Saturday, January 29, 2011
A number of people have enquired about the recent hiatus in posting on this blog -- thanks very much for your concern. I have told everyone that I have simply been busy with work, etc., but this is not entirely true. In fact, I have been on a journey, with a tall, tough, alcoholic Norwegian called Harry.
Some people, like my new friend Harry, are binge drinkers -- they manage to stay off the alcohol for sustained periods, then something triggers an intense reacquaintance with the bottle. In my case, I'm a binge reader. Harry Hole (pron. "Hooler") is the protagonist of Jo Nesbø's Oslo-based detective series, and I've just read all six available in English translation.
This has taken up all my evenings and most lunchtimes (thanks to Kindle), which has meant few photos and little writing... Hey, it happens. From Redbreast through to The Leopard, I have been getting to know Harry, Øystein, Rakel and Oleg, and most of all Oslo and Bergen, where it doesn't rain as much as people think, though curiously it always does when Harry goes there.
The Scandinavian crime novel (in translation) has been enjoying a well-deserved boom in recent years. If you haven't read Stieg Larsson's "The Girl Who..." trilogy yet, don't be put off by the hype, they really are a compelling read. Yes, the story is kinda preposterous, its sexual politics and violence may be teetering on the brink of cartoonish, and it's sad the money won't go to Larsson's partner, but they will keep you reading into the small hours. Such a shame there won't be any more.
I'm a big fan of the genre I can only describe as "characterful investigator in atmospheric and cleverly-described foreign location thrillers". I like to find a new one, then read the lot in the order they were published-- I have recently binged on Aurelio Zen (Michael Dibdin, Italy), Jack Reacher (Lee Child, United States), and Kurt Wallander (Henning Mankell, Sweden). I've also been reading through Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe books and his Saxon series.
Why I've taken to genre fiction in such a big way is easy to explain: these writers can really write -- they don't take your attention for granted -- and they write at least one book a year! This sort of addictive serial reading is, of course, where a Kindle scores heavily over even the best bookshop -- your next read is only ever a couple of minutes away.
Hmm, this was originally going to be a cunning set up for an introduction to the Finnish photographer Pentti Sammallahti -- via thrillers, ECM Scandi-jazz (Jan Garbarek et al.), and that lovely Swedish film about photography-as-redemption Everlasting Moments (director Jan Troell) -- but sometimes I just lose the momentum half way through... And I need to find myself another binge-read fix for this evening quickly...
So, let's just say that Scandinavia has a lot going for it, and I think you'd appreciate the photographs of Pentti Sammallahti, if only you can get the spelling right and just Google his name. It's truly amazing work, in a quiet but intense, visionary vein. His use of the panoramic format is particularly breathtaking.
Curiously, in common with Josef Koudelka and Raymond Moore, uncannily co-operative black dogs feature a lot in his work. You know, somehow this puts me in mind of the scene in Goethe's Faust, where a black dog running circles in the corn prefigures the appearance of Mephistopheles. No, it couldn't be... No-one would sell their soul to the Devil for the sake of getting great photographs, would they?
Friday, January 28, 2011
If you want evidence that things have changed, just look on any high street, and count the men pushing prams. In some parts of Britain, even in the 1950s, for a man to be seen pushing a pram would have been like being seen wearing a dress. Division of labour around "man's work" and "woman's work" was so strictly gendered, that even an unemployed man could not be seen publicly or even privately to take on some of the burden of housework and childcare. Women policed this division as rigorously as men.
But in the 1970s some of us felt a rising wave of change and began to question inherited definitions of masculinity. I am, of course, talking about childcare, not wearing dresses, though I did once meet an acquaintance wearing a long red dress that matched his long red beard on a remote Greek beach, but that's another story.
Obviously, arriving in one of the epicentres of radical ideas in the early 1970s, and choosing to share one's life with a radical feminist, did make a difference. But for me, a traditionally-raised boy from a very ordinary family, the learning curve was steep: it's not an exaggeration to say that I arrived at university as one person and left as another. This was not without cost: I fell out of phase with friends, and for many years felt adrift in the world as old certainties turned out to be choices, not eternal truths.
But, as a man, I did have good precedents. For example, my grandfather had every right to be a "hard case". Born illegitimate in 1896 in the infirmary of the Mill Road Workhouse in Liverpool, he and his brother were abandoned and brought up in the "cottage homes" for orphans and foundlings run by the West Derby Poor Law Union in Fazakerley. This was swiftly followed by military service in WW1. A tough start by any measure. And yet, he was as far from a wife and child beating monster as it was possible for a man of his time to be. I don't suppose he ever changed a nappy, but he had good, gentle genes; received, with thanks.
