Saturday, 27 February 2021


It has often struck me, when visiting galleries and museums, that the frames that surround masterpieces of art are often oddly out of character with the work itself. A boldly modernist painting (for example, the painting above by André Derain, photographed in the Pompidou Centre, Paris) is as often as not encased in some elaborately moulded and gilded confection, like a set of spanners in a velvet-lined jewellery box. You can only speculate that the original owner had rather less appreciation of the nature of the work they had acquired than they realised, or perhaps that the gallery has made use of whatever frames of a suitable size it already had lying around, a legacy of previous centuries. Of course, an elaborate setting can make even a set of spanners look rather special, particularly if you intend to hang them on the wall. At the other extreme, you will also see important work that has been stuck into the sort of minimal, barewood frame you might lash up to hold chicken-wire in a guinea-pig run. And, somehow, this ostentatiously careless minimalism can be more intrusive than any amount of gilded foliage.

Framing matters. It is a very instructive experience to take work to a professional picture-framer, especially if you can find one sympathetic to a broad spectrum of picture-making. There is much subtlety of judgement and empathy required to find just the right combination of moulding and mount to optimize a picture in its intended context: it's easy to forget that the fate of nearly all "works of art" offered for sale is to become just one element in some stranger's interior decoration scheme. Photographers and photography galleries tend to duck this issue by standardising on the austere narrow dark wood moulding with plain white window mount, which makes perfect sense, as photos tend to be of standard sizes, and it's a uniform approach that saves on effort and expense. For example, I was immensely grateful to let the Fotoforum gallery in Innsbruck do all the framing for my exhibition there in 2014, using their stock of standard frames. Setting aside the near impossibility of getting eighty framed A3 photos from England to Austria – I couldn't even get ten plus luggage safely in the back of the car – the expense would have been way beyond my pocket. But colour pictures, whether paintings, prints, or photographs, almost always benefit from a careful choice of moulding and mount. Done well, it should enhance the picture without drawing undue attention to itself; done with a high degree of taste and bravura, the whole thing can become an object of permanent visual delight.

I had a lot of fun preparing the ornamental versions of the photos that went into the "illuminated selection" version of my Let's Get Lost book, some of which also ended up in this year's calendar. Much as I love photography in its purest forms, there's actually something even more fulfilling about creating graphical contexts for your own work. I imagine it's like furnishing a room or choosing an ensemble of clothes, although admittedly neither of those are activities I know much about (as anyone who knows me will attest: chaos and clutter follow me everywhere, like a pair of devoted but poorly house-trained wolfhounds). So, in pursuit of more lockdown distraction, I felt inclined to go further down this pleasantly decorative road.

I quickly became interested in the idea of actually embedding a frame into the picture itself, partly as a sort of "meta" gesture, partly to entertain myself – I hold to the outmoded belief that art-making is meant to be enjoyable, and at best is simple fun – and partly to make a more attractive object out of an already (in my view, at least) outstanding photograph. So I ransacked my backfiles for photographs I had taken in the many galleries and museums I have visited in recent years that included whole frames that could be extracted, emptied, straightened up, and recycled, the more ornate or unusual the better.

When I started out, the "meta" side was uppermost in my mind. I created several pictures where the whole image contained a framed version of itself, so that it became its own context, and highlighted the selectiveness of the "framing" of photography. Um, very witty, Mike. But quite quickly my ornamental impulse overpowered this dry, po-mo approach, and started splashing the digital paint around just for fun. At which point the project took off, and I found myself knocking out several new pictures a day. The total stands at around sixty at the moment. Some of which, if I say so myself, are indeed objects of visual delight.

Inevitably, the "side by side" pictures are getting mixed up in this "framed" project, and producing some of the most interesting results. My only problem now is that I'm running out of frames, and all the galleries are shut. I'll just have to invent my own... But no problem, it's all good fun, and way better than resorting to Netflix, biscuits, or uncorking a bottle at an unseemly hour.

