Friday, 31 December 2021

Habitual Hope

There are periods in a life when certain routines have embedded themselves so deeply that they can seem to constitute that life itself. For a few years you're constantly changing nappies and reading bedtime stories, say, or getting up very early to get ready for work and to organise a school run, or – as I am now – sitting in front of a desktop computer writing stuff that very few people read but which seems somehow important enough to prioritise over other things I could – probably should – be doing with my time. The common factor, of course, is that all these cycles of habit will come to an end, whether predictably – children grow up, change schools, leave home – suddenly – one day you're at work, the next you're retired – or so gradually that you barely notice the change: one day, I'll wake up and realise that blogging is something I used to do. Often a new thing that at first seems like a welcome break from routine will quickly become the new routine. Our excursion at New Year to our Bristol flat, for example, is a new habit born out of disruption. So it goes.

And, look, here comes the end of another year. Again! The annual cycle being not so much a habit as a rut this planet has been in for longer than anyone can remember, although there's a lot to be said for that kind of dependability, really, isn't there? Christmas is done and dusted – very nice, thanks – our children have gone back to their real lives in London, and, having returned from Dorset to Southampton briefly to re-up our clothing, we now find ourselves in Bristol for New Year. Again!

And once again I find myself fuming in a supermarket queue on New Year's Eve with a modest wire basket of provisions, stuck behind a log-jam of trolley-pushers, all apparently under the impression that no shops will be opening in 2022. Mind you, the way things are going, they could be on to something. COVID has changed the shopping habits of many, quite possibly permanently, to online and home delivery (not us, I have to say), and a trudge up the High Street or through the shopping mall to gather the weekly shop may soon seem as remote as my father's stories of following the milkman's horse with a bucket to collect up dung for the garden. So what was a "shop", grandad?

The wonderful thing about New Year is that, for a day or two at least, we can persuade ourselves that all options are now open, all bets are off, and all psychic laws and constants are in abeyance. Anything is possible in the coming year: review, restart, reset, reboot! Obviously, the same possibilities for renewal exist at every other time of year, too, it's just that this little liminal pause, however illusory, is like stepping through a threshold bearing the opposite inscription to that over Dante's entrance to Hell: All hope is to be found beyond this doorway. It's always worth a gamble, isn't it, another throw of the dice? As that very wise man William James put it:
For practical life at any rate, the chance of salvation is enough. No fact in human nature is more characteristic than its willingness to live on a chance. The existence of the chance makes the difference, as Edmund Gurney says, between a life of which the keynote is resignation and a life of which the keynote is hope.
Afterword to The Varieties of Religious Experience
So, as we step serially through that threshold in our different time zones, let us all hope for more hope in 2022. There's no question that we're going to need it: it would be a good new habit to cultivate. So pass me those dice, and I hope you will accept my best wishes for the coming year. Again!

The long and winding road...

Wednesday, 29 December 2021

Yule Log

Somewhere near Morcombelake...

The day before leaving for our Christmas family get-together in Dorset, just over a week ago now, I took our Renault Scenic into our usual friendly local garage for a service. We've had that car for something like 15 years, now. It was a couple of years old when we bought it, a top of the range "Fidji" model, with the unusual 1.8 litre engine, double sun roof, air con, the works: a perfect family vehicle for hot summer trips into France, say, loaded up with all the necessary and even a fair amount of unnecessary gear. It has served us well, although an encounter with an unexpectedly deep puddle a few Christmases ago did give us a problem with water in the spark plugs (thankfully sorted out by Scenic-lover Robin Wilson's garage in Axminster), and it's been clear for a while that, like us, it's beginning to feel its age.

So it was less of a surprise than it might have been to hear the list of problems the garage had discovered while carrying out the service. Not least an exposed and worn bearing in the clutch, which, in their words, might carry on for 10,000 miles or a mere 10 before giving out; it was hard to predict. What would happen if it did "go"? Well, we'd simply glide to a halt, as if running out of fuel. Which, if you've ever driven on one of our stupid, ridiculous, moronic "smart" motorways, where the hard shoulder has been converted into a fourth traffic lane for thundering trucks, is not a prospect to contemplate with any equanimity. So, after a last minute rethink, we decided to load up our little Skoda Citigo instead, which, despite its 1 litre three-cylinder (!) engine, is something of a pocket rocket.

Obviously, without the Scenic's bottomless storage capacity, this also meant a rethink of what we could take with us, and what we would have to leave behind. With the result that, for the first time ever, I travelled without any photographic gear at all, apart from my phone. I know... Scary.

However, as I trust the few samples here will testify, I needn't have worried overmuch. The iPhone 12 mini is a pocket rocket in its own right even if, like the Skoda, it is challenged by the photographic equivalent of a very steep hill. I am increasingly persuaded by the sheer convenience and versatility of a camera that also receives phone calls and texts, not to mention paying for car parking, or telling me exactly where I am and which way I'm facing. Which last, on a foggy day in deepest Dorset, is pretty handy, and a definite plus over any "real" camera I've ever used.

Golden Cap

Pickaxe Cross

After we had arrived at our destination – Morcombelake, midway between Bridport and Lyme Regis – and made a few trips to gather provisions and Christmas necessities (a 3 kilo free-range duck, for example), I knew we'd be needing more petrol before everything shut down for the holiday. So I got in the Skoda, started up, and checked the fuel gauge. Which, to my consternation, read "full": impossible, as we'd already driven nearly 150 miles. Which meant it must be faulty, which meant I would never have any idea of how much fuel was actually left. Fuck. The only answer was to head to the nearest garage and fill the tank up to the brim, and hope for the best.

Which I did. But I had barely managed to squeeze a few cupfuls into the tank before the pump shut off the supply. It seemed the tank was still full! And remains so even now after we've driven home, which is taking "fuel efficiency" to a whole new level. Incredible, really; the engine must run on petrol fumes alone. So, well done, little Skoda! And well done, little iPhone, too!

At the other extreme of efficiency, I got to watch Peter Jackson's marathon three-part, six-hours-plus re-edit of the material filmed during the sessions that led up to the famous "concert on the roof" by the Beatles, and ultimately the less-than-satisfactory Let It Be album. Our daughter has a Disney Plus subscription, and our Christmas hangout is well-equipped with TV screens, so the Prof and I were able to retreat to our bedroom and watch it there, John and Yoko style (minus the bag).

Now, although I was quite enthusiastic about the Beatles in my early teenage years, I was well over that enthusiasm by the time of Abbey Road and Let It Be in 1969/70. As, on the evidence of The Beatles: Let It Be, were the Fab Four themselves. Frankly, Jackson's film is like watching a simmering family row spread over an entire month (appropriate Christmas viewing, some might say). Someone characterised the mood of the rehearsal sessions as "hostile lethargy", which is spot on. It's not exactly fun to watch, although if you've ever been curious about what the Beatles were really like as, you know, real people, then it is fascinating. But the hype about revealing a less negative view of the period leading up to the final explosive and litigious Beatlegeddon is, well, hype. Jackson's trailer has extracted pretty much all the positivity to be found in hundreds of hours of footage; the rest is about as upbeat as a documentary about Dutch Elm disease.

