Friday 28 April 2023

Some Dorset Landscapes

From Colmer's Hill near Bridport

Here is a little gallery of some of the photographs I took while we were away in Dorset over Easter. Some were taken with my iPhone, and some with the Fuji X-T1. I think you'd be hard put to say which was which at this scale and resolution, and even as modestly-sized prints the differences are noticeable only to the most highly critical eye. Obviously, the main advantage, practically-speaking, of the Fuji is the ability to change aperture and focal length, in this case by using the excellent Fujinon 18-55mm f/2.8-4 "kit zoom", the best all-round lens I've ever had the pleasure of using.

On Hardown Hill, near Morcombelake

Lyme Bay during Storm Noa
(on the horizon you can see what the Cobb is for)

On Stonebarrow Hill, looking west towards Lyme Bay

On Stonebarrow Hill, looking East

On Pilsden Pen looking south
(highest hill in Dorset)

On Pilsden Pen looking east
(rampart and ditch of the hillfort in the foreground)

Seatown Beach

Lyme Regis during Storm Noa

Engraved window at Montacute House

This pane of glass in a window at Montacute is inscribed with some Latin verse, engraved in 1770 (and presumably also composed) by the then owner of the house, Edward Phelips, using a diamond-tipped stylus. It begins with the lines:
Felix cui mentis Vis & Divinior Ardor
Intima Naturae pandere sacra dedit
Qui potuit Causas Scrutari & foedera rerum
Qui Newtone tuis gressibus ire Comes
and has been translated as:
Happy is the man who has a sharp mind and a spiritual passion
To reveal the innermost secrets of Nature
Who can grasp the causes and relationships of things,
Who can walk in the footsteps of Newton.
Yet happy too is the man who cares for his fields,
And who knows the many riches of his garden;
Who has learned how to graft trees
So that each may thrive in its soil,
Who knows which grow best in the rich mud
And ooze of the bog, and which flourish on the stony ridges,
Which shun the biting cold of the north wind
And which come into leaf up among the snows of Scythia.
Do not scorn or despise this humble toil;
For it is the concern of the Great Creator himself.
Do not seek Him only amid the stars in the sky;
For it is in the small things of life that you may find God.

(Translation by Peter Hill)
This upmarket tagging of windows seems to have been a bit of an 18th century fad, but I must admit I would not have expected to see Newton invoked by a member of the landed gentry in this way. The reference to Scythia – not exactly a near neighbour to Dorset – leads me to suspect that this may be an adaptation of some classical pastoral poem, but I know very little about Latin poetry or its conventions, which are rather different from those of English poetry, and don't mean to start finding out now. A quick google draws a blank (nothing in the Georgics, for example).

It's an interesting reflection, though, that the ability to compose verse in Latin would have been an expected and unremarkable outcome of the education of the more intelligent male members of a relatively undistinguished landed family. Like most grammar-school pupils in the 1960s I studied Latin at school for five years, and passed my O-Level exam with the top grade, but for me simply to parse this little poem aided by a "crib" [1] is a tough enough challenge; actually to compose anything similar is way beyond my capacity. Even the simplest Latin inscription or motto can be baffling, as they tend to be truncated allusions to "famous" passages in classical literature or in scripture, and exploit the brevity of Latin's grammatical and poetical conventions which defy easy comprehension. It is always embarrassing to be put on the spot, when looking at the memorials in some church or stately home: "So, you know Latin, don't you? What does all that hocus-pocus mean?"

And yet Latin was once the lingua franca of the educated classes (although Greek seems always to have carried more prestige among actual classicists). It is easy to forget that Newton's major scientific works were written in Latin, not English, for example, or that English poets like John Milton once produced a parallel Latin-language body of work that is now inaccessible and unknown to most of us and yet was often well-regarded in its day. Ben Jonson's snootiness about Shakespeare's "small Latin, and less Greek" in his eulogy in the First Folio of 1623 is notorious (and possibly misunderstood), but the move towards the use of vernacular languages that could be understood by all literate folk was already unstoppably under way, exemplified in Britain by the various translations into English of the Bible, culminating in the "King James Version" of 1611. Today, the prestige of the ancient languages and their double function as a barrier and a bridge into the higher realms of education and knowledge has faded: I think most of us are far more impressed and mystified by fluency in mathematics, that peculiar and difficult language that, unlike poetry, actually seems to make things happen [2].

Churchyard at Symondsbury
(yes, the yellow plaque does read "Danger of Death"...)

1. A slightly suspect crib, too... Isn't "Newtone" the vocative case ("O Newton!"), for example, and  "tuis" = "yours"? I could easily be wrong, though. As that great translator from the classics Alexander Pope wrote: "A little learning is a dang'rous thing; / Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring" (An Essay on Criticism). Wait, Pierian Spring? WTF? Wikipedia to the rescue!