Tuesday, 23 February 2021

It's Getting Lighter

Light L16 with protective rubber "bumper" attached

Reminder: I recently bought a used Light L16 camera (you can read about it in this previous post), mainly out of curiosity about the potential of computational photography. Yes, I suppose I could simply have bought myself a better phone, one with state-of-the-art computational photographic features, but TBH I won't pay that kind of money for a phone and, besides, I'm quite happy with my antique iPhone 4s (it's a phone), and the L16 is far more interesting, photographically, even if you can't phone or text anyone with it (it's a camera). I like having my devices separate, just I like having the word "electricity" in the name of my electricity supplier, and the word "gas" in the name of my completely different gas supplier. Did I forget to mention that I turned 67 earlier in February? It's a boomer thing.

Despite rising daily a bit further out of the dark Solstice pit here in the north of the Northern Hemisphere, the combination of Covid lockdown and poor weather has meant that I haven't really been able to get out and test the quirks and capabilities of the L16. I have taken a few snaps on my daily walk around the neighbourhood, but the light has usually been so drab I wouldn't normally have bothered to take a camera out at all. So, instead, I set up a test scenario indoors, which amounted to nothing more than putting a tripod in front of the pinboard by our front door, and swapping various cameras onto it to test against the L16. The results have been interesting.

Now, it has to be said that although my arsenal of cameras is, by most people's standards, large, they're all quite dated models, all bought second-hand, and hardly the gold standard for comparative testing. Nonetheless, they're what I've got and use, so from a personal p-o-v the most realistic benchmarks. Here they are: 

Fuji X-20: 12 MP 2/3" sensor, fixed zoom at 35mm equivalent

Fuji X-70: 16 MP APS-C sensor, fixed 28mm-equivalent lens

Fuji X-T1: 16 MP APS-C sensor, 18-55 kit zoom at 35mm equivalent

Sony DSC-RX100 II: 20 MP 1" sensor, fixed zoom at 35mm equivalent

As an afterthought I delved in the back of the camera cupboard and also retrieved the Fuji X-100 (12 MP APS-C sensor, fixed 35mm-equivalent lens) and the Ricoh GR (16 MP APS-C sensor, fixed 28mm-equivalent lens) and added them to the comparison. I set all cameras to "auto" (which is what I normally do these days), placed each on the tripod, and took a "raw" shot or two from about 4 feet away from the pinboard, which is about 2' x 2' 6" in size and fits nicely into the 35mm-equivalent frame. The light falloff from the glass surround of the door on the right is fairly steep, giving an interesting range of light and shadow.

Pinboard scenario, photographed by Light L16
(This is a pretty accurate representation)

Having got my shots, I processed them minimally in PhotoNinja [1], simply to get a TIF file from the raw file, without any sharpening, noise reduction, colour adjustment, etc. With one exception, I got pretty much what I was expecting from the conventional cameras, unsurprisingly: I've used them enough to know what I'll get. The smaller sensors (X-20 and the Sony) were noisy, and the built-in zooms were fine in the centre but fell off in quality towards the edges. All the Fuji 16 MP APS-C sensors were pretty good, and further processing would have improved the result considerably. Ditto the 12 MP sensor in the X-100. The exception was the Ricoh. I'd more or less stopped using that camera, partly because one of the blades of the lens cover had stuck open, but mainly because it seemed to make a poor job of very bright areas out in the real world. However, it delivered an exceptional result under these circumstances: sharp, noise-free, with good colours and that hard-to-define quality of "modelling"; I resolved to give it a proper outing as soon as possible. It is, after all, easily the most pocketable camera I have.

Now, it has to be said that the Light "workflow" is cumbersome. I'm short of space on my desktop computer, so I installed the essential Lumen software on my laptop (which is actually a more powerful beast, anyway, and I was forewarned that Lumen requires a lot of processing power). The L16's image files have to be imported via USB cable onto the laptop using Lumen, as each individual image is (or, rather, will be) a composite of ten simultaneously-shot images from the L16's array of sixteen phone-type "camera" units. The Lumen software then does the heavy lifting of processing the ten individual shots into a single image file, which can then be tweaked in various ways (but forget about it – the Lumen UI is terrible) or simply exported as either a JPG or a "raw" DNG file. You can choose to export either file-type at three sizes: 8 MP, 13 MP, or "full size", which varies, typically 52 MP but which can go as high as 80 MP at the wide end and as low as 13 MP at the tele end. I then transfer these processed files onto my desktop via memory stick for further refining. As already noted below, I have to open them in Camera Raw rather than PhotoNinja, my usual preferred raw processor, which does have the minor workflow advantage of opening them straight into Photoshop Elements. Phew!