What makes it almost worth the slog are the moments when they do re-discover the joy of playing together – the rooftop gig is always a treat – but above all it is fascinating to observe the creative processes of genius at work, for example how a song like "Get Back" emerges gradually out of McCartney's improvisation until it is suddenly there, like some ectoplasmic entity squeezing out of a spirit medium: it's uncanny to watch. I think my favourite moment, though, is when Lennon and McCartney sing "Two Of Us" at each other through clenched teeth, like duelling ventriloquists: it's hilarious, and something of the enduring depth of their friendship and the magic of their songwriting partnership still manages to shine through the boredom and barely-concealed impatience and hostility.

To be honest, I recommend watching Part 3 alone: you miss nothing much by ignoring the preceding two parts unless you are, say, a professional student of conflict resolution, or a fan of lengthy, unproductive meetings. In fact, why not just watch the various trailers on YouTube? Then you need never discover, at length and in depth, that Paul is a needy, manipulative control-freak and John an utter ████, joined at the hip to his freaky new girlfriend. The other two? They're just sulky bit-part spectators, acutely aware that – no matter what anyone says to the contrary – they are eminently replaceable as musicians. At one point George Harrison famously storms out, and they casually discuss replacing him with, oh, maybe Eric Clapton? Ringo, wisely, says and does nothing to rock the boat, other than look terminally bored as he endures slow death by paradiddle. There, I've saved you at least five hours of unnecessary viewing, and a large measure of disillusion... You're welcome!

Huh? I thought you died alone, a long, long time ago?
(Bridport hair salon)

Friday, 24 December 2021

The Oxen

The Oxen

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
“Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
“Come; see the oxen kneel,

“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

Thomas Hardy

Thursday, 23 December 2021

Seasonally-Adjusted Greetings

Despite the fact it hasn't actually snowed at Christmas in the south of England for many years (not since 2010, I think) it seems there is a possibility it may do so this year. We’ll see. It doesn’t look very likely, at least not here in Dorset, where we’ve come to spend yet another quiet Christmas with our now very grown-up children. But the association between Christmas and snow is — so far, at least — indissoluble (unmeltable?). In parts of the Northern Hemisphere the snow does indeed already lie deep and crisp and even, of course, but in these counties along the English Channel coast that's a rare Yuletide sight. What snow we do get tends to fall in the early months of the year: the "Christmassy" photo above was actually taken in March 2018. Nonetheless, as a conventional seasonal gesture, it's the picture I used on most of the Christmas / New Year greetings cards I sent out this year. 

Somehow I doubt that it snowed much in Bethlehem at the alleged year zero [1] of the "Christian Era" / "Common Era" either, despite the evidence of Nativity scenes on old-style Christmas cards, which tended to imply that Jesus was born in a barn somewhere in rural North Yorkshire; not so much a lack of geographical awareness as an indication of the extent to which Christianity has infused and in turn been coloured by our native culture since Saxon times. However, Nativity scenes now are increasingly rare on the card racks, as the paganisation and commercialisation of the all-purpose mid-winter festival continues apace: robins, reindeer, conifers, and above all wrapped presents denote "Christmas" far more readily to the contemporary child's eye.

What hasn't changed is the deep-seated feeling that these darkest days of the solar cycle are a time for feasting and family gatherings. Unless, of course, some inconvenient Scrooge-virus gets in the way. Bah,     humbug Covid! I have no sympathy whatsoever with those ultra-libertarians who claim that wearing a mask in a shop is an infringement of their liberty equivalent to life under some oppressive totalitarian regime, but nonetheless I think we all feel the necessary constraints on our behaviour more keenly at this time of year, particularly if you have family and friends living abroad or elderly relatives in care you haven’t been able to visit, even if, like me, you haven’t been to anything resembling a “party” for many years. TBH I thought parties had gone the way of flared trousers, music centres, Watney’s “party sevens” (a very large tin of disgusting beer, m’lud),  and sausages on sticks, but apparently they’re still very much a thing at the highest levels of government, although it seems they don’t like to refer to them by that name.

I’m unlikely to post anything further now until I return to the South Coast Conurbation after Christmas, so I hope you can a find a warm corner with some congenial and certified COVID-free company as this peculiar year comes to an end, and I wish you all the best for 2022!

1. Actually, year one. The failure to allocate a year zero has caused confusion ever since.

Saturday, 18 December 2021

A New Union

 In a post last year (Mysteries) I wrote in passing:

It's curious how much current popular entertainment seems to be aimed at affirming and enlarging the mystery constituency: magic, superpowers, and alien life-forms are more or less standard issue on Netflix, along with deep-reaching conspiracies and textbook narrative arcs, all set in a glamorous world free of tedious workaday concerns like washing up, or even facing trial for a series of murderous assaults on life's extras: negligible, nameless folk like guards and henchmen.

Having watched more such streamed stuff over the last two years than is probably healthy or wise, I have become quite concerned about the casual and often lethal violence meted out to those nameless guards and henchmen. It seems that whenever some vengeful protagonist breaks into or breaks out of some villain's lair – be it an office block, a medical lab, a repurposed stately home, or some underground labyrinth – the inevitable exchanges of gunfire will result in a bloody massacre of inept "guards", usually dressed in sub-standard protective gear that clearly offers no protection whatsoever, and equipped with faulty assault rifles that could not hit a moving row of ducks at a fairground, never mind the sort of person who can outrun and dodge multiple sprays of automatic gunfire, clad in nothing but pyjamas.

Now, villains, criminal masterminds, and outright psychopaths deserve whatever comeuppance they get, which is usually some ironically symbolic obliteration involving a self-constructed petard-cum-MacGuffin. In films, that is; in real life, they get legal representation and a fair trial. Which brings me to my original point in the quoted passage. Yes, you, our hero ruthless protagonist: you have saved the world, solved the mystery, reaped vengeance, got your life back, whatever it was that drove you on so single-mindedly; but along the way you have killed and maimed dozens of mere employees. We saw you do it! But, look, these were actual people, who hoped to pay their bills and raise their families by patrolling the grounds and manning the CCTV monitors of some organisation that, as far as they knew, did something sorta high-tech and secretive but which was all so far above their minimum-wage pay-grade as to be invisible. It's boring work, and the hours are inconvenient, but like security staff everywhere, you do at least get to dress up and play at being police or soldiers without any proper qualifications, training, or exposure to real danger.

That is, until you turned up.

Of course, real police get mashed, too. That car chase, for example? The one when you drove way too recklessly, totalling the vehicles of several innocent civilians, not to mention the market stalls and fast-food stands you demolished on the roadside, before taking a short-cut through a plate-glass shop window? You remember? And then, FFS, when you careened at high speed the wrong way down a dual carriageway into heavy oncoming traffic... Well, all that resulted in multiple cop cars crashing, overturning, flying off flyovers, and bursting spectacularly into flames. Again, let me emphasise, driven by real people with families to support. And all because you knew you were right, and therefore had to evade police detention in order to pursue some idiotic self-imposed mission. But the thing is, tragic as their loss is, those guys at least have pension benefits to pass on, widow's insurance, and a union to press their case for compensation against their employer. Guards and henchmen? They've got nothing.

So, what I'm proposing here is proper trade union representation. Let's call it the Association of Representatives of Guards and Henchfolk, or ARGH.