2. W.H. Auden, Part II of "In Memory of W.B. Yeats":
You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

Monday 24 April 2023

Shakespeare's Birthday 2023 Supplement

I was a bit too busy over the weekend to give Shakespeare's birthday the treatment it deserves. I suspect we've all had that feeling of regret at some time: that an important anniversary went by unmarked or insufficiently celebrated. So here's a new version, revised to 2023 specifications, of a previous birthday post dating from 2009, when this old blog was new, and it seems I was trying a bit harder to inform and entertain than I have been of late.

Fair Friend

We are meaning-making creatures. Constructing random marks into faces and unexpected nocturnal noises into malevolent intruders downstairs seems to be what we do as a species. It appears to have worked well for us, in evolutionary and survival terms, although those dark, windy nights in the Ice Age must have been a trial, hunkered around the flickering fire with the more nervous and suggestible members of the tribe. "No, really, listen, what was THAT??" Religion and art may well originally have been invented as harmless distractions for those hypersensitive souls, endlessly spooked by their own imaginings.

The urge to discover hidden anagrams, cryptograms, acrostics, and the like is surely at root a similar harmless distraction, but one that gets out of hand when such "discoveries" are presumed to hint at a deep, hidden meaning, lurking like a monster pike beneath the placid surface of language. Conspiracy hunters such as those who seek to prove that William Shakespeare – grammar-school boy, actor, and theatrical impresario of Stratford on Avon – did not write the plays attributed to him – the so-called anti-Stratfordians – seem particularly prone to this obsession. As an example you might want to read this thorough debunking of some typical wishful cryptographic thinking.

Of course, cryptograms have been concealed in texts from time to time, although with nothing like the frequency or import that conspiracy hunters would like to believe. The conviction that – somehow, by persons or forces unknown – secret codes have been implanted pretty much anywhere you care to look is fundamentally misguided, to put it mildly, but it would seem that, to those who are inclined to suspect some important truth has been concealed in plain sight, this is more compelling than the more prosaic ideas that random patterns throw up random meaningless meanings or that, more often than not, it is the truth that is staring you in the face, not some fancy cloaking device. 

Discovering anagrams can be fun, of course. I like these two, for example:

Year two thousand = A year to shut down
Eleven plus two = Twelve plus one

They're both very neat, but it's clear they mean nothing in themselves: there is no hidden code, no secret agenda. They are as accidental as a run of six sixes in a dice game. But then what about this one?

"To be or not to be: that is the question, whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune ..."

Familiar words. But – improbably, unbelievably, outrageously – they are an anagram of:

"In one of the Bard's best-thought-of tragedies, our insistent hero Hamlet queries on two fronts about how life turns rotten ..." [1]

You might think this has to mean something, surely? But it doesn't. Other than the fact that (a) whoever worked it out had far too much time on their hands, and (b) these two sentences indisputably contain the same letters; that's it. As someone reflects in Thomas Pynchon's V: "Life's single lesson: that there is more accident to it than a man can ever admit to in a lifetime and stay sane". If nothing else, this elaborate but utterly meaningless meaningful coincidence – lying in wait for 500 years – should persuade us not to let the hunters for hidden signatures and cryptograms convince us that anyone but the Stratford Man wrote the plays. William Shakespeare was William Shakespeare. That's surely mystery enough for anyone.

However. Yesterday was my man Shakespeare's official birthday, so I thought I might share with any other Shakespeare enthusiasts out there my favourite piece of fun-sized, birthday-related, extra-curricular Shakespeariana, which you may not have come across before.

Shakespeare's Psalm

It has been suggested – utterly without supporting evidence, and unlikely as it seems – that Shakespeare might have lent a hand with the wording and meter of the Book of Psalms in the King James Version of the Bible. Well, OK, an awful lot hangs on that "might". But, just suppose that in 1610, when the Bible was within a year of publication, the members of the committee of translators had reason to thank and surprise him on his birthday. He would have been forty-six years old that year, so let's just pretend he was invited to examine the final text of, shall we say, Psalm 46?

So, take a deep breath, and imagine further that he was prompted to count to the forty-sixth word from the beginning, and to the forty-sixth word from the end (ignoring the title and the "selahs" – words signifying pauses or rests). Get a King James Bible, and count them for yourself, and you'll find in line three the word "shake" and in line nine the word "spear." Moreover, in the way of these numerological things, if you then add the 4 and 6 of forty six, you get 10. The tenth word of the tenth line is "will". Curious, no?

It is all nothing more than a complete coincidence, I'm sure. But that would have been quite an ingenious birthday present, even – or maybe especially – if unintended. Of course, it's not impossible that – if Shakespeare had any role in the polishing up of the Psalms (which, let me repeat, is not known and is highly unlikely) – it is a present Shakespeare might quietly have given to himself. These are often the best presents, after all. Yet another new quill is all very nice, thank you very much, but to create for yourself a personal secret hiding place in what would become one of the greatest bestsellers of all time would be rather satisfying, wouldn't it?