My own father was (again, by the standards of his time and background) a paragon. A clever man of even temper and good humour, after returning from WW2 he was content to lead an unambitious life in order to provide the stability of home life in one town. A little wild in his youth -- a drinker, a motorbike rider and a drummer in local dance bands -- he happily let himself be bent to family life: something I despised him for in my own youthful wildness. I am ashamed of that now.
Between them, my minimally-educated parents seem to have developed a home-grown progressive theory of parenting, with little smacking, much kindness, and total indulgence of individuality. My mother was at work full-time before I was eight, but I don't recall any opposition from my father. We needed the money, of course, but I think he recognised that my mother needed the independence even more. Although he was quite a "cool" guy, a fan of swing jazz and a wearer of Italian-styled suits, he was not afraid to show physical affection to us, in private or in public. My fondest memories of him are when he would patiently explain to me the meaning of songs like "Red Sails In The Sunset" or "Mack The Knife" (as sung by Bobby Darin, of course, "Hup, hup!"). But he never cooked a meal or worked a washing machine in his life.*
So, becoming a "hands on" father may actually have come more easily to me than for many. Nappies, cooking, waking in the small hours to calm the big anxieties of tiny children, I did my share and more. No housework happens in our house, so sharing that bit was easy. I never really enjoyed the bedtime preparation rituals, so did all the cooking instead, a deal which stands to this day (hmm... must check the wording of that contract).
Both of our children attended the university Day Nursery from an early age -- a brilliant perk of my job -- and I spent every lunchtime for eight years with them, sharing a meal and then taking them for exploratory walks around the campus. An unusual experience for any father. This, now I come to think of it, laid the groundwork for my daily photographic expeditions, and perhaps also seeing familiar surroundings through their eyes may have helped me to see what others miss.
When they started school I took the (still) unusual step of going part-time at work, so I could collect them, and play with them at home. Quite often, I was the only father waiting in the school playground, and occasionally I was an awkward and resented male presence at traditionally female-dominated occasions like birthday parties. It surprised me to learn that there were still areas of activity which women will defend as fiercely against gender "intrusion" as idiotic men might defend their golf club or a bar. But I was not there to make any point, other than the fact that our kids had two parents rather than one and a half.
Where any of this goes next is anybody's guess. Sometimes, as this morning, I will hear "The Dambusters March" on the radio and feel a pang of regret that I never got to slide back the cockpit cover, jump down onto the airstrip and swagger back to the mess after another successful sortie in the New Battle of Britain. Idiotic, I know, and thankfully WW3 never happened; maybe, as a species, we are learning something. And if I should have grandchildren and they ask, "What did you do in the Childcare Wars of the 1990s, grandad?", at least I'll be able to say I pushed a pram for my country.
* A slight rhetorical exaggeration. After my mother started to vanish into dementia, he learned to operate a microwave.
Tuesday, January 18, 2011
Fay Godwin was and is considerably better known to the wider public than Raymond Moore; she, after all, did do Desert Island Discs, and he did not. Her work as a "right to roam" activist and president of the Rambler's Association brought her to prominence in a country that, rightly, values walking as an an activity over making or looking at art photography. She is clearly coming back up on the wheel of fortune: the National Media Museum, Bradford has an exhibition currently: Fay Godwin: Land Revisited, 15 October 2010 - 27 March 2011. Raymond Moore, by contrast, has more or less fallen off the wheel altogether.
If you can accept the idea of the world as an array of overlapping sets (Venn diagrams, if you can remember those), then the overlap between the sets of those who liked Fay and those who liked Ray was crucial in the 1970s and 80s. That was where the interesting stuff was happening, for example at Duckspool workshops or in the pages of Creative Camera. The sets left of Ray included the darkly austere work of Thomas Joshua Cooper, climbing into the high, conceptualist territory where the likes of Victor Burgin and John Goto roamed; to the right of Fay was the monochrome sublime of John Blakemore, falling off rapidly to the lower, populist ground of "golden hour" landscapes and sunsets. In the middle, in that overlap, was where the action was -- see those wonderful volumes / time capsules, the Creative Camera International Yearbooks, published 1975-79. Though what would have happened if the leftermost conceptual set had ever been forced to overlap with the rightermost pictorialist set is the stuff of theoretical physics.
Fay's work is easy to "get", but well seen, often witty, beautifully composed and printed, and above all celebratory of the British landscape you see once you have got your boots on and left the car park behind. It's all about looking for "right place, right time". A photographer in the Godwin mould might tramp the hills or the coast for hours, waiting to plant a tripod like an explorer's flag on a mountain top. She makes you want to get out there with the hillforts and pillboxes and large white clouds. The best of her photographs return you to the real landscape of footpaths in sheep-gnawed grass and rabbit droppings, not to some absurdly-coloured confection made with a graduated filter.