For a start, the union will demand proper protective clothing in the workplace, up to full military standards – and maybe not head-to-toe in baddie black? – as well as firearms that can do more damage than just knocking chips off concrete pillars and brickwork. Members will be required to undergo proper vocational training, so that they can detain a suspected invader or escapee without the situation escalating into a bloody one-sided massacre, or at the very least so that they can shoot straight. There will be full compensation for injury or death in the line of work, with benefits for bereaved fictional family members. The union will insist that those responsible for such injury or death be brought to justice, and face trial for their reckless actions: the ends do not justify the means, and any sinister cover-up of the serial assault and murder of union members will not be tolerated (unless this is the seed of a new multi-part thriller on Amazon Prime, securing further employment). Clearly, there is also a need for better pay, shorter hours, and proper breaks: there's a reason security staff keep losing concentration on the CCTV monitors at crucial moments, don't spot suspicious movement at the other end of the corridor, or fail to find the lethal dessert spoon tucked in a detainee's sock in a routine body-search.

Most of all, members will have a right to be fully informed about what the hell is really going on in that "secret" laboratory on Level 6, or in those maximum-security cells in the basement. They may work for monsters, but that doesn't make them monsters: they were only obeying orders! [Hi, ARGH Legal Dept. here: please don't ever use that argument in court; it really doesn't play well]. 

So watch out, Jason Bourne, John Wick, and all you other trigger-happy vigilantes and vengeance junkies. ARGH is coming for you. The movies are about to get a lot safer for everybody! And next, we'll be turning our attention to organising the villain's lair cleaning staff: what an awful, messy job that can be...

Florence 2016

Tuesday, 14 December 2021


A two-foot silverfish nightmare
(wax model in Hamburg Natural History Museum)

It's a curious business, isn't it, the way we unconsciously acquire behaviours from our families? From my father, for example, I inherited the habit of giving my shoes and my clothes a good shake before putting them on. This made a lot of sense if, like him, you have spent years camped out in the Libyan desert or the jungles of Burma, where scorpions, spiders, snakes, and other nasties find the nooks and crannies of clothing a congenial daytime refuge. In Britain, obviously, this is not so much of a problem, although in autumn the spiders that come into the house for refuge do seem to take a fancy to my boots, it's true, and there was a time when we were regularly invaded by slugs. Until, that is, I discovered the apotropaic properties of self-adhesive copper tape (as described in one of my very first blog posts); highly effective, applied to a threshold, against slugs, witches, elves, and even vampire squirrels. You shall not pass!

However, habitual shaking has proved a necessary caution against a fresh invasion of another unwanted pest: silverfish. In a house full of books and paperwork of various sorts, and in which "housework" tasks such as hoovering up and dusting are neglected, to put it mildly, I suppose this was inevitable. They thrive on the glue of bindings and even paper itself, and whenever I open a book or lift a pile of prints I brace myself for a couple to scuttle out. I really HATE the little fuckers. I have bought various sprays and traps, the most effective of which seem to be the Dekko Silverfish Paks [sic], little cardboard sandwiches containing a boric acid paste, about the size of a bubblegum card, which you can scatter around all their most likely haunts. Nothing is 100% effective, though, and shaking, chasing, and stamping are now embedded in my routines.

There is something rather eldritch about silverfish. They vary in size, from tiny ones a few millimetres in length to the biggest ones which are half an inch or more. Whether this reflects different species or different stages in their lifecycle I haven't investigated. They bristle with extra-long antennae and tail appendages, as if designed for radio-control, and tend to sit motionless, radiating a sort of malevolent dark electricity,  until you make a move to squash them, when they will flee with quicksilver rapidity. They can be incredibly elusive, even when trapped out in the open in the bathtub, as they often are on summer mornings. Crushed, though, they crumble into a cloud of dust, like a vampire exposed to sunlight.

The twelve-inch house fly
(Horniman Museum)

Then in the early autumn there was an invasion of flies in one of our bedrooms. It had a mystifying, Aristotelian quality: the flies seemed to be generating out of nowhere. No matter how many you killed or persuaded to leave, the next morning there'd be more buzzing around or frantically trying to headbutt their way through a window-pane. Plus any we'd missed the day before lying dead or exhausted on the windowsill. In the end, I realised they must be emerging from behind a sheet of hardboard I had taped over an open fireplace to eliminate draughts (in the 1930s, when our house was built, a fireplace in every room was the mod con du jour). The tape had worked loose, and something – probably a pigeon or jackdaw – must have fallen into the chimney void and died there. Although I suppose it might have been a chimney-sweep's boy who had got stuck, given the sheer quantity of flies. Well, kids are obese these days, aren't they? Rather than investigate, I simply retaped the hardboard.

In general, though, I am absurdly soft-hearted when it comes to the more benign household invaders, such as spiders, moths, and even most flies. Like Zen poet Kobayashi Issa, I tend to let the spiders do their thing:

sumi no kumo anji na susu wa toranu zo yo
Spiders in the corners,
Don't worry!
I'm not going to sweep them.
Translated by R. H. Blyth

I have made various bug-catching devices from clear plastic CD canisters and cardboard, so that I can trap them and release them back into the open air, even if that's not really what they had in mind. Nooo! The light! I must follow the light!! But should any big buzzy flies make a untrappable nuisance of themselves, then I have a nuclear option: the rubber-band pistol. Zap! It never fails. Although I've never quite managed seven at one blow.

Eat rubber death, fly

Thursday, 9 December 2021

Book Recommendations 2021

 (from my current project, "36 Views of the Avon Gorge")

As I keep telling myself, I'm buying rather fewer books these days – no, really – although somehow they do keep turning up on my doorstep, most recently a couple from France. Unlike the government, however, I continue to welcome them all into the house, regardless of where they come from, even though we're several stages past "full". They can doss on the floor or under a table until we can make room for them.

So, I hesitate to make book recommendations but, as I see I didn't make any last year, I see no reason not to bring just a few to your attention. Spending other people's money is always a pleasure, isn't it? The only problem is, if you leave it much more than a year most good photobooks will have already ascended into the "collectible" sphere. None of these have yet, however, AFAIK.

Me Kaksi, by Pentti Sammallahti (EXB, 2021)
I keep buying Sammallahti books, only to find they contain much the same photographs as the last one. This one is no different,  but it's beautifully produced by Atelier EXB (formerly Editions Xavier Barral) and if you don't have a Sammallahti yet, this is a good place to start. Buy direct from the publisher.

End Time City, by Michael Ackerman (EXB, 2021)
Another EXB book, a new edition of a classic, first published 20 years ago, impressionistic B&W glimpses of Benares, "the most sacred city in Hinduism, which welcomes pilgrims who have come to die here to erase their sins and put an end to the cycle of rebirth". A bit grim, and not a book to cheer you up on a wet Wednesday, but an enthralling and unblinking view of the Hindu way of death.

Blind Spot, by Teju Cole (Faber & Faber, 2016)
I kept coming across Teju Cole's name, and when the penny dropped that as well as a well-regarded writer he is also a photographer, I decided to buy this fat hardback brick of a book, which is still available new at a bargain price if you shop around. You get 150 photos, many of which are superb, accompanied by little prose essays, not much longer than a typical blog post. I've enjoyed dipping into it over the year.

