Saturday, 13 February 2016
I forgot to mention my traditional birthday present to myself. In my post about the "Keats Walk", Sixpence a Pint, I mentioned the letter Keats wrote to his publisher while staying in Winchester, in which he says "there is on one side of the city a dry chalky down where the air is worth sixpence a pint". Without doubt, I would say, that dry, chalky down is Twyford Down, in those days still joined by a neck of land to St. Catherine's Hill.
So, being a sentimental sort, I bought myself a George III silver sixpence on Ebay, minted in 1818, the year before the famous walk through the water-meadows. Who knows? This very coin may have jingled in the immortal pocket. It's certainly been in and out of a few Christmas puddings and bride's shoes in the meantime, too. Maybe I should give it a wash.
This talk of poets, letters, and sixpences reminds me of an old post from 2008, which I may as well revive here. If you have ever sat a literature exam, it may amuse you. Or possibly induce a panic attack. You may turn over your papers NOW:
"When I try to put all into a phrase I say 'Man can embody truth but he cannot know it' ... The abstract is not life and everywhere draws out its contradictions. You can refute Hegel but not the Saint or the Song of Sixpence."
W. B. Yeats, in his last letter, 4th January 1939.
Questions (Time: 3 hours. Use one side of the paper only):
1. In your two penn'orth, was Yeats quite the full shilling?
2. By "the Saint", does Yeats mean the popular 1960s TV drama starring Roger Moore? No? Are you sure?
3. Discuss the impact of decimalisation on The Song of Sixpence. Please show your working.
4. Can you refute Hegel?
5. Can a woman know truth but not embody it? Are men thereby always and inevitably wrong?
6. Draw a contradiction.
Friday, 12 February 2016
It was my sixty-second birthday this week (yes, now you remember!) and I celebrated it in Bristol. "Celebrated" may be the wrong word for such a low-key observance; "passed" may be the better choice. My partner had to be in Bristol for work, and the restaurants are considerably better there than in Southampton. In the end, though, we settled for a Thai curry at home, and a whole bottle of beer each. Yay!
My best present was, as always, the thing it hadn't occurred to me to ask for: a James Bond-style pen from my daughter, containing:
- Screwdrivers (Phillips and regular)
- Short blade
- Hole punch
- Wire strippers
- Long blade
It was a beautiful day, and I went for a lengthy circular walk that included the Knoll Woods nature reserve, the banks of the Avon, and the Bennett's Patch meadows beside the Portway. Where I encountered these:
Now, sadly, multiple whale beachings have figured prominently in the news recently, but I wasn't expecting to see any this far up the Avon. On closer inspection, however, you will see they are made out of basketwork. Yes, these are Wicker Whales! And, no, there doesn't appear to be any sacrificial Jonah, Ahab, or Edward Woodward trapped inside. Originally, it seems, they were installed in the town centre, as part of Bristol's year as European Green Capital. Now, they are forever breaching and sounding alongside the Portway. At least, until they rot away, or some idiot sets fire to them.
Monday, 8 February 2016
Sometimes, I find I've taken some photographs that are so good, that I cannot understand why the world is not beating a path to my door. Or at least that part of it that cares about really, really good photographs. It soon wears off, of course. But, right now, I'm high-fiving myself (I wonder, is that the same as the sound of one hand clapping?). I mean, seriously, I just go for a walk round the block... Look what happens!
But, that was a paragraph ago, and I'm pretty much over it now. It's nice while it lasts. It's why we do it, isn't it, when we could be inside in the warm, watching the TV or reading the paper? Some of us, it seems, have a need that drives us on to seek that periodic Big Tick, as emphatically awarded to me by these two. Well done, you!
The trick, I suppose, is neither to be discouraged by having to mark your own work, nor ever to be tempted to cheat. And not to care that it might seem a little strange to many, still to be setting yourself homework, at your age...
Sunday, 7 February 2016
Weird scenes inside the wasp mine. What are they mining in there? It looks oddly like bubble-gum to me, which is not improbable, I suppose, as wasps notoriously have a sweet tooth*. Though whether bubble-gum is an extractable natural resource I'm not sure. But wait... Maybe wasps make bubble-gum? Which would explain a lot. Though, in comparison with honey, it's a pretty poor product, frankly.
However, bubble-gum does have its plus side. Not least as a way of educating the young by means of the enclosed, fact-packed and informative cards. It's surprising how much you can learn from bubble-gum cards. Anyone remember "Great British Roadkill"? Or were those stickers?
* I am well aware that wasps don't have teeth, thank you.
Friday, 5 February 2016
Having checked out the Ornamental Lake on the Common on Monday, I thought that on Thursday I'd have a look at "Cemetery Lake", which I don't recall ever visiting before. The name doesn't refer to some ancient British lacustrine funerary custom, but merely to its proximity to the Old Southampton Cemetery, which is situated at the very south end of the Common.
It turns out to be a much more interesting spot than the Ornamental Lake, mainly fenced off and surrounded by trees and gorse bushes, and therefore a haven for water birds of all sorts. I was also lucky with the weather, on a day which was forecast for heavy cloud. Gradually, I'm realising I have a perfect little landscape project in the making within walking distance of our house. Which is both good news and bad, for someone still struggling to complete another "little" landscape project that has so far occupied five years and counting...
Thursday, 4 February 2016
The variety of Southampton Common never ceases to amaze me. This week I took a path I had never taken before, and it took me into the area around the so-called Ornamental Lake, a rather drab stretch of water, much visited by young mothers with toddlers in prams, and squabbled over by seagulls, moorhens, and overfed ducks.
The quality of the woodland and open spaces there is subtly different – more birches, more broom, more bracken – and everywhere there were golden-brown heaps of last year's leaves and bracken lying over some treacherously soft mud, with the loops of bramble trip-wires beginning to spring up already. In summer these thickets must be impassable and unvisited by all but the most determined humans, ideally equipped with a machete. Which may account for the many deer-tracks heading down towards the waterside.