Everyone should own a copy of her book Land, published in 1985. It is an impeccably designed and sequenced book, from the Big Bang of the photo book boom. Her collaboration with Ted Hughes, Remains of Elmet, is also a classic. A personal favourite is The Drovers' Roads of Wales (1977, text by Shirley Toulson, photos by Godwin), as that was the landscape where the Prof and I first deepened our acquaintance and which we revisit every Easter, and that book was our guide (and in fact the book that turned me on to photography).
Ray Moore's photographs are more difficult to "get" -- impenetrable to some -- but are the work of an underrated genius. Seriously: he's up there with Josef Koudelka and William Eggleston, for me. His work is the very definition of my distinction between photographs made "from" rather than "of" their subject matter (see this old post). He has a personal language of tone and shape and line which he finds expressed most frequently in those scruffy, marginal "landscapes" that occur where the urban and industrial worlds shade into the natural world, or what is left of it. A mood of rapt melancholy pervades them. A photographer from the Moore camp mooches around the edges of caravan sites and car parks with a hand-held camera, looking for moments of sublime synchronicity which will pull everything together. It is not surprising that dogs, happily sniffing a trail through puddles and debris, figure so frequently in his images.
Everyone should own a copy of his book Murmurs At Every Turn, published in 1981. But, first, find yourself one. I have spent a lot of time tracking down copies of the printed Moore oeuvre. All out of print, all very scarce. Tragically, his photographic archive has also apparently ended up in limbo, having failed to find a buyer at Sotheby's (see this blog post). As far as I know, there has not been a single exhibition of his work since he died in 1987, and there is no retrospective volume of his work in process anywhere. This is unforgivably shameful, given his standing in British photography, and given the amount of money spent by wealthy know-nothings on derivative photographs at the flashy end of the spectrum.
Sunday, January 16, 2011
A good example came up in a recent issue of Oxford Today, a glossy magazine which talks up the achievements and global prominence of some small percentage of graduates of the university, as if anyone needed reminding ("Oh, that Oxford University!"). I think a magazine which emphasised the pretty modest achievements and utter insignificance of the rather larger proportion of its alumni might be more instructive. Anyway, someone had written a piece in a previous issue in which he referred to "data" as a singular noun (as in, "your data is held securely") and several pedants broke loose from their chains. "Data is a plural in Latin, so should be treated as a plural in English", they fulminated.
This is utter nonsense. As another correspondent put it nicely:
[Mr. Pedant] suggests that as 'data' is plural in Latin, it must be so in English. So does he regularly refer to 'these agenda' and 'these spaghetti'? And why is Latin so often singled out for plural pedantry? Does your correspondent know the correct Japanese plural for 'tsunami'? Would he use it if he did?This attempted U / Non U manoeuvre, which we could describe as "learned ignorance", is very annoying. It ranks with that prissy use of "you and I" where the speaker feels the combo "you and me" must always somehow be vulgar. More nonsense. If someone says to me something like, "I thought he had already given it to you and I?" I usually reply, "Well, 'e certainly didn't give it to Oi", in my best yokel accent. They rarely see the joke. Ha! I suppose anti-pedants can be annoying, too.
Then there was a section in this weekend's Guardian, discussing "neologisms, Americanisms and lazy clichés", in response to a blog piece by Michael Holroyd. Holroyd's article was actually quite balanced but, predictably, it flushed out the sort of person (I think of John Humphrys, presenter on Radio 4's Today programme) who objects to the use of new turns of phrase on the grounds that they are new, as well as redundant, annoying, and -- above all -- used by people they do not like.
Such people miss the point and pleasure of linguistic novelty. It is very rare indeed for a neologism to arise for no reason at all. Yes, there may be older, plainer words that express the same thing, but they will always lack an important mystery ingredient, whether it be exclusivity, a sense of contemporaneity and community, or an otherwise inexpressible change in sensibility.
For example, one of the Guardian contributors wrote, "I'm loving (something) and I'm liking (whatever) are the shibboleths of the 'edgy', phones-aloft-at-Glastonbury, young, urban middle class. It's a development in the language that I'm loathing". Nicely put, but missing the point. This usage has all the social benefits outlined above (exclusivity, community, contemporaneity) but mainly signals a change in sensibility: to say "I'm liking X" is not the same as saying "I like X". It declares an element of contingency, impermanence and openness to change in one's tastes; "I like X today, but realise you may not, and may have changed my own mind by next week". It's a way of introducing a new grammatical mood or tense into the language, to match a new social mood.