Gigantic Cinema: a weather anthology; edited by Alice Oswald and Paul Keegan (Cape, 2020)
If you're into landscape, you're probably also into weather. This is not a photobook, but an anthology of bits of poetry and prose about weather in all its manifestations. As you may know, Alice Oswald can do no wrong as far as I am concerned, and this incredibly diverse and well-chosen selection is a wonderful read. I'm not sure about the decision to present the pieces without attribution – they are numbered, and there is an index – which I found irritating (OK, Alice Oswald can almost do no wrong), although it is true that the absence of names can have an interesting effect, rather like reading an enormous cento, if you're in the right mood.

Island Zombie: Iceland Writings, by Roni Horn (Princeton University Press, 2020)
Also not a photobook, as such, although like the Teju Cole it combines photographs with essays, rather longer in this case. I have an unaccountable enthusiasm for Roni Horn – almost the definition of the sort of conceptual artist I tend to avoid – which dates back to an exhibition at Southampton University's John Hansard Gallery in 1996 that featured some of her atmospheric photographs, and where I bought a couple of volumes of her multi-volume magnum opus about Iceland, To Place. If only I'd known how much they'd come to be worth (those collectors again!) I'd have bought the lot. Her artistic relationship with Iceland (somewhere I'd love to visit some day) is explored in depth and with great honesty, erudition, and insight.

Cold Mountain Poems, by Han Shan; edited and translated by J.P. Seaton (Shambhala, 2009 and 2019)
If, like me, you have a liking for the poetry of Zen, you may well already have this, or some other version. Although I've had the book (in its original pocket hardback version) for a long time, I have found myself dipping into it quite often during these quasi-monastic days of the pandemic. Incredibly, these poems were written during the T'ang period (618-907), when we here on this island were mainly singing the praises of violent men or lamenting the vicissitudes of fixed fate. The very attractive hardback is now ridiculously overpriced, but it's still available in paperback.

When people meet Han Shan,
they all say he's crazy
face not worth a second look,
body wrapped in rags...
They haven't a clue when I start talking:
I wouldn't say what they say.
But I leave this message for those who
come looking for me:
"You could try to make it to Cold Mountain."

Saturday, 4 December 2021


As will be well known to long-term readers of this blog, I'm an admirer of the birds of the crow family. And, as will be well known to fans of crows, there is a long-standing feud between the crows and the larger birds of prey, most obviously in Britain the buzzard; not (as in America) a vulture, but a large hawk, or Buteo buteo as it is know to the scientific community. The roots of this dispute are lost in the mists of time, but should a buzzard appear in the sky you can guarantee that a squadron of crows will scramble and count coup on its feathers and generally take the piss, until the predator shrugs them off and circles its way to another neck of the woods.

So, looking out of our Bristol flat's window this morning – which offers a magnificent view over the Avon Gorge and Leigh Woods as the sun rises and catches the tree tops – I found myself practically eye-to-eye with a pair of buzzards circling very close. They were a magnificent sight in the bright morning sun, but I was waiting for the true fun to begin. Raptors at 11 o'clock, black leader: scramble, scramble! However, there was not a crow, rook, or even a jackdaw in sight, just a pair of magpies sitting in an oak tree, apparently enjoying the sun. It was a very cold morning, true, but the absence of corvid harassment seemed unnatural, a dereliction of duty.

Then, as if out of nowhere, a brown shape buzzed the buzzards at great speed. Then, another. Vroom! Vroom! As the two aggressors pulled out of their dive, it became apparent that the astonished buzzards were under attack from a pair of sparrowhawks. Now, it's one thing to be mocked by crows, quite another to be assaulted by serious if smaller predators, so the buzzards cleared off pretty smartly, with the sparrowhawks pursuing them all the way. I had never seen anything quite like it. And there were still no crows in sight, just those two basking magpies, casually adjusting their shades.

At which point, the penny dropped. Now, crows are clever, but magpies are wicked smart. They're the streetwise entrepreneurs, the wide boys, the sharp-suited wheeler-dealers of the crow world. Check the classy fevvers, bird! Lookin' f'summink shiny, eh, bruv? Looking at that smug pair on their sunny branch, I realised what was going on: the magpies had cut a two-way deal, and sub-contracted buzzard-harassment to the sparrowhawks. Clever! But what grisly price the sparrowhawks had demanded in return I shudder to think.

Monday, 29 November 2021

Futilist's Lament

I doubt many people will have realised that my recent "Tischbein" piece was in fact a warmed-up and re-hashed post from 2008. Well, let's be honest, I doubt many people will have read either piece, and very few indeed will have read both. Probably about as many as realise that "Tischbein" means "table leg": a damned strange surname by any measure.

Anyway, looking for that post caused me to revisit some of my other earliest efforts; I have to say I was both impressed and deflated. I was banging them out more or less daily then, to a pretty high standard. Well, what else are you going to do, confined to your office by a rainy lunch-hour, or in need of a break from proof-checking the efforts of trainee cataloguers or debugging Perl scripts? If nothing else, it was a great way of looking busy.

But I reluctantly came to the conclusion that, like the Big Bang, I had more or less emptied the contents of my brain in those first months, and that the subsequent thirteen years of posts have merely been star- and planet-forming phases, when the bits and pieces flying around have been crashing into each other, with results of varying interest and significance. The rest is entropy...  (Yes, I've been watching Brian "professor" Cox doing his latest boy-band act, Universe: We're All Gonna Die [1]).

As you may or may not also have noticed, I do try to be amusing in these posts, and occasionally reach for full-on humour. This is not as easy as it might seem, and my admiration for laugh-on-demand writers like Marina Hyde of the Guardian, or prolific cartoonists like Zach Weinersmith (author of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, and another very strange surname) is enormous. It must be both exhausting and terrifying to walk that high-wire so publicly, so often. I doff the chapeau idiotique to these master laughter-crafters! So, in a spirit of humble tribute, and to help fill the void before our planet is swallowed up by the sun, here is a little post from November 2008 that I found still nudged the amusometer needle just enough to be worth repeating.

Lighten Up, Erik
Jazz is screaming its sorrow in our faces and we don't give a damn about it.
Erik Satie, 1866-1925

Do you not hear that terrible screaming all around you, that men usually call silence? 
Georg Büchner, 1813-1837

Really? I'm like, whoah, lighten up, guys.

@ Erik: maybe if jazz backed off a touch and got out of our faces we might give a damn. Or recommend a therapist. What jazz are you listening to, anyway? A lot of people find Kind of Blue quite soothing. On the other hand, if we could just talk for a minute about Harrison Birtwistle... 

@Georg: Yes, I do, actually. My doctor tells me that they usually call it tinnitus, and there's nothing much to be done about it. It's nature's way of telling you that you have been to one too many VERY LOUD gigs.

I shouldn't be so flippant, I know, but there's a certain brand of doom-laden solemnity that has cast a pall over a lot of the artistic endeavour of the modern world. Someone (wish I could remember who) once referred to this as "heavy breathing", which is spot on: it's a rather humourless and creepy way of insisting on the significance of your work. "I have penetrated the veil of bourgeois hypocrisy to glimpse the Complete And Utter Futility of Life, and will now proceed to share my pain with you. No, please, don't put the phone down..."