Tuesday, 2 February 2016
A phone snap of one corner of Idiotic Towers
Compared to other, more harmful addictions and compulsions – gambling or shoplifting, say – the obsessive acquisition of photo-books is pretty mild stuff. I suppose if it really got out of control you'd have a problem, but as a threat to health, sanity, and a stable family life it barely nudges the needle. In fact, there may even be significant benefits to be derived from the private contemplation of the best work photography has to offer, presented in the most congenial medium known to humanity. Plus, remarkably, in the longer term there need not even be a financial downside. Very few other affordable pleasures in life keep their value so well or even, joined with a little luck and good judgement, yield a return on investment comparable to the sort of interest rates otherwise only available to the very wealthy. In fact, are there any others?
The main downside is space, lack of. Those of us who share our lives with accumulations of books know that the price we pay is that we will never, ever be able to swing a cat indoors, whether this be understood as the family moggie or a particularly brutal means of chastisement. Whichever, there simply isn't room. For which both pets and very naughty children have reason to be grateful.
Now, people who refer to photo-books as "coffee-table books" are either missing the derogatory implications of that term or, which is worse, failing to acknowledge the effort, ambition and achievement represented by publication. As if somehow the compilation and editing of a sequence of photographs into its final published book form were a cynical exercise in parting fools from their money. Obviously, actual "coffee-table books" – large, illustrated books, intended primarily for ostentatious display rather than for reading or study – do usually contain many photographs, and there are photographic coffee-table books (and I'm not just thinking about Helmut Newton's grotesquely OTT Sumo, which came with its own set of legs). But these are as different from the photo-books that interest me as, say, [insert your own choice of two glamorous airheads] are from Tilda Swinton or Emma Thompson.
Another phone snap, another corner
Probably the very first book I sought out was Josef Koudelka's Gypsies. In 1984 I arrived in Southampton to take up a new job, and there happened to be an exhibition of Koudelka's work hanging in the John Hansard Gallery on the university campus. It is hard to exaggerate the impact those photographs had on me. Although I had taken an interest in photography before, from then on it became an all-consuming passion. I ordered a copy of Gypsies via the campus bookshop – it was still available then new as an inexpensive Aperture paperback – and, without realising it, took the first step towards hopeless addiction. Not long after, a show of Thomas Joshua Cooper's landscape work appeared in the same gallery. Along with it came copies of his book Between Dark and Dark, produced by the Graeme Murray Gallery in Edinburgh, each copy enclosed in a custom-made shipping box, and wrapped in tissue-paper like some up-market trinket. I was hooked.
Fay Godwin's Land, Raymond Moore's Murmurs At Every Turn, Martin Parr's Bad Weather, A Fair Day, and The Last Resort, Jem Southam's Red River and The Raft of Carrots, Chris Killip's Isle of Man and In Flagrante, Paul Graham's A1, Beyond Caring, and Troubled Land, Peter Fraser's Two Blue Buckets, John Blakemore's Inscape and The Stilled Gaze, John Davies' Mist Mountain Water Wind and A Green & Pleasant Land... The 1980s and early 1990s saw the sudden appearance of carefully considered book-length collections from a new generation of British photographers. The important Barbican exhibition catalogue Through the Looking Glass in 1989 acted as a sort of checklist of names to watch out for. You subscribed to the journal Creative Camera, and pounced on each new book as soon as it was announced. Specialist publishers like Travelling Light, Cornerhouse, and Dewi Lewis began to emerge. Books started to be imported from abroad, primarily but not only from America, by specialist shops and galleries. William Eggleston, Joel Meyerowitz, Richard Misrach, John Gossage, Michael Schmidt, Luigi Ghirri... At Zwemmer's and Shipley's in Charing Cross Road in London you could handle undreamed-of treasures, and drool over the production values of German publishers, or the sheer brilliance of Japanese graphic design. To protect the stock from drool, the cover of every item in Zwemmer's was swathed in a clear protective wrapping, sellotaped up like a Christmas present.
Those were good times for British photography and its enthusiasts. Good times never last, however: both Zwemmer's and Shipley's have now gone, and photo-book publishing has changed radically, and not necessarily for the better, in recent years. When it comes to collecting, like any sensible player, you've got to know when to hold 'em, and when to fold 'em. Now is very much a time to fold, in my opinion. There are simply too many books being produced by too many half-baked photographers with barely enough material to fill a book, and too many of them are gimmicky productions from publishers with more than half an eye on their future status as "collectibles". This may sound odd coming from a collector, but "collectability" has become a major problem, in two ways.
First, too many people have started collecting photo-books for the wrong reasons. The most wrong of these is anticipation of inflated resale values. I mentioned above, half-jokingly, the "return on investment" of buying photo-books. This is best illustrated by examples:
My partner bought me a copy of Peter Bialobrzeski's first book Heimat some years ago for my birthday. She hadn't heard of him (neither had I, come to that) but she saw it in Zwemmer's, and thought I'd like it. It will have cost around £30. It is now out of print, and there are currently nine copies for sale on Abebooks: the cheapest is £117, and the dearest is £420, averaging out around £225.
A few years ago, American photographer Alec Soth started to publish books under his own imprint, Little Brown Mushroom, selling them directly via his LBM website. One of the first titles in 2010 was a little book of 40 pages, in the style of a child's reader, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, by Australian Trent Parke. I can't remember exactly how much it cost, but it was cheap, and I think the postage from the States was more than the book. Fifteen dollars, perhaps? There were 1000 numbered copies, and it sold out pretty fast. There are five "as new" copies for sale currently, at an average price of £250.
