Tuesday, 30 June 2020


Yes, it's another A2 poster "book". You probably can't read the text running across the top and bottom at this size, so here it is:
As well as its visual and metaphorical sense of "lit from the side, or a tangential insight" a sidelight, in British usage, is a window located to the side of something, typically a door. As opposed to a fanlight, which goes above the door. We live in a typical 1930s semi-detached house, with an elaborate part-glazed front door and sidelights made up / of leaded panes of various types of pebbled glass, in a vaguely Art Deco sort of pattern. As our house faces south-east the morning sun shines directly through this glass frontage, so it has become a very familiar set of shapes over the years: on a bright morning, the lattice of lead cames is practically burned onto your retina as you come downstairs.
Surprising, isn't it, that you can get all that into just two lines of 11 point type? An A2 sheet is bigger than one thinks. Did you notice that word "cames", by the way? It looks like a typo, but isn't. Definition: "a grooved strip of lead used to join pieces of glass in a stained-glass window or a leaded light". I think I must have first (mis)heard it way back in the 1970s, when my university friend Leo first got into making stained glass in a big way. I like it when there is a precise word for something which would otherwise be hard to describe in fewer than twenty words, although its usefulness is obviously diminished when most people have never heard it, and don't know what it means, so you end up using those twenty words, anyway...

I have always enjoyed these venerable specialist terms from arts and crafts. In fact, it reminds me of one of the very earliest posts in this blog, written after I had encountered the stonemason's term "batting", and discovered it was missing from the OED. I had come across it when doing a little research on the Mottisfont terms / herms, as in the inventory of the Abbey made by the Historic Monuments Commission they are described like this:
4 thermae, C18 stone, male & female heads standing in front of box hedge set on large radius, set 10m apart and 2m high. On low moulded plinth, foliage to front, batted, tooled finish to sides, 2 male & 2 female busts.
Batted? Huh?

I did let the OED people know about their lapse at the time, and it occurred to me, writing this twelve years later, that I never did check whether they got around to amending the entry for "bat". So I just did, and they haven't. Never mind, we know what it means. Although we'll still be obliged to explain: you know, when fancy stonework is faced with decorative parallel grooves, carefully done with a chisel... What do you mean, you don't know what "faced" means? Oh, look it up... That one's definitely in the OED.

Friday, 26 June 2020

Water Gauge Poster

I'm increasingly drawn to the idea of making "poster books" out of my conventional books, especially the shorter ones, where a relatively short series of pictures or simple concept can be displayed as if at one of those conference "poster sessions", or even on a school classroom wall. This one is an A2 sheet derived from Water Gauge, a book I put together in 2013, based on photographs taken during 2005-6. The text reads as follows:
THE SPRING AT MOTTISFONT ABBEY, Hampshire, is a circular pot set in the ground, about 12 feet in diameter and about 12 feet deep, neatly lined with flint and chalk, and surrounded by an iron railing. It is usually filled to the brim with clear, mobile water, constantly replenished from a natural spring, which runs off into a shallow, gravel-bottomed channel, which in turn curves away and feeds, via two cascades, into the River Test.

There is something uncanny about gazing into its upwelling, gravity-defying water: it has the paradoxical quality of a film run in reverse, or a Moebius strip.  It is easy to believe that such places were once sites of veneration: liminal places, where land and sky are confused, a thin boundary between our world and the Otherworld, where some form of communication between the two might be possible.

The name of "Mottisfont" reflects its role in Saxon times as a meeting-place ("moot by the spring").  The formal integration of the spring into the ornamental landscape of the Abbey was done in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in the same mixed classical and antiquarian spirit that established grottoes and mazes elsewhere.  It is a place where visitors can walk across well-kept lawns, lean on a solid railing, and briefly catch the eye of an unexpected, unsettling abyss.

It was often said that the spring never ran dry.  But, for the first time in the decades I have been visiting Mottisfont, it stopped flowing in 2006, and for several months the level fell. The water became green and stagnant, and the stonework was exposed.  Whether this was an indicator of climate change, or simply the result of a blockage, I don't know.  But it was hard not to see this unprecedented event as a warning issued at a place, a sort of gauge, where the titanic balance of natural forces meets, and can be measured by, our human gaze.
Embarrassingly, I belatedly spotted a typo in the original book version, where I attribute a famous quote from Nietzsche ("And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes back into you") to Beyond God and Evil, rather than Beyond Good and Evil... Idiot! Thankfully, nobody ever bought a copy, so my secret is safe.

I like the idea of art of all kinds being made available as inexpensive "multiples". Books, of course, are precisely a variety of multiple, but are only inexpensive when produced in bulk. Multiples which are simpler to produce – like a photo, or a print, or a poster – need not necessarily be dirt-cheap, but they certainly should not be eye-wateringly expensive, either. The editioning and over-pricing of digital work is, at the very least, problematic. If you've ever laboured over the production of, say, an etching plate, and then produced an edition of prints from it – Jeez, what a palaver! – then you'll know that the comparative ease of turning out digital photographs and prints is remarkable. Sure, a lot of work may need to be done to get a print just right, but from then on it's a simple matter of hit the button and crank 'em out [1]. So the decision to limit a digital edition has nothing to do with any practical considerations like wear and tear on the plate or the cost of highly-skilled labour, but is really a way of "leveraging" the value of sales and reassuring purchasers by mimicking the conventions of printmaking.

I suppose a major factor in my liking for multiples is that, like so many of us from small-town backgrounds, I acquired my tastes in art from books, posters, magazines and colour supplements, and never saw many actual examples of the "real thing" until my late teens. The real thing, it turned out, was often disappointingly crude, compared to a good reproduction. Of course, the imperfections that might, to you or me, seem like "crudeness" in a painting – the layered corrections and brushstrokes, the reliance on easy but expressive effects, the poor finishing, and all those qualities that announce "made by hand" – are the very things that are admired by those who put a high value (aesthetic and monetary) on the uniqueness of a work of art. Some people, after all, like to drink their coffee from some bulbous, warty, stoneware mug bought from an artisan's stall, whereas I prefer the smooth, functional perfection of industrially-produced china.

Which raises some interesting questions. I do have some further thoughts to offer on the subject of the high value placed upon the unique work of art, both aesthetic and monetary, but I'll save those for another day. Meanwhile, I'm going to see what other poster books are waiting to be made.

Unique painting, School of Hollybrook
(Hollybrook Junior School, that is).
Cost: zero. Value: inestimable...

1. The production of darkroom prints from a negative does require a different level of labour and skill, it's true, but even then there is really no reason other than boredom not to continue making as many prints as might be required. I'm impressed that, for example, Pentti Sammallahti does not edition his prints, although he does charge £1000 or more for the popular ones. Well, wouldn't you, if you could?

Tuesday, 23 June 2020

Three-Bar Terms

I thought it would be fun to make one of those three-bar "poster books" I was making earlier in the year, using some of my many photographs of those unsettling Mottisfont Abbey herms / terms. Which it was.

Those bizarre "wrapped" images in the centre bar are real, by the way: in recent years they have taken to protecting the statuary from the elements in the winter months, which seems a bit pointless, given the absence of any winter weather to protect them from. But no doubt there's a National Trust policy document somewhere requiring this to be done. The NT: saving battered garden ornaments for the nation.

Talking of amateurishly-restored antiquities, though, have you seen this? Heh... Once I'd stopped laughing, though, it struck me that the most disturbing aspect of this fiasco was that that either of those ham-fisted renderings would have been of a suitable standard of, um, skill to have been accepted into most of the big open art shows I've seen in recent times, from the Royal Academy down. Seriously. One of these days, someone whose grasp of what matters in Art is greater than mine must explain to me why the work of, say, Rose Wylie is worthy of our attention. Sadly, such people almost certainly do not read this blog.

Friday, 19 June 2020

Mottisfont Abbey 2006

Looking through the files associated with my ancient Downward Skies project [1] – I was putting something together to add to the new improved webpage – I saw these three photographs from Mottisfont Abbey, taken in November 2006, more or less in a row as you see them here. It was obvious that they would form a rather nice, deceptive triptych.

In case it's not clear at this size (the actual thing would be 62cm x 21 cm at 300 ppi), the leftmost image shows a thick ring of crab-apples around the base of a tree which stands on a circular bed cut into the lawn. The bed is noticeably convex, so, simply as a result of doing what comes naturally, the fallen apples roll out to the perimeter, hit the edged lawn, and stay there. It's more obvious in colour, of course.

Colour adds a dimension to the statuary, as well: I quite like this alternative version, which is is more "natural" looking at first glance, but equally deceptive, in an almost cubist kind of way. I've weirded the colour palette a bit (that's a technical term), just to add to the disorientating atmosphere. In case you were wondering, those are "terms" or "herms", a sanitized version of ancient Greek boundary markers that you often come across in the grounds of grand houses. The ones at Mottisfont have particularly daft faces, which I like very much.

1. If you've never seen it, I'm still quite proud of my Colour of the Water project and the resulting Downward Skies book. It was the first time I'd put that sort of effort into book design, and it probably shows, in both good and bad ways.

Tuesday, 16 June 2020

Website Update

My website (https://mike-chisholm-photo.squarespace.com/) has been moribund for some time, simply because I had hit the limit of twenty live pages that Squarespace imposed on its original, cheapest personal subscription, and I was reluctant to delete any old pages to make room for new ones. Squarespace have been good about maintaining this "legacy" subscription at its original price, albeit with its original limitations, but when I discovered that the new version of the personal subscription has a limit of 1000 pages – yess! – I immediately upgraded, and started to create all the new galleries I had been unable to add before. I also took the opportunity to reorganise things a bit so that, for example, "photography" and "digital art" are now separated into their own sections.

There's nothing in there that a regular visitor here will not have seen before, but it's a handy one-stop destination, and is really intended as a convenient calling-card for anyone wanting to see the broad scope of what I do, and have been doing in the past. You know, gallerists, publishers, those sort of people. Not that there has been any evidence of such people, so far, but we should always keep the metaphorical kettle on in case they do happen to show up.

If you decide to have a trawl through it yourself, please let me know if you come across any oddities: I had to fix a number of "broken" images, for example, and I expect there are more. It's still a work in progress, and will continue to be until I have finally filled those ONE THOUSAND pages. It could happen...

Saturday, 13 June 2020

Let's Get Lost

I'm sure you can't wait to hear what I finally did with all those "postcard" photographs, so here's the latest on that. After much sorting, resorting, and staring at my little printed double-spreads, I decided I had essentially nine decent sequences of about a dozen pairs each. The theme that united them was clearly something to do with "place", and initially I thought of calling the book "Locality", "Topology", or something like that. But those two quotations I mentioned in an earlier post – the one from Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet, and the one from Keats about "negative capability" – kept popping into my mind, and the idea of "living the questions" (rather than providing any answers) became compelling. After all, the photographs seemed to be as much about "where the hell are we now?" as anything more strictly topographical, so I decided to call the book Let's Get Lost, and to structure it around some suitably fundamental, locality-related questions. Which, of course, now I come to think of it, is pretty much the essence of a Situationist dérive.

Obviously, nine lots of twelve double images amounts to a hefty book of over 200 pages, so I had to do some ruthless editing to get it down a bit, ending up with six smaller sequences occupying 126 pages. Which is still quite a large (and expensive) book when produced one at a time via Blurb. So I decided to make two versions of two versions. The first two are the full, no-expense-spared job, in hardback and paperback on premium paper which no-one will even consider buying at £60 and £50 respectively. There will, of course, also be a PDF at £5.99, but for whatever reason no-one ever buys those, either.

The second two are based on an even more heavily-edited version at a mere 72 pages, wittily titled Let's Get (a little) Lost. Heh... One version of this will be a "trade paperback", which is as cheap as I'm prepared to make it, using "standard" paper at around £15 (I don't know for sure, but I expect the very cheapest "economy" colour paper would deliver a downright fugly result). The other will be a photobook paperback on "standard" paper at around £25. All four versions are 8" x 10" (20cm x 25cm).

Naturally, until I've received my proof copies I'm not going to make these publicly available. Despite my superlative proofreading skills something unfortunate may have sneaked through, even if it's only a misaligned caption. Which is easily done using the BookWright software, which I resent being forced to use if I want to make magazines or "trade" books, as it still lacks many of the basic book-design facilities of the original BookSmart software. I mean, why can't I choose to have page numbers on some pages but not others? Or create and edit a single running header that is automatically placed on alternate pages? In fact, where possible, I've taken to creating a book in BookSmart, uploading it to Blurb, and then downloading it again so I can use it in BookWright. Which is just as crazy and as annoying as it sounds.

Still, I shouldn't complain: nobody is making me do any of this. I could just as easily have spent the last few weeks watching TV or staring at the ceiling. Not that I haven't been doing those things: I've watched most of two series of Money Heist (in Spanish Casa de Papel) for a start. Bella ciao, ciao, ciao! And those cracks up there won't fix themselves. But maybe I'll get the "urban trees" sorted out first...

Tuesday, 9 June 2020

Wood and Wire

One of the great unexpected pleasures of this lockdown period has been listening to the weekly piano performances of Víkingur Ólafsson on the extended Friday edition of BBC Radio 4's Front Row arts magazine programme, streamed live from an empty Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavik, Iceland (last one coming up this Friday). Despite (or perhaps because of) my declared disbelief in the very possibility of playing the piano, I actually enjoy "classical" piano music a great deal. It's a pleasure I only return to intermittently, however, not least because when my tinnitus is at its worst a concert piano can sound like it has been "prepared" with nuts and bolts. There's also the matter of my complete musical ignorance: in the famous words of Sir Thomas Beecham, "the British may not like music, but they absolutely love the noise it makes". Substitute "understand" for "like", and that pretty much describes me. A measure of my ignorance is that I had never before heard of Ólafsson. He is quite a discovery, though: the range of his repertoire, from Bach to Philip Glass, and his sensitivity to the expressive possibilities inherent in some very different musical traditions are unusual, to say the least. I had no sooner heard his renderings of  Debussy and Rameau – who'd have thought of putting those two together? – than I had ordered a copy of the Debussy-Rameau CD. If you've got access to Spotify you needn't actually buy anything to sample his output, as he's a Deutsche Grammophon artist, and most of their releases are now available there, not to mention a fair few hilariously cheesy promotional videos on YouTube. DG really need to to take some lessons from ECM, when it comes to matters of brand image.

This Friday Ólafsson was asked what music he had been listening to himself during lockdown, and he enthused about a recent Bach recording by another young musician I have to confess I had not heard of before, the half Scottish, half Japanese guitarist Sean Shibe. Naturally I headed to Spotify, looked him up, and gave his output a listen. All I can say is: blimey... Shibe is good. Very good indeed. If you enjoy virtuoso guitar, and have also never heard of this artist, I suggest you might like to check him out, too [1] . I started with the new album of Bach lute music as recommended by Ólafsson. I found the last three tracks in particular – the Prelude, Fugue and Allegro in E-Flat Major, BWV 998 – outstandingly beautiful, and somehow very contemporary. Shibe's touch and control of "colour" are remarkable: even the bass lines are carefully weighted and modulated.

Like Ólafsson, his repertoire is broad and surprising, from Bach right up to some jagged contemporary electric guitar compositions. When I sampled the other albums available, I immediately liked his quiet, understated renderings of some old Scottish melodies on softLOUD, very reminiscent of a John Renbourn album I used to love as a teen, The Lady and the Unicorn, although I suspect the longer-term "grower" from that album will be the three Steve Reich tracks (Electric Counterpoint I-III) played on looped and overdubbed electric guitar.

But I found the most interesting album to be Dreams and Fancies : English Music for Solo Guitar, which jumps the centuries from Dowland to Benjamin Britten. To be honest, I had no idea composers like Britten, Walton, or Arnold had written for the guitar. Again, Shibe's subtle touch brings a real depth of expression, especially to the lute transcriptions, which other guitarists tend to play with a harsh plinky-plonk timbre more resembling a banjo than a modern acoustic guitar. I expect purists dislike this approach, however, in the same way they dislike expressive piano versions of music originally written for the harpsichord, the sound of which was described by Beecham, in another of his much-quoted phrases, as "two skeletons copulating on a tin roof". But if you've ever listened to an "authentic" performance of, say, Bach's Goldberg Variations – having become habituated over decades to the Glenn Gould version – you'll be inclined to agree with Sir Tom, I think. Authenticity has its place, but it's rather like deliberately cooking without potatoes, rice, peppers, tomatoes, or any non-native flavourings: an interesting but not necessarily pleasurable insight into a world we have gratefully left behind. I'll pass on the greasy gruel and have the wholly inauthentic Bombay Aloo, please.

1. If you don't have access to Spotify, there's a full, recent, streamed concert on YouTube by Sean Shibe from an empty Wigmore Hall here. See what you think. There's a very long (8 minute) introductory pause before the concert starts, so you'll need either to be very patient or to jump ahead 8 minutes. The sound quality is not perfect, but what do you expect for nothing?

Saturday, 6 June 2020

Urban Trees

Southampton, Seymour Road

Yes, yet another backfile project has been keeping me busy: urban trees, this time. As I looked through my files digging out the "postcards", I kept noticing photographs of trees in urban contexts, at home and abroad, which I'd never done anything with. It had never occurred to me that this was a primary theme of my photographic activity, but there it is, undeniably. I take a lot of pictures of trees in streets, squares, and odd architectural corners. It seems I'm a tree guy. Which marks me, I think, as essentially English.

When you fly home from abroad, one of the first things you notice as the plane dips below cloud level and the land below resolves into a more human scale of interest is that southern England is a forest. Certainly, a forest interrupted and divided by roads and fields and houses and factories and out of town shopping malls and all the rest of it, but a forest nonetheless. Trees dominate the landscape, and in summer entire suburbs lie half-hidden beneath a canopy of leaves. This is in stark contrast with much of north-west Europe, which is essentially either a bog or a treeless billiard-table of tiny fields. Clearly, the relationship of the English to our arboreal co-habitees is rather different to that of our French, Belgian, or Dutch neighbours. Thankfully the Channel is wide enough to avoid any complaints from them about our overgrown trees blocking their afternoon sunlight.

Paris, Place de la Concorde

This is especially evident in an urban context. Sure, there are trees in most European cities, but they are mainly tame trees on a leash – undersized, carefully confined by paving, manicured, and arrayed in regular patterns – and not the exuberant, shaggy specimens you find in most English streets, rogue trees that bulge and crack open walls and pavements, and wrap their roots around cable conduits and drains. Not to mention dropping their leaves and seeds all over everything. We once lived in a Bristol street lined with lime trees, which deposited some sticky substance all over any parked cars. This – if not regularly washed off – meant that the continual shower of leaves, seed cases, and other windblown detritus would become firmly glued to the roof and bonnet. My first car, an ancient Mini, rarely moved from its spot, and washing it was very, very low on my list of priorities, with the result that its original smooth, light-blue paintwork gradually vanished beneath the accreted layers, until it looked like a prop from some sci-fi version of Lord of the Rings. The thing is, it would never have occurred to me, or most of our neighbours, I'm sure, that the answer to the problem might be to cut down the trees.

So, comparative urban trees. Another lockdown backfile project that will probably become yet another book of some sort. And I have barely taken a photograph since March...

Southampton, Shirley High Street