Here is one more intriguing fact (allegedly – I haven't had the opportunity to check for myself, and I'd be grateful for any eye-witness corroboration). Apparently, the KJV Bible on permanent display in Stratford church has been open at the pages containing Psalm 46 for as long as anyone can remember. Again, if true, it's probably nothing more than coincidence, or even the work of some conspiracy-minded or mischievous cleric. But a birthday should be the occasion for a little harmless fun, and it's nice, isn't it, to see the right name elegantly concealed in plain sight, rather than all those tedious de Veres, Bacons, and the rest?
To me, fair friend, you never can be old;
For as you were when first your eye I eyed,
Such seems your beauty still. Three winters cold
Have from the forests shook three summers' pride;
Three beauteous springs to yellow autumn turned
In process of the seasons have I seen,
Three April perfumes in three hot Junes burned,
Since first I saw you fresh, which yet are green.
Ah! yet doth beauty, like a dial-hand,
Steal from his figure and no pace perceived;
So your sweet hue, which methinks still doth stand,
Hath motion, and mine eye may be deceived.
   For fear of which, hear this, thou age unbred:
   Ere you were born was beauty's summer dead.
Sonnet 104

Ghosts at Montacute House

1. The author of this anagram has been identified as Cory Scott Calhoun.

Sunday 23 April 2023

Shakespeare's Birthday 2023

Mr. Bump at Sea Mills
How can my Muſe want ſubiect to inuent,
While thou doſt breath that poor'ſt into my verſe,
Thine owne ſweet argument, to excellent,
For euery vulgar paper to rehearſe:
Oh giue thy ſelfe the thankes if ought in me,
Worthy peruſal ſtand againſt thy ſight,
For who's ſo dumbe that cannot write to thee,
When thou thy ſelfe doſt giue inuention light?
Be thou the tenth Muſe, ten times more in worth
Then thoſe old nine which rimers inuocate,
And he that calls on thee, let him bring forth
Eternal numbers to out-liue long date.
   If my ſlight Muſe doe pleaſe theſe curious daies,
   The paine be mine, but thine ſhal be the praiſe.
Sonnet 38, transcribed from the 1609 Quarto, the first published edition of the Sonnets [1]

Very meta, Will, and back atcha: happy 459th birthday! You'd never believe quite how vulgar the papers have become, though, if I may twist your words a little... Or perhaps you would. You were never one to pass over any knob gag that, um, came to hand, were you?  And there's little doubt that these curious days have been getting curiouser and curiouser. But, as I'm sure you knew, the praise for your efforts is all yours, despite your slightly annoying self-deprecation and the efforts of those ridiculous anti-Stratfordians. After all, we can't even agree, now, for whom you were writing these sonnets, although we're a lot more comfortable with their, ah, queerness.

a favourite cartoon © the inimitable Stephen Collins

1. Here's a modern-day edited version for the typographically-challenged:
How can my muse want subject to invent
While thou dost breathe, that pour'st into my verse
Thine own sweet argument, too excellent
For every vulgar paper to rehearse?
O, give thy self the thanks, if aught in me
Worthy perusal stand against thy sight;
For who's so dumb that cannot write to thee,
When thou thy self dost give invention light?
Be thou the tenth muse, ten times more in worth
Than those old nine which rhymers invocate,
And he that calls on thee, let him bring forth
Eternal numbers to outlive long date.
   If my slight muse do please these curious days,
   The pain be mine, but thine shall be the praise.

Wednesday 19 April 2023

Easter Break

Pretty much every year for the past forty years we have visited mid-Wales at Easter. However, this year – just for a change, and perhaps to prove that we are not entirely slaves to habit – we decided instead to go to Dorset, staying in the village of Morcombelake, which lies a mile or so inland from the coast between Bridport and Charmouth. Although I have to admit that we did stay in the very same cottage we have hired at Christmas for the past few years; well, there's no sense in going completely crazy, is there?

As I'm sure everyone realises, Easter is a so-called "moveable feast" calculated using a lunisolar calendar (in order to maintain the biblical link of the Crucifixion to Passover), so it can fall anywhere between the Spring Equinox and April 25th. Which is a spread of five weeks that encompass one of the more volatile times of year in the maritime climates of the North Atlantic, weather-wise. It can be a wild ride, with snow at one end of the week and hot sun at the other. As it happened, this year we experienced that springtime classic "sunshine and showers", but emphatically punctuated mid-week by the gale-force winds and torrential rain of Storm Noa as it blasted through the South West of England.

This mix of weather at Easter can make for good photography, of course. I have become a little over-reliant on the convenience the iPhone lately, and made a conscious decision to carry a "proper" camera this year. Although it's true that, in wet and windy weather down by a lively sea, to be able to pull a phone out of your pocket, grab a shot, and slip it quickly back in before getting it too wet or covered in salt spray is convenient, to say the least. So, there will be landscape photos to show, once I've begun processing them, but I thought I'd share something else first.