Interestingly, the use of the Present Continuous tense in English is fraught with difficulty for non-native speakers. How often have you heard an otherwise faultless speaker of English say something like "I am liking this book very much", or confusing the intention of the questions "What are you reading?" and "What do you read?". Language is subtle stuff, and yet all native speakers effortlessly understand such nuances without ponderous explanations. Amazing, really.
So, when Michael Holroyd writes, "I try to quell my indignation, lower my blood pressure and keep a lookout for developments of language that are precise, witty, useful and have aesthetic value. Have you noticed any lately?" I have to answer, "Yes, I'm noticing them all the time".
Thursday, January 13, 2011
I've already had some things to say about the impermanence of photographic media. Given the fragility and limited span of human life itself, fretting about the longevity of one's photographs does seem a little vain, in both senses of the word, to say the least. Viewed sub specie aeternitatis, it's always going to be a hopeless proposition.
After all, this planet is going to be engulfed by the sun when it hits that awkward and moody red dwarf stage, in a mere 7.6 billion years from now. Though, given that it is true that rescuing the family photographs is one of the few things that will cause people to re-enter a burning house, maybe some kind of planetary album will make it onto the fleeing Starship Ultimate Insurance Claim.
However. If you, like me, enjoy thumbing through a stack of inherited family photos, and rejoice at acquiring a new one such as the one above, you may feel a certain obligation to pass on some objective evidence of your appearance and dodgy fashion sense to at least a few more generations. In this respect, digitally-originated images are a problem. On four levels:
1. Digital media are inherently unstable. Even the CDs and DVDs you have dutifully burned (you have burned DVDs of your files, haven't you?) are prone to fading if badly stored. No, really. And just forget about magnetic media like hard drives.
2. File formats become obsolete. Though it's likely standard JPEG and TIFF files will be readable "for ever" (maybe), the myriad proprietary RAW formats almost certainly won't be.
3. People are lazy, and forget to make backups. See (1).
4. When you die, your descendants will probably heave your precious backup DVDs into a skip, sight unseen. See (3). Would you sort through thousands of digital images, just to rescue the odd interesting shot of grandad's life?
Now, the advent of "The Cloud"* seemed to many to provide an answer to these dilemmas. For a modest sum of money, you could hire large amounts of space somewhere "out there", and dump all your files into the digital equivalent of a rented storage unit. With guarantees of secure, multiple backups, it seemed a perfect solution. I understand many people have gone for it in a big way, especially where file sharing and blogging is part of the deal.
Last week, I read this:
I also read that many people received only a few day's notice that all their files would be deleted; not frozen, or transferred, or briefly inaccessible, but deleted. I believe something similar happened a few years ago at Tumblr, the popular blogging and media sharing host. Hmm, "Put not your trust in princes..."
You may not have noticed or you might have already forgotten but on December 15, the website Drop.io quietly ended a two-year run as the web’s most elegant file sharing service. It was a small taste of the cloud to come, the near future when everything will be stored on invisible servers and shared with a link – and not on our terribly physical hard drives or USB keys. Ad-free and clean, the site was exactly what so much of the internet isn’t: a place for our own making, without any distractions, and serving a simple and crucial purpose. Teachers used it to gather homework assignments, designers used it to send files with clients, music lovers used it to share their mixtapes with friends and crushes.
And then, just when we thought our data would live forever, free as a cloud – and our old mp3 mixtapes would always be there to keep us nostalgic – a bigger cloud came along and poof, it was gone. Facebook bought Drop.io and its creator Sam Lessin (who helped Mark Zuckerberg out in early days). And that meant that this simple purpose-driven space for our stuff (what else do we need?) that seemed so secure (even the phrase “Drop.io Drop” contains its own redundancy) had to go away, along with all of the files we put there.
RIP Drop.io: when part of the cloud just floats away / Alex Pasternack
There is no easy answer to any of this, other than the traditional advice to make multiple backups on different media, the more stable the better, and keep them in separate, safe, archivally-sensible places. That is to say, avoid heat, light, humidity, pests, and sources of magnetism.
But here's a thought: why not print a few copies of the really good ones (using pigment inks if you really want to do a job), and keep them in acid-free albums, mounted with archival photo-corners? Your descendants will be among the very few with family photographs dating from the "digital disaster" era, 1998-2020. Everyone else's will have vanished into thin air.
* Distributed, web-based computing, with servers providing software and data to clients "on demand".