For comparison purposes I made six versions of the pinboard shot with the L16: three each at the equivalents of 35mm and 28mm: a full-sized rendering, a "native" 13 MP rendering, and a version downsized in Photoshop from full-size to 40cm x 30cm @ 300 ppi i.e. roughly 16 MP. I can't imagine wanting to make very many full-size images – they're between 180 and 250 MB in size, and space on my drives is becoming precious – so the latter smaller versions were of most practical interest. I've put a few extracts here for comparison, more or less at 1:1 size. I think you'll agree that, as one would expect, such differences as there are exist on a plane of significance meaningful only to photographers: the average viewer would see these as pretty much identical, and would need to be shown the "problematic" areas, and would probably also need to have it explained why they are considered to have fallen short of the highest standards. In the end, all modern cameras from reputable brands are "good enough", even ones as ancient, in digital years, as these.

Fuji X-20 (centre)

Fuji X-T1 (centre)

Light L16 @ 13 MB (centre)

Light L16 @ 52 MB (centre)

Ricoh GR (centre)

Sony RX-100 II (centre)

Fuji X-20 (corner)

Fuji X-T1 (corner)

Light L16 @ 13 MB (corner)

Light L16 @ 52 MB (corner)

Ricoh GR (corner)

Sony RX100 II (corner)

So, what do I make of the quality of the Light L16 images? I have to say I am impressed. As I think you can see above, the images are free of the usual lensy problems like distortion, softness at the edges, and colour fringing, and they are relatively noiseless, very sharp, accurate in colour – all of the others are way too "warm" – and have a really attractive 3-D character in their modelling; better, even, than the Ricoh. As you might expect of a collage of ten individual shots, the quality is remarkably even across the frame. However, there are inevitably quirks in what is a complex computational stitching process.

The main thing I have noticed is a tendency for there to be anomalous, isolated areas of unsharpness immediately adjacent to and in the same plane as perfectly sharp areas. I asked advice from an enthusiastic L16 user whose real-world results seemed pretty good and he suggested a number of things, of which this is the main takeaway: motion of either subject or camera seems to confuse the computation, which is something you'd certainly expect in a conventional stitched panorama, with several shots taken sequentially, but slightly surprising here. The obvious answer is to minimise motion of the camera itself, i.e. avoid low shutter speeds, use a support, and use the touch screen to focus and fire the shot, rather than the physical shutter button. It certainly does seem to make a difference. As does using "manual" mode, in which ISO and shutter speed can be adjusted on the touch screen (but not aperture, these being fixed f/2.0 aperture lenses).

There seems to be more to it than that, however, as I noticed oddly soft areas in my completely motionless test shots. This may be a baked-in problem with the algorithms: I notice, for example, that shadow areas adjacent to a bright area will often blur (see the area around the Bulldog clip in the L16 centre extracts). It's also possible I suppose, that my sample has one or more wonky imaging units, perhaps from rough treatment in the past: the alignment of sixteen small cameras is a miracle of precision engineering, after all, and cannot have much, if any, margin of error.

On balance, this is the sort of thing only a "pixel-peeping" enthusiast would spot at very close quarters, and the overall impression is one of high quality; if not "full-frame DSLR-beating", as rashly claimed in the pre-launch publicity, then certainly well up the standards I work to, and exceeding them in some respects. In the end, the L16 is a flawed implementation of a "proof of concept" camera; things could have been so different if they'd only dialled back the pre-release hype. It's such a shame they abandoned it, having already improved it a lot from the original release in response to user feedback. Fuji camera users are used to that firm's commitment to the Japanese idea of kaizen – continuous, iterative improvement, in Fuji's case supplied to users as cost-free firmware updates – and the idea of a wifi-linked, app-driven camera that continuously improves itself is what would have been so exciting about a dedicated computational camera. Even so, I'm looking forward to giving it a proper run-out when the weather and the lockdown conditions permit. For now it's a keeper.

In particular, and even though it's not something I'd want to do routinely, I'm attracted to the panoramic potential of those 80 MB files created when the L16 is used at its widest zoom, the equivalent of a 28mm lens. Sized at a print resolution of 300 ppi that delivers a good, undistorted file 88cm x 66cm, out of a pocketable thing the size of a large, fat smartphone. There must surely be plenty of scope for cropping something interesting out of that much acreage, I'd have thought. Which might even incline me to carry a tripod, which is, I concede, quite funny.