It's a very adolescent, masculine worldview: Heavy Metal and its various hysterical variants are its crypt-kicking apotheosis. The word "screaming" is a bit of a signature: a voice turned up to 11, with nowhere further to go. And what better Heavy Metal album cover was ever painted than Edvard Munch's risible The Scream?

Talking of risible, you may have recognised the title of yesterday's post (Closing Time in the Gardens of the West). It comes from a famous passage by Cyril Connolly, written in the last issue of Horizon in 1950:

It is closing time in the gardens of the West and from now on an artist will be judged only by the resonance of his solitude or the quality of his despair.

You've got to admit that's funny: Eeyore in a tweed jacket fiddling portentously with his pipe. Of course, at the other extreme there is the infuriating equanimity of John Cage:

The first question I ask myself when something doesn't seem to be beautiful is why do I think it's not beautiful. And very shortly you discover that there is no reason.

I think I feel a scream coming on...

I admit I'm not averse to a bit of heavy-breathing, myself, either ...
(another of my recent six-page folding booklets)

1. It's actually pretty poor, unless you're into expensive special effects. As Lucy Mangan put it in her Guardian review: "Why they are so scared of putting his actual knowledge on show, I do not know. You have what is surely the rarest of beasts – a personable physicist unfazed by the idea of making his subject accessible on camera – and keep trying to use him as a poet? Why?" It's also hilarious, if you're a follower of the above-mentioned Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, as Cox is regularly filmed from a drone at a great height in some God-forsaken spot, just like Weinersmith's two girls endlessly wandering in a snowy landscape, pondering the Great Questions.

[BTW, you probably won't have recognised the title of today's post, which borrows the title of a track on the first High Tide album, Sea Shanties, which I once played to the entire school in a darkened hall as part of a morning assembly a bunch of us sixth-formers had been inveigled into presenting, causing the headmaster to storm out. Heh... Apparently copies of that album in good condition fetch high prices today. It has a great cover by Paul Whitehead, otherwise responsible for some of  the silliest album artwork of the prog era.]

Thursday, 25 November 2021

Martin Parr CBE

 It has been announced by the Martin Parr Foundation that Martin Parr has been awarded the CBE for "services to photography". Well, congratulations, Martin! I suppose... I must admit, my reaction to this news is mirrored by that of photographer Paul Reas, one of the photographic and art-world notables quoted in the MPF newsletter #96, which I received this week:

"When I heard he had been awarded a CBE I had mixed emotions. I was thrilled that his contributions to photography had finally been acknowledged but wary that that source of recognition had all those uncomfortable imperialistic associations. Would he do a John Lennon and send his “gong” back, I wondered? Regardless, he is so deserving of the acknowledgment. I can think of nobody else who has so selflessly supported the work of people he believes in."

Well, exactly; apart from the word "thrilled", perhaps. In all honesty, that was not the emotion that the news induced in me: "mild curiosity swiftly followed by a reflex anti-establishment contrarianism", perhaps. But it's not as if anybody involved with photography at that level gives a fleck of flyshit what I think. Besides, what does a person have to do to earn the right to refuse a knighthood these days, or indeed a seat in the Lords (setting aside donors to the Tory party, obviously)?

Anyone thinking "so who is this Martin Parr?" has clearly arrived at the wrong website, but any non-Brits would be perfectly justified in wondering, so what exactly is a "CBE" anyway? I realised I wasn't sure, either – perhaps it is a knighthood? – so I looked it up. I'm not going to explain it, that's what Wikipedia is for: here's the link. So now you know. The "Empire" bit has been a source of controversy for some time, not least among those who got the rough end of the imperial stick; I like the idea of changing the name to the Order of British Excellence, although the Order of British Exceptionalism (or even Eccentricity) might be better.

But to return to Martin Parr. Martin is a very admirable man, whose photographic style and chosen subjects have exerted an enormous influence on a certain kind of documentary photography, and who has dedicated his considerable energies to advocating the work of others and photography in general. He is also much misunderstood, as people mistake his wry critique – highlighting those visual incongruities that can illuminate society's contradictions as well as people's pretensions and well-meaning idiocies – for a kind of cruelty. But Bruce Gilden is cruel; Martin Parr is more like a fearless, clear-sighted stand-up comedian. For what it's worth – and here we're back in fleck of flyshit territory –  I think his best work was done quite early on and that he has not yet developed a "late style" that is the equal of his groundbreaking work –  The Last Resort (1986), say, or Small World (1995) – and he does seem at times to have become the prisoner of his own signature stylistic moves. But, what moves! Few photographers have created and inhabited such a distinctive style, palette, and subject matter, used to such consistent effect [1]. You may not like it, but you know it when you see it.

In September 1992 I did a four-day residential workshop with Martin at Duckspool. Although I knew that his style of "street" documentary would never be mine I was an admirer of his work, and had already acquired copies of Bad Weather (1982), A Fair Day (1984), The Last Resort, and even One Day Trip (1989), his photographs of "booze cruise" channel ferry crossings, commissioned by the Mission photographique transmanche of the Centre régional de la photographie Nord-Pas-de-Calais. It was an interesting, though not transformative experience. I think it's fair to say that Martin is a very incisive speaker about his own work, and the work of others working a similar vein, but not a great teacher, in that he has (or had: he may have improved over three decades) little useful to say about other approaches to photography, or even about simply bad, derivative work, which is what mainly turns up at workshops.

As it happened, Duane Michals was receiving an Honorary Fellowship at the Royal Photographic Society during the workshop, so Martin arranged for us all to travel over to Bath to hear him speak, which surprised and pissed off a number of participants – "not what we've paid for!" – but I suspect I derived more memorable "takeaways" from that entertaining hour than the entire workshop. Mind you, I did have to leave a day early, having received an urgent SOS message from my workplace, so I missed out on the intensive group "critique" of my own portfolio. Which was probably just as well. I don't think Martin Parr CBE would have found much to connect with in what I had brought along. Although I do treasure the memory of Peter Goldfield's comment, having taken a preliminary peek, that Fay Godwin would really like my work, and that I should keep an eye out for the new direction her photography had taken. Now there's someone who never did receive her due recognition from the establishment, but that's another story.

1. Top Parr Tip: get close, look in a different direction to the camera, use a ring flash.

Friday, 19 November 2021

Tischbein Moments

The photograph of a teenage Paul McCartney in his family's back garden that I wrote about recently (taken, it turns out, by his younger brother, a.k.a. "Mike McGear") put me in mind of one of my favourite pictures. In fact, it stands framed on my bedside cabinet, alongside a couple of family photos, and a heap of books and assorted bedside stuff. That's how favourite it is. It's a watercolour sketch by Johann Tischbein of the young Goethe, looking down onto the street from a window of what is now known as the Casa di Goethe, in Rome.

Tischbein and Goethe were room-mates in that very chamber, on their excellent Italian adventure in 1786. Tischbein's other portrait of Goethe, "Goethe in an Idiotic Hat in the Campagna", is very famous, of course, but this one is far superior, to my mind. I love everything about it. I love the contrast of interior and exterior. I love the simple colour washes of Prussian blue and terra cotta. But mainly I love its informality, the unselfconscious crook of one leg playing with a slipper, the untucked shirt, and the way it captures the young genius craning out of the window to watch the sunlit street-life below, putting together in his head the legacy of his classical learning with the reality of Rome. It's the perfect holiday snap, although it must have taken rather longer to create than the fraction of a second it would take today, quickly framed on Tischbein's smartphone.