One of the main attractions of the Dorset coast is its geology. Exposed along a hundred-mile length of coastline is a continuous sequence of Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous rocks, some of which are highly "fossiliferous", not least the constantly-eroding cliffs of Lyme Regis and Charmouth, which can still yield the spectacular plesiosaur and ichthyosaur remains made famous by Mary Anning in the 19th century. The entire length was made a World Heritage Site in 2001, and given the rather opportunistic name of the Jurassic Coast [1]. If, like me, you were something of a natural history enthusiast in your youth, given to rummaging through nature's ancient leftovers in search of treasure, then fossil hunting along the beaches of Dorset is a quick route into The Zone, that pleasant mental state of singular concentration also known as a "flow state", where all troublesome and distracting thoughts and worries melt into the background, and the most important thing, if only for a brief hour or two, can become the square yard of gravelly sand and grey rock in front of your eyes.

The beach at such places is in a constant state of flux. On my first visit to Lyme Regis in the 1980s the "ammonite pavement" at Monmouth Cliff was fully visible, along with a rubble of boulders containing large embedded specimens a foot or more in diameter. Somewhere I've got some contact sheets of the photographs I took back then with my first SLR, an Olympus OM-1N. Currently, though, storms have piled sand and gravel over the exposure, and the boulders have either been buried or washed out to sea. In fact, Lyme in recent times has not been a great place for fossil hunting.

However, foraging along the more promising beach at Seatown, I was intrigued by the harder layer underlying the cliff exposure known as the Belemnite Marl, which seemed to be more visible than on our previous visit at Christmas. This rock is packed with the internal skeletons of an extinct form of squid which resemble bullets or six-inch nails, rather like the cuttlefish "bones" that wash up on the beach today. Belemnite fossils are very common on Dorset beaches, but mainly found as sea-worn and broken pieces. Seen whole and in situ, they are much more attractive, but best left where they are. Naturally, I photographed them, along with the rivulets of mudflow trickling out from the cliff, and all the other shapes and patterns that attract the eye on a wet rocky beach.

It was only later, when looking more closely at these belemnite photographs, that I noticed the presence of another kind of fossil: the rock was full of tiny five-pointed stars, making the belemnites look like a child's drawing of a fleet of rocket-ships against a starry sky. These stars are segments of the stem and arms of a crinoid, or "sea lily", a strange creature from that bizarre group of survivors known as the echinoderms, which includes starfish, sea urchins, and sea cucumbers, most of which share a unique five-fold (pentaradial) symmetry. Like belemnites, crinoid fossils are common on the beach, but mainly found as broken segments like these, usually still joined together like short lengths of a broken bead necklace. 

However, of all the small finds, ammonites are always the prize: there's something very satisfying about their knobbly "ram's horn" spiral, especially when they have been preserved in iron pyrites (a.k.a. "fool's gold") as they often are when found on the beach, washed out of the Jurassic clays. Even when they're as tiny as this one:

1. The film Jurassic Park was released in 1993, and enthralled an entire generation of dinosaur-mad kids, my own son included.

Monday 10 April 2023

Got To Get Ourselves Back To The Garden

Periodically, I remember the massive hoard of photographs, several thousand of them, that I accumulated exploring the abandoned botanical garden on the Southampton University Highfield campus during my lunch breaks, and each time I remember I decide that, this time, I must do something with them. These pictures date from the very beginning of my transition from film to digital cameras in 2000 to my retirement in 2014, and range in size from relatively tiny 1.3 MP files (from my first digital camera, a Fujifilm FinePix 1300) to more substantial 16 MP files (a Panasonic G3). The past few weeks have seen yet another of these rounds of rediscovery, and I have once again resolved to extract the best of the best and do something with them. This time it's serious though; no, really. So here is a little text I cobbled together from various old blog posts to accompany them in any prospective book form:

The Expulsion from Eden

We were created to live in Paradise, and Paradise was designed to serve us. Our purpose has been changed: we are not told whether the same has also happened to the purpose of Paradise.
Franz Kafka, Zürau Aphorisms, no. 84
I have had a long, losing struggle with the tidy-minded and the fixer-uppers. From 1984 to 2014 I worked in Southampton University Library, and the campus that I knew between the 1980s and the early 2000s was a rich mosaic of neglected corners. Of these the richest was the Valley Garden, a couple of acres of abandoned orchards, overgrown terraced beds (originally planted to demonstrate taxonomy to botany students), and wonderfully dilapidated glasshouses, with at its heart a secret pond where great knots of frogs gathered every February for a breeding frenzy. I loved exploring this Edenic post-human spot at lunchtime, with its little stream that flooded regularly after heavy rain, turning the valley bottom into a marsh. When my children were at the university day nursery I would take them exploring here, too, and we would gather apples from the orchard and check on the progress of the frogspawn in the pond.

Most of the year, especially in winter, I had the place to myself. After a long morning enduring the boredom of meetings, I could escape into my private hortus conclusus, and document the regular small changes that would excite my eye, at first with film, then digitally: broken panes of glass scribbled over by snails, abandoned botanical experiments, the astonishing table-sized leaves of Gunnera manicata (the giant Brazilian rhubarb) that grow by the stream, the tell-tale traces left by invasive nocturnal thrill-seekers... Every day was a fresh page.