(original file 70cm x 26cm @ 300 ppi)

1. It turns out PhotoNinja can't process Light's DNG files. I asked Jim Christian (PN's developer) why, and he said "The current version of Photo Ninja only works with mosaiced Bayer variants of DNG" but is working on it for a future release. Adobe's Camera Raw has no such problem, fortunately.

Wednesday, 17 February 2021

The Song What I Wrote

Some of my friends and acquaintances are musicians (I'm not fussy), and I recently mentioned to a couple of them who had been good enough to share some of their recent recordings with me that I had written a few song lyrics myself over the years: might they be interested in putting a tune to them and making us both filthy rich? What could be easier?

However, when I looked into my notebooks, I realised that what I really should have said was that I have often had ideas for songs, written a verse or two, sometimes even three, more often just a catchy phrase or some rhymes, but had never actually sat down and done the whole job. That is, written a whole set of verses, with chorus, bridge, and all that fancy stuff: a complete, actual song. Or rather, the complete lyrics for a song. Which is really only half of a song, I suppose (but IMHO always the best bit).

So, inspired by Merle Hazard, I decided to sit right down on my porch with my banjo, a biro, and a bottle of Jim Beam and write myself a proper song. And danged if I didn't, and it goes like this, to the tune of, well, no tune as yet. Just make it up in your head. A-one, a-two, a-one-two-three-four...

The Bargain-Basement You

They say the truth is out there
Or is the truth within?
So if you're stuck,
Or out of luck,
Forgotten to begin
Here's a way that you can start
And truly get your due:
It's not too late
The bargain-basement You.

You started out so hopeful
So full of plans and schemes
The passing years
Too many beers
Have scuppered all your dreams
But we have got a cut-price deal
We're offering to you:
Accept your fate
The bargain-basement You.

No frills, no flash, no fancy bits,
This lash-up just might do,
It does the job, it sorta fits,
It somehow muddles through,
It's on the fritz, but never quits,
It's cheap 'n' cheerful, too,
Let's hear it for our hero: it's
The bargain-basement You.

It never has been easy, what is and isn't true,
Religious nuts can't crack this one
Though talking trash is lots of fun
Philosophers have tried and failed
But carpenters have got it nailed
And you can nail it, too...

They say the truth will set you free
So please let me be frank.
The wheel of fate
Has stuck of late,
Your calendar is blank.
Tomorrow may look second-hand
but could be new-to-you:
Don't hesitate
The bargain-basement You.

No frills, no flash, no fancy bits,
This lash-up just might do,
It does the job, it sorta fits,
It somehow muddles through,
It's on the fritz, but never quits,
It's cheap 'n' cheerful, too,
Let's hear it for our hero: it's
The bargain-basement You.

So don't be too down-hearted
If your life ain't all you thought
Cut down to size
It's no surprise
You ain't no astronaut.
But this week's special offer
Is a perfect fit for you:
And celebrate
The bargain-basement You.

So, finally, there we have it, or something very like it... I must admit I'm pleased with how that turned out. Only a dozen or so more to write, and I've got an album. Can't wait for the Grammys!

I should probably point out that one of those aforementioned friendly musicians has first dibs on this one, but if you're reading this, Emmylou, Merle, Jim-Bob, or whoever, have your people get in touch with my people and we can work something out. I'm hearing a "country meets Tom Lehrer over at Lonnie Donegan's place" sort of thing. And, listen, any song with those cheeky -uck, -ank, and -its rhymes in it just has to be a hit, innit?

Thursday, 11 February 2021

Two Cheers for Democracy

Not surprisingly, recent events (political, pandemical, political-pandemical, alchemical-conspiratorial, and whatever else you care to mention – it really has been one of those years, hasn't it?) have given rise to a lot of thinking out loud, soul-searching, and speculation about the rules by which we play the game of "society". For example, who determines what these rules are, on what basis, and how far is anyone obliged to follow them? In the mood for yet more baseless speculation? Read on.