The focus is on that sunlit head and the hunched shoulders, but there's also an innocent, mildly homo-erotic quality that shines through so limpidly that's it's easy to miss. My daughter, aged six, spotted it straight away, though, and was outraged: "Daddy, that lady's showing her bottom!" But this is not a picture of desire, although it is a depiction of one of the oldest love stories: North meets South. It is a picture of loving admiration and friendship, and of the sheer happiness of being young, talented, and away from home, with a whole lifetime of achievement ahead.

True, Goethe was 37 in 1786, a recovering lawyer and senior civil servant, but when I first saw this picture in 1971 I was 17, and therefore so was Goethe, as far as I was concerned. At that age I wanted, more than anything, to be the figure in that picture: also to be young, talented, away from home, and with a whole lifetime of achievement ahead. During the summers of the early 1970s that I spent hitchhiking around Europe with a succession of friends I did have many such experiences, moments imbued with that heady concoction of freedom and possibility. However, like those thousands of potential Paul McCartneys who came to their senses, put the guitar to one side and got a proper job, it gradually became clear to me that there was more to being Goethe than leaning spellbound out of high windows. Lacking a trust fund, wealthy parents, or – crucially – the drive that forges genius out of talent, I, too, decided gainful employment leading eventually to a good pension was the better bet.

Nonetheless, I have continued to measure my life by its "Tischbein moments". I recall a later occasion on a tour through the Basque Country and Northern Spain, one of several I made with my girlfriend and various other couples in the years following the fall of Franco. I remember waking one September morning in Santiago de Compostela, in a gigantic creaking wooden bed built like a barge in an ancient hotel room without running water, that was instead equipped with a wooden washstand and ceramic bowls that had to be filled from a tap down the corridor. It was impossible not to feel that one had gone back fifty years, if not a century or two. Throwing open the shutters onto the morning life of that ancient city and centre of pilgrimage, I breathed it all in. The babble of voices, the clap of startled pigeons, the traffic, the freshly sluiced cobblestones, the geological complexity of the architecture, and – still asleep in the gigantic creaking wooden bed – the complicated woman with whom – as I came to realise in that moment, after five or so years of an on-again, off-again relationship – I was going to spend the rest of my life. I admit I had to stand there for a minute or two longer, composed in my Tischbein moment, to see just what I thought about that.

And look, some three decades later in 2008, here is our daughter, then just turned 14, obligingly posing for me as the young Goethe, leaning out of a window in Montaigne's tower in the Dordogne:

In his library at the very top of the tower, Montaigne painted each roof-beam with a quotation from Biblical or classical sources, mainly stern, stoic warnings about not getting above yourself, intellectually, and putting up with life's hardships [1]. Of these, this one seems most appropriate:
(For if a man think himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceiveth himself)
Galatians, 6:3
Which is undeniably true. But, of course, sometimes that man is right, and turns out to be Goethe, Paul McCartney, or even, despite his own misgivings, Michel de Montaigne. And I think the young can be forgiven for basking in the sunshine of those moments when the possibilities of a larger life still lie tantalisingly open before them, and the austere nostrums of age have not yet closed them down.

1. A full catalogue of them can be found here.

Monday, 15 November 2021

You've Got to Know When to Fold Them

Even for those of us whose ambition dial is stuck somewhere around 6 (I'm not sure where the top of the scale is, possibly 10, possibly 100) it's always worth trying to think of ways of getting your work in front of people. Getting a picture into an actual exhibition is probably the most prestigious but also the least cost-effective way. By the time you've factored in the price of framing and transport, an exhibited picture that fails to sell or attract significant attention is not so much a "loss leader", in the marketing jargon, as a loss loser. Even more prestigious, of course, is to be given a solo exhibition, but that, when all the associated costs are factored in, could easily represent a dent in your bank balance of several thousand pounds. If the gallery will foot those costs then fine, but otherwise it truly ain't worth it, unless the sale of just one work will cover the lot.

So I like to think of cheap but effective ways of getting my stuff out there (other than on the internet), ideally something that looks a bit classy, but costs pence to produce. The sort of thing you can pop in an envelope and post to people, safe in the knowledge that if they choose to bin it the loss is theirs – ignorant fools! – not yours. Which is what I had in mind when I bought a box of A2 paper pre-cut (by Marrutt) into strips 30cm and 12cm wide. A thin card of 230gsm is perfect for folding into "concertina" booklets of around four to six postcard sized pages. These could either be separate images, or – as in the two examples here – a panoramic image spread over several panels. If the chosen paper stock is suitably rigid, then the outer pages will function as a cover; if not, it's not exactly a daunting task to fashion something out of a thicker paper or card. [1]

In a rare glimpse into the workings of the Atelier Idiotic Hat in Southampton, here is an example of what one looks like in its folded state, standing on top of a printed 30cm x 59.4cm sheet awaiting trimming and folding:

 Of course, if one wanted to go completely nuts, three such folders could be put onto a single A2 sheet, and printed as, say, a small batch of posters by Vistaprint at around £3.50, but I like to keep things in-house as far as possible, not least because I like to be able to tweak the design (I keep changing my mind about the colour and content of that last panel in the "pike" folder, for example). Besides, I simply don't have that many people I could send the things to...

1. Actually, I have come up with a damned cunning method of manufacturing top-quality covers for booklets, which I won't reveal yet. It's genius! Although, like my "packaging" idea, no doubt everyone with an ounce of imagination is doing it, too...

Tuesday, 9 November 2021

Supernova Snap

It won't have escaped your attention that Sir Paul has a book out. It's a bit pricey, even for a moderately well-heeled book addict like me, and a bit on the big side, even for a double album, but it's bound to be a monster hit, perhaps even a Christmas Number One. But what really grabbed my attention was the photograph on the cover of the first volume. I think that is one of the most evocative photographs I have ever seen. I think I'd pay the £50 for a decent print of it, never mind the lyrical ruminations inside.

Why? For a start, I love the way it captures the entire context of McCartney's youth. Anyone brought up in Britain in the 1940s and 50s will recognise all the markers: the net curtain, the modest back garden, the pegged washing hung on the clothes-line with its prop, the oak paling fence, the neighbour's greenhouse and runner beans, the deckchair... I also love the way the photographer has focussed on "our kid" Paul, taking the picture covertly from inside the house and has – presumably due to the angle of view imposed by a fixed lens – artfully framed him off-centre among what otherwise might have been seen as the annoying and distracting clutter of domestic shapes and tones. I imagine a certain amount of cropping has been done for the book cover – perhaps the original is "landscape" oriented? – but it's still wonderful.

Above all, of course, it is endowed with the retrospective magic that this is a family snap of the McCartneys' boy Paul (smart lad, that one, but head in the clouds) before he was Paul freakin' McCartney. It's an image of McCartney tentatively becoming McCartney, poised at a time when he might equally well have come to his senses, put the guitar to one side, qualified as a teacher, and spent his life as "Mr. McCartney", the fondly remembered and much fancied English teacher at a Liverpool secondary modern. Which is the story of the thousands of us who picked up a guitar in our teens, but settled for Real Life over fantasy, isn't it? This photo – like some image from the Hubble telescope – captures the moment before an ordinary star, one among zillions, went supernova.