One of the most sought-after, most highly-rated photo-books is the Japanese masterpiece Karasu, by Masahisa Fukase, originally published in Tokyo in 1986, and published in English as The Solitude of Ravens in paperback in the USA in 1991. In 2008, this book was beautifully reprinted by the Rat Hole Press in Tokyo, in hardback, in a robust slipcase, in a limited edition of 1000 copies. It cost £50: expensive, but rather less than the £400 or so you'd pay for the American paperback in uncertain condition, or the £4,000 generally asked for the Japanese first edition. Right now, copies of that 2008 reprint are being offered for around £600.These are just three random examples from my own shelves, but very typical. In fact, it would be hard to find an out-of-print monograph of any significance that is selling second-hand for less than twice its original cover price. Obviously, like painters, neither the authors nor the publishers see any of this "aftermarket" value, and neither do the specialist booksellers dealing in new stock. But neither do collectors. If I were to take my copies of these three items to a second-hand
bookseller I'd be offered something like £50, at most. I could sell them myself via Amazon or Ebay, of course, and let greed and acquisitiveness take their natural course. But something has gone wrong when such inflated prices are so quickly asked for what are, after all, mass-produced objects. Who is paying this sort of money for something they could have bought at a reasonable price, had they been paying attention, not so very long before? Why do they want it so badly now? Needless to say, it should be a matter of principle never to pay such silly, exploitative amounts for any book.
Second, some publishers are now chasing the high-end collector's market from the get-go. I have no problem with limited edition runs, and moderate-to-high prices. It makes sense. Imagine if CDs were prohibitively expensive to produce, package and distribute to a high-enough standard, but had only a modest audience, so that a reasonable return could only be ensured by limiting production to 500 or 1000 copies, priced around £30-£50. You would both feel differently about the value of your music collection, and yet happily pay the price if you love music and wanted to support musicians and the infrastructure that makes recorded music possible. But certain publishers – the name Nazraeli comes to mind – routinely go one step further, by publishing two (or even three) editions simultaneously. A "regular edition" of, say 1000 copies, plus a "deluxe edition" of 50 or fewer copies, generally comprising a signed, numbered book and an original print, presented in a box or slipcase. This commercial logic also makes sense – those 50 copies may make the difference between breaking even and making a profit – but it introduces an unwelcome air of preciousness to the enterprise. I suppose you can't blame publishers for wanting a piece of the scarcity action up front. But, for me, the whole point of a photo-book is that it costs £30, not £1000, and that it is a robustly-made object to be read and enjoyed, not handled with white gloves and kept in a vault for fear of damaging its ultimate resale value. And fashions change. Hint: I suspect you won't be able to give away a Michael Kenna deluxe edition in twenty years' time. I trust it will have truly given its fifty
A further complicating factor is self-publication and publishing-on-demand. Before the advent of web-based on-demand services like Blurb, Lulu, Pikto, Magcloud and the rest, producing a book was a major enterprise. It was (and still is) incredibly difficult to persuade a "proper" publisher to undertake a photo-book. I know, I've tried! If you've never seen it, it is well worth watching the video How to Make a Book with Steidl (fun trailer here – "Fuck ze mid-tones!"). Gatekeeper-publishers like Gerhard Steidl act like bouncers, controlling access to an exclusive club. It may seem unfair, and a little arbitrary – no trainers! – but it does make getting in all the more desirable.
Self-publication, too, used to be very hard. First, it cost a lot of money to produce even a small run of a decent-quality photo-book – we're talking thousands of pounds – and second, distributing and selling copies was next to impossible for a self-publisher. Again, I know this from personal experience. But the web has changed all that. Setting aside on-demand books (like, ahem, the Blurb books you can see at the My Blurb Bookstore link over on the right), a significant proportion of the items you'll see in the newly-published lists on, say, Photo-Eye are self-published by relative or complete unknowns. Presumably Photo-Eye themselves are acting as gatekeepers, filtering the Good Stuff from the flood-tide of photo-dreck, but it's still pretty overwhelming, and so much of it is, to my taste, dull stuff spread too thinly, with more emphasis on attitude than art. Or indeed craft: as with all desktop publishing, excruciatingly bad layout and typography choices are frequently made by amateurs, and these are too often passed off as "innovation". Well, I ain't buying it!
In the end, the golden rule is the same as it always has been for any form of collecting: develop a strong personal taste, and only buy books because you like them, or because you think they're important (but cheap!) early "straws in the wind" of some new trend you like the look of; never buy them just because you think they're going to be valuable, and never pay inflated prices for the ones that got away. They're just books.
Saturday, 30 January 2016
The Itchen at Garnier Road
I was recently bemoaning my lack of progress with sorting out a book sequence from the accumulated photographs of St. Catherine's Hill, the Viaduct, and Twyford Down, and in the process mentioned the Keats Walk. Poet John Keats spent seven weeks in Winchester, between August and October 1819, on his way back from a second stay on the Isle of Wight. Second stay? Seven weeks? I have no idea how someone like Keats could afford this life of leisure. One of these days, I hope someone will fulfil one of my more Pooterish fantasy projects: Bank Statements of the Great Poets. Yes, yes, wonderful poems, John, but who was paying your mobile-phone bill?
Anyway, the Keats Walk is a bit of a touristic mash-up of fact and wishful thinking. From his letters, we know he did walk from Winchester through the water-meadows to St. Cross, probably following the route prescribed in Charles Ball's contemporary guide, An Historical Account of Winchester, with Descriptive Walks. That is, by doing the Keats Walk before it became the Keats Walk, he created the Keats Walk.* We also know he composed the "Ode to Autumn" as a result of his wanderings around Winchester, the poem considered by many (not me, I'm afraid) as the culmination of his 1818-19 annus mirabilis. What is certainly not the case, however, is that the poem describes this particular walk through the meadows to the mediaeval alms-houses of St. Cross. There would never have been any "stubble-plains" or granaries in these quaggy acres alongside the Itchen. Those would probably have been to the north or west of the town.
It then occurred to me that I have only ever walked this route myself once. It's not terribly exciting: flat, muddy, a narrow path squeezed between the multi-threaded river channel and various allotments and houses, with the high, dry downland of St. Catherine's Hill beckoning across the marshy meadows. But it seemed perverse not to have something to weave into the book sequence which had been taken from this famous perspective. Besides, what better form of procrastination is there, than to open a late line of enquiry, and pile yet more fresh material onto the disorderly heap?