Probably the most important set of rules, of course, is "the law". Most of us, I imagine, regard "the law" as a complex and essentially arcane game, truly understood by only a minority of nerdish professional devotees, but one which we can all play in an amateurish way according to our own innate sense of right and wrong, whilst accepting that penalties will be incurred if certain arbitrarily-drawn lines are crossed. For example, in the full knowledge that our conduct may be "illegal"– like, technically – who actually obeys the 70 mph speed limit on a British motorway? No-one. Of course, should a police car appear – or even a harmless Highway Maintenance vehicle, doing its convincing cop-car impression – everyone immediately slows down to 70 or, more likely, 68-ish (and is there anything more calculated to cause an accident than being followed by a patrol car, causing you to divide your attention between the rear-view mirror and the speedometer, rather than concentrating on the road ahead?). Look out, it's the law! As soon as it's gone, of course, everyone heaves a sigh of relief and puts the pedal to the metal once more.

This casual relationship with legality is why one of the great but necessary social unfairnesses has, since ancient times, been ignorantia juris non excusat i.e. that claiming ignorance of the law won't cut it in court. Sadly, if it turns out that just doing my thing is illegal, however harmless or necessary it seems to me, why then, Sir, nemo censetur ignorare legem [1], as the Roman rozzers used to say: we have to assume that you are aware of section 3, para 2 of the relevant legislation, as revised in 1973 and again in 1996 – unlikely as that is and preposterous as it may seem to you – or else where would we be? Lying on the ground riddled with bullets by some other scofflaw with a different set of priorities, that's where. Setting aside the fact that in many countries the scofflaw in question might be employed as a law enforcer, perhaps the very one who has just pulled you over in your car. Look out, it's the law!

Now, I have never studied political theory – I have never so much as opened a book on the subject – but it seems to me (and is doubtless a platitude in political-theoretical circles) that, paradoxically, egalitarian democracy is essentially a religious, and quite likely a Christian idea; or more properly, a Protestant, non-conformist, dissenting church idea, as filtered through the Enlightenment. That is, that no matter how unequal the distribution of attributes, talents and wealth may be in reality, at bottom everyone is born equal in the sight of God and, suitably educated, socialised, and house-trained, is in no need of any priests or police telling us what to do, thank you very much. Everyone? Yes, mate, everyone: even you, you tinfoil-hatted lunatic with your crazy conspiracy theories, and also you, madam, shoving poison-pen letters through your neighbours' letterboxes at night (yes, everyone knows it's you). This conviction – and it is surely more a matter of faith than demonstrable fact – reads directly across into the idea of a "democracy", where more or less everybody in, say, the UK – no matter how stupid, lazy, selfish, wrong-headed, ill-informed, or downright evil they may be (assuming, that is, they're neither a member of the House of Lords nor a serving prisoner, by no means mutually-exclusive categories) – has the right to register to cast their single vote. With the understanding that we all only have that right now after a couple of centuries of agitation by and on behalf of those formerly excluded from that right, generally motivated by this underlying conviction in a base-line equality.

But where do our ideas of "right and wrong", equality, and fairness come from? I don't recall any of that stuff ever being taught at school, and any childish wrong-doing was usually countered by an appeal to some pre-installed but clearly under-developed sense of justice or, in more urgent cases, a summary beating; never once a lecture on Human Rights. Virtually none of us in western, Christian-heritage societies now goes to church [2], so any vestige of belief in an all-seeing eye in the sky keeping a tally of our deeds and misdeeds, with thought-police stationed in every parish, has faded. You might as well say we are all equal in the sight of Bruce Springsteen. Religion? Job done! You can take down that rickety old scaffolding now, the democratic edifice is complete.

There's quite a difference, though, between, people doing the right thing (a) out of some putative instinct, (b) because it's generally agreed to be the right thing and anyway it's what the law requires, and (c) because to do otherwise is to risk eternal damnation. In previous centuries the latter scary bedtime story has surely had a useful damping effect on the excesses of the kind of idiot we've been seeing on the news so often recently, but nothing has really taken its place. In fact it is undeniably true that these same idiots are now the ones ranting about the size of Jesus's gun-rack. So it's not unimportant to ask about that middle way, the way of consensus: where and how do ideas of equality and of what is right and what is wrong – or possibly negotiable by bribe, blind eye, or benefit of clergy [3] – get "generally agreed" upon today, and by whom? AFAIK there is no approved course of study for Platonic philosopher-kings, where the form of the good gets taught (although some people, I'm sure, think PPE at Oxford is precisely that [4]). And what if I dislike or disagree with the consensus? Or if I'm a complete headcase, susceptible to any mad idea that blows my way? There does seem to be a dangerous quantity of untethered artillery rolling about on the deck lately; it must be somebody's job to tie it down or push it overboard, surely?

