be entirely naive about the nature of warfare, when the evidence lay all around. I recall how, aged about seven, very early one morning I had glimpsed the ruined face of the milkman, the one who delivered our daily pints under cover of the hours of darkness, and for whom my father always left a generous Christmas "box". "That's how war really is, son," Dad had said, "It's not like it is in the comics. Getting shot at with real bullets and having bombs dropped on you is no fun at all."

So we boomer boys had to invent our own thrills, and come up with new ways of emerging into adulthood, without going through the vigorous wash-cycle of war. And a lot of fun it was, too, in the main, although some did fall by the wayside, and a few do seem permanently stuck in an over-extended adolescence. For many, though, this self-invention entailed a wholesale challenge to the assumptions of most previous generations; assumptions about, for example, gender roles and gender relations. My grandfather – who never cooked a meal, changed a nappy, or did any housework in his entire life – could never quite grasp the significance of the length of my hair, the needless scruffiness of my clothes, or my love of suspect things like books, poetry, and music. I wonder, did he ever ask himself whether he had thrown a few too many worms, or perhaps too few? Perhaps, but I suspect the sad truth is that he had been brought up never, ever to question anything above his pay grade, however strange, however brutal, however unfair. Keep your head down; never volunteer; don't snitch; do what you're told. Or else. We have, I hope, left that behind us for good. As someone once said, suppose they gave a war, and nobody came? So far, we in Britain have been fortunate enough to pose that question, without ever having been called upon to answer it.

1. Kipling's use of the word "man" here as an honorific term is problematic for many ("you'll be a Man, my son"). The Yiddish word mensch perhaps better conveys the idea, but would render the poem as bathetically hilarious as would substituting "gent", "toff", or "diamond geezer".

Tuesday 15 October 2019

Old New World

Another weekend, another sunny Sunday afternoon, in between lengthy bouts of depressingly sustained rainfall. It has been very, very wet down here on the south coast, so it was a pleasant relief to be able to get out of the house for a few hours. Although it was disconcerting to find the way onto the sunlit meadows blocked by this martial-looking character.

We had decided to visit Mottisfont Abbey, where a small exhibition of "classic" 1960s fashion and celebrity photography is being held (by the likes of Patrick Lichfield, Brian Duffy, and Terence Donovan): handy in case the rain returned. For some reason, various period-costumed scarecrows were scattered around the grounds, too. Sigh... But I won't go on – again – about how the National Trust has ruined the place with its attempts to engage and entertain children presumed to suffer from Attention Deficit Disorder. I'll just repeat what I've said before: if kids can't learn how to be bored at a National Trust property, where can they?

As to Lichfield, Duffy, and Donovan: their work hasn't worn well, to my eyes. It made sense, I suppose, back in the sixties, to go for that intense focus on the physicality and personality of celebs, typically posed in front of a blank background. Such pictures made an impact in fashion magazines and the new colour supplements, with their clean, lean, "modern" lines. But, unlike Avedon's superficially similar work, there is no subversive intent behind the scrutiny: it is entirely, naively celebratory of the faces of "faces". Now, 50 years on, they seem almost content-free. Who cares about the clothes, or how young John Lennon or Joanna Lumley looked? You long to see the world hidden behind the white backdrop.

Only one picture detained me for more than a cursory glance: Duffy's shot from 1967 of Reggie Kray sparring with his ex-flyweight grandfather in the kitchen of 178 Vallance Road in London's Bethnal Green. There you have an image that really does speak of the true 1960s: the sharp-suited mobster looming over the tiny boxer, in his working-man's braces and collarless shirt, amid all the inherited pre-War domestic clutter that, in most of the other photographs, has been cleared away and hidden as embarrassingly un-modern. The 1960s in Britain was probably the last time that the old world and the new world still co-existed, before the slums and the old streets and facades had all been cleared and levelled, to make way for high-rises, office-blocks, and shopping centres. Then, "heritage" was still something you had to live with, like inconvenient old relatives and sooty open-hearth fires, rather than something remote and vaguely aristocratic, as interpreted for you by the National Trust in one of its history zoos.

Wednesday 9 October 2019

Gigantic Smile

A gigantic smile? No, I haven't just won this week's £170m Euromillions jackpot, sadly. But, as God is reputed to have said to the man endlessly praying for a lottery win, "Listen, meet me halfway: this time, buy a ticket!" I was thinking rather of Browning's words, describing the land luxuriating in autumn sunshine:
Oh, good gigantic smile o’ the brown old earth,
This autumn morning! How he sets his bones
To bask i’ the sun, and thrusts out knees and feet
For the ripple to run over in its mirth;
Listening the while, where on the heap of stones
The white breast of the sea-lark twitters sweet.
Robert Browning, Among the Rocks
Sunday was one of those fine early autumn days, and St. Catherine's Hill, just outside Winchester and hard by the M3 motorway, is a fine place to see the new season coming on. In fact, just on the other side of the hill, where the river Itchen runs close alongside, is the very walk John Keats took in 1819, which allegedly resulted in the Ode to Autumn (something I discussed here a few years ago). As you can see in the photograph, the hedges are already thickly draped with Old Man's Beard and colourfully punctuated with various berries. The air, despite the sunshine, has a distinct chill.