Churchyard yews at St. Cross
Thursday morning offered a brief respite from rain and gloom, so I headed out. It was a glorious morning, and I encountered a steady stream of dog-walkers, bird-watchers, and grey-haired ramblers, all kitted-out with the sticks, gaitered boots and daypacks appropriate to some rather more challenging wilderness. We exchanged the smiles and greetings of the secret fraternity of those who need not be in work at 9:30 on a Thursday morning. "Lovely day!" "It certainly is!" Although at one point I passed a mother and daughter having one of those fraught, "sort your life out, girl" conversations. It seemed an odd place to choose. At another, I was assured by a bird-watcher that, if I were to pass this way again, I would almost certainly see a kingfisher on this bend, but not today, because of the trio fishing the private beat on the other side of the river.
St. Cross Park
It was a pleasant way to spend a morning, and I think I got a few solid candidate pictures for the book sequence, but I'd rather have been up in God's Own Country, the chalk downland of St. Catherine's Hill and Twyford Down. As Keats wrote in a letter to his publisher John Taylor on 5th September 1819, "Since I have been at Winchester I have been improving in health – it is not so confined – and there is on one side of the city a dry chalky down where the air is worth sixpence a pint." Indeed there is.
* This starts to sound like a dance craze. Everybody's doin' the Keats walk, baby! Reminds me of when a friend decided to "run the West Highland Way" a few years back (a gruelling endurance run across the Scottish Highlands, following the West Highland Way long-distance trail). What fun we had, demanding to know how, precisely, one ran in the West Highland manner. Heh...
Thursday, 28 January 2016
I'm told the golden wasp game (or guêpe d'or) is notoriously difficult to understand though, allegedly, quite easy to play. Easy to play badly, that is. In complexity it is said to fall somewhere between chess and the glass bead game (which, we should remember, is a fabricated game, deliberately and tantalisingly incompletely described by author Hermann Hesse). Perhaps go or mahjong would be better comparisons, though as I find draughts a bit of a challenge I'm not in any position to say.
I presume the orientation of the inlaid gold wasps has something to do with the rules of play, and the hexagonal playing pieces suggest a need to fit them together, perhaps along the lines of the cells of two competing wasp nests. That these pieces bear six coloured dots probably implies some sort of suit-matching is involved. I have no idea how many pieces are actually needed for a game, or what variations there are in the placement of the coloured dots, as my set is almost certainly incomplete. They are also reversible, with a single, generally different symbol on the other side. Perhaps each piece can be transformed into a more powerful piece as part of the evolving game-play, or maybe it's just that there are two, completely different games that can be played on the same board? One, like draughts, for the simple-minded, and another, like chess, for real game-players.
It is a very pretty board, though.
Tuesday, 26 January 2016
Ridiculously, I'm still struggling to make a book out of the photographs I've been taking in the past few years at Hockley Viaduct, Twyford Down, and St. Catherine's Hill, including the M3 motorway and the Itchen Navigation canal for good measure. It ought to be a project that makes itself, dictated simply by the geography. If you look, say, at Google Maps, you'll see how these all cluster in a few square miles south-east of Winchester, in a tight clinch of transport networks within and around the ancient and modern landscape.
I think one problem is that I've been too "programmatic", in the musical sense. As well as the obvious topographical aspects, there are many stories to be told and historical links to be made – to take just one at random, this is where Keats took the walk in 1819 that resulted in his "Ode to Autumn" – but it's proving to be more difficult than I had thought to present them in a primarily visual book. I should probably set aside some time to review what I've got (which is rather a lot) and let a book sequence emerge, rather than impose a narrative. In fact, what I really need to do is to go back to my old technique of playing games of Patience with actual 5" x 7" prints, instead of fiddling around with hundreds of postage-stamp sized renderings on a screen.
The other problem is that we are still regularly tramping over those fields and paths, and every time we go out I seem to come back with something new and different that changes everything, even if only slightly. Somehow the sky and in particular clouds have recently become more significant elements in the game, for example. More subtly, I've also become a better photographer in the four or five years since I first ventured between the arches of the viaduct, and crossed over the motorway footbridge to Twyford Down. The temptation is always to revisit old successes, and make them even better.
Will it never stop? I had thought the "restoration" of the viaduct would mark a natural conclusion, but it seems not. Have I embarked on a project with no end? I need to remind myself of that useful adage, that the best is the enemy of the good. The "obvious" may be what is needed. And perhaps we should simply find somewhere else to go at weekends...
Sunday, 24 January 2016
On St. Catherine's Hill
I'm reading the review section of Saturday's Guardian newspaper and, above a review of Yuki Chan in Brontë Country, a novel by Mick Jackson, there's a lovely photograph of, presumably, the North York Moors. Even on newsprint it's striking: a long vista over a craggy moor, alive with the russet and green tones of moorland in scudding sunlight. You can practically feel the wind tugging at your clothing. In the mid distance there's a crag that could be a house, or a house that could be a crag. So I look to see who made it; to do this I have to turn the paper sideways and squint at the truly tiny picture credit at the bottom right-hand edge. It reads ALAMY. Nothing else. This beautiful image has been sourced, merely for illustrative purposes, from a stock photo agency.
Later, looking through On Landscape, an intelligent online magazine dedicated to landscape photography, I find myself wondering, is landscape photography over? In one sense, clearly not: more and more people are producing more and more landscape photographs, and it has become both a major genre in its own right and an important ancillary to other activities, like walking, climbing, travelling and even spirituality and philosophy. But... sheer populousness is often a sign that something has peaked, and that its exciting, pioneering days are over. Given how varied the world is, and how different people are, I wondered: why do so many landscape photographs look exactly the same? Why are they so unregarded? To the extent they can be bought by the yard, and published uncredited?