It will come as no surprise that I have no real answers here. I doubt whether anybody does; a lot seems to rest on that idea that concepts of equality and justice are somehow innate in the human brain, and that "people of goodwill" will always outvote the nutters. Well, hmm, lots of luck with that. So is the democratic house in danger of falling down, or the ship of state in danger of sinking? I had never previously thought so, but that is beginning to seem complacent: I have listened to enough fervently-believed mass lunacy recently – whether it be the conviction that Covid-19 is spread by 5G transmission masts, or that anti-Covid vaccinations can edit your DNA and probably insert microchips that will render you into an unwilling slave of Microsoft (no need: aren't we already?), never mind far-out stuff like Trump being the instrument of God's will in bringing about the End Times – that I am seriously wondering whether there is an urgent need to remove the right to vote from some people, or at the very least institute some sort of "qualified voter test". But who will decide the criteria and the standards to be met? From where I stand, there is only one sensible answer: Me.

Now, I am a man in whom a residual spiritual impulse – doubtless an alien microchip implanted in me as a child along with my measles inoculation – is in a constant wrestling match with a deep skepticism. As skepticism knows all the dirty tricks, it usually wins. However, the struggle doesn't strike me as pointless. G.K. Chesterton's words are truer today than ever: "When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything." Today, once you step outside the tightly-guarded compound of rationality, with positivist science secure in its innermost bunker, you are surrounded by the babble of crystal healers, aromatherapists, conspiracy-theorists, and a thousand other cynical snake-oil merchants trying to monetize credulity.

Artists – and I'm still hesitant to place myself in that company – almost by definition, are particularly susceptible to hocus pocus and mumbo jumbo (not to mention artsy-fartsy shilly-shallying, or topsy-turvy razzle-dazzle); if they're not buying it, then they're busy selling it. I was browsing through a collection of "inspirational" extracts from well-known artists, writers, and songwriters, and was struck by some common threads. There was much of the usual nonsense about following your dream, which is just annoying; more usefully there was a minority insisting on the value of actually getting down to hard labour, such as this from Chuck Close: "Inspiration is for amateurs – the rest of us just show up and get to work". But there was another thread, of which this is exemplary:
If you’re going to try, go all the way. Otherwise, don’t even start. This could mean losing girlfriends, wives, relatives and maybe even your mind. It could mean not eating for three or four days. It could mean freezing on a park bench. It could mean jail. It could mean derision. It could mean mockery — isolation. Isolation is the gift. All the others are a test of your endurance, of how much you really want to do it. And, you’ll do it, despite rejection and the worst odds. And it will be better than anything else you can imagine. If you’re going to try, go all the way. There is no other feeling like that. You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire. You will ride life straight to perfect laughter. It’s the only good fight there is.
Charles Bukowski, Factotum
Sounds great, doesn't it? It's the romance of the outsider, shot through with righteous self-justification and a strong undercurrent of messianic self-pity: "He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not." (Isaiah 53:3).  We've surely all been privileged to have such moments, alone with the gods in our ecstatic shining nights, lying in the gutter gazing up at the oddly wobbly stars. No? Well, if you haven't, you have my profound sympathy. But this is such pernicious bullshit as a creed: anyone seeking to lead a life led at that pitch of self-absorption who is not also blessed with considerable talent and/or a trust-fund is, as guys like Bukowski well know, likely to die alone, cold and hungry, a burned-out, rejected and resentful never-was. The flaming fire must cool, be transmuted into some more permanent medium, and end up as meaningful work: words on a page, paint on a canvas, whatever. Listen to Chuck Close, people. Those laughing gods won't write your book or paint your pictures for you, but it will amuse them to steal them from you, like rolling a drunk. Or it would, if they existed anywhere outside your own fevered imagination.