Eventually, however, someone in the university administration noticed this "wasted" space, and decided to re-develop it into a hazard-free leisure resource for staff and students. The Gates of Eden were chained shut and, lamenting, I was expelled into the world. For a time, as a substitute I took to photographing the allotments that occupied another corner, squeezed between the ever-expanding campus and the real world. Frustratingly, though, I could never enter this alternative Eden, but only gaze down into it over the fence each morning as I parked my car. Then the university noticed and bought those allotments, too, in anticipation of some new enterprise, probably a car park, and ejected the vegetable growers with their wonderful season-by-season improvisations constructed out of cast-offs, polythene sheet, and barrier netting.

In the intervening years, I somehow kept forgetting about the garden images, as I concentrated on newer, more purposeful photographic and digital-imaging projects. Recently, though, I revisited them – several thousand digital images taken between 2000 and 2014, ranging in size from 1.3 MP to 16 MP – and it was like finding the key to a locked drawer and seeing within, almost as if for the first time, some wonderful things. In fact, in there is some of the best work I have ever done, freed for the first time from the constraints of the medium-format film cameras I has been using, whether the mere twelve or fifteen shots per roll of film, the technical limitations of those bulky cameras, or the expense and effort of having the film developed and printed every week. I think something of this spirit of liberation found its way into the pictures I was making then, not unlike the feeling of lack of constraint that has accompanied my recent move towards iPhone photography.

Thursday 6 April 2023

Interrogation Interrogated

Certain truths are so self-evidently true that – to the enquiring mind, at least – they can seem suspicious, as if there might be a more profound, secret truth hidden behind them. And, to an extent, rightly so: what is more self-evident, for example, than the fact that the sun travels around the earth, appearing at a predictable point along the eastern horizon, only to disappear beneath the equivalent point on the western horizon? The discovery that this observable fact is not quite what it seems does little to detract from its deceptively self-evident quality: it takes a certain strength of mind (and perhaps a little know-it-all perversity) to watch a sunset and see the earth revolving, rather than the sun descending. This disturbing wobble between what we see, what we believe, and what we have discovered to be the case opens an anxious space for doubt which is, we have to presume, a uniquely human experience.

In a way, the whole programme of "critique" and French philosophising is based on working this wobble. Nothing feels more clever than a counter-intuitive truth, and to the intellectual mind nothing feels better than feeling cleverer than everybody else. But such counter-intuitive truths are rare, and thinkers in the last century or two have had to strive ever more desperately for a repeat of that first exhilarating Copernican rush. In the case of Foucault, Derrida, & Cie., the counter-critique must surely be that they have merely discovered a way to generate the sensation of a paradoxical truthiness out of nothing and nowhere, and for no purpose other than the self-gratification it can afford. Why else bend such a useful tool as language itself until it breaks, revealing that – gasp! – it is just, like, some random noises we make, and is not and never can be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me Kant?

Something similar happened to painting. After several centuries of refinement of representational techniques, aided by technological improvements in painting materials, it seemed suddenly to dawn on certain practitioners (who – coincidentally? – were largely French and had begun to consider themselves artists by calling, rather than artisans) that, wait, this is just paint! We're just making marks on a flat surface with paint! A fairly banal revelation, you might have thought – the sort of thing that occurs to you in the dizzy depths of intoxication, but is quickly rejected the following morning – but one which went on to energise the art of the 20th century and, via various convolutions, probably reached its end-point of usefulness with a conceptual work like Michael Craig-Martin's An Oak Tree (1974): a glass of water on a glass shelf, installed on a gallery wall to certain precise specifications. Which is a very long way indeed from Impressionism, and a work which could equally well have been given the title, in a tip of the hat to René Magritte, "This is Not a Glass of Water". Well, yes, Sir Michael, I get it, but it is a glass of water, really, isn't it?

Which reminds me of a favourite anecdote about Picasso, which is the best non-theoretical insight into the Long Debate on "representation" I know of. Here it is:
"Just then my eye was caught by an unframed canvas standing on a shelf above Jacqueline's head and to the right. It was a portrait of a girl—Jacqueline, I would have said—in tones of green and black and white. She was shown in profile, looking off to the left, and Picasso had given the face a mildly geometrical stylization built up of triangular forms which emphasized the linear treatment but at the same time preserved the likeness. I pointed to the painting. 'How would you explain to a person whose training made him look on that as deformation, rather than formation, why you had done it that way?' I asked him.

'Let me tell you a story,' Picasso said. 'Right after the Liberation, lots of GIs came to my studio in Paris. I would show them my work, and some of them understood and admired more than others. Almost all of them, though, before they left, would show me pictures of their wives or girl friends. One day one of them who had made some kind of remark, as I showed him one of my paintings, about how 'It doesn't really look like that, though,' got to talking about his wife and he pulled out a tiny passport-size picture of her to show me. I said to him, 'But she's so tiny, your wife. I didn't realize from what you said that she was so small.' He looked at me very seriously. 'Oh, she's not really so small,' he said. 'It's just that this is a very small photograph. ' "
Picasso, interviewed in The Atlantic, July 1957
In the best version of the story, which is probably apocryphal as I've never managed to source it, Picasso then turns over the photo and exclaims, "My God! You poor man! She's also completely flat!"