When it comes to art, democratic inclusiveness is not usually a useful evaluative benchmark. Or rather, when it comes to art as outcome. If we regard art as a process which, regardless of the quality of the outcome, is capable of refining and advancing our civilised, aesthetic, and spiritual instincts and impulses, then clearly it's something that as many people as possible should be opening themselves to. Get out there with brushes, cameras, sketchbooks, whatever turns you on, and do it. Go on! The same can be said for sport and exercise. Yes, do yoga or zumba, play football or tennis, walk, cycle, jog, even train for a marathon; of course we should all be doing that. But the ultimate measure of anything is never democratic, but always elitist. Who will win the London Marathon? Will they break the record? Will "your" team win the Premiership? Whose photographs are giving you the thrill that motivates you to get out there and do it yourself?
Landscape photography is popular, of course. Both to do, and to look at. I would think no other self-consciously artistic genre of photograph is so widespread, with the exception of fashion. Since the advent of digital colour, there has been a tsunami of outstanding landscape images of every conceivable kind. From the highest, snowiest peaks to the grimmest, most litter-strewn edgelands, someone will have parked a high-resolution camera* on a tripod and composed something compellingly new. Followed by a thousand imitators, some of whom will have improved on the pioneering work, while some – a very few – will have gone on to forge new paths of their own. Until ... well... until pretty much everything has been photographed many times over, by this generation, at least. I mean, just enter "skye storr" into Google, and scroll through the images. Depressing, isn't it? Travel is easy, the world is finite, and so are the places to stand and look at it.
Winchester Road, Southampton
There's still scope for diversity, perhaps. Most landscape photographers do look strangely like me: male, late middle-aged, bearded, a bit weather-beaten and scruffy, and fond of solitary pursuits. But then these do tend to be the sort of people who find themselves out in the world at dawn or at dusk, having endured rain and cold or heat and thirst and lugged many pounds of expensive kit into the wilderness, just for the prospect of a photograph. Plus, landscape photography is one of few permissible outlets for sensitive masculine self-expression that combines nicely with a male obsession with gear and craft. In the end, there are many more people who like to look at landscape than are prepared to get it on their clothes. Perhaps landscape photographs look so similar simply because the people making them are so similar.
One obvious way past saturation point is gimmickry. It's clear from websites like On Landscape that intelligent landscapists have mainly got over any photo-purist objections to digital manipulation, or the use of closely-observed details in place of wide vistas, or any other such challenges to tradition. But these new approaches still have a tendency to converge on well-worn paths, on certain "looks". I was in our local hospital the other morning, and was struck by the long row of impressionistic landscape prints running down one corridor. These are now quite old – probably lithographs made in the 1980s – but they have more than a slight resemblance to a lot of "new" landscape photography being done, for example, with the liberal use of overlaid texture layers in Photoshop. Scratchy, spattered, blotchy, painterly – it's an old look, a cliché of art-school print-making, even when achieved by new means by a new demographic.
Sadly, getting somewhere new in image-making is even harder than finding somewhere new in the landscape to photograph, and really has more to do with sensibility than technique. But then landscape photography, despite the way it attracts the word "romantic" to itself, is classical at heart, in the sense 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. Proper landscape photographers don't simply document what happened to be there when they happened to be there, but study the times of sunrise and moonrise, wait for the right weather and time of day, think nothing of revisiting the same remote site on multiple occasions until conditions are just right. There's something almost priestly about it and, inevitably, the idealised rendition is usually a serious misrepresentation of the reality, especially when combined with a taste for over-saturated colours and apocalyptic skies. Have another look at those images of the Old Man of Storr: what planet were they made on?
True originality is not only hard, it is also often repellent, difficult, and unpopular. I've written before about the "Hendrix Moment". If you know your photo-history, you'll recognise the allusion in this post's title. Published in Tokyo in 1972, Daido Moriyama's Shashin yo Sayonara / Bye, Bye Photography, Dear is now regarded as a classic photo-book, one that takes the anarchic, political nihilism of the "Provoke" era of photography in Japan to its limit. The sad story of how I failed to hand over the fifty-five pounds for the signed copy I once held in my hands (because I found it, um, repellent and difficult) is probably irrelevant, but its current second-hand value of around £5,500 is not. By contrast, there are very few books of landscape photography that have come to be seen, in subsequent decades, as era-defining, must-have collector's items, with a value approaching that of a small car**. Which is curious, when you consider how popular the genre is.
Setting aside the kitschiness of what passes as "natural beauty" – I don't think this is a problem that bothers many people as much as it does me – my guess is that with landscape photography, in its classical form, the feeling is that if you missed one collection or image then another, similar, perhaps better one will be along soon enough. It doesn't really seem to matter who makes them. After all, their creators seem happy enough to drop their work, anonymously, into the stock-photo pot and, besides, namechecks and books and even originality are not everyone's goals, where photography is concerned.
In fact, "how to" books always figure more prominently in "best of" lists in this category than actual monographs. As with yoga or cycling, the point is to admire, to look and learn, and then go out and do it yourself, isn't it? Which is obviously healthier than becoming a couch-potato enthusiast for someone else's photographs of, say, Tokyo's prostitutes and tattooed criminals. Though I'm pretty sure you can do and be both. And I'll be damned if any photograph of mine is ever going to appear anonymously in a newspaper as column-filler in exchange for a cut of an agency fee.
* I notice the Sony A7R II is becoming the landscapist's camera of choice, these days. Damn sight lighter than a view camera, that's for sure.
** Though my hope is that others may yet be kicking themselves for not buying the early books of Raymond Moore, Richard Misrach, Susan Derges, Jem Southam or Thomas Joshua Cooper while they're currently enjoying unfashionability. You might want to keep an eye on Peter Bialobrzeski, Chris McCaw and Jamey Stillings, too.