Wednesday, January 12, 2011
Of course, not marrying and living together -- if only on a "try before you buy" basis -- has since almost become the norm, in the UK at least. It sometimes seems as if I have spent my life, like a cartoon character, in a headlong charge through what have turned out to be open doors. It's not so much that I have been ahead of the curve, as that the curve has driven me forward like flotsam on an unstoppable wave of change.
Life as a contrarian can be frustrating, not to say puzzling. When I turned up for work in 1978, I was quite literally the only man in the building not wearing a tie; even the porters and maintenance men wore ties. I sort of expected someone senior to have a "quiet word" with me. I had my script ready. But, no. And within a few years, only the oldest, staidest men (the sort who probably wore a tie with their pyjamas) were still wearing one. Again, I was simply the symptom, not the cause -- flotsam rattling through an open door ahead of that mighty tsunami of change.
However, change can be unpredictable and uneven. It is one of the annoyances of age to hear what a travesty the world has made of your youthful song, and in particular to be forced to listen to it. I recently had to swallow hard when, on asking for a bag at a shop checkout, I was rebuked, "What, don't you want to save the planet, then?" I don't think the police would have understood my motive for suffocating that insolent, slack-jawed pup with her own carrier bag ("They say he said something about saving the planet before her parents were born, Sarge").
Of course, we shouldn't confuse playing the consumerist lifestyle game with political opposition and reform. Choosing to be different rarely amounts to more than going for the vegetarian option on the menu, or doing without a starter. Conformity disguised as empty choices is the hallmark of our times, typified by some packets of crisps I saw recently with the flavourings "Sea Salt and Cider Vinegar" and "Red Leicester Cheese and Caramelised Onion". Wow, you'd have to be pretty darned sophisticated to choose those impulse-purchase snack products!
No, you can tell the doors that matter because they're the ones which remain closed, locked and bolted. As we used to say, if voting changed anything, they'd make it illegal. But we should ponder, as we dither over that bewildering variety of crisps, that not so long ago voting in the UK was illegal for all women and 40% of men. Things do change, and generally change for the better, and it's people pushing at doors that changes them. I guess your politics are pretty much defined by which doors you think should be opened, and which kept firmly shut. And that, no doubt, very much depends on which side of any particular door you happen to be standing, and who or what you imagine to be on the other side.
Talking of doors and oppositional politics, back in the late 1970s -- the "punk and reggae" years -- I saw a good thing. There used to be a sign above the carriage doors on the London Underground: "OBSTRUCTING THE DOORS CAN CAUSE DELAY AND BE DANGEROUS". In a carriage I was riding in someone had taken white masking tape, and changed the sign to read: "OBSTRUCT THE DOORS, CAUSE DELAY, BE DANGEROUS". Ah, we opened our own doors in those far off days.
Wednesday, January 5, 2011
I know, I know -- sunrises, sunsets, meh... What next, kittens in a basket? But a man's reach must exceed his grasp, or what's a camera for? (to misquote Robert Browning).
N.B. if it's good taste you're after, I can recommend checking out a blog called Ordinary Finds, and going back through the archived pages -- it's a gold mine of art and musical gems (a gem mine of art and musical gold?).
Tuesday, January 4, 2011
To get the best view of the sunrise, I went up to the very top floor of the library, only to discover that the rising sun was totally eclipsed by the Chemistry block. Doh! The light was worth photographing, though.
That is not a UFO, btw -- it's a light fitting reflected in the window.
Sunday, January 2, 2011
I then came across this site on the web, showing electron microscope photographs of snowflakes. Crikey! They couldn't look more manufactured, so perfectly imperfect. Such pictures always remind me of that moment in Blade Runner, where the maker's serial number is discovered on a perfect but artificial snake scale.
Like images from the Hubble telescope, the revelation of the world at nano-scale is a humbling reminder that there's more to all this stardust stuff we're made of, and walk around in, on and through than we'd like to think.
Saturday, January 1, 2011
As no-one else wanted to leave the house, I thought it would be a good day to look for crows. As these short winter afternoons draw to a close, hundreds of crows gather in the sky above Mottisfont Abbey, preparatory to a mass roost in the tall trees there. I like to photograph them, but bright skies make for bad silhouettes and excessive purple fringing around twigs and branches. A dull day, just as the light is failing, is the perfect time. It's the very opposite of that photographers' cliché, the "golden hour" -- the "dismal ten minutes", maybe.
Before the rooks, crows and jackdaws had begun to mass, however, I spotted this at my feet, which seemed somehow a perfectly liminal New Year's Day scene -- clear water pouring over a threshold into a dark turbulence. Despite the low light, I was lucky enough to get a good shot.
There were plenty of crows, eventually, but today the tracery of the trees against the sky was the standout feature.
Happy New Year!