Our beliefs – our true beliefs, I mean, not the sort of rote professions of faith that society demands of us – can be hard to identify, simply because they are the air we believe we breathe, and the solid ground on which we trust we walk. For example, it did occur to me recently that for my entire life I have held a profound but irrational belief in the idea of "tempting fate". Profound because it has directed so much of the way I have conducted my life; irrational because, well, it's a pretty insane idea, isn't it? However, recognising the irrationality of this belief is not going to stop me behaving as if it were true; that would be tempting fate.

Similarly, the idea that real art is obliged to question (or, in art-speak, "interrogate" or "challenge") our unexamined, complacent beliefs has itself become one of the unchallengeable core beliefs of contemporary art. No self-respecting contemporary artist is about to stop behaving as if this were true, even though it self-evidently isn't. That is, until some new mould-breaker gives everyone permission to drop the ridiculous pretence that art students are thinkers with greater insight into the nature of Life, the Universe, and Everything than "ordinary" people. I have no idea how and when this belief came about, but I'm pretty sure that all those artists we revere in the big public galleries did not have their fingers crossed behind their back as they delivered yet another crucifixion scene to the service door at the rear of the cathedral. Neither did Holbein, by drawing the Tudor aristocracy of England with such breathtaking realism, or John Constable, with his endless studies of clouds, intend to challenge anything more than the inability of previous painters to get things right. That  desire to get things right may in itself be quite subversive in an unfair world – the truth will set you free – but that is an idea from a rather different domain than art.

People of an artistic disposition, in my observation, tend to fall into two categories [1]. Consider the way red-headed, pale-skinned folk know, or are advised, how to dress (I recall many such conversations between my mother and sister). Essentially: if in doubt, wear dark green, and never, ever wear red. It just works, looks right, and is in accordance with some unwritten folk theory of colour. Those who value such practical wisdom are the instinctive artists, the colourists, the lovers of shape and form, often with a conservative preference for "natural" beauty. Then there are the contrarian redheads who insist on wearing whatever the hell they like, decking themselves out in red and purple stripes precisely because it's what they're not supposed to do. These are the conceptual artists, whose work is all about transgression, challenge, and rejection of norms, who tend to celebrate the urban and the artificial, and reject "natural" categories (like, say, gender) as constructed impositions on their liberty. In the past, the latter wouldn't have got much work; today, they run the show.

I think this is what can make a contemporary art gallery such a confusing place. It will quite likely be full of work that, like some deeply conflicted and angry teenager, is simultaneously demanding your love and attention while telling you to piss off. Look, I'm turning the lights on and off! Isn't that brilliantly annoying, you boring bourgeois scumbag? I hate you! I demand you give me money and prizes! Unfortunately, those of us who venture into art galleries (as opposed to the sort of people who own or fill them) generally have a craving for something visually exciting, and are not looking to get a self-righteous lecture about our complacency. However, like the parents of that angry adolescent, we sigh deeply, suspend judgement, and look for something to like, and to remind us of the dear child we once knew who used to draw those lovely pictures. After all, as I have said in these posts many times before, we should all be alert to that "Hendrix Moment" [2], when something is so new that it makes no sense yet, and seems to be all noise and no signal.

Such was certainly the case when Henri Matisse and André Derain hit the scene in 1905, earning themselves the label of fauves (wild beasts) which they immediately adopted as an ironic badge of honour. A few years ago we were in Paris, and there was an excellent show of Derain's work at the Pompidou Centre. It was fascinating to see the full span of the career of a painter who seemed, like a weathercock, to change styles depending on who he'd most recently been hanging out with: Matisse, Picasso, Cézanne, and a succession of others all seem to have had an instant transformative effect on his work. But there can be little doubt that those earliest "fauvist" works have now moved decisively from "all noise" (wild beasts!) to "all signal" (lovely paintings!). Who could object to having a Matisse or one of Derain's paintings of London on their wall? [3]

At the same time in the Pompidou there was an exhibition of the contenders for that year's Marcel Duchamp Prize (yes, there really is such a thing, and it is not a miniature gold urinal). Here, I found myself distinctly back in noisy territory. It's antediluvian, I know, but I much prefer my art to be two-dimensional and conveniently framed on a wall. I'd like to think I'm not one of those who find it hard to separate "art" and "interior decoration", but I do get impatient with large-scale, immersive installation work that can only be successfully experienced in a gallery setting. How is it that white-cube galleries and pitch-black projection rooms have become the only spaces where such contemporary art can exist? Do any of even the wealthiest private individuals with an interest in buying art even have their own installation space, to be filled periodically with a new assemblage of health-and-safety hazards? It just seems so elitist, and so completely reliant on institutional support and funding.

Anyway, for what it's worth, I do remember enjoying the "conceptual" work I saw back then by Lebanese artists Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige – basically some core samples drilled in Athens, Paris, and Beirut hanging from the ceiling in long glass tubes – who did, in fact, turn out to be the prizewinners. Although I would have enjoyed it equally as much if it had been a display of core samples hanging from the ceiling of a geological museum. In fact, I think I would have enjoyed it even more, because then their aesthetic qualities would have been my own discovery, and I would not have felt so insistently nudged in certain directions by the statements of the sociologically and archaeologically bleedin' obvious that accompanied them. As Keats wrote in one of his letters: "We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us — and if we do not agree, seems to put its hand in its breeches pocket." [4] Which is a nice way of saying, "Give me the art, but spare me the statement." After all, telling me what I should think about your work is just tempting fate...

1. Yes, yes, I know... One of my own personal revelations was delivered on a Christmas cracker motto on Boxing Day 1973: "There are two types of people in the world: those who believe there are two types of people in the world, and those that don't". For decades I believed this was a truly anonymous piece of folk wisdom, delivered to me by chance. Then I discovered it is actually Robert Benchley's Law of Distinction.

2. Yes, yes, I know... I should think of a more contemporary example than Jimi Hendrix, who died in 1970, FFS. Suggestions welcome. But not Harrison Birtwistle, thanks, still just noise to me.

3. I read a fascinating article in the New Yorker ("Modern Art and the Esteem Machine", by Louis Menand) which provoked the humbling thought that once we, too, would most likely have scorned Matisse – Matisse! – as did sophisticated Americans in 1913: "The general American public, in the period when modern art emerged, around the time of the First World War, had no interest in it. Wealthy Americans, the sort of people who could afford to buy art for their homes, had no taste for it. Even the art establishment was hostile. In 1913, a Matisse show at the Art Institute of Chicago instigated a near-riot. Copies of three Matisse paintings were burned and there was a mock trial, in which Matisse was convicted of, among other things, artistic murder. The demonstrators were art students."

4. I'm never sure why the hand and the pocket are singular, but I expect this was a tellingly aggressive gesture in 1818. "There, I put my hand in my pocket, and wish you good day, sir!"

Sunday 2 April 2023

Sous les pavés, la plage

I like to make a distinction – admittedly simplistic – between two sorts of photograph: those which are pictures made "of" something, and those which are pictures made "from" something. It should be pretty self-evident what I mean by this but these blog posts don't write themselves, and it does no harm to spell things out a bit.

For most people, of course, a photo is a photo, and that's all it is: a mechanical two-dimensional representation of whatever was in front of the camera; end of story. "It's just a photo" is the essence of a strong residual prejudice against photography in the art world, something I explored at length in a couple of posts I wrote around this time last year (Original Print and Original Print 2). But when it comes to those of us with a deeper interest in photography, whether as critics or as practitioners, I think we tend to fall somewhere on a spectrum which has at its extremes two camps which correspond to those two sorts of photograph. For one extreme, photography is a documentary activity, whose "indexical" relationship to visual reality is its essential feature; for the other, it's just their chosen expressive art medium, perhaps one among several. As it was put by Minor White (once so famous and influential, but now relatively unsung as a photographer): "The camera records superbly, but transforms better".

This divergence, naturally, has a strong influence on any photographer's aesthetic and technical priorities. For the documentarist, making pictures "of" things, representational fidelity is everything. Qualities like sharpness, detail, and clarity will be important, and a "good" photo is one that evidences these qualities to a high degree. At its extreme, you get the sort of obsessives who produce perfect images of the dullest clichés (what Ctein once called "perfectly-tuned pianos playing Three Blind Mice"). Less dogmatic documentarists still have strong feelings about authenticity, and a profound suspicion of manipulation of any sort, even the removal "in post" of an intrusive overhead cable or piece of windblown rubbish. By contrast, for the artist using photography to make pictures "from" things, expressive mark-making counts for much more than fidelity or authenticity, to the extent that, at the other extreme of the spectrum, pinhole devices and toy cameras with light leaks and plastic lenses are useful ways of, um, blurring the boundary between subject matter and subjective impression. Artists have no problem with digital manipulation and downright fakery, provided it delivers a novel image with a strong visual punch and an original signature "look".

Obviously, any camera is just a tool, and the same tool can be used for different ends (unless the tool is a chisel and the end is opening a can of paint, in which case my late father would have had something severe to say to you). But ends matter. If, let's say, you have been tasked with documenting an archaeological dig, it's no good using the remains in front of you as material for self-expression or experiments in ICM ("intentional camera movement" [1]). To plead "but that's how I felt about the skeleton" won't save your job. But, equally, obsessive attention to the lighting, accuracy and precision of representation of some dull, dull tabletop scenario won't get you any gallery shows (unless, of course, you're already famous for rather different work...).

As examples of what I mean, here are two postcards:

This first one, I think we can agree, is pretty dull by any standards, a real candidate for Martin Parr's Boring Postcards collection. Photographs do not get any more utilitarian than that, and its aesthetic value is close to zero. But it is nonetheless a classic photograph "of" something. To me, it is fascinating and evocative because that is the typical stage-set of my childhood, and thus a valuable keepsake simply because of what it represents; even if, like so many childhood things that once loomed so large, the scene has diminished into near absurdity. Such purpose-built rows of shops with accommodation above were scattered all over Stevenage: the creation of "neighbourhoods" was an important part of the town-planning theory of the New Town. That local retail hot-spot was where our sweets, treats, and comics were to be found. So, despite its lack of aesthetic qualities, I can vivify that particular capture of a moment in time with my lived experience, in ways that will be unavailable to a neutral viewer. I can still recall the jarring impact of jumping off an identical set of steps to those on the far right for a dare, for example, or the careful application of comparative connoisseurship and mental arithmetic when selecting a sixpenny paper bag of mixed sweets in various similar newsagents. You do have to smile, though, that – in the brave new world of the late 1950s – six random little shops would constitute a "shopping centre".

This second postcard is something quite different. I've never been to Ashridge, even though it is in God's own country, the chalk hills of Hertfordshire. The Ashridge Estate (now owned by the National Trust) does contain a grand house and an imposing monument, apparently, but you'd never know this from the photograph. This is a picture artfully made "from" what is little more than a partial view of some trees on a hill. When I look at it I get that aesthetic charge that a well-seen image can give; it wouldn't surprise me if you do, too. Also, quite apart from the picture itself, with its bold composition and subtle tonal range, I enjoy the unusual wide aspect ratio of the photo and its placement on the card, with space for the printed caption and the handwriting along the bottom. There's something compelling about it as an object in its own right. And yet it's a picture of nowhere and nothing in particular, entirely reliant on its evocative aesthetic qualities for its value.

And then what about this "found" image I originally came across on the late lamented Mark Woods' blog wood s lot, reposted by him from another blog arsvitaest, in turn reposted from bal des pendus, where it was given the caption "Undated. Unlocated. Unattributed.":

Isn't that an extraordinary picture? Like so many "found" images, it has become pure, perfect photography, a moment in time captured forever, but forever divorced from its original significance. You can almost hear the muffled hoofbeats, and feel the falling snow and the bite of the frosty air. And yet there's no way of knowing who took it, of whom, where, or when, or what the relationship between the photographer and the subject matter might have been. It has migrated from being a picture made "of" an occasion to a picture made "from" it, and is a reminder of how profound the simplicity of photography can be.

Of course, we are free – almost obliged – to invest such a picture with meaning; in the academic jargon, to give an open signifier some closure. For me, it evokes the very snowy winter of 1976/77, when I was a post-graduate student at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. My opinions were changing radically, as I came to see the same old things in new, confusing ways. Was the horse loose, or just being given a canter round the paddock? Is the woman with the switch in command or chasing after? That winter also saw the release of Joni Mitchell's album Hejira (up there with Blue, in my judgement). If you know it in its original vinyl version, you'll recall the inner gatefold image of Mitchell ice-skating, in semi-silhouette, flapping the black crow-like wings of a shawl, not unlike the skirts of the woman's coat in the photograph. Then perhaps you, too, looking at this photograph, hear in your mind the fluid fretless bass-lines of Jaco Pastorius, and even recall the same evocative lyrics:
Listen! Strains of Benny Goodman
Coming through the snow and the pinewood trees
But when both types of photograph come together you can end up with something really special. Here is one that combines "of" and "from" elements into a compelling image of an historically significant subject. Because this wonderfully mysterious, high-vantage viewpoint shows barricades at the Paris Commune of 1871. It was taken by Pierre-Ambroise Richebourg, about whom I know nothing, other than that he studied under Daguerre and did a nice line in plump Victorian nudes, too.

Quite amazing, don't you think? Both "of" and "from" in substantial measure, with enough detail for the documentarists – the stacked rifles, the cannons, those heaped cartfuls of cobblestone barricades, that single precarious ladder – and for the artists there are those ghostly smudged forms passing through the whole tonally-luscious sigmoid composition, plus what looks like some plate-development imperfection along the edges [2]. And then there's that one man at the top, perhaps more of a Baudelairean flâneur than the others, standing transfixed but transparent, hands in pockets. Might he even possibly be the very first to experience that quintessentially Parisian revolutionary revelation: "Mon Dieu! Sous les pavés, la plage!"?

1.  It always makes me smile, that one, with its solemn insistence that, no, I meant to jiggle the camera: this is an accidental-on-purpose image, made in the camera, not by using any digital jiggery-pokery! (Relax, guys, nobody cares how you made the damn picture...).
2. Modern-day practitioners of wet-plate, tin-type, and other "alt-processes" seem to regard such imperfections as a large part of the point of their work: see the work of Sally Mann, Joni Sternbach, or Alex Boyd, for example. I'm sure the original 19th-century guys would have regarded their work as unacceptably sloppy. But then they were documentarists, not artists...