Friday, 22 January 2016
On Tuesday, having spent an enjoyable morning playing around with new wasp scenarios while waiting for an "engineer" to come and service our gas boiler (why, do come in, Mr. Brunel!), I decided to go for a walk around Southampton Common after lunch.* Just for a change, I thought I'd put a Fuji f/1.4 35mm lens on my X-E1, in place of the 18-55mm kit zoom lens that more-or-less permanently lives on that body. I've barely used that 35mm lens since buying it on a whim in my early flush of enthusiasm for all things Fuji, but it's very highly rated by people who should know. And, yes, I suppose that, as well as a change of perspective, I thought I might get one of my extremely rare
I'd forgotten, though, that on "auto" exposure (my normal, bone-idle setting, which works just fine with the kit zoom) the 35mm lens would, more often than not, resort to its wide-open aperture of f/1.4, especially on a January afternoon of deep shadows. That's pretty wide. Now, I know that a lot of photographers lust after the shallow depth of field that a "fast" lens gives at its maximum aperture, and that they abhor small-sensor digital cameras and "slow" lenses precisely on the grounds that they don't want everything to be in focus. I'm the exact opposite. I love deep focus, and avoid as far as possible so-called bokeh (background blur) effects.
To achieve the deepest possible focus, back in the days of film, I relied on setting the hyperfocal distance**. Easy enough, with ye olde lenses, which were engraved with both DOF and focussing scales – just align the infinity symbol with the aperture in use – but always a bit of a compromise, especially with a medium-format camera where a "normal" angle of view of around 50° is delivered by an 80mm lens, with its relatively shallow depth of field. But my first digital cameras, with their tiny sensors and correspondingly teeny focal lengths (where "normal" was around 10mm!), were a revelation on that score: OK, there were no engraved scales at all, but they gave total depth of field, back to front, effortlessly, at pretty much any aperture... Never mind "pin sharp" focus, this was "pinhole" focus!
So, I don't love fast lenses, for that reason, anyway. For me – and your DOF may well vary – unless it's done extremely well and to some observable aesthetic purpose, a deliberately blurred background is like saying, in effect, "No, nothing to look at there, just concentrate on the bit I have decided is interesting!" It always reminds me of those coy images of naked people, with their genitals digitally zapped into pixellated oblivion. Listen, I'll be the judge of whether I want to look or not...
Having said that, I could live with the blurring. A little bokeh once in a while doesn't hurt. What was much worse, and totally unexpected, was the poor handling by the lens of only moderately tricky lighting. I'd forgotten all about "chromatic aberration" until Tuesday. But there were ugly red and green fringes around any brightly-illuminated twig – the sort of thing the kit zoom takes in its stride. And horribly harsh transitions from bright to dark in those much-prized areas of bokeh. Yes, of course I'd got the lens hood on. It seemed that maybe those people who should know a good lens when they test it don't know as much as they think! Maybe that's what comes of only photographing brick walls, bottle labels and test charts.
It's also possible, of course, that I may have acquired a bad example of the Fuji 35mm lens. I do buy my stuff second-hand, and I suppose the seller may have been dumping it. I'll probably dump it myself, now, but – ahem – at a conscience-assuaging bargain price. Caveat emptor... In fact, some of the images were so badly affected by the dreaded red and green fringing that I gave up trying to fix it and resorted to using a monochrome filter plug-in – something else I once bought on a whim and have rarely, if ever, used since. I do quite like that muted, warm-toned platinum-palladium look, though, and may well use it again. Though, hopefully, on some rather better pictures.
* Previously on Idiotic Hat: if you find my changes of location confusing, don't worry, so do I... Yes, we do live in both Southampton and Bristol!
** "The hyperfocal distance is the closest distance at which a lens can be focused while keeping objects at infinity acceptably sharp. When the lens is focused at this distance, all objects at distances from half of the hyperfocal distance out to infinity will be acceptably sharp."
Wednesday, 20 January 2016
In an earlier post I mentioned the sought-after "entomological range" made by the firm of Bling & Sons, who used to have workshops and retail outlets in the North Hertfordshire towns of Stevenage, Hitchin, and Baldock. I came across the remains of this rather battered presentation box in a local junk shop, and it has some characteristic Bling features but, sadly, lacks any identifying label.
One thing you will definitely have noticed however, is the way it makes use of the embroidered wasp motif of the Great Wasp Scroll, now held in the British Hymenopterological Institute. Of uncertain origin, but most likely from the Far East, it has been argued that the 8-foot Great Scroll is not a coherent work, in itself, but in fact a sort of scrapbook assemblage made by some wasp-obsessed noble or scribe. To date, the appliquéd gold seal remains unidentified.
Listen, you do realise I make this stuff up, don't you? Or to be more accurate, that there are now two sorts of post in this blog: truthful words and sincerely-held opinions accompanied by truthful, "straight" photographs, and invented words to go with invented pictures – little games with genre and discourse – for your enjoyment and amusement. Of course you do. Just checking.
However. I am appreciative of the little band of loyal and long-standing visitors to this blog, most of whom are unknown to me, other than as a city name in Google Analytics (Hi there, Seattle, Seabrook, and San Diego! You, too, Auckland, Melbourne, and Sydney!). It would be a shame if this tack in my direction of travel were to alienate that loyalty. So, if you truly, madly, deeply hate these
And, while we're on the subject of audience, can I make my periodic appeal that, if you like what you see and read here, you might want to share the good news on social media? Below each post there is a row of buttons for that exact purpose – why not use them once in a while? Thanks!
Monday, 18 January 2016
At the summit of St. Catherine's Hill, just outside Winchester, there is a round copse of tall, straight beech trees surrounding the central mound where, presumably, the Norman chapel of St. Catherine once stood. Alongside it on the north-east side lies the Mizmaze, a turf-cut maze of uncertain antiquity. Last week we had a brief interval of cold, bright weather, and on Thursday afternoon I was up on top of the hill as the shadows of the beeches lengthened and deepened across the maze.
All around the hill the contrast of late afternoon sunshine and deep January shadow gave a certain air of mystery to even the most ordinary banks and hedges. It is a rather uncanny place, and it doesn't take much to bring out its strangeness. Charred logs, ash, and a litter of bottles suggest that the local youth favour it as a night-time gathering place. I can think of worse places to sit around an improvised fire than on the hill's south-east flank, smoking and drinking with your friends, well out of sight of the town among the Iron Age ramparts, and watching the stars overhead and the twinkling lights on the motorway in the distance below. Jackson Browne's song "The Barricades of Heaven" comes to mind.