As with all such histrionic talk, religion and fringe politics included, under further, more intensely skeptical interrogation – fetch... the comfy chair, Cardinal Fang! – it generally emerges that we're actually talking figuratively here; you don't really need to lose your mind to write poetry, silly! Are you mad? And, what? You actually went and stormed the Capitol? That's not at all what I meant when I said, "let's storm the Capitol"! And, please, let's not get into the "72 virgins" thing. So, fine, it's all metaphors, but there's nothing metaphorical about dying alone, cold and hungry, a burned-out, rejected and resentful never-was, or going to jail for sedition or terrorist acts. Why even pretend to urge such craziness on gullible fools?

Faced with increasingly frequent outbreaks of extremity in public behaviour following the mass consumption of metaphors, sometimes nudging 11 on the Bukowski Scale, it seems the only antidote the political caste have on the shelf, apart from repressive policing measures, is the comparatively pallid vision of someone like E.M. Forster, a sort of English rice pudding to mollify the fiery Bukowskian habanero pepper, a C of E-style compromise to counter the radical ravings of street-corner Pentacostals:
I believe in aristocracy, though – if that is the right word, and if a democrat may use it. Not an aristocracy of power, based upon rank and influence, but an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate and the plucky. Its members are to be found in all nations and classes, and all through the ages, and there is a secret understanding between them when they meet. They represent the true human tradition, the one permanent victory of our queer race over cruelty and chaos. Thousands of them perish in obscurity, a few are great names. They are sensitive for others as well as themselves, they are considerate without being fussy, their pluck is not swankiness but the power to endure, and they can take a joke.
E.M. Forster, "What I Believe"
An aristocrat? Who, me? Jolly kind of you to say so, Eddie, old chap! If nothing else, I certainly do know how to take a joke; I've had lots of practice. I'm not so sure about the mob outside banging on the windows, though.

In 2021 it's hard not to laugh at Forster's faith in a plucky-but-sensitive freemasonry of goodwill (let's assume he could take a joke, too). But this is actually the essence of a certain brand of establishment thinking, which in its more active form is expressed by Edmund Burke's famous formulation: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing". But so much depends on your definitions of "good" and "evil", though, doesn't it? Not to mention "men". And the tragically comical thing is that this is exactly what the politicians and the movers and shakers thought was their bulwark against the crazy whims of the unwashed mob: government by an in-crowd aristocracy or chumocracy, lightly got up as democracy for the sake of appearances but actually noocracy, i.e. rule by the aforementioned, self-styled philosopher-kings, whose elevated conventional wisdom always seems to coincide handily with the interests of those whose spectacularly disproportionate inequality with the vast majority is never – and, it seems, must never be – in question. Which is exactly what the mob – not so unwashed these days [5]  – is so fucking angry about, isn't it? That old joke has worn thin.

I have always liked the venerable anarchist slogan: "Whoever you vote for, the government still gets in" (a.k.a. "Don't vote: it only encourages them"). It's hardly a program for action, though, and these days I do always vote, if only with a certain gloomy prescience, and recognise that, electorally, encouraging the like-minded to sulk in their tents is not a winning strategy; but the slogan still has a certain wake-up effect, like a Zen koan. For, as St. Paul very nearly put it, there is neither Labour nor Tory, there is neither Lib Dem nor SNP, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Parliament. But, by some mysterious alchemy, it seems the energy of popular discontent with the political status quo has largely swung over to the extreme right, and has even been hijacked and turned inside-out on social media, ending up with an array of truly alarming absurdities like "we are ruled by alien lizards and Satan-worshipping paedophiles". Wait, what? Are you kidding? Ah, these are those metaphors again, aren't they? But apparently not.
So Two Cheers for Democracy: one because it admits variety and two because it permits criticism. Two cheers are quite enough: there is no occasion to give three.
E.M. Forster, "What I Believe"
No occasion and no time, either, Eddie. Look out, here they come... This is getting serious. I know it's a 20 mph zone and the law is the law but I'm getting out of here, fast!