Walking through the valley, we spotted a Roe Deer stag with a very fine set of antlers, watching us from halfway up the slope opposite St. Catherine's Hill. As we watched him, the sound of hooves came up from behind, and for once I reacted quickly enough to get a couple of decent shots as they went by. One of these demonstrates quite nicely the thing that Eadweard Muybridge's photographs finally proved in 1878: that a galloping horse's hooves do all leave the ground, but on the inward, not the outward swing, unlike a rocking horse or most pre-Muybridge paintings.

But, to return to the lottery, can you even imagine your bank balance suddenly swelling to £170m, tax-free? It sounds like an extraordinary stroke of luck but, if the stories are to be believed, such extravagant and unearned good fortune does seem mainly to turn out to be a curse. At least, that's the conventional wisdom, the moralistic Schadenfreude. Certainly, most of us are simply not equipped to deal with that sort of windfall without completely losing our bearings, especially if you're the sort of person to pin your hopes on a £2.50 lottery ticket. And yet... "How would I spend thee? Let me count the ways...", to misquote Mrs. Browning. After all, even a well-appointed dwelling in a smart part of central London would barely dent that mountain of cash, leaving you with the problem of several million a year to fritter away for the remaining years of your life. What a torment! What a temptation to fate! Best to give it all away to good causes, and turn aside the ill fortune that must surely be hidden behind its deceptive smile. A country estate? that's something I'd hate. Do I want a yacht? Oh, how I do not! (Cole Porter).

Talking of money, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and curses, I think I may have a new, as yet unexplored explanation for the undiagnosed illness that affected her and both of her sisters. The Barrett family's considerable wealth came from plantations in Jamaica: they were slave-owners. Her father's business went into a decline after the abolition of slavery in 1833 and, although he disinherited her when she eloped with Robert Browning, and despite the fact that she is noted for her abolitionist stance and support for various liberation causes, it seems EBB had misgivings about the tainted source of her residual wealth. Apparently, in 1855 she wrote to John Ruskin, "I belong to a family of West Indian slaveholders, and if I believed in curses, I should be afraid".

Very afraid, I'd say. Did I mention both her brothers died in 1840, one drowned sailing off Torquay, the other of a fever in Jamaica? Downpressor Man, you can run, but you can't hide.

Saturday 5 October 2019

Blake at Tate Britain

South Bank

On Wednesday I travelled up to London to see the major William Blake exhibition currently at Tate Britain. It's quite a blockbuster: I don't know for sure, but I'd guess a good proportion of everything that survives of Blake's visual and printed work is there, well over 300 works. If you have any interest at all, and are within travelling distance of London, you should make the effort to see it before it closes in February. After all, it seems everybody else is: if I could identify a day and time when the visitors might have thinned out a bit, I'd probably go again. But I hate sharing galleries with blockbuster-style crowds. Not least when every room (and there are many) contains at least one arrogant fool, bloviating to a companion about Blake. As we like to say around here, "A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees", and although we acknowledge that "Every thing possible to be believ'd is an image of truth", and that "If others had not been foolish, we should have been so", nonetheless "The eagle never lost so much time, as when he submitted to learn of the crow", and vice versa, matey, sez the crow (The Proverbs of Hell).

It is a visual feast, though. In the main, Blake's more sustained writing projects are a baffling, involuted effusion of his own obscure personal mythology, something that in later times would probably be regarded as evidence of serious mental imbalance. Frankly, he was a bit of a nutter, I suppose, although in a good way. He was also not the best draughtsman ever to pass through the Royal Academy, or to wield an engraving tool. His portrayal of humanoids is mannered in the extreme, and without much regard to personality or, indeed, anatomy. To me, they all look like they're doing an extreme form of yoga in some weightless realm, which is not entirely inappropriate, when you consider the mythic register in which he is working. But, blimey, what an imagination! And what a talent for painstaking design, layout, and colouration. The so-called "illuminated books" are some of the most desirable material objects in the world, as far as I'm concerned. I spent an age bent over each one, as the flow of visitors passed by, like an annoying rock in a stream. I may yet have to plan the Heist of the Century.

Anyway, Blake is no longer the obscure outlier he once was. Even Coleridge in 1818, having been sent a copy of Songs of Innocence and Experience (hardly the most challenging item in Blake's oeuvre) responded, "You may smile at my calling another Poet a Mystic, but verily I am in the very mire of commonplace common sense compared with Mr Blake". Heh... I'd love to have heard the reaction of Coleridge (another, um, flawed man whose work I revere) to, say, The Book of Urizen. "Frankly, sir, Mr. Blake is in urgent need of professional assistance, although in a good way, and the illustrative material is no whit short of sublime". But if you like and admire Blake, you don't need me to tell you why. And if you don't, I have no interest in persuading you otherwise. "He who has suffer'd you to impose on him knows you", innit?