On the way back down the most reliable track – and certainly the only route negotiable at night – goes through a brick tunnel which must once have passed beneath the abandoned branch railway line that used to run alongside the Itchen Navigation canal at the bottom of the hill. Someone has put some curious graffiti in there. I can't decide whether it's half-finished, interrupted, or simply hermetic to the uninitiated. Perhaps the right side is intended as a negative of the left? More curious still are the apparently random chalkmarks overlaying the part-stencilled graffiti, like snail trails. There's no lighting, so at night it must have something of the feel of a cave, and it's not hard to imagine some would-be teenage shaman inscribing scribbly spells by torchlight with a pebble of the hill's native chalk.
Saturday, 16 January 2016
I wonder how you react to wasps? Is it argh, or ugh, or eek? Maybe grrr... or even, if you're unlucky, ouch! It's unlikely to be tee hee, or sigh..., though it might occasionally be aha! followed by splat! I only really mention the wasps because that's what I'm playing with at the moment; what I'm actually talking about are those onomatopoeic "words" we use in print to represent the sounds associated with particular feelings or incidents. Is there a word for these? If there is, I'm not aware of it. I know, tsk, tsk. They're a sort of typographic precursor of emoticons, sound-effect surrogates for non-verbal exclamations and actions.
We first come across these as children, reading comics. I can remember running around the school playground with my coat-tails held out like aeroplane wings screaming "Eeeeow! Ker-blam!", or firing my six-shooter fingers, "pow! pow!" Never "bang! bang!", obviously: that would just be silly. I can also remember wondering whether aieee!, banzai!, or Kamerad! were mere foreign-language cries of pain or triumph, or something more. Quite often, we have no idea what actual real-world sounds these formulae are intended to correspond to, so they then feed back into the language in their written form. Eventually, the smarter kids see the amusing side of all this. It's a sort of trainer-wheels irony: when you first learn to say "argh!" (as opposed to making whatever noise "argh" is supposed to be) you are announcing, "I know there is a difference between art and life, and I revel in it".
Other bizarrely literal noises are available, of course. I wonder if "hurrah!" and "hooray!" have undergone a similar transformative journey from life to print and back again? There used to be a moment of weirdness at the end of inter-school rugby and hockey matches, made especially strange when the match had been an ill-tempered and occasionally violent affair. The captain was obliged to shout, "Three cheers for Scumbag Grammar! Hip hip!", and the team was meant to respond with a hearty, "Hooray!", though this was usually rendered as a group grunt, along the lines of "rerh..." Especially if, as so often, we had lost. I recall the appallingly fractious annual grudge match against a south London school, William Penn (a.k.a. "Billy Biro"), endlessly interrupted by penalties, injuries, and what can only be described as racist incidents. One year our team captain, Terry, simply refused to call for the obligatory three cheers, drawing down on himself the spluttering outrage of the teacher acting as our referee-cum-coach. Aieee!
Which reminds me of another sound-effect incident at school, in the Sixth Form, when that same teacher was returning the marks on some English-to-German translation homework. You could tell he was cross, because he flung our exercise books back at our heads like frisbees. Ssswip! Of course, a school exercise book only resembles a frisbee along one edge, so they mostly fluttered open halfway to their mark – ffrrrap! maybe – stalled, and landed lamely short, like shot pigeons falling to earth. Which was amusing, which just made him even more cross. Eek! All we could do was wait.
The translation piece had been an extract from some prisoner-of-war tale, probably The Great Escape, describing the men settling into their new accommodation. At one point, someone jumps down from a bunk with the comic-style onomatopoeic noise, ger-doing! It seemed that this was the cause of pedagogical displeasure. "Not one of you has attempted to translate ger-doing into German", he fumed. "Not ONE! Ger-doing is an ENGLISH noise, not a GERMAN noise!"
Have you ever had to suppress laughter so severely that it hurts? Had to disguise it and let it out a little at a time, like opening an over-shaken bottle of pop, with coughs and strangled throat-clearing noises? Been so dangerously near to collapsing into snorting hysterics that you dare not make eye contact with anyone else in the room? I have. Many times: it's one of my abiding memories of my school years. It goes like this: Cough... Ha-hahmmm...
Friday, 15 January 2016
When I went out there on Monday, it appeared that Bristol's out-of-town shopping mall, Cribb's Causeway, had grown an enormous and fancy new building since my last visit, before Christmas. It can't have been much use, however, as there's nobody and nothing inside, and a team of workmen were busily taking it down.
Mysteriously, the entire area around the empty castle had also been sprayed with artificial snow. Some people just can't wait for the real thing, I suppose. But then, there's the whole shopping mall experience in a nutshell.
Wednesday, 13 January 2016
Wasps in free-fall... Sometimes, wasps just want to have fun. Is that so hard to believe?
Actually, it is a little-known wasp-related fact that most conflict between wasps and humans tends to happen towards the end of the summer, when the worker wasps are suddenly released from their myriad chores and fly free from the nest, on what a human worker would regard as a well-earned holiday. Unfortunately, worker wasps have a lot in common with the British on holiday, and tend to find themselves in trouble after the consumption of a little too much fermented windfall fruit. Come on you yellows!
Monday, 11 January 2016
I thought I was dreaming, or still liberally mixing dream into reality, when the radio came on this morning at 7:30 and announced that David Bowie was dead. Wait, what? I thought I must have been mishearing a review of his recently-released album Blackstar, or the career summary accompanying the announcement of some award he'd just got. But, no. Wow.
I've often thought of writing a Bowie post, but I've already written much of what little of interest I have to say about him in the posts Walking the Dead and Being There. Besides, Bowie's output has been of minimal interest to me since about 1977. There have been many "Bowie" avatars since then, of course, but "my" Bowie(s) was/were the one(s) that released an unbroken string of outstanding albums from Hunky Dory (1971) to Heroes (1977). Just seven years! Of those albums, the first three – Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane – are the ones that enlivened those crucial dating-and-dancing years. Even now, the first bars of "Rebel Rebel" or "Gene Genie" get me instantly up on my feet, before I remember who, what and how old I am, and the state of my knees and ankles, and quickly sit back down. We used to call it "bopping", you know...