1. "Nobody is considered to be ignorant of the law".
2. Yes, yes, America is different... As so clearly demonstrated in recent times. But from here one gets the impression that most church-going Americans are mainly trying to hit Jesus up for a cash windfall to spend while waiting for The Rapture.
3. It used to be the case that you could avoid the death penalty by claiming to be a priest, proof of which was reciting the first verse of Psalm 51 in Latin, the so-called "neck verse". All together now: "Miserere mei, Deus..."
4. Not "personal protective equipment", but "Philosophy, Politics, and Economics". Notice BTW the absence of the so-called "Oxford comma" in the linked website.
5. Did you see the analysis of exactly who stormed the US Capitol? "Political scientists at the University of Chicago who studied the profiles of arrestees and published their conclusions in the Atlantic found that many were middle-class and middle-aged – with an average age of 40. Almost 90% of them had no known links with militant groups. Some 40% were business owners or with white-collar jobs, and they came from relatively lucrative backgrounds as 'CEOs, shop owners, doctors, lawyers, IT specialists, and accountants'" (Guardian, 6th Feb 2021).

Thursday, 4 February 2021

Side By Side By Somewhere

Penybont Common under fog

Moon over St. Catherine's Hill

I have a long-standing interest in presenting my photographs in combinations – diptychs, triptychs, and even lotsaptychs – going right back to my first exhibited efforts in the 1990s. This was always a partly practical and partly aesthetic undertaking. Back then, digital images (whether scanned from film or originated in early digital cameras) were either very small or of such dubious quality that they could only be printed relatively small. But putting two or more such small images together in a frame seemed to produce a result that was nearly always more than the sum of its parts as an object of visual interest. My recently revisited book Pentagonal Pool is perhaps the best example of this approach. Obviously, the quality of digital imaging has improved so dramatically over the past couple of decades that there is no longer any practical necessity to do this, but the aesthetic effect retains its impact, I think.

As (yet another) lockdown project, I have been looking through my backfiles for adjacent images, taken either deliberately or fortuitously, that might be combined into a sort-of panorama. As I explained in an earlier post (Elevation), a "proper" panoramic image merged from several photos needs to take parallax issues into account, which would ideally involve the use of a tripod and a special "nodal slider". But the sort of casually-taken photos I was looking for can never really be joined together seamlessly, even though they can look just as good simply placed next to each other. In fact, as I also said in that earlier post, I may even prefer this, and it somehow seems more honest, too. I did manage to find quite a few that combined successfully in this way, mainly as classic landscape panoramas, but in the process of searching for them I became even more interested in the non-landscape pairings that were lying waiting to be noticed in the backfiles. In particular, I was drawn to the many shots I have made over the years of 2-D surfaces like walls, hoardings, and windows.

When I say "many", I mean many. I really like flat surfaces, especially those where weather, wear and tear, graffiti, vandalism, and other mark-making human activities have transformed something as essentially bland as a painted hoarding into a multi-layered site of visual stimulation; to use the modish term, they become a palimpsest of interventions. So, when I see a good one, I photograph it, and, like anyone who photographs in public spaces, I had to learn long ago how to ignore or repel the comments and approaches of passers-by (although I did run into a spot of bother with the Metropolitan Police when snapping near Downing Street a couple of years ago during a top level terror alert; my bad, as the young people say). Most people are genuinely baffled by the sight of someone photographing what is so obviously nothing.

But it's the nothing that is now something because it has been photographed and, more to the point as far as I am concerned, photographed by me. I'm not attracted to these places because of what they are, but because of what and who I am, and how they speak to whatever it is that constitutes "me". I imagine I'm not the only artist-photographer to whom well-meaning friends send their own photos of his characteristic subject matter, misunderstanding the difference between a photograph of something and a picture made from something, especially when the "something" itself is of little or no intrinsic interest. I don't mind: it's nice to have friends who can be bothered! What does really annoy me, however, is when self-appointed commentators, confronted with the sort of abstract "street" photography that lacks any obvious human interest – of which there is a solid tradition, from Paul Strand and Harry Callahan onwards – reach for the condescending formula that, in summary, goes: "this work helps to open our eyes to the little things we fail to notice in our everyday lives".

Frankly, I could not care less whether some art-world spectator notices stuff or not: I am not a therapist for myopic critics who can only see what is in front of them when it has been pointed out by someone else. Besides, the chances are that their head is so far up their own arse that they still won't see what is really there, even when it is framed, on a wall right in front of them, labelled and price tagged, either. Because it is not the thing that reflected the light into the camera when the moment of magic happened, and has undergone many further Tempest-uous sea-changes since into something rich and strange, and is now another tiny offering dropped into the mighty river of human seeing and making that began somewhere upstream of the caves of Lascaux and Altamira.