It's so evocative, it's almost as if a photographer had been sent back in time to sneak a picture of Paul's origin story, it is so packed with apparent foreknowledge of "what happened next". But that is the result of the intersection of several kinds of sorcery. First, there is the magic of photography itself: this is not a sketch, or a memory, or a re-enactment, but an actual recording of the actual light reflected from that actual scene during a split second of one sunny day in the 1950s. Miraculous!

Second, it is also clearly – despite any sophisticated theoretical misgivings about knowing the "intentions" behind a photograph – a deliberate act of familial affection: there is nothing accidental or indifferent behind the making of this picture. It was not composed in the way one might include some random kid with a guitar in a "street" photograph; everything about it says, "I love this boy, and I want to record him doing this thing that he loves to do".

Third, of course, there is the vivifying magic we ourselves bring to the image, knowing what we know about this boy's future, and what he will bring to the lives of millions. However, I think it would still be a great photo even if it wasn't Paul McCartney sitting there, strumming what looks to me like a C chord (I, too, am – was – a left-handed guitar player), as it's a perfect image of one version of the world as it was emerging in Britain in those pre-Beatles years.

When I was a small boy in the late 1950s and we were still living in a house with a back garden, we had a next-door neighbour whose teenage son was learning the guitar; I've forgotten his name, so let's call him Paul. Paul would sit out in the back garden just like that, strumming the chords he'd learned from (almost certainly) Bert Weedon's Play in a Day. It seems that in every street in every town, in those crucial few years post-skiffle but pre-Beatles, some youngster was bent over a cheap guitar, oblivious to the sound of the washing flapping in the breeze, or the groans of the neighbours. A ground-level, home-made, revolutionary musical brew was fermenting.

Although for every Jimmy Page or Eric Clapton there are a hundred fondly remembered and much fancied teachers at secondary moderns, grammars, and eventually comprehensives around the country, now mostly retired, who used to play a bit. Some may still keep the flame alive at weekend semi-pro gigs, but most will have come to their senses long ago, even if they do still occasionally reach for the guitar and travel back in their innermost soul to a place and time that matches in almost every respect the space in that wonderful photograph.

By the way, if you fancy a taster of the book's content, the BBC Sounds podcast "Inside the Songs" is worth a listen. I mean, who'd ever have guessed that "Got To Get You Into My Life" from Revolver is McCartney's "ode to pot"? Or that, in his telling, it was Lennon, not McCartney, who broke up the band? Fascinating stuff, but ancient history now, and I'd still rather have a print of the photo. Maybe I should drop Sir Paul a fan-mail and ask for a signed copy. I expect he'd be grateful; he surely can't be getting that many now, can he?

Thursday, 4 November 2021

Extreme Locations & Iconic Conditions

Red Kite over Llandrindod Wells old parish church

You may recall that back in 2016 I contributed some articles to a British online magazine concerned with landscape photography, On Landscape. These were essentially revised versions of some blog posts, most notably this one, Bye, Bye, Landscape Photography, Dear, in which I set out certain misgivings about the whole enterprise of landscape photography. If you've not read it before, I recommend it: I think it's one of my better pieces, and it sets the scene for what I am about to write.

Early in 2021, On Landscape announced its participation in a new photographic competition, to be called The Natural Landscape Photography Awards. Tim Parkin, who is, together with his wife Charlotte, the motivating editorial force behind On Landscape, explained the thinking behind the launch of yet another photography competition in this editorial in which the key idea seemed to be to reward unmanipulated and unsensational photographs of the real landscape, but which also contained these laudable reflections on the judging process:

We have also given considerable thought to the process of judging itself, which can be prone to various problems. It is inevitable that when zipping through so many images, a ‘WOW!’ photo with vibrant colours or a photo from an unusual angle will stand out. This is why so many photographs from iconic locations in extreme conditions, unusual aerial perspectives, astro images, and inventive composites do disproportionately well in competitions. We hope to eliminate these judging problems by doing the following:

  • Creating separate categories for astrophotography and aerial images, subjects which often catch judges eyes and possibly distract from other genres.
  • Creating a separate category for intimate landscapes - a genre that is often overlooked when seen against a stream of epic views.
  • Preparing and briefing judges on what to expect and developing a process to help selection.
  • Having a scoring system that guides the judges into assessing composition, light and subject and not just the instant visual impact of an image.
  • Letting judges promote their favourite selections in an open discussion in the final rounds.

We believe that all these steps will help give each image a strong chance, whether it be a spectacular aurora over a glacier or a softly lit willow tree.

I was impressed, but was also bothered by the word "natural", so I took the trouble to enquire further. I asked, "I'm assuming anything remotely urban or suburban ('edgelands', etc.) is excluded? But how about agricultural landscapes (which is what most of the UK is)? I'm a little concerned that this is going to be just another 'spectacular wilderness' competition..." To which the reassuring reply was: We've been having some extensive talks about this and we want to include pretty much anything that people consider landscape apart from urban/architecture etc.. We'll come up with a bunch of guidance around it but I think in most cases it will match most of what our judges consider to be landscape so we're not going ultra wild, back country Yukon only!!"

Which sounded good to me, so against my usual instincts with regard to competitions I decided to enter some photographs, not with any expectation of winning, but in the spirit of support for what seemed a worthwhile enterprise [1]. I looked forward to seeing some unusual and creative takes on what landscape photography could be like, if only its practitioners would stay away from those "iconic locations in extreme conditions" and dial down the colour saturation and the clichés from eleven. Personally, I would have considered a "no sunsets, no dawn mists" rule, too, but then I am an extremist.

So I have to say I was quite disappointed to see the eventual results, as declared this week. Take a look for yourself, they're here. Well... There are many lovely and striking pictures there, of course, but – to my eyes, at least – this is yet another array of calendar-ready eye-candy which would do equally well in any landscape photography competition, however defined, however judged. Indeed, as far as I can tell all of the 16 main winners and runners-up are actually professional landscape photographers, of whom nine are from the United States, all working in the wildernesses and national parks of the western states. OK, not the Yukon, but still... Of the rest, the only two Brits had submitted work made in the mountains of South Africa and Switzerland, which is also disappointing; perhaps our own landscape just isn't "natural" enough, after all. Oh, and fifteen of the sixteen are men, for what that's worth.

Now, I concede that I may have completely failed to understand the intentions underlying this competition, in which case everything I have to say is off the mark, but it seems to me that the excellent idea of attempting to counterbalance the "WOW!" photos must have wobbled somewhat, despite a very elaborate judging process [2]. That the winner of the Grand Landscape category had photographed Yosemite's El Capitan, no less – of all the iconic landscape locations on the face of the earth! – or that the Intimate & Abstract category was won by – nooo! – autumn-tinted aspens in the Sierra Nevada should, I think, have given the competition organisers some pause for thought. In fact, pretty much all the winning and commended pictures are nicely-turned variations on well-established "landscape" tropes made in precisely the sort of iconic locations and extreme conditions (extreme locations and iconic conditions?) I had imagined would be frowned upon. So I'd be surprised if, like me, you didn't get that strong feeling of déjà vu that always seems to accompany landscape competition results (in this case, ahemincluding the Photograph of the Year). Although, to be fair, not everybody regards ruddy sunsets, misty dawns, or frosty nights in remote and inhospitable spots where nobody lives as "extremities". Indeed, for the professional those are landscape photography, because those are what sell landscape photographs.