Era-defining "bopping" tracks aside (dum, dum, dum, da-da da-dum, dum, dum -- poor little greenie...), I do have a soft spot for neglected, thoughtful, and atmospheric masterpieces like "Bewlay Brothers", "Rock'n'Roll Suicide", and "Time", and the less-frequently played rockers like "Panic in Detroit", especially where he has avoided the temptation to ladle his dafter, more histrionic vocal mannerisms all over the cleverness of his lyrics. No-one has put their stamp on the edgy, angsty glamour of the teenage Moonage Daydream like David Bowie.
I think it is true to say, however, that Bowie's originality, as such, can be overstated; he was a talented borrower and shaper of ideas and sounds from disparate sources. He looked for inspiration in places few other popular artists would think to look -- William Burroughs, sci-fi, drag queens, mime, kabuki theatre, and so on -- with the consequence that ordinary kids like me and you might take a look there, too. We might not like or understand what we found, but our horizons will have been broadened a little. Although I think the jury is still out on whether the "gender-bending" of 1970s Glam Rock helped or hindered the causes of feminism and gay rights.
And, after all, simple originality is overrated. At his best, what Bowie understood was how to make pop out of art, and not the other way round. This is not what you'll hear in all the instant obituaries, but it's probably a far more significant achievement. Nobody dances to Harrison Birtwistle.
Friday, 8 January 2016
It's those wasps again, I'm afraid... I did warn you about this possible bit of recycling, last year (Wasp Waste) and, lo, it has come to pass. If the images in the previous post are vaguely reminiscent of those decorative Japanese papers with metallic fleck inclusions, then perhaps these might put you in mind of Japanese lacquerwork. A little kitschy, a little woo-woo maybe, but attractive, don't you think?
Mind you, back here in the real world, we have just had a virtually wasp-free year, which was convenient, if being buzzed by wasps at a picnic is not among your favourite things, but a bad thing, ecologically, as wasp predation of other insect species is an important part of keeping genuine pests under control. At least, that's what it says here in the Worker Wasp Union's press release.
A few years back, I witnessed what is some people's ultimate wasp horror. A group of us were sitting convivially around a pub garden table on a blazing hot summer day, when my neighbour took a sip from his pint and spat out a wasp, which – yes – had stung him on the tongue. Uh oh! Luckily, this was an Old College Chums reunion and one of our party, Phil, is an experienced and practically-minded medic. Fighting back the rising tide of learned-but-amateur hysteria around the table – Anaphylactic shock! Swollen tongue!! Suffocation!!! – he took a look, and said, It's a wasp sting, it'll hurt, but he'll be fine. Of course, nothing is more relentless than the self-assertiveness of the over-educated Besserwisser in possession of a certified Urban Fact, and it took several rounds of Dr. Phil's patient professional indifference – "No, he's not going to die. No, I'm not going to drive him to the bloody hospital, I'm going to finish my bloody pint" – to settle the matter. Unfortunately, the victim – a very senior academic indeed – did now have a dramatic speech impediment, and an important speaking engagement that very evening.
I'm ashamed to say that the script for a hilarious movie started rolling through my mind. Well, people have said that I sometimes have a waspish sense of humour.
Wednesday, 6 January 2016
I started playing with these Scribblamatix™ pictures (strapline: "Your pencil is a stencil!") on New Year's Day, based on some drawings from the same sketchbook that yielded the "clumsy guitars". I'm quite pleased with them, but I'm only too aware that this state may not last. I like the combination of sparseness and richly decorated shapes, but it is a very top-end 1970s look. I suspect that if I had come up with prints like these at the turn of 1975/6, rather than 2015/16 I'd be rich, famous, and enjoying my second comeback in reputation by now. The only problem being, I didn't. It's a bit like finally getting the hang of the foxtrot in 1955.**
I sometimes wonder whether our aesthetic ideals and sensibilities get hard-coded at around age 20, and we then spend the rest of our lives exploring them. I recently came across a useful website, Printed Editions, which aggregates a large array of fine prints available from various galleries, ranging from old masters to the contemporary. If you like prints, it's well worth a visit. But the thing is, pretty much every time I saw something that really grabbed my attention, I'd check the date, and it would turn out to have been made between 1970 and 1976! There's an interesting parallel there with music, I suppose.
Talking of which, I found myself humming a riff the other day, which I couldn't pin down. After a while, some words attached themselves, and I realised it was something from the album Benefit by Jethro Tull. Once one of my favourite teen albums, it long ago went the way of all vinyl and I haven't heard or seen it for probably 40 years, so naturally I reached for Spotify. And saw this:
© Island Records 1970
Whoah... The resemblance with some of my own recent photo-montage work is striking. I suppose the design elements -- the proscenium, the cut-outs, the stage-like setting, the faces peering through a window -- have lain dormant in my subconscious all that time, only to re-emerge in my own variations 40 years later. Hey, "steal like an artist"... The song, by the way, turned out to be "To Cry You a Song", a real air-guitar number, with some typical, wittily sardonic Ian Anderson lyrics ("Closing my dream inside this paper-bag,/Thought I saw angels, but I could've been wrong..."). Ah, 1970... It does seem an awful long time ago, now. But, in the words of the LOLcat Bible:
Has happen? Gunna be agin. Nuthing new undur teh sunz. Kitteh can not sez "OMFGZ sumthing new!" is jus REPOST!
* If anyone out there does want to show any of my work, don't be shy, as I have a completely blank calendar, apart from various pressing household maintenance chores, which I urgently need a reason to avoid. Help me out, here!
** Mind you, it is a curious fact that the original release of "Rock Around the Clock" is marked as a "Fox Trot" on the label. One for the pub quiz...