But as Tim Parkin (almost) put it in his original editorial, "how can a portrayal of a real scene compete with the deluge of extraordinary perfected moments?" Which is a good question. How on earth does anyone compete with, say, a picture of a double lightning strike on the Matterhorn at night (which happens to be the winner of the Nightscape category)? Answer: you can't, unless the judges can be persuaded to set WOW! aside, just this once, and let the modestly beautiful and subtly true have their moment instead.

For precisely that reason, the idea of a competition that would apply a judging handicap to the most attention-grabbing work in order for the quieter work to be seen – as in really seen – seemed very interesting to me, although a lot depends on your definition of and affection for WOW! work, of course [3]. I'm sure everyone involved in the Natural Landscape Photography Awards would argue that they worked very hard to do their absolute best to see justice done, and that they are satisfied with the outcome and the integrity of the process, and I'm sure that's all true. But: although I can never quite put my finger on what it is that I find indigestible about so many "stunning" photographs like these, I think it has something to do with the desire and pursuit of the exquisite. They remind me not so much of any landscape I have ever walked through as they do the images of carefully made-up and styled models in a fashion magazine, or product shots for luxury goods like watches and jewellery. Whatever anyone may argue to the contrary, too many of these photographs don't feel like entirely honest portrayals of real landscapes.

In the end, the very concept of a "winner" in image-making of any kind is not just flawed, it is a category error: photo-competition winners have not won, in the objective sense that a horse or athlete wins a race by running faster and crossing the finishing line first, but have been pulled from a crowd of contenders by the judges in a series of acts of informed subjectivity (a.k.a. "prejudice", a.k.a. "taste"), with a stiffening of backbone supplied by the eternal "camera club" criteria by which all such beauty parades have been and probably always will be judged [4]. If you must have a photo-competition, there is no other way. How else would you decide, let's say, between two excellent photos of mountain peaks struck by lightning at night, in the admittedly unlikely event you were confronted by that choice? Somehow, one has to be found to be more compellingly "perfect" than the other, and, as the judges at Crufts Dog Show know, perfection has rules.

Inevitably, however, I predict that in whatever competitions happen to come along in the near future the judges may well find that there will be several highly-accomplished photographs of mountain peaks struck by lightning at night to choose between; or, far more likely, dozens of photos of mini-landscapes composed out of the elements lying at one's feet. Suddenly everybody's doing it! Why? Because an unfortunate side-effect of all competitions is that the virtues perceived and admired by the judges in their chosen winners tend to be noted and imitated by the thousands of aspirants seeking the validation of a competition win, or in pursuit of more social media "likes". Hey, look, I can do that, too!

In this way, this year's novelty quickly becomes next year's tired cliché. Photography in general, and landscape photography in particular, is very susceptible to inundation by such "me too" imitations of and twists on previous work, whether inspired by competition winners or simple copycattery, and this inevitably puts a squeeze on subtlety, originality, and indeed honesty. Why is this? Well, if you did read my post Bye, Bye, Landscape Photography, Dear, you may have agreed with me that

Landscape photography, despite the way it attracts the word "romantic" to itself, is classical at heart, in the sense that it is largely about the imitation of established models and masters, and thus has a tendency to produce "school of" works. Like 19th century academic painting, it is polished, highly-wrought, rather rule-bound, and with a strong tendency to idealize.

That's a large part it. Plus an inclination, not exclusively male, to substitute enhanced technical perfection for those unjudgeable, elusive, but essential qualities, emotion and "soul". Nonetheless, I hope you can also agree with me that these are tendencies that can still be successfully resisted, ignored, avoided, or worked around. There's plenty of great landscape work out there that does just that; in fact, there are some I like very much among the quieter "commended" entries in the Natural Landscape Photography Awards. But, please, don't listen to me, if winning prizes is what you really want. Stick with WOW!

Looking west from Bryn y Maen, Powys

1. Only the very naive resent paying a fee to enter pictures into a competition or open exhibition call. How else do they think these things get funded?
2. Described here. I must say, it is slightly crushing (a) not to have made it past the pre-judgement rounds, and (b) to be made aware of this, definitively! Award certificate? What award certificate?? A certain lack of empathy is being shown towards us abject losers here, I can't help but feel ;)
3. Very interesting, that is, as I had interpreted it. If all that was really meant was "Down with dishonest digital manipulation!" then that seems to me a "straw man" not worth attacking, given that many competitions routinely exclude such work in the rules of entry. I can't imagine which respectable national or international landscape photography competitions the organisers of NLPA had in mind. Any suggestions?
4. See Tim Parkin's bullet point No. 4: "Having a scoring system that guides the judges into assessing composition, light and subject and not just the instant visual impact of an image".

Monday, 1 November 2021

A Wide Game

If you still hold, however tentatively, to the rather old-fashioned belief that a print is the necessary final product of the photographic process, and if, like me, you do most of your printing at home on an inkjet printer, you'll probably share my interest in the varieties of paper available: the surfaces, the weights, the sizes, and so on. Since investing in an Epson A3+ printer last year (the P400, see Now Available in Orange) I've played it safe as far as the ink is concerned and use Epson inks exclusively, but I'm open to experiment where papers are concerned. If I discover that, say, Ilford make a paper in the Japanese "washi torinoko" style, as I did recently, then I'll order a pack in a small size just to see what it can do, especially if it comes in a useful box or, if they really know how to get my attention, in a cute tin.

The trouble with most papers competing for attention at the top end of the market is that they are far too expensive for day-to-day use, which makes it difficult, if not impossible to really get to know their properties. They are also often far too thick for the delicate digestive system of a desktop printer, and will eventually give it unfortunate dyspeptic symptoms. Besides, a paper that costs several pounds for a single sheet and is approaching the texture and thickness of a beermat strikes me as a complete waste of money, if its intended destiny is to be mounted and framed behind glass on someone's wall. So my preference has long been for Epson's own Archival Matte and Premium Semigloss papers, which are a good compromise of weight, surface, and price: a sheet of A3 Archival Matte costs about 60p and at just 189 g/m² is robust enough without feeling that it needs to be sawn up rather than cut with a knife.

Recently it occurred to me that an A3+ printer, intended to handle a maximum paper size of 32.9cm x 48.3cm (really a US size, 13" x 19") would be able to handle A2 paper, if I were to cut it down to size, width-wise, from 42cm to make a sheet 32.9cm x 59.4cm. That extra 11cm in length could make quite a difference, when printing long, narrow images. Indeed, Epson used to make a "panoramic" size, now discontinued, which was simply a sheet of A2 cut in half, length-wise, to 21cm x 59.4cm. Which then prompted the thought: why waste the offcut, when a sheet of A2 could be divided into two useful sheets, one 30cm x 59.4cm, and the other 12cm x 59.4cm?

But why would anyone want the latter size, I hear you ask? Well, because it's the perfect size for a small concertina-style booklet, with a spare stub left over at the end to glue it into a cover. As a result, I've been having a fun week, seeing what can and cannot be fitted into the available space. Who knows, maybe even a "special edition" of Christmas cards could be a possibility this year for